The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is renowned for its beautiful Lipizzaner stallions and displays of classical dressage in its most authentic form. This illustrious school has long been part of Vienna’s culture, putting its famous stallions through their paces to perform the grandiose haut école (high school) of classical horsemanship since 1565.
The Lipizzan horses perform their skills in front of audiences at the Hofburg Palace, although this isn’t the only way to catch a glimpse of these stunning creatures – you can see them train at the Winter Riding School (Winterreitschule) too.
The Lipizzaner breed
The Lipizzan or Lipizzaner breed was developed in the 16th Century with the support of Habsburg nobility. The name comes from one of the earliest stud farms which was located in the village of Lipica (or "Lipizza" in Italian), in Slovenia. Lipizzaners were endangered a number of times due to wars in Europe and their rescue during World War II was made into a Disney movie (‘Miracle of the White Stallions’).
In modern times, there are eight stallions recognised as the foundation bloodstock of the Lipizzaner breed, with all modern day Lipizzaners tracing their bloodline back to these eight. These were all foaled in the late 18th/early 19th Century. You will notice that all breeding stallions today will have the name of their foundation sire included in their own name.
In addition there are up to 35 classic mare lines that are recognised by the various breed registries. Most horses have been registered through the Lipizzan International Federation which has records of nearly 11,000 horses living in 19 countries. The majority of Lipizzaners are in Europe but some live in Australia, Africa and the Americas.
History and origins of the riding school
The Spanish Riding School is the oldest of its type in the World. The School started life as a wooden riding arena at the Josefsplatz in 1565 and was given its name in 1572, during the Habsburg Monarchy. Records show that a wooden riding arena was first commissioned in 1565, but the white riding hall that you see today wasn’t built until 1729. This hall was commissioned by Emperor Charles VI and the design of architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach.
The Spanish Riding School is named as such because of the Spanish horses that formed one of the bases of the Lipizzaner breed. Today, the horses are bred at the Federal Stud which is close to the village of Piber in Austria. As noted above, one of the original studs that was used to develop the breed was Lipizza (now Lipica) which is how the breed got its name.
Over the years, the Lipizzaners have been trained and ridden exclusively by men – but this is not an official policy. In fact, in 2008, two women – 21 year old Hannah Zeitlhofer from Austria and 18 year old Sojourner Morrell from the UK, successfully completed the entrance exam and were allowed by the School to train as riders. This was the first time women were permitted into the School for an incredible 436 years. Hannah then spent eight years slowly rising through the ranks and this year, she became the first woman to be promoted to “Reiter”. Sojourner reportedly quit the school after just a year, frustrated that she could not be part of the shows and performances sooner – but it takes most students who are accepted between eight and twelve years to reach this level, with all training conducted orally as existing riders pass down their secrets to their apprentices.
Different classical jumps and movements
The Lipizzaner stallions perform ‘airs above the ground’ – a series of higher-level classical dressage movements that involve the horse leaving the ground. The moves include the Levade, the Courbette and the Capriole, Croupade and Ballotade. These moves are niche to classical dressage and aren’t typically seen in modern competitive dressage.
The Levade dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century and requires that the horse maintain a position around 30 to 35 degrees off the ground. This low angle makes the position very strenuous and difficult to hold, requiring a great deal of effort from the horse. Few horses can perform the Levade to a good standard since it requires a high degree of control, exceptional balance and strength.
A horse will be required to enter the Levade from the Piaffe, another dressage movement in which the horse is in a very controlled trot on the spot, or nearly on the spot. The horse transfers its weight to its back legs, tucking its hindquarters and coiling its loins. This difficult position is maintained for a few seconds before the horse puts its forelegs back on the ground.
To perform the Courbette, the horse will raise its forehand off the ground and tuck up its forelegs before jumping forward in a number of hops. The forelegs are not allowed to touch the ground and the move is therefore very demanding. Horses with exceptional strength and talent can perform as many as five leaps, some more, before they need to touch their forelegs down. Most horses will just perform three or four.
Capriole, Croupade and Ballotade
To perform the Capriole, the horse will jump from a raised position where the forehand is straight up in the air. The horse kicks out its hind legs then lands on all four legs, at the same time or almost. As for many of the other movements, a great deal of power is required to perform this move correctly – and it is considered the most challenging of all airs above the ground.
The Croupade is a similar move that horses are taught first. In this move, the horse will not kick out at the height of elevation – instead, they will keep their hind legs tucked underneath and remain parallel to the ground.
After learning the Croupade, the horse will be taught the Ballotade. In this move, the horse positions its hind hooves so its shoes can be seen if watched from behind. The horse does not, however, kick out. Once the horse has mastered the Ballotade, they will be taught the Capriole.
The moves performed by the horses are similar to those seen through the years in the military which date back to Ancient Greece. In post-medieval times, knights would attempt to establish superiority on the battlefield by getting rid of their heavy armour and performing complex fast manoeuvres that succeeded, even on a battlefield dominated by firearms.
The Lipizzaner Breed – little known facts
Lipizzaners are a muscular breed of horse that is usually grey although there are a few rare solid-coloured horses that are black or bay.
The horses have black skin with dark eyes and are born with a bay or black coat. Their coat will usually become lighter as they age – the whole process taking between six and ten years, before they develop a white hair coat. They are not truly white – this is something of a misconception – as a white horse by definition would be born white with unpigmented skin.
There used to be more variety of coat colour amongst the breed, until the 18th Century. Lipizzaners could be black, chestnut, piebald, skewbald, dun or bay – but grey was the dominant gene and the colour that the Royal family preferred, so the other colours have mostly died out through breeding practices. However, it is a long standing tradition continued to the present day that the Spanish Riding School keeps at least one bay Lipizzaner stallion.
Tips for your visit
The Spanish Riding School is extremely popular and you will need to book well in advance to see the official performances. Monthly at the weekends throughout the year, they are an event not to be missed if you are in the region.
These highly acclaimed performances put the horses through their paces with a range of moves that demonstrate the incredible skill of both horse and rider. The performances will not be on when the school is touring, and for part of the summer when the horses are on holiday in the country.
Children under the age of three are not permitted to watch the official performances.
You can watch the morning training (Morgenarbeit) in the Winter Riding Hall for just 15 euros per adult or 7 euros 50 for a child. If you have a Vienna pass, entry to the morning exercises is free. These sessions do not run every day and are not available year round either – check in advance. Typically they will be run on Tuesday through till Friday. You cannot book to attend the training sessions in advance – tickets must be purchased on the day. Some days are much busier than others and it is therefore a good idea to ask the Visitor Centre which would be the best day to attend.
The morning training sessions don’t have the glitz and glamour of the official performances, but the exercises are still carried out to music and it does provide a much cheaper way to see the horses perform.
If you’d like a glimpse of these beautiful Stallions without paying a penny, you can wait outside the stable areas and view them when they are moved from their accommodation to the training areas for Morgenarbeit or performances. Try standing outside the former former Lipizzaner Museum (Reitschulgasse 2), facing towards the wall. You’ll see the entrance to the stables on your right. If you time it so that you’re there before or after a training session or official performance, you may see some of the Stallions walking past with their riders.
Note that a Vienna pass also gets you a free standing ticket for “Piber Meets Vienna” in the Summer programme. This unique performance teaches you about the horses’ early years, displaying the talents of eight four-year-old mares and brood mares alongside their sweet young foals. You’ll also get to see a number of historical carriages and plenty of traditional uniforms.
You can also get a guided tour of the Riding School and the Stables on most days.
How to get there
If you’re not visiting with an organised tour, the Vienna Pass website suggests the School is best reached through the Underground (U3 Herrengasse), Tram (1, 2, 71, D Burgring), Bus (2A and 3A Hofburg) or Hop on Hop off bus tours (Staatsoper; Kunsthistorisches Museum / Heldenplatz).