The Spanish Riding School is almost half a millennium old, created and built to its height by equestrian enthusiasts and preserved by strong personalities willing and able to dedicate their lives to the white stallions. It takes discipline, dedication and ten years of education – two of them entirely without stirrups.
By Madeleine D. Bergsjø
“It’s a gateway to a world of the past that extends to the present day. Entering the Winter Riding School of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna means crossing a threshold where one’s sense of time seems to disappear as does gravity above the manage. Noble white horses floating as they were above the ground to the sound of classical Viennese music. Riders in elegant tailcoats who raise their bicornes, hats like the one worn by Napoleon, in front of a portrait of the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI. All this against the backdrop of the impressive pillar architecture in a riding hall considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world”, sounds the introduction of the world famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna, written by author Arnim Basche.
Values of the past blends perfectly with the passion of the present. The institution of the white Lipizzaner stallions has been cultivating classical equitation for more than 450 years, putting the historical love for horses on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. In 2016, the academy’s knowledge of breeding, training and riding the Lipizzaner at the Lipizzan Stud Piber was added to the list as well.
While its heart lies at the Hofburg in the historic centre of Vienna, the West Styrian village of Piber has been the home to the famous Lipizzaners since 1920. At the only Lipizzaner stud in Austria, the world famous white stallions are bred and prepared for their careers not only in Vienna, but for tours and shows around the world. While being top performers and artists, the white wonders are still allowed to just be horses at Am Heldenberg in Lower Austria, where they spend their well earned summer holidays and breaks throughout the year.
The Lipizzaner. The safe-guarding of the High School of Classical Equestrian Art is regarded as the core task of the Spanish Riding School, and the training of the stallions start at the age of four, in Heldenberg, Austria. This training is all about the goals of suppleness, obedience, tranquility and permeability, alike the training of regular sport horses. The horses determine the tempo of the training.
“In training people and horses are at eye level at all times and the horse determines when it is ready to learn the next lesson. The result of this approach is an incomparable harmony between rider and stallion, as it is only achieved today in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Lipizzaner horses are particularly suited for this task: they are frugal, strong and particularly talented for classical equitation and have an extraordinarily good memory – all qualities that the rider must know and use for the common work”, the school explains.
The Spanish Riding School was named after the Spanish horses that form one of the bases of the Lipizzan breed, which is used exclusively at the school. In 1580, the Habsburg Archduke Charles II founded the stud farm in Lipica (in today’s Slovakia) and created a breed from the sought-after Spanish and Arabian horses, the world’s oldest domesticated horse breed. The result was a horse with outstanding riding aptitude, versatility and a persistent temper. Today, there are 10 500 Lipizzan steeds registered worldwide.
A life-long journey dedicated to the horses
Being part of the Spanish Riding School is a lifelong journey for both horse and rider, always subjected to the needs of the horses. It is tough, requires iron discipline – and the education takes from eight to ten years to finish. “To be Rider at the Spanish Riding School means to adapt one’s life to the structures”, they say, and training can begin as soon as the student has completed their compulsory education as teenagers.
For the first three years, the eleves train to become qualified grooms who take care of the horses, mostly doing stable work. The eleves and potential Riders get to ride under the close guidance of an experienced Rider, but for a year or even two full years, that training only consists of lungeing and tirelessly perfecting their position in the saddle – without stirrups.
“I am so proud to be a Rider at the Spanish Riding School and I really enjoy working with my horses every day, making a contribution to preserving and passion on the classical art of riding.”Rider Hannah Zeitlhofer
After successfully passing the groom examination, the following student years are spent training in the arena, aiming to get the approval to receive his or her first young stallion whose entire training depends on the aspiring Rider. Only when their horse is presented to the public in a show and is able to perform all steps, movements and the “the great school quadrille”, the Assistant Rider gets the chance to be promoted to Rider status.
The first female Rider
Moving on from Rider to Chief Rider is a status reserved for only the few, and requires experience and special training successes as both a rider and a teacher. Chief Rider status comes with a responsibility of the high quality of the training and maintaining tradition. The relationship developed between stallion and rider is one for life.
Currently, there are three Chief Riders, responsible for the high quality training and passing on the traditions of the Spanish Riding School to new generations. In addition to this, there are eight Riders, three Assistant Riders and six eleves at the school. For the first time in history, two of the Riders and two of the assistant Riders are women.
Chief Rider status comes with a responsibility of the high quality of the training and maintaining tradition. The relationship developed between stallion and rider is one for life.
In 2008, Hannah Zeitlhofer became the first female eleve in history to begin training at the Spanish Riding School. She is a passionate horse lover and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in equine sciences. Four years after she started, she became Assistant Rider in 2012 and was later promoted to become the school’s first female Rider in September of 2016.
– I am so proud to be a Rider at the Spanish Riding School and I really enjoy working with my horses every day, making a contribution to preserving and passion on the classical art of riding. I always strive towards keeping my horses healthy for as long as possible and presenting them according to the tradition, Zeitlhofer says.
Zeitlhofer set an example for other female riders wanting to become part of the Riding School’s history. The second female Rider, Theresa Stefan, was promoted Rider three years ago after the successful training of her first stallion; Favory Wanda II. The two others areValentina Utzand Paula Behrens, currently Assistant Riders. Their colleague Florian Erwin Zimmermann has been performing as a Rider at the school for almost ten years now.
– What I like the most about this life is the daily varied work with our four legged friends and colleagues. It connects us over many years, and we keep getting better, Zimmermann says.
Lipizzaners on tour
There are 72 stallions altogether at the Spanish Riding School, presented at around 80 performances every year, both at home in Vienna and around the world. While packing up and going on tour with close to 30 stallions and the whole team around them is an unparalleled organisational challenge, the horses deal well with travelling and performing away from their home in Austria.
Both at home and on tour, the horses are under close supervision and care by Stable Master Andreas Haipl. The Austrian started working with horses at a very young age, around twenty years ago. This spring, he was appointed Stable Master at the riding school, giving him the responsibility of taking care of the horses both in Vienna and on tour. His devotion and passion for the horses is what motivates him every day.
– What I enjoy most about my job is the diversity of my tasks and getting to take care of and assure the well-being of the horses, Haipl says.
From November this year until January 2023, the white stars of Vienna are going on a European tour, visiting Germany & Denmark in December 2022, then followed by performances in France and Switzerland early next year.
On their journey around Europe, the stallions will be accompanied by Haipl and their trusted grooms. As many as 28 horses and nine Riders, including two Chief Riders and one Assistant Riders, will perform seven individual elements as part of the overall programme in front of new, enthusiastic audiences in for an unforgettable experience watching the Ballet of the White Stallions.