In April, 1945, First Sergeant Carl Zieglar, 319th Infantry Unit, 80th Division, received orders to go on a special missionâ€¦orders issued by General George Patton, himself.
Nineteen-year-old Zieglar and two other soldiers, who were fighting World War II in Europe, were to cross into Yugoslavia, through enemy lines, and rescue Lipizzaner mares which had been released two years before into the countryside by Vienna’s famed Spanish Riding School.
The war had taken its toll on the classical riding school, which was located in the heart of the Austrian city. Although the academy’s director, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, had kept the school running, funding was very low and the safety of the animals and personnel was threatened.
After General Patton succeeded in taking Vienna, Podhajsky gave Patton a special performance and convinced Patton to put the school under U.S. Army protection for the remainder of the war.
Zieglar had grown up on a ranch in Challis, Idaho, where he had worked his grandfather’s horses. He could read the large horse herd of 300 head, pick out the lead mare, and work with problem animals.
When Zieglar was drafted to fight in World War II, the Army thought so highly of his equine expertise that they stamped “Horse Experience” on all of his official paperwork. In the Army, Zieglar and several comrades who were part American Indian were nicknamed “warriors.” The name reflected their hard-working go-getter attitudes, and they were always ready to serve their country. When Patton issued orders for the rescue mission, Zieglar and two other “warriors” were assigned to the task.
Zieglar, who now resides on a ranch in Salmon, Idaho, recalls, “Our outfit, commanded by General Patton, recaptured Vienna. When I first went to the Spanish Riding School, they had not had any money for two years. The Austrian government did not have any money to spend on the School to keep it going.
In 1943, with the war right on them, the Spanish Riding School had no choice but to turn loose seventeen of the world’s most revered horses. Not only could they not afford to keep them, the horses’ lives were endangered because horses had become a food source during the war. The breeding stock mares were left to find their own ways and to fend for themselves.
“At the time, I believe they had eleven studsâ€¦and those were all the horses they had left. There weren’t any mares at all. It was Patton’s idea to rescue those mares.”
Once Patton had secured Vienna, he focused his attention on rescuing the mares. “General Patton was quite a horseman,” recollects Zieglar. “He was a heck of a person for anything traditional.”
Patton sent Piper Cub airplanes to search war-torn Europe for the Lipizzaners. After several surveillance flights, pilots located the horses in Yugoslavia, not far from Sarejevo. The country was covered by rugged mountains and thick forests, and quite similar to the territory along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Zieglar’s home state of Idaho.
To the fleeing Lipizzaner mares, this rough terrain meant sanctuary: however, it put a hitch in the rescue plans by making it impossible to land a plane.
“They decided that a ‘touch and go’ landing would work the best,” explains Zieglar. “Since the planes couldn’t land, they were to run along with their wheels on the ground and I was to bail out. I was 19 years old and, at that time, I thought I was indestructible. I thought nothing would hurt me, I would try anything.”
In late spring, Zieglar and the two other young soldiers assigned to the mission boarded Piper Cubs. Each was to work independently of the others, and had five days in which to bring the horses out to Ach, Czechoslovakia. In the plane, the men could not stand or sit up because the chances of being shot were extremely big. Zieglar spent the entire plane ride lying on his side, ready to roll out at the appropriate time.
“At that time, Yugoslavia was under the control of General Tito. The Russians had gone around Yugoslavia and into Czechoslovakia. I flew over their lines and then through the Yugoslavian lines because that was where the horses were.”
Zieglar’s supplies included a 20-foot rope, any food he could carry, a compass and a knife. He was not allowed to carry a gun or any identification papers showing he was an American.
“The word was that if we got captured, nobody knew us,” says Zieglar.
An airplane flew over the area daily to check on the three men. “They flew over to see if I was all rightâ€¦but they didn’t bother to bring me any food.”
In the wilds of Yugoslavia, Zieglar found the Lipizzaners nestled in a densely forested area. They were running with a band of various other horse breeds, many of which were draft horses. He was greeted with a horrific sight. Food had been scarce, and the beautiful mares were skin and bone. Their manes were knotted and matted.
Now came the treacherous process to getting the horses back across enemy lines. At the Spanish Riding School, only stallions were broke to ride. Mares, which were only used for breeding purposes, were never ridden, and only knew how to lead.
“The only horse I could catch was a one-eyed brood mare,” says Zieglar. “She was a gentle old mare, and when I got to where I was going, she was broke. I went over 50 miles with her. She was the lead mare and every place she went, all the others followed.”
Zieglar had eleven Lipizzaners under his care: four older mares, two fillies, and five colts. They traveled at night, staying away from enemy lines, and kept to ridge tops because it was impossible to get the horses through the impassible forests at the bottoms of the canyons. Sometimes, they were only a few feet away from a village. No one ever found out.
“I even watered horses in towns that didn’t know I was there at three o’clock in the morning. There was one time when the enemy could see my old mare’s behind.”
Zieglar was confronted by one major problemâ€¦grazing. “I’d find a glade up in the hills that was maybe a sixteenth of an acre in size, and I’d stop and let the horses eat it all. It was hard to tell when you would find any more feed.” While the horses grazed, Zieglar spent the day searching for a safe route to travel during the night.
Relief swept over the First Sergeant Zieglar when he crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. “I was thanking God that I gotten the horses out.” Upon reaching Ach, he turned the Lipizzaners over, and did not see them again for several weeks.
From Ach, Patton placed the horses once again under the control of the Spanish Riding School. There was still not enough grain and hay to feed the horses, so Patton appropriated enough food to keep the horses fed.
“Patton was the one who kept the school going,” affirms Zieglar. “If it hadn’t been for that old man, the School would have stopped right then, because there was no way it could have survived through the war without his help.”