The Spanish Riding School: Ballet on Horseback
You enter through a simple doorway. You proceed through a hall, until – suddenly – you feel you have stepped onto a stage, or onto a broad plain after passing through a narrow gorge. You have a sense of space and depth and, above all, of clean, bright whiteness.
Overhead in the immense hall hangs a series of crystal chandeliers. They add their light to the rows of long windows running the entire length of the hall. At the opposite end, 200 feet away, is the portrait of Emperor Karl VI, who had the hall built in the early 1700s. The portrait looks down on an enclosed box, like the royal box in a theater.
The great expanse of floor is totally empty of furnishings. The hall looks as if the floor ought to be an intricate parquet. Instead, it is a thick layer of sand. Its rich, rusty color contrasts with the unending whiteness of the walls, the pillars, the ceiling.
You are in Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding Academy, and the show is about to begin. As visitors settle into their places in the two-tiered gallery, there is movement below. Several riders on splendid white stallions make their entrance. They are dressed in brown uniform jackets bright with gold buttons, light jodhpurs and knee-high riding boots. On their heads are black hats trimmed with gold braid. Their expressions are serious.
Easily, gracefully, they begin a stately march on horseback. With barely a pause, they circle the hall. One movement blends into the next: walk, trot, canter, trot in place, reverse movements.
Horse and rider are an entity, moving with effortless fluidity, sureness and intelligence. You are fascinated already. And then the intricate maneuvers, the classic choreographed routines and the movements so ” unnatural ” yet such a perfectly graceful begin in an age-old sequence.
The horses used at the Spanish Riding School are Lippizan stallions. Most are white, although all are born grey, bay or even dark brown. They attain their white coats after several years – perhaps as long as ten.
Compact of body, broad of chest and superbly muscular, the Lippizaner have strong necks, long backs and long noble heads. They are intelligent, and it shows in their well-formed ears and expressive eyes. Their tails are thick and long, with fine hair.
The horses move with a combination of discipline and high spirit through the most difficult paces and exercise. Every motion bespeaks a long bloodline unbroken through the centuries.
Horses from the Iberian peninsula were known and cherished even in the days of ancient Rome. During the first several hundred years of Moorish domination of Spain, fresh blood was introduced into the Spanish breeds through fine Arabian horses, the Archduke Charles built a stable in the village of Lippiza near Trieste for the breeding and raising of these fine horses.
The Lippizans began to influence concepts of horse breeding throughout Europe, although the stud had to be moved many times during the politically chaotic 19th century. After World War II and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, some of the horses were returned to Lipica, now part of Yugoslavia.
Austria’s portion of the Imperial Stud was resettled in Piber, near Graz. World War II brought the most serious threat to the breed. Under the Nazi regime, the invaluable breeding stock was moved to Czechoslovakia and only returned to Austria under the official protection of General Patton after the Allied Occupation.
The training of the Spanish Riding School horses is thorough and painstaking. Most of it is based on techniques handed down from one generation of trainers to the next. A stallion’s training begins when he is four years old and lasts for four years. While the first two years consist of training essentially like that of any well-schooled saddle horses; It is in the third and fourth years that create the unbelievably artistic animals which perform at the Spanish Riding School.
History of the school
According to its former director, Colonel A. Podhajsky, the purpose of the Spanish Riding School is ” to retain and to cultivate the art of horsemanship in its highest form of perfection, namely that of the High School “.
Like so much else in Vienna, the School has an old and honorable tradition. In 1565, shortly after the breed was introduced to Austria, money was allocated from the Imperial Treasury for the construction of a riding ring around the gardens of the Burg, Vienna’s great palace complex. By 1572, the term Spanish Riding Stable was already in use, since Spanish horses were considered the best for classical riding.
The present hall was dedicated on September 14, 1735, designed by the noted architect, Josef Emmanuel Fischer von Erlach. Considered to be an architectural masterpiece, its purity of style, dazzling whiteness and long rows of simple columns give it harmony and elegance.
The hall has been the scene of splendid entertainments of all kinds, notably during the long reign of Empress Maria Theresa. Colorful tournaments, so-called carousels (equestrian cotillions much favored by the nobility) and fancy dress balls were all held at the Spanish Riding School. Beethoven conducted an immense concert with more than a thousand musicians there in 1814. In 1848, the first Austrian parliament was assembled in the hall’s vast interior.
The royal amusements at the hall became rarer, and the last carousel was held in 1894. Today, the Spanish Riding School uses the great hall to train the magnificent Lippizan stallions and to demonstrate the beauties and intimacies of classical High School riding to an admiring public.
Source: Austrian Tourist Board