The Spanish Riding School of Vienna was established in 1572, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was at it’s zenith. The Winter Riding School, which is the elegant riding school familiar to us all from movies and photographs, was completed in 1735 and was commissioned by the Emporor Charles VI. Prior to that time, the School operated from an arena at the Imperial Palace.
Why is it called the Spanish Riding School, when it is located in Vienna, Austria? It was named for the Spanish horses that were, and still are, the mainstay of the riding school. The original horses were imported from Spain to the court stud at Lipizza. Those horses became the famous Lipizzaners, which are now bred especially for the Riding School at the Piber Stud, near Vienna.
Lipizzaners are born dark colored and gradually lighten, attaining the pure white color at about 6 years of age. A common sight at the Piber stud is a group of pure white mares with their black foals at their sides. (Some of my forty-something year-old readers may remember a television show from the 1960’s called the White Horses which, if I remember correctly, was set around the stud). The plight of the horses during World War II was featured in the Disney movie, “The Miracle of the White Stallions”.
The only horses used in the school are the white stallions, who begin their training when they are three and a half years old. The early part of their training consists of basic riding to accustom them to carrying a rider and to improve their natural balance.
From then on, a progressive training regime introduces exercises which improve the horses’ strength and collection. Not until the third and fourth years of training do the stallions learn the Haute Ecole, which includes many of the movements which also feature in competetive dressage — flying changes, piaffe, passage and pirouette.
Only the most talented horses then go on to learn the spectacular “airs above the ground”, such as the levade, the capriole and the courbette. These leaps are not included in competetive dressage.
The Spanish Riding School Today
The Spanish Riding School is today a cultural institution and visitors may watch training sessions and also twice weekly performances, accompanied by the strains of Bizet, Mozart and Chopin. You can get a schedule of performances from the Spanish Riding School, or from Austrian Tourist Board offices.