Chandeliers and Horse Feed

On a recent trip to Vienna, I finally visited the Spanish Riding School, and wow, was I ever blown away.  These horses live in style!  Here are a few historical tidbits on the Lipizzaner breed.  This is the oldest horse riding school in the world and the oldest school that continues to train, ride and teach the classic “haut école” of the equestrian world.

Turns out that the Lipizzaner breed was developed during the Renaissance period when classical equitation was back in favor. The Hapsburg Imperial family recognized the need for agile light horses by the military.  So they crossed a Spanish horse, which had Arabian and Berber stallion origins, with Iberian mares.  This was at a time when the Hapsburgs controlled Austria as well as Spain.  (I think the connection was something like this - the Habsburgs in the mid to late 15th and early 16th century experienced a great expansion of their kingdom largely through the “peaceful” strategy of dynastic marriages.  So Philip the Fair, son of Maximilian I, was married off to Joanna of Castille, aka Joan the Mad. Definitely a strategic move since the marriage of Joanna came with Castille, Aragon and most of Spain.)

The Lipizzaner’s are born with dark colored coats – variations of brownish black.  They become light grey by the time the horses reach the ages of between 6 and 10 years.  Their trademark large eyes and small perky ears give them an endearing face.  The Lipizzaner is considered a rather “small” horse but the physical power of the stallions is very evident in their well-defined muscles and tendons of their hindquarters, shoulders and legs.  

During early centuries horses were extremely valuable.  Some compare owning such horses in the time to the prestige of owning a Ferrari today.  The Habsburgs continued to breed the horse always having several hundred at any given time.   In fact the apartments of the crown prince were built directly above the stables of the Lipizzaners, clearly reflecting the prestige and value of these handsome animals.

If you had to describe it in one word, the Spanish Riding School is Vienna is elegant.  There is just no other way to describe it.  The school as an entity was founded in 1572.  However, the rich baroque building that is the “winter riding school” where these horses still perform today was built more recently: 1729 to 1735.  This palatial structure is part of the Imperial Palace complex in the very center of the city. I suspect that when it was being built no expense was spared.  

The performing hall is huge.  The riding ring has an earthen floor.  There is no foundation under the vast riding area.  The four walls that surround this area are stunningly beautiful: gorgeous columns, palatial windows through which sunlight streams in, baroque flourishes, gold trim and sparkling crystal chandeliers.  I sat in awe when I was in this performing hall (I just cannot bring myself to call it a riding ring). And picture it when I was there: there were no horses performing, the building itself is that breath-taking.

I looked up from the few seats that are in the hall to a portrait of Emperor Charles VI who commissioned its construction.  The riders at the beginning of each performance still salute his highness, which I can understand because they get to “work” in an amazing and historic institution.

I was very fortunate to be able to also visit the stables, which are located beside the “Winter Riding School.”  These stables are the cleanest I have ever seen.  They really do not smell.  If anything perhaps there is an air of fresh hay.  The mighty horses are nestled in their palatial stalls with marble water troughs, and brass railings, and sculpted horse heads peering down from the high walls.  Each horse has its own stable stall.  Each of the stalls is signed with the name of the horse inside and the custom feed that they will receive at the specified meal times each day. Yeah, each horse has its own individualized meal plan, depending on its nutritional needs, its duties and its age.   The names of the horses are really something because once you understand the logic of the compounded names then the horse’s lineage is totally clear.

The sophisticated science and depth of knowledge with which these Lipizzaner stallions are treated is evident in many of the things one sees in the stable area.  Even the horses that have allergies get special treatment and are assigned to the stalls with doors that open to the outside.

The tack room is more than precise and oh-so orderly.  It would be easy to spot the one thing that still was not back in exactly the right place.

Of course, with such a long history, there are also superstitions.  The longest running one dates back to the beginning of the school, and has to do with a black stallion.  For whatever genetic reason, from time to time the coat of one of the stallions does not become the classic soft whitish grey colour as it matures but remains dark, almost black.  The belief is that if there were not one very dark coated mature stallion at all times, it would mean the end of this riding school.

The stallions in Vienna also now have an automatic walker, the largest one in the world.   It is computer controlled and walks the horses round and round.  The horses in the walker are clever enough to recognize the quiet churning of the machinery when the computer changes the direction of the walk, and the horses start to turn around almost before the automated walker has completed the mechanism change.

I was so impressed by all that was around me when I visited the stables and the performing hall or “Winter Riding School” that I am planning to visit the Spanish Riding School again in the near future.  And hopefully I’ll secure one of the coveted performance tickets to enjoy first hand this centuries-old tradition.