Shepherd Zira, 22 is the first black South African Lipizzaner rider. 310516. Picture: Chris Collingridge 587

Johannesburg - Meet the world’s first black member of a Lipizzaner performing team: Joburg’s own Shepherd Zira.

The 22-year-old rider, who will give his first performance with the team this Sunday in Kyalami, said this was the realisation of a dream come true.

The South African Lipizzaners have earned the honour of being the only performing Lipizzaners outside Vienna and are recognised, and affiliated to, the prestigious Lipizzaner Spanish Riding School.

Zira said his passion for horses started when he was 11. After school every day he would go to Randjesfontein where his father worked as a groom.

“My father had a great passion for horses and he taught me all I know. His employers allowed me to ride the horses and my love for them grew,” he said.

His greatest wish was to become a jockey, but he was soon too heavy. So he decided to focus his talents elsewhere and took dressage and show jumping lessons.

His talents were then spotted by well-known showjumper rider Ronnie Healy who gave him lessons. He also got him a sponsorship from Western Shoppe to dedicate his time to the horses. In his spare time, and to earn some money, Zira exercises horses on various farms in the Kyalami area.

While still working for Healy, Zira was offered a place on the Lipizzaner team.

His mother was sceptical at first about his career choice, but when he showed her the brochures of the prestigious team, she understood and would be at Kyalami on Sunday mornings to watch her son perform.

While talking to The Star, Zira found out that he was not only the first black person to publicly perform on Lipizzaners in South Africa, but in the world.

“I feel a tear sliding down my cheeks - I am overwhelmed - I didn’t know this,” he said emotionally.

Zira says there is definitely a difference in Lipizzaner horses. Only stallions are trained for performances.

“Most stallions are cooked in the head, and put a few together in an arena and who knows what can happen. Lipizzaners are much more disciplined than normal stallions. They also have better physiques and stamina. Lipizzaners are very different - they can be easily trained,” he said.

Briony Wilde, the Lipizzaner team manager, said Shepherd had fitted in immediately. “He was a natural and we are very happy to have him on board,” she said.

Lipizzaners are considered the oldest human-bred horses in the world. Their origins trace back to the Carthaginian and Roman horses at the time when Julius Caesar was emperor of Rome.

The breed itself dates back to about 1562 when Archduke Maximilian started to breed Spanish horses in Lipica, a village in what is now Slovenia. It was the need for military horses of unusual strength, loyalty and courage that inspired him to import Spanish, Italian and Arab-Oriental horses for his breeding programme.

These animals are characterised by, among others, a perfect and noble physique, graceful movements, the ability to learn, toughness and stamina.

The centre in Kyalami was started in the 1960s. Today, SA Lipizzaners Ltd is a non-profit company dedicated to the advancement of this cultural heritage and the preservation of this most ancient breed of horse.

They have a breeding farm in Hartbeespoort. Kyalami currently has 35 stallions which are rotated.

The horses frequently appear in films, on television and at public performances, as well as their regular Sunday morning shows.

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The Star