72 Reasons to Visit Vienna

The 72 reasons we had for visiting Vienna two summers in a row will never know – or care – that we returned just for them.  When we finally saw them up close, the six dozen Lipizanner stallions of the Spanish Riding School were more interested in munching their muesili and hay than either the two of us or the other 30+ people on the School’s tour.

Last summer’s rather poorly planned visit to Vienna ended in disappointment that we’d missed the famous Lipizzaner stallions – they were on their summer vacation back on the natal farm.  Tough luck, we were told, but even the Lipizzaners need a vacation:  they work hard.  So, we planned a by-pass stop on this year’s northeasterly route into Eastern Europe and returned to Vienna, just to see the stallions.

Michael calls this year’s 42-hour Viennese sojourn the Time of the Stallions:  we attended the 3-hour morning practice session at the world-famous Spanish Riding School, then went on a 1 ½  hour tour of the stables later that afternoon. Disappointingly, it was strictly verboten to take photos of the horses, whether during their exercise session or at rest in their stalls.  I suppose the Riding School wants to maintain its monopoly on the horses’ images:  the cheapest DVD of the horses in the gift shop began at €29,50 – about $38 — and post cards started at about $3 apiece. Gewgaws of ceramic and crystal, astronomically high.  But we were allowed to take as many photos as we wanted in the tack room (whooppeee!) and the (empty) Winter Riding School, which is why you will see so many of these pictures below.  Also, with the exception of one illegally taken photo as noted below (I couldn’t resist), all the photos of the horses themselves I took from the internet.  So many thanks to those generous people who post their photography on line for the public domain!


A Very Brief History of the Lipizzaner

How to be concise yet accurate?  The origin of these horses, the Barb or Barbary horse, a mix of the Arabian horse and various Oriental breeds, is thought to be the north coast of Africa circa 800 CE.  When Islamic armies invaded Spain, they brought with them the Barb, and over the centuries of Moorish rule, they bred their horses with Spanish stock, eventually producing the Andalusian horse, which itself has made significant contributions to many modern breeds, including the Thoroughbred.  The Andalusian’s popularity grew among European royalty who valued these horses for their conformation, agility, stamina and stable disposition.  Originally trained for military use, the horses found favoritism with European nobility in the increasingly popular art of fine riding and dressage.  In the 1560s the Hapsburg Emperor brought several dozen horses to Vienna and began the Spanish Riding School.  These horses became the forbears of the Lipizzaners you can see perform today.

The techniques and movements the horses are taught are centuries old and based on martial maneuvers that riders taught the horses to sharpen their physical stamina and mental alertness. Our guide  carefully dispelled the “myth” that the horses had been taught these maneuvers to use during combat. Over time, the discipline and series of techniques were refined and became known as dressage.  Our guide during the tour emphasized that most of the behaviors, especially the most acrobatic and aggressive ones, were based on natural behaviors the stallions perform when attracting and protecting mares in their herd.  The guide explained that only the stallions, as males, naturally perform these behaviors, so that is why only stallions and not mares or gelded males, are used by the school.

A Few Facts

So as not to go overboard on horses for those of you with no equine interests, I’ll just present a few facts concerning the Lippizaners:

  • The majority of foals are born black or a dark, dappled grey and become lighter with age.  Most stallions reach full “white” (it’s technically “grey”) at about 8-13 years.
  • Some horses are born bay, brown or chestnut and keep that color all their lives.  Legend has it that having a bay stallion among the horses in Vienna is good luck, so there is always at least one bay stallion in residence.  Currently there are two.
  • The stallions begin their training at about the age of 5.  Usually they are not ready to perform until about 12-13 years old.  The horses will generally perform for another 10-15 years before being retired to the natal farm.
  • Each stallion is trained and ridden by only one rider during its time at the School.
  • Each rider has 5-8 horse for which s/he is responsible.
  • Women were not admitted to the School until 2008.
  • There are four levels among the men and women at the riding School:  Student Rider, Assistant Rider, Rider, Chief Rider.  It usually takes 6-8 years for a Student Rider to advance to the next level as Assistant Rider.
  • There is a very high dropout rate – 80% — among student riders during the first couple of years.  However, many of those who make it to “Rider” or especially “Chief Rider” stay at the school for much of their adult life.  The oldest there today, the most senior Chief Rider, is 72, still performing, with no intention of retiring.
  • No riding experience is required for acceptance to the School.  They have their own philosophy and technique of riding and would rather train people from scratch then “unteach” them “bad habits or attitudes”   (the guide’s words, not mine).  The first few months a student rider spends riding a horse without stirrups or reins with the horse guided on a lead by an instructor.  (FYI, this is how I was taught to ride in a French riding school.)

