Every once in a while, we are presented with opportunities to do something really unique during our travels. Whether we seek out these unusual experiences or they fall into our lap, so to speak, we get the feeling that we definitely should take advantage of offers and in no way turn them down. When communicating with the Vienna Tourist Board about my family’s upcoming trip, the tourism rep offered to arrange for a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Spanish Riding School and its stables. As a family, we had already decided that a visit to the fabled equestrian center was a must while in Vienna. So when
the offer came through for the private, guided tour, we began looking forward to our visit even more. I am an animal lover, my husband is a history geek, and my daughter thinks she’s a cowgirl; therefore, we knew a tour of the Spanish Riding School would have something of high interest for each of us. I shared this exciting news with my family prior to our departure. My daughter was elated and immediately stated, “I need to pack my cowgirl boots!” While I love her enthusiasm, I had to explain to her that the Spanish Riding School is nothing like the horse ranch that she was envisioning: no chaps and ten-gallon hats, but all pomp and circumstance. My daughter listened to what I said and nodded her head, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t really understand. All she knew was we were going to see some horses close-up and that’s all she needed to know. Her cowgirl boots made it into her suitcase. The boots also made it onto her feet the day of our visit, which began when the school opened at 9:00 am. We were greeted promptly and warmly by our personal guide, Patricia. Outfitted in traditional riding jacket and boots, Patricia spoke perfect English and wasted no time in getting our tour started. I was a bit surprised when she motioned for us to exit the school building and back out onto the street to get to the stables. We had just been walking around that area and we didn’t see any building resembling a horse stable! Where was she taking us? Turns out, just down the cobblestone street is the most well-disguised horse stable, I’m convinced, in the world. Beyond a locked gate lies a courtyard surrounded by, as we later learned, Vienna’s last Renaissance building, the Stallburg. I commented that never in a million years would I think that horses live behind those glorious archways. Patricia replied, “I am sure there are many people from Vienna who have no idea, too.”
The concept of the Spanish Riding School dates back to the Habsburg Monarchy in the late 1500s; however, the iconic riding hall we recognize today was not commissioned until 1729 by Charles VI. Horses and riders perform classical dressage (Haute Ecole), which has evolved from cavalry movements and battlefield training, and is rooted in the natural abilities and movements of the horse. Classical dressage is considered to be the art of riding in harmony with, not against, the horse. The specific breed of horse of the Spanish Riding School is known as the Lipizzaner. Today’s horses are direct descendants of the old imperial herd originally bred by the Habsburgs, consisting of Italian and Spanish bloodlines. In 1920, the breeding grounds were moved to Piber and that is where the Federal Stud operates today. Along with breeding, birthing, and raising the young Lipizzaners, the Federal Stud also conducts performance tests of the fillies in harness and under the saddle; selection of the best colts; and guided tours for visitors. Another fundamental task of Federal Stud Piber is maintaining the classical mare families and the six classical stallion bloodlines. Only stallions perform at the Spanish Riding School so the mares and foals stay at Piber. Back at the Stallburg in Vienna, there are seventy-two boxes to house the stallions, though usually there are seventy there at a time. Once a stallion makes it to Vienna, it doesn’t mean he’s there for good; the horses are rotated in and out. And – get this – the horses even get to go on vacation! For three months during the summer and for three weeks after the Christmas holiday, the stallions are sent to the school’s official vacation area in Heldenberg.
The training and selection process of riders is just as, if not more, intense. Riders between seventeen and twenty-one years of age come to Vienna with hopes of performing with the majestic Lipizzaner horses. Most candidates are Austrian and most are male, as well, with the school not seeing its first female riders until 2008. Along with meeting specific physical requirements, the riders must also be fluent in German, able to speak and understand the language perfectly. The reason for this strict language requirement is that all training at Spanish Riding School is oral; there are no books from which to be taught. In this day and age of advanced technology, the school intentionally maintains the oral instruction as a means to preserve the Riding School as a unique cultural heritage with living tradition. It is not surprising then to learn that there is a rider dropout rate of 80% in the first year of training.
After spending three hours at the stables with Patricia, she took us back to the Winter Riding School building to watch the morning training exercise. We were seated with Patricia in a floor-level section that normally is reserved for VIPs. It was prime viewing area: we got to see the horses up close as they were brought in and out of the building. They are massive, majestic, and elegant. Lucia was in all her glory. Even though we didn’t get to see a formal performance, it was fascinating to see the horses and riders performing pieces of their “white ballet”. Marveling at the inside of the Winter Riding School building, an architectural gem of the late baroque era, simply enhanced the overall magical experience.
Guided tours are available to the public and are conducted daily. Check the Spanish Riding School’s website for times and prices. Photographing and videotaping are strictly prohibited in the Stallburg and the Winter Riding School building. So, whatever you do, PLEASE obey this rule. It’s for the safety of the horses and the riders. If you’re lucky, maybe Patricia will be your guide. She had all three of us, even five-year-old Lucia, absolutely captivated for an entire morning. Much gratitude goes to the Spanish Riding School and the Vienna Tourist Board for organizing this very personal and very enjoyable complimentary tour for my family and me. It was the highlight of our time in Vienna.
*This photo was minimally edited and cropped from its original version.