Saddle up for Austria's dancing horses
At the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the famous Lipizzaner stallions perform a type of equine ballet.
Is this what it feels like to be royalty? We sit at one end of a high-ceilinged marble arena in Vienna. Except for the dirt floor, which has been raked into perfect rows, it looks like a ballroom. The room is part of a palace. Emperors and empresses once sat where we're sitting.
Trumpets blare. The crowd in the balconies hushes. A stallion (male horse) marches into the arena with a rider dressed in a fancy uniform. Seven horses and riders follow in a line. They are all gray – young Lipizzaners. The black coats they were born with six or seven years ago are turning to white.
The riders guide the young stallions in perfect formation. They trot to classical music. They canter (gallop slowly) in circles. One bucks a little, without missing a step. Maybe he is just feeling joyful. The stallions arch their necks and pick up their feet. They hold their tails high. They have much to be proud of.
The Lipizzaner is a very old, famous breed of horse. It goes back to 1580 with the Habsburg Archduke Charles II of Austria. He started breeding Spanish horses near the village of Lipizza. The best stallions were chosen for the Habsburg family's court in Vienna. They were strong but had light, graceful movements. They also had calm, obedient natures, which made them trainable. These chosen stallions fathered the next generation of Lipizzaners. And the best of those were chosen – on down to the horses performing here today.
Next to perform are four white horses. They demonstrate advanced movements such as the piaffe, or "trot on the spot." It's a bit like what horses do naturally when they are excited. Here they do it in rhythm, repeatedly. Afterward they trot forward in great, reaching strides.
Now the pirouette. The horses canter in a circle so small one hind leg pivots. The muscles in the horses' hindquarters bulge, and their necks bob. This takes tremendous strength. But the horses have worked up to it over years of unhurried training.
The four white stallions finish their routine with the passage. They thrust themselves high off the ground in a slow trot. With each strong stride they seem to float. Their front legs swing in little circles in the air. They're dancing!
A waltz ushers in the "airs above the ground." These impressive jumps are based on natural movements. But only 10 of the 63 performing stallions can do them. One horse rises onto his hind legs and balances (called a levade). One jumps straight up into the air and kicks his hind legs out behind (capriole). Another rears, balances, and hops on his hind legs (courbette). These horses are amazing athletes. But they are also graceful and elegant.
In the grand finale, eight horses and riders execute fancy patterns. They weave in among one another with precise timing and control. The riders make it look easy. But they have been practicing perfection every day for years here.
This riding school in Vienna is named the Spanish Riding School. That's because the Lipizzaner breed started with Spanish horses. It is the only riding school in the world that has followed the same system of training for more than 400 years. At first the purpose of the training was military as well as artistic. Since 1918, the Lipizzaners have been trained for only the art of riding. The horses develop gradually – physically and mentally. They also develop friendship and trust with the men who ride and train them.
The rider-trainer is patient, understanding, and humane. He observes the horse closely. He never asks the horse to do something he is not ready to do. He never punishes the horse for not understanding what he was supposed to do.
At the end of today's performance the horses halt in one long row. Each horseis different. One has a cottony mane. Another's toes point outward. One horse has a soft, relaxed look on his face. Others look bright and happy and serious. All have done their jobs well. The horses exit, leaving only their hoof prints in the arena. They also leave a mark of admiration in our hearts.
Later we tour the stables. A mild smell of manure is in the air, but none is in sight. The keepers clean the stalls every two hours. They don't want the Lipizzaners' gleaming white coats to get any smudges.
The horses have finished their noon meal and are resting. It is so quiet that you can hear one horse lick the inside of its mouth. Another horse is lying in a deep bed of clean wood shavings, his legs folded neatly under him. His thick, snowy tail swirls onto the bedding in waves. Each horse has a water trough and feed basin made of marble.
Some horses look at us, but do not demand our attention. They are proud stallions, but their manners are gentle. Austria's emperors and empresses are gone. But here at the Spanish Riding School, royalty lives on.
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna requires one thing of those who want to sign up: a "deep and honest passion" for horses and riding. Young men (16 to 20 years old) from any country may apply. At first they spend most of their time taking care of five or six horses. They clean the stalls. They feed and groom the horses. It is hard work.
Students are taught to ride by experienced riders. Then they learn how to train the horses. After about 10 years, they earn the title of "Rider." After 25 or 30 years, they may be promoted to "Chief Rider." A horse stays with the same rider during the horse's whole career. So a rider is expected to stay in his job until he retires.
So far, no young women have been allowed to become students. Originally, men in the Austrian military rode and trained the Lipizzaners. That male tradition continues.
"Will that change?" a visitor asks the young woman giving tours of the stables. "It will change," she replies without hesitation. "It has to change."
It takes a great deal of money to run the Spanish Riding School and its breeding farm in the countryside. The Austrian government helps a lot. But recently, the school has looked for new sources of income. One idea is to invite individuals and companies to "adopt" a stallion or foal (baby). It costs about $1,200 to adopt a foal for one year; $12,000 to adopt a stallion.
The first individual to adopt a Lipizzaner was W.L. Lyons Brown. From 2001 to 2005 he was the American ambassador to Austria. He visited the Spanish Riding School often. He got to know the horses and riders. When it was time for him to leave Vienna, he wanted to do something for the country he had come to love. He made a big donation to the Spanish Riding School.
The horse Mr. Brown adopted is named Siglavy Mantua I. He is the oldest of all the performing Lipizzaners. He is 27 years old, but his rider knows he is not ready to retire yet. The horse performs the physically demanding "airs above the ground" in the pasture just for the joy of it.
Mr. Brown says Siglavy is the best example of how sweet and gentle Lipizzaners are. "And he knows he's a star," he adds. He hopes that his gift will encourage others to give. Then stallions such as Siglavy will continue to receive the excellent care and patient training that have made the Lipizzaners famous around the world.