A young Student learning to ride.

A row of bridles used in more advanced training. Te performance bridles would be replete with gold plate.

Tack and Saddles

During training, the horses use fine leather saddles with only a thin saddle pad underneath.  No particular training saddle is assigned to an individual horse.  However, for the performances, each horse has its own individually fitted saddle.  An expert saddle maker measures and fits the saddle for each horse.  The performance saddles, bigger and deeper than the training saddles, are covered in a special white cloth that helps the rider keep his seat, as the rider does not ride with stirrups if he is planning to have that horse perform any of the “Airs Above Ground.”

Cloth-covered performance saddles with training bridles (snaffle bit) to the right.

Each horse has 4 sets of head gear used during its training and performances:

  • A halter, with no bit, is used in the first stage of a young horse’s training.
  • A simple snaffle bit and single reins are used as a horse begins to perform slightly more advanced movements and passages.
  • A more senior horse will have the double reins and curb bit.
  • In performances, the horse will wear the gold-plated, double-reined bridles.

In addition to the special bridles and saddles, the performance horses will be decked out with gold-plated breast plates and specially colored saddle cloths to denote its aerial abilities.  The green cloth  indicates the horse can perform all the “Airs Above Ground”; a red saddle cloth indicates it can perform all the required movements except aerials.  The number of gold bars on the saddle cloths (and the rider’s bicorne cap) denote the status of the rider:  3 gold bars with a fringe is the Director of the school, or Chief among the chief riders; 3  bars and no fringe is a chief rider;  two bars for  a rider, and one for an assistant rider.  Students literally have to earn their gold bars.

The color of the saddle cloth and the number of gold bands or bars denote the horse’s level of ability.

There is one more decorative badge denoting a horse’s ability and achievement.  Only stallions that have mastered the most difficult of “Airs Above Ground”, the capriole, have their tails beautifully braided and decorated:

Of the three “Airs Above Ground” the School and its stallions are most famous for, the capriole is considered the most difficult.  The horse will begin with the intermediary croupade,  in which he leaps straight up off the ground, rear legs tucked underneath, and its entire body must remain parallel to the ground.  However, in the second stage of the capriole the horse then extends its legs back and must remain elevated and parallel to the ground to perform the maneuver correctly.  It takes an amazing amount of strength and agility for a horse to perform this maneuver.  Interestingly, it does have its basis in natural behaviors; stallions will often kick back with one or both feet to warn off or thwart potential rivals or protect his mares.

The Capriole, both with rider and in training.

The Winter Riding School, the indoor arena where the morning practice sessions are held as well as the performances.

Switch in Pace

In keeping with our intent to try and see new sights as we travel this year, we visited the Freud Museum in Vienna as well as the Spanish Riding School.  The museum is housed in the apartment where Sigmund Freud lived and worked for nearly 20 years before friends and family finally convinced him to flee the Nazis in 1938.  He died a little over a year later in London.

Some of the rooms contained memorabilia, especially interesting if you’re a fan of or at least knowledgeable about Freud’s life.  Others had less information.  The most interesting was the “Media Room” which had monitors running loops of film reels of home movies taken of Signmund Freud among close friends and family.  Not only were the films fascinating, but Freud’s daughter, Anna, provided an explanatory narration of the events which was highly informative.

Michael outside the Freud Museum

A few more pictures.

I can’t resist posting a few more pictures.  The weather was much nicer than last year, so I was snapping like mad.  Below are some of my favorites places in Vienna, and I’ll just end here.

Buon viaggio, happy trails, and all that jazz!

The Votive Church, one of my favorites in Europe; I love Gothic architecture! Surprisingly, there is a near-exact replica in Helena, Montana.

Vienna’s Rathaus or town hall.

The Hapsburg Palace

My one (illegal) photo of a Lipizanner stallion in one of the exterior stalls. Note the huge underground manure pit in the foreground. Each horse’s stall is cleaned out once an hour. That’s a lot of straw and manure!

Hope you enjoyed this posting!


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