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An Equestrian Spectacular: Lipizzaner Stallions

We visited the Spanish Riding School's Austrian quarters to find out what makes Lipizzaner stallion so special

"The best riders in the world today usually are female"

Any horse lover knows that Lipizzaner stallions are the crème de la crème of the equestrian world. The pride of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, and champions of classical dressage, the equine breed are so prized that in World War Two, American troops risked their lives to preserve the remaining Lipizzaner horses behind opposition lines. Fearing the Germans would kill the horses to feed their men, troops broke through German SS lines to rescue them.

Ahead of the Spanish Riding School’s much anticipated trip to the UK, we visited their Austrian quarters to find out just what makes Lipizzaner stallion so special.

To begin with, however, we needed to get something straight: if The Spanish Riding School is in Vienna, what makes it ‘Spanish’? We spoke to managing director Elizabeth Gürtler to find out.

“Back in the 16th century, Austria was a vast empire and by marriage Austria was related to Spain,” Gürtler explains. “When Ferdinand of the Habsburg family returned from Spain to Vienna, he bought elegant Spanish horses with him, bred between Andalusian, Arabian and Berber horses. Then Ferdinand built the riding centre, and the Viennese people called it a Spanish riding school. Even today, if Viennese people don’t understand something, they say – “that seems to be ‘Spanish’”.

Vienna’s equestrian tradition dates back over 400 years, and the School’s current stock of seventy-two dazzling white, purebred Lipizzaner breed horses still come from the same historic six blood lines. Each stallion is treated like a prince and boasts his own equine nutritionist. The Lipizzaner breed are famous for their Haute Ecole excellence and ‘airs above the ground’ dressage movements, including Capriole, Levade and Courbette.

Essential to The Spanish Riding School’s equine success is the special union between horse and rider. A new rider, joining the school in their teens, can anticipate a long career devoted to their craft.

Each new riding recruit spends 4-6 years under the guidance of an expert rider. He will then be promoted to Assistant Rider, and a young horse is entrusted into his care. It is now the young rider’s responsibility to train his stallion to the level of performance, taking another 4-6 years, working closely with the experienced Chief Riders. It requires discipline to progress even this far; how else would the school maintain its cultural heritage?

Meanwhile, Lipizzaner stallions may be thoroughbred, but that alone is not enough to secure them a life at the Spanish Riding School. Only a select few are selected for classical dressage training each year. A chosen stallion will meet his rider age four, and they will spend the next 20 years together. It takes 6-8 years for a colt to become a school stallion, and longer still to reach ‘airs above the round’ level of expertise. Selected by his shape and character, a Lipizzaner’s qualities include persistence, stamina, strong hind legs and a strong muscular neck.

We spoke to established rider Florian Bacher, who joined The Spanish Riding School age just 15 and has spent 12 years developing his riding skills. “I saw a video of the Spanish Riding School when I was 11 and knew I wanted to work here,” he explains. Saying that, “every day is different,” Bacher will start work at 7am, coming back to visit the seven horses under his ward throughout the day.

With fellow rider Herwig Radnetter recalling his most memorable performance to date, “in Vienna’s open streets, with 3,000 people watching,” the pair will be taking their horses to the UK this November.

While for four centuries all riders would have been exclusively male, two female riders have been introduced in recent years. Elizabeth Gürtler sees this as an obvious step towards the future of the School. “It is tradition only to have men, but according to the effects of time, the best riders in the world today usually are female; it was a must to have women. Some horses get along much better with female riders, who have a ‘feel’ for them”.

A chance to admire the ‘white ballet’ of Vienna is usually reserved for Austrian audiences alone. But fortuitously, The Spanish Riding School and their exquisite stallions will be travelling to Wembley and Sheffield this November. Joined by British equestrian stars and Olympic/Paralympic medallists Lee Pearson MBE, Natasha Baker MBE and Carl Hester MBE, the elite horsemen hope to capture English hearts.