Lipizzan talent show. Hot ticket in Vienna: `dancing' white stallions display brilliant dressage of historic riding school

MOST of the attractions bringing visitors to Vienna were founded during the long reign of the Habsburg Dynasty - the opera, the Academy of Music, the 300 palaces and beautiful parks, the glorious churches, and art collections. Added to this list is the Spanish Riding School - home to the famous Lipizzan breed of horses.

The school has been called ``Spanish'' since the 16th century, because the Lipizzaners came from Spain at that time (the Habsburgs then ruled both Spain and Austria).

But it's not a riding school in the sense that you could go and take riding lessons there. Its purpose is to preserve for future generations the classical dressage system of training horse and rider, and to display its most brilliant result, the haute 'ecole, in public performances. This magnificent baroque riding school of the Austrian emperors, built in 1735, occasionally tours Europe and the United States.

The school exerts some influence on the Olympic discipline of dressage by accepting as pupils a few candidates for Olympic teams. Its own Bereiter riders, who train and show the Lipizzaners, are professionals, employees of the Austrian state, and do not compete in shows or in the Olympics.

The Bereiters serve many years of apprenticeship in the Spanish Riding School, where, as novices, they are ``taught'' by the accomplished, old dressage horses. The young horses are taught by senior instructors.

The riding style of the haute 'ecole is not like the kind one sees in the circus. Circus horses are drilled to do their number, while the Spanish Riding School trains the Lipizzaners' whole body, with years of daily gymnastic exercises (45 minutes a day) so the horses move in an efficient, graceful way. Horses also have to learn to respond to invisible aids from the rider's seat, legs, and hands.

The most talented stallions are taught to perform the ``airs above the ground'' - movements on their hind legs and spectacular leaps derived from ancient cavalry tactics.

The training of Lipizzaners resembles that of ballet dancers in the way the horses carry themselves and their movements to music. But the floating trot, high-stepping ``Spanish'' walk, collected canter, and formalized rearing leaps are not unnatural moves to these horses - like dancing on toe is to a ballet dancer. If you watch young Lipizzaners at liberty in their pastures, you can see them move, rear, and leap naturally and easily just as they later do in dressage and haute 'ecole performances. But tack, saddle, and rider take away their natural ease and balance, and it takes years of training to put the movements back together again.

Kindness and rewards are the tools of training here, not fear of the whip. The thin, long, light whip used in training is only for contact control; spurs are used little and come late in the training.

The basic principles of dressage were laid down by the Greek Xenophon (5th-4th century BC). Later additions came from Italian, French, and British writers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Lipizzan horses are born black, brown, or gray and take four to 10 years to change to white. They spend their first six months with their mares at their stud farm, Piber, a castle and estate in Styria. (Their former Austrian home, the stud farm at Lipica, after which they are named, is now in Yugoslavia.) At six months the young horses are gradually separated from their mothers and put into groups of colts and fillies. The one-year-olds and the two-year-olds live in separate groups at higher altitudes - the rough ground and mountain air are considered good for them.

When the Lipizzaners are 3 years old, decisions on their ``careers'' are made. After basic training, some mares will become brood mares and others will be trained to pull carriages. The colts get a little preliminary training in the ring and the most gifted ones are sent on to the Spanish Riding School. The rest are snapped up by eager buyers to be used as pleasure horses, in circuses, and for competing in dressage classes.

Lipizzan stallions are never gelded. This demonstrates that you can have a quiet, obedient horse without gelding - if you choose the right breed and have patience in training it.

While dressage riding has grown in popularity in the US and Canada, the rearing and leaping of the haute 'ecole, however, are not included in competitions.

Riders can - and do - learn much from the dressage system of training. Basic dressage is good for pleasure horses, hunters, and jumpers, too, making the horses supple and responsive, giving them a soft mouth and agreeable gaits, and preserving their strength. In most countries it is rare for a horse to be shown in easy classes at age 23, while Lipizzaners perform well even when they are in their 30s.

If you go

For tickets to a Sunday morning performance of the school, scheduled March through June and in September, October, and November to mid-December, write months ahead to the Spanish Riding School, Michaelerplatz 1, A 1010 Vienna, Austria.

There are also some Wednesday evening performances in May, June, and September and some short performances on Saturdays. Tickets for the latter are available at ticket bureaus and through some travel agencies, but are hard to get. When I was in Vienna last May, there wasn't a ticket to be had until the end of the season. Lipizzaners are on vacation in summer.

For more details on tickets contact the Austrian National Tourist Offices in major US cities.

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