For dedicated World War II readers comes an absorbing history of an unusual rescue mission in the closing days of the war in Europe. Elizabeth Letts, author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion, is an accomplished equestrian herself, and her love of horses shines through this complex story.
The author introduces readers not only to the key human players, such as Austrian Olympian Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, and Hank Reed, a career officer who saw the last days of the U.S. cavalry, but also to a few of the horses caught up in the war: Witez, “the Polish Prince,” and Podhajsky’s faithful stallion, Africa.
While the daring, unexpected mission in which Col. Reed and his men (with the blessing and permission of his fellow polo player General George Patton) rescued more than 300 horses from a stud farm in Czechoslovakia in April 1945 forms the centerpiece of this history, Letts has a more ambitious goal in mind. Her narrative encompasses the role that thoroughbred horses played in Poland and Austria, shows how horse breeding was viewed by Gustav Rau, a German horse expert in the Third Reich and reveals the heartbreaking costs of conflict on individuals.
Letts does an excellent job of bringing the various players to life, and The Perfect Horse includes a helpful list of characters, as well as an epilogue detailing what happened to some of the men and horses in the postwar years, including a touching interaction in 1950 between Podhajsky (who performed for Gen. Patton before his death), and Mrs. Patton.
Although not all the rescued horses ended up in their original homes, it was especially heartening to learn that Witez, the magnificent colt who was almost lost several times during the war, celebrated his 27th birthday in California in 1965 with a carrot cake. The Perfect Horse would be a perfect gift for horse lovers fascinated by history.