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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

9/4 Vienna's Spectacular Spanish Riding School

 I had wanted to see the Spanish Riding School (SRS) for decades so was thrilled we could get tickets for the 2 hour Morning Exercise with Music program. It offered insights into the years of training of the Lipizanners and their riders accompanied by classical Viennese music; we watched the riders and their horses do simple relaxing exercises aimed at refining and perfecting a certain movement. It was disappointing that the classical School Jumps, which are shown at performances, weren’t practiced the morning we were there. We also bought tickets for the late afternoon behind the scenes tour of the School and the historical stables of the Lipizzaner stallions.
Couldn't resisit taking this picture while waiting for the Morning Exercise Program to begin.

A heads up about the SRS Tour: This may be WAY too much info for all but horse lovers and/or info junkies like me! Ever wondered why they call it the Spanish RS? 430 years ago Emperor Ferdinand brought horses from Spain to Vienna but the Viennese weren’t in favor of either him or his horses. Soon enough, anything Spanish meant something strange or weird to the locals but the name of the riding school has stuck. Since WWI, the horses have all come from a stud farm in Piva, 2 ½ hours south of the capital.
 The horses and their training: Only 70 Lipizzaner stallions are trained for the shows but only 20-25 are used in each show. Lipizzaners can’t be too tall (about 1m 75cm), must be very muscular, have a Roman nose and strong hind legs. The joke was that the Habsburgs wanted horses that looked just like them! Most of the Lipizzaners are born gray and then turn white as they age. Neither of us knew horses changed color! The horses have 2 names: the 1st is the paternal name and the 2nd is the maternal name and the one used by the riders when communicating with his horse. They have a life expectancy of 30-35 years and are used in the SRS from 4 until they retire to the stud farm about age 25. It can take though between 6 and 8 years to train the horses before they are ready for the rigors of the 90 minute long performance that has not changed since the 17th C. The training likewise has not changed since that time. The SRS can train 19 horses at a time on the biggest horse walker in the world; it changes speed and direction so the horses don’t get bored! During WWI, the horses were used for military riding and, during WWII, they were brought to NE Austria. The SRS normally only tours in Europe 1 or 2 times a year and rarely overseas.

The SRS Riders: To become one, you can’t be too tall, must have long legs to reach around under the horses’ bellies, an Austrian work permit if not a native and be fluent in German as the horses are only trained in German and, most importantly have the willpower and stamina to develop a good connection with the horse. Our guide said riders need to feel that the horse is a 2nd family; they work at the stud farm, in the training center and stables. 300 apply each year but only 3 are accepted. There’s a whopping 80% attrition rate in only the 1st year because of the demanding work: working 6 days a week from 6:45 til 2:30 but most work even longer hours! 3 Women have been admitted since 2008 but there are only 2 now and all the riders except one is Austrian. It takes an average of 4-6 years for a rider to appear in the shows and 10-12 years before achieving the status of becoming a ‘full rider’ which they can be until 60 -65. There are now 2 ‘Chief Riders’ (but there can be up to 4) who are responsible for all the horses and riders, the quality of the riders’ education as well as being the SRS representatives in Austria and abroad.

Took the 2 photos above and the one below during the afternoon tour, thus no people or horses

The Stables:
 Since the SRS is located right dab in the middle of downtown Vienna, there is of course no pasture for the horses; that’s why they ‘only’ spend 6 months in the stables, located about 2 blocks from the SRS itself. The stable area has 2 tack rooms, 1 each for training and performances. The saddles are made of white buckskin leather to match the riders’ pants. I readily admit to knowing nothing about horse regalia so please forgive the absence of info on bridles and the like!

Tack Rooms

The only view we could take a picture of the Stables was from a passageway outside. The one below is from the same spot but just a closeup.