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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spanish Riding School

Lipizzaner in regalia

One of the great tourist destinations in Vienna I wanted to take my family to was the Spanische Hofreitschule, or Spanish Riding school. Mom likes horses, and these are one-of-a-kind, pretty stinking cool horses. Tickets for a show are ridiculously expensive (on their website you can check price listings) but tickets to their morning exercises are relatively cheap by comparison. 

We did this, along with taking a tour of the stables, which are purportedly cleaner than most hotel rooms in Vienna. Since the horses are only trained and bred in Austria, they are well cared-for. 

performance ring
 The story of Lipizzaner is an interesting one. The name of the breed comes from the Slovenian town of Lipica, where the horses originated. Bred from Arabian stock, they were brought from Spain to Austria by the Habsburgs, specifically Maximilian II, in the 16th century. They were originally trained in a military capacity, but now are trained for the show.

Six original foundation stallions were bred in the 18th century, along with 20 mares, which means all the Lipizzaners in world can count one of these six stallions as an ancestor (if horses are into genealogy) and the stables make sure to include each of these stallions in the naming of the contemporary horses. It is curious to note that only stallions are allowed to be trained as Lipizzaner performers. Thing is, the presence of female horses would distract the boys too much while they're performing their exercises. In accordance, only men were traditionally allowed to become trainers and riders, but the Spanish Riding school decided to allow women to become trainers as well in 2009. There are currently three women Lipizzaner riders at the school.

performance hall
Another curiosity of the Spanish Riding School is that they prefer riders who have not had previous riding experience, since the skill set to perform with a Lipizzaner is so specific (and those training the horses may slip into old habits such as, God forbid, English standard rather than classical dressage) that preservation of the school is paramount. Those between the ages of 18 and 25 interested in a career as a rider may apply, providing adequate German language skills and minimal professional horse experience. A rider may be able to perform in five years, with little to no horse experience going in, so they can't be too old when they start.

 The performance hall was commissioned by Charles IV in 1729, and is really fit for an emperor! The floor is sand, which means the horses do not need to be shoe'd - in fact, putting shoes on them would hinder their performance, especially on the high jumps, etc. (Shoes throw off a horse's balance.) We did not get to see much at the Morning Exercises, unfortunately. But--they don't promise much, just what the horses and/or riders need to work on.

being led to stables
Another note: it may or may not be well known that all Lipizzaners are born black and slowly turn white as they grow and age. It takes about seven years for a horse to be trained (and for a rider to train them) and, although a horse may be technically proficient before--or in--seven years, he may not perform in the expensive evening show until he has turned completely white. Certain horses, due to inherent flukes in selective breeding, may never turn white. This is very rare, but tragically, a horse is not allowed to perform until he has become white.

Interesting fact: during World War II, the Spanish Riding school would have perished were it not for American General George S. Patton. (The Russians wanted to slaughter the horses for meat). He was a horse lover and petitioned to get the horses safely out of Vienna. His 60th anniversary rescue of the horses was recently celebrated by the Spanish Riding School. Not that this has sparked great love and admiration for Americans by the Viennese, but: Where there's a will, there's a way!

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