Ballet in the Saddle​​​​​​
Riders, each of whom trained for as long as 12 years to appear in the ring, form a line with their famous white Lipizzan stallions

The inspiration for Ralph Lauren’s Holiday 2013 Blue Label collection, Vienna’s centuries-old riding school keeps a grand equestrian tradition alive

performance at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is a sight to behold. White horses prance in unison, and the riders’ uniforms, the décor and the music recall the grand Austrian Empire, when no expense was spared in the name of splendor. The renowned school, which practices the art of classical horsemanship, or dressage, attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually. Its roots date back to the 1500s, when the Austrian monarchy founded a riding school for members of the royal family and aristocrats. Located on expansive grounds that feature baroque and Renaissance architecture, the school derives its name from a noble breed of horse sent over from the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century that serves as the genetic base for its world-famous white Lipizzan stallions.

See the horses and riders in the stable, and watch a performance at the Spanish Riding School set to the tune of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Vienna Blood, Op. 354” waltz

 

The version of the Spanish Riding School that exists today, however, had its beginnings in the Congress of Vienna, which took place from 1814 to 1815 and brought myriad international guests to the city who reveled in the school’s programs. Since then, the riding school has become the most distinguished center for the haute école, or high school, of classical horsemanship and draws Europe’s most talented riders because it offers the highest level of training in the world. Today, the school celebrates the art of dressage with more than 70 performances each year and regular visits to other cities. It also served as an inspiration for the Holiday 2013 Blue Label collection, which is designed with military- and equestrian-inspired accents and features a strong palette of black and red perfect for the festive season.

RL Magazine sat down with Elisabeth Gürtler, managing director of the Spanish Riding School, to talk about the institution’s rich heritage, horses and hopes for the future.

Riders and stallions walk between two Austrian flags

 

RL Magazine: The Spanish Riding School has been operating for more than 400 years and is the world’s most renowned institution for classical equitation. Have there been any major changes in the way that you practice horsemanship?
Elisabeth Gürtler: Well, the way we practice classical horsemanship hasn’t really changed and even dates back [centuries]. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we maintain our founders’ traditions, especially in how we train our horses. There have been, however, significant innovations in our performances because of new technology—they look a lot different than they did 400 years ago! For example, we use top-notch lighting and sound systems, which of course didn’t exist back in the 16th century.

The school specializes in a type of equitation known as dressage. What are the differences between dressage and other forms of horse training?
The main difference is that dressage represents a perfect harmony between the rider and horse and is the highest level of training a horse can attain. With dressage, the horse must be completely relaxed and in tune with the rider. In other equestrian styles, horses often have a lot of tension.

What is the Spanish Riding School’s role in Austria’s cultural heritage?
I would describe it more as Viennese cultural heritage. The riding school has its origins in the Austrian Empire, when a lot of importance was placed on royalty and aristocracy. The school played a huge role in Viennese society, because only aristocrats were admitted. The Habsburg family is very significant in Viennese history, and the school’s Lipizzan horses are also called Habsburg horses.

The levade is a maneuver that involves the horse balancing on its hindquarters

 

Your school exclusively uses Lipizzan horses, which were bred from Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses. Why are Lipizzans ideal for dressage? What makes them unique?
While there are other breeds that are suited to dressage, Lipizzans have special abilities that make them ideal. They are extremely clever and intelligent and have very good health. Also, their muscularity—especially their strong hindquarters—makes it easier for them to show certain exercises, such as the piaffe and passage, which are stationary and moving trots, as well as impressive movements, including the levade, or balancing on the hindquarters, the courbette, jumping while balancing on the hindquarters, and the capriole, a stationary jump in the air while kicking out the back legs.

Describe the process and time it takes to fully train a horse at the Spanish Riding School.
We start training when they are 4 years old, which is a little later than usual. For six days a week, they work with the same trainer doing exercises, and it takes six to eight years for a stallion to be fully trained.

How does the school select its world-famous riders? How long does a rider have to train before he or she is able to perform?
First, we preselect apprentices, who might not be accepted as riders at the end of their apprenticeship, which lasts three years. We always look for riders who have a good feeling for what is really going on with the horse. If an apprentice becomes an assistant rider, it takes around eight more years before [he or she] can become a full rider. Assistant riders work with a young horse and educate and train it so that it can be presented in a performance one day. They really have to have a lot of patience and enthusiasm, because the entire process takes around 12 years to complete.

“Dressage represents a perfect harmony between the rider and horse and is the highest level of training a horse can attain. With dressage, the horse must be completely relaxed and in tune with the rider.”

The riding school’s performances are known as white ballets, and each one features several components, like a pas de deux and multiple horses and riders moving in synchronized formation. Do you have a favorite part of the show?
I really love the solos, when one rider performs with one horse. They show how a horse can move with absolute perfection. The second aspect I enjoy is when a rider works on the long rein and walks behind a horse while it performs. You can only do this kind of thing with an extremely well-trained, attentive and good-tempered horse.

A stallion performs the capriole, a stationary jump in the air while it kicks out its back legs

 

Describe the music and dress chosen for the Spanish Riding School’s ballets.
The music is all classical Viennese music—Mozart, Strauss, et cetera. The riders’ uniforms originate from traditional European military uniform designs, complete with gold buttons, tails, buckskin pants and very high boots. The uniform really hasn’t changed much since the school was founded [more than 400] years ago, but the current uniform specifically dates back to 1814.

What challenges are facing classical equitation today?
The world of competitions has brought about a lot of negative changes. Because of the hypercompetitive nature of dressage, horses display a lot of tension when they perform, which they shouldn’t. Many people buy expensive horses and begin to train them too young and too hard. Then they quit performing at 15 or 16 years of age, which is quite young when you take into consideration that our horses retire at 25 or 26.

Do you have any special projects planned for the future?
We will still have regular performances in Vienna and tour around the world, but we’d like to begin traveling to several Arabian countries and Russia. And while our main purpose is classical equitation, we are now also focusing more on events on our beautiful grounds. We began our famous Fête Impériale in 2010 and hope to continue this tradition for many years to come. It’s a ball that takes place each summer, and everyone dresses up in evening gowns and tails, just like they did in the 17th and 18th centuries—it’s a true Viennese experience!

Learn more about the Spanish Riding School at www.srs.at.

 

VICTORINE LAMOTHE is an editor, writer and French-to-English translator based in New York.

  • Photo by Stefan Seelig
  • Video by R. J. Glass; footage courtesy of ScienceVision and the Spanish Riding School; music by J. Strauss Jr., “Waltz Op. 354 Vienna Blood”/Premiere Classics/Getty Images Music
  • Photos by René van Bakel
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