The Spanish Riding School in Vienna
The ballet of the white stallions
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the oldest riding school in the world, and has been home to the haute école of classical dressage for 450 years.
What woman hasn’t dreamt of galloping away on a white horse like a princess, in the hope of finding her very own prince? The white horse is not just an animal in our collective imagination. It has a unique symbolic resonance, standing for power and grace, wisdom and grandeur, dreams and aspirations. Cinderella would never have found her Prince Charming without her white stallion Nicholas; nor would Gandalf have made it to war without Shadowfax.
The trust between humans and horses stretches far back in human history. If a rider manages to treat their horse respectfully at all times and meet it on an equal footing, they can achieve unparalleled harmony with the animal. Nowhere else in the world can this invisible bond be observed so clearly as at the Spanish Riding School: the pinnacle of classical dressage.
Tradition, values and passion
"Where living tradition and the values of the past merge with the passion of the present."
The Spanish Riding School is the oldest riding school in the world and the only institution where the haute école
of classical dressage has been taught and practised for more than 450 years.
It is even recognised by UNESCO on their List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As early as the 16th century, Ferdinand I, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor, brought his magnificent Spanish horses to the Viennese court. He grew up in Spain and spent his childhood on the Iberian Peninsula, where he rode the noble Lipizzaner stallions as often as he could. The white Lipizzaner horses, who today charm horse lovers from all over the world with their performances at the Riding School, are all descended from the proud stallions that Ferdinand I brought to Vienna all those years ago. 72 of the famous white stallions are housed in the stables of Vienna's oldest and most significant Renaissance building.
The Hofreitschule (Courtly Riding School) got its name shortly after it was constructed in 1565, because it was reserved exclusively for use by the nobility. It then became a centre for education and training in the art of dressage for young aristocrats. Consequently, the building was extended by Emperor Charles VI in 1735 to become the ‘most beautiful riding hall in the world’: today’s magnificent Baroque riding arena in the Vienna Hofburg. The Winter Riding School is also occasionally used as a ballroom or venue for important events.
The Lipizzaner stallion
Lipizzaner stallions are considered particularly noble and docile. Their proud posture and graceful gait are the result of careful breeding; being good-natured, lively, courageous and untiring, they are particularly well suited to classical dressage. The pedigree traces back to a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Barb horse breeds.
In order to give these noble animals the best conditions for the haute école of dressage, a private stud farm was founded in 1580, which has dedicated itself to Lipizzaner breeding ever since. Around 40 foals are born each year at the Lipizzaner Stud Farm Piber, located in western Styria. At birth they are black, brown or mousy grey, but never white. The colour of their coat changes each time they moult. Most horses won’t have their beautiful white coat until they are between seven and ten years old. Thanks to four centuries of breeding experience, outstanding offspring are reared to meet the high standards for admission to the Riding School of Vienna, year in and year out.
The budding stars of dressage actually start their training in early childhood, spending their summer months in alpine pastures. In this environment, they learn to climb up and down steep slopes and start developing the muscles and sturdiness needed for their future careers.
At the age of four, selected stallions will move into the Heldenberg Training Centre and later to Vienna, where they will slowly get used to the bridle, lunge, harness and saddle. The horses are gradually eased into a rigorous yet gentle training regime, whose primary objectives are ensuring suppleness, obedience, fluidity of movement and a calm temperament.
“At the age of four, selected stallions will move into the Heldenberg Training Centre and later to Vienna, where they will slowly get used to the bridle, lunge, harness and saddle. The horses are gradually eased into a rigorous yet gentle training regime (...).”
The challenge in classical dressage is to study the way a horse naturally moves and to help it attain the highest level of elegance possible through a customised training regime. A successful training programme, throughout which horse and trainer are on equal footing at all times, should foster an unparalleled harmony between rider and stallion.
On average, it takes six years of training before a horse can take part in the school quadrille. This means that they must be at least 10 years old before they can serve as a schoolmaster or perform for the public.
The elegance of this showpiece of baroque pageantry is all down to the expressive moves and impressive routines performed by the stallions. The movements a horse can master depend on its unique attributes; its aptitude, talent, power and sensitivity all come into play. The most famous and breathtaking movements are undoubtedly those known as the ‘airs above the ground’. These are only mastered by a select few, highly talented and sensitive stallions:
The horse raises its forehand by 45° and shifts its entire weight onto the hindquarters. This exercise can be carried out on the long rein or with a rider.
The world-famous “Ballet of the White Stallions” is shown regularly as part of an evening performance. This includes all the movements of the haute école
of classical dressage, including the airs on and above the ground. The climax of every show is the classical school quadrille, which is only ever performed at the Spanish Riding School with the utmost precision.
The morning exercise sessions are also an exciting spectacle. Accompanied by classical music, they give an insight into how stallions of all ages and abilities are trained. The gymnastic programme and classical training exercises take centre stage.
If you want to take a peek behind the scenes of the Spanish Riding School, you can join one of the school’s daily tours to learn interesting facts about its traditions, the art of dressage and the institution’s history. You can even visit the stables and meet the 72 white stars face to (long) face!
Make a stylish entrance in the historic halls of the Riding School in a pair of Högl ankle boots. Warm nutty tones will dominate the fashion world this Autumn/Winter 2019 season.
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