For me, one of the highlights of our stay in Vienna – the Spanish Riding School. Equestrian sports have been part of our family life for years, so I was very excited to see what was in store for us.
How does a Spanish Riding School come to Vienna?
Ferdinand I grew up in Spain. When he came to Vienna in 1521, he had stables built at Vienna Castle, where he put his magnificent Spanish horses. The horses were trained for the military. It was mainly Spaniards that Ferdinand I entrusted with this task.
In the long run, however, it was too costly to constantly transport horses from Spain to Vienna. So the decision was made to establish their own stud farms.
In the 16th century there were two stud farms that were engaged in breeding horses for the Viennese court. They selected some stallions from six different breeds and bred the Lipizzaner. The horses were named after the Lipica stud, the main stud of the Habsburgs at that time.
Since 2005, the breeding of Lipizzaners has been carried out at a stud farm on Heldenberg in Lower Austria. Here, mares, foals and young stallions stand together on 550 hectares of pasture land. The “pensioners” among the horses of the Spanish Riding School also find their rest here after their work is done. About 300 horses live on the stud farm.
In 1565, one finds the first mention of the construction of a riding arena in Vienna. Today it is assumed that this was the beginning of the Spanish Riding School.
It was finally Emperor Charles VI who had the Winter Riding Hall built in Vienna in 1729 – 1735. A large hall flooded with light was created. A 15-meter-high roof truss extends over the riding hall. However, a specially inserted false ceiling made of wood decorated with stucco makes the hall appear much flatter. The riding hall is said to have been the first enclosed riding hall in Europe. Originally, the visit and use was reserved only for the nobility and was intended to teach the young nobility the art of horsemanship.
Later, the hall was also opened for masquerade parties, court balls and equestrian games.
Today, almost every day about 1000 spectators can watch the work with the horses. I am definitely impressed by the size and beautiful appearance of the riding hall.
Right next to the winter riding arena is the summer riding arena…. In good weather the horses are ridden here as well. In addition, a covered outdoor arena has been built around the summer riding arena where the animals are exercised year-round (each horse 40-50 minutes daily). Before this facility existed, grooms would walk in circles for hours to give the horses enough exercise.
Which horses are ridden at the Spanish Riding School?
The Spanish Riding School trains exclusively Lipizzaners.
The Lipizzaner is a gray horse. As foals, they are born with dark coats and usually mold out by 6-10 years of age.
From physique, the horse is about medium in size and appears very compact. The stick measure lies with 155-165 cm.
The Lipizzaner has a lot of temperament and can go under the saddle until old age. The animals are very willing to learn, have great mental and physical strength. They are excellent for dressage.
Only stallions are ridden at the Spanish Riding School. The training of the animals begins around the age of 4. In the process, close attention is paid to the special qualities of the individual animal. Not every horse is suitable for special jumps or dressage tasks. There are specialists who already show their first dispositions in the pasture at a young age. In total, there are about 120 training stallions.
How to become a rider at the Riding School?
As the mother of a daughter who rides, I had the idea that you could only become a rider at the Hofreitschule if you had been riding for years in the highest dressage classes. But far from it. That is not a prerequisite to work here as a rider.
If you would like to train as a rider at the Hofreitschule, you only need basic riding knowledge. More importantly, one must be 16-25 years old and about 172 cm tall. Since 2008 it does not matter if you are a male or female rider, but the training is in German and the applicant should have good language skills.
2-5 apprentices usually work in the court riding school, about 20% of them also manage to ride in the performances at the end. All the others complete their training after 3 years as an equine professional.
But one after the other. An eleve is at the beginning of his training at the riding school. In addition to working in the stable, he also learns how to work with and on the horse. Once he has successfully completed this part of his training and is allowed to continue at the Riding School, he becomes an aspiring rider. At this stage of training, you get your first own young stallion and train him. Depending on the horse, this can take several years, because the animal should make it to the school quadrille and be able to compete successfully there.
Now the rider reaches the next phase of training. He becomes a rider and trains several horses at the same time. About 14 fully trained riders work in the riding school. Each of them trains 5-8 horses. Until they retire, they get new animals every 2-3 years and train with them every day. Only the most qualified riders are promoted to senior rider during their service and then work with 8-9 horses. They are responsible for the complete training of animals and people and are expected to preserve the tradition of the Spanish Riding School.
Visiting the morning work
People upon people are already standing in front of the entrance at 9:30 a.m. waiting to be let into the Winter Riding Hall. To be honest, I had not expected so many visitors. So we join the international crowd and enter the large riding hall. There are some seats, but as it turns out, they are not nearly enough. During the two hours that the morning work lasts, new visitors keep coming into the riding hall. Others leave after watching the beautiful horses for a while. I have the feeling that horse lovers and people who have some riding and dressage knowledge are more likely to discover the many subtleties that are shown during the daily work with the horses.
The lessons are held in 4 groups for 30 minutes each. Each group of horses is composed individually according to the level of training and so the work with the animal differs significantly.
The horsemen and women come to the winter riding hall with the Lipizzan horses. They wear the Empire uniform, as it has been traditionally worn for 200 years. The uniform consists of white deerskin breeches, a high-collared brown riding tailcoat, a two-pointed hat, boots, white leather gloves and swan-neck spurs. Traditionally, the riders, only when it is important for the work, use a birch whip. This whip is cut from a birch tree in January and put in water for a few days to make it more durable.
Before the work with the horse begins, the riders first take off their hats to the image of Emperor Charles VI, the builder of the Winter Riding Hall.
I have a lot of fun watching the horses and their riders. After a short warm-up, each pair works on different focuses. From working on the transitions from walk-trot-canter, shoulder in, head and neck position work, collected trot and canter, 3-way canter changes, first piaffe approaches – you can discover many different levels of training. I find it exciting to watch and discover many things that I have also seen in the course of several years on the riding track with our daughter.
What is rarely shown during the morning work are the famous jumps that many in the audience must have been waiting for. But levade, capriole and courbette are demanding and strenuous jumps that not every horse can do. In order not to overtax the animals, these jumps are trained only irregularly in the morning work.
After about 20 minutes of intense work, the rider begins to cool down the horse. On the long reins, the horse goes into stretching, walks at a pace and receives the traditional sugar lump as a reward after the work is done. On the halter, the animals then leave the riding arena with the grooms and return to their stalls.
One hour after the morning work we are allowed to participate in the guided tour. First we go once again to the riding hall. There we learn a lot about the history of the Spanish Riding School and horse breeding.
There are about 70 stallions in the stables directly in Vienna. Every 8-10 weeks there is a big “horse swap”. The animals from the city come to the training center in Heldenberg and can enjoy their run in paddock boxes. In return, other animals are brought to Vienna to the city stable. Thus, over the year, each stallion has about half a year’s stay in the city and half a year’s stay in the country.
In summer there is no program directly in Vienna, the horses all spend their vacations in the country. While there are no performances for 5 weeks in winter, mares and young animals move into the city stable.
Then we finally go to the city stable, which is separated from the winter riding arena by a road. It is just feeding time and also here it is like I know it from the riding stable. Some horses can’t wait to get their food.
The Renaissance building of the stables dates back to 1565-69. There are 72 modern boxes for the stallions. 16 boxes are located so that the horses can see out and since the places are in demand, the occupancy is rotated.
Above the stables are 2 galleries with rooms, which today are mostly offices.
First we enter the tack room. I have never seen such a neat tack room. Everything hangs here well sorted and neatly cleaned.
Each horse has 2 saddles. One saddle, which is ridden only during performances. It is a custom baroque saddle with a deep seat, specially adapted to the rider and horse. In addition, each horse has three bridles. The bridles used during the performance hang well protected in glass boxes.
Next, we enter the stable alley. The first thing I notice are the names of the horses. Each horse has a double name. The first name stands for the bloodline of the father, the second name is the name of the mother. If two horses bear several foals together, they receive additional numbers attached to their names. Every year about 40-50 foals are born at the stud. Not all horses are kept, about 6-8 mares are raised per year for breeding and 10 stallions for dressage and breeding. The rest of the horses are sold.
Lipizzaners are known to be gray and so I am surprised when there is a brown horse in a box. We learn that there are currently 3 not moldy Lipizzaner in the stud. These are considered lucky charms and there is always one of them together with the other horses in the stable. The stallion has the same rights as his roommates. He is also ridden in the show and trained in the same way.
I would have liked to roam the stable alley a little longer and watch the horses. But I can well understand that this would disturb not only the people working there but also the horses. In any case, it was very interesting for someone who likes horses.
I continued to roam around Vienna after our visit to the morning work and the stables of the Spanish Riding School, very happy and full of beautiful impressions. Now I will dream of being able to visit the Lipizzaner Center at Heldenberg one day and discover the animals on the pasture.
1010 Vienna, Austria
1, 2, D: Station Kärtner Ring Oper or Haltestelle Burgring
62: Station Kärntner Ring Oper
U1: Station Stephansplatz
U3: Station Herrengasse
U2, U4: Station Karlsplatz
1A: Station Herrengasse
2A: Station Michaelerplatz
3A: Station Habsburgergasse
Visitor Center at Michaelerplatz
Monday – Sunday: 9 am – 4 pm
Fridays, when evening performance: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Discounts are offered.
The visit of the morning work and the guided tour of the stables at the Spanish Riding School was kindly free of charge for us. Many thanks! The report corresponds to our impressions and was written independently.