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Tradition

The White Dancing Horses Of Vienna

In Austria, the window to another era is provided by the Spanish Riding School. It is a living form of Renaissance art, an institution that has survived for centuries unmodernised and unaltered

Founded in 1572, the Spanish Riding School is the embodiment of Austrian tradition. It pays homage to a 2,000-yearold art of classical riding and sits alongside Mozart, Strauss and Freud on the calling card of Vienna. Its riders are revered and, once accepted through a rigorous application process in their teens, have a job for life. The hierarchy is so strict that it takes 12 years to graduate from a pupil to a fully-fledged rider.

The riders’ demeanour is a cross between army officer and detached film star, but the horses are the true stars of the show. Pure-bred grey Lipizzaners, they float above the ground of the Winter Riding School, white manes and tails flowing, like mythical creatures with wings.

So much of our received imagery of horses involves Lipizzaners. Think of the Stubbs painting of a horse being attacked by a lion, the Van Dyck portrait of Charles I, or of Rubens’s portraits of Hapsburg emperors on regal-looking steeds – the horses are Lipizzaners. They are everywhere: as rearing marble statues, on the walls of art galleries and in the palaces of Europe’s ruling families.

In Vienna they perform once a week, on Sunday mornings in an 18th-century Baroque palace in the city centre. The performances are sold out months in advance and the tickets are snapped up for the daily training sessions, which are open to the public.

The riders’ demeanour is a cross between army officer and detached film star, but the horses are the true stars of the show. Pure-bred grey Lipizzaners, they float above the ground of the Winter Riding School, white manes and tails flowing, like mythical creatures with wings

The riders make imperceptible commands as the Lippizaners move smoothly from walk into piaffe (trotting on the spot) or passage (a highstepping trot during which the legs seem suspended in the air). It takes each horse between five and six years to master the more difficult moves, so they are brought along slowly, never over-faced.

The younger horses are less polished in their movement and spook when the crowd claps at the end of their 10-minute appearance, but the more experienced stallions pirouette or canter on the spot, turning circles that would collapse if their balance were not perfect. In a move called a capriole, they jump in the air, with forelegs and hind legs kicking out, like a ballet dancer performing a grand jete.

They raise their forelegs, hovering above the ground with their hind legs taking all of the pressure, in a controlled rear that is held for as long as possible (the levade). They rear high, front legs drawn tightly in, and hop forward on their hind legs (the courbette). Even in canter, the pace is so controlled the rider can still walk behind.

The Winter Riding School arena is a vast ballroom with sawdust as its dancefloor. It was completed in 1735 as part of the palace of Hofburg and it is lit by three enormous crystal chandeliers – it also has two flagpoles in the centre. A portrait of Charles VI on a grey Lipizzaner hangs at one end. Paintings in the gallery show crowds in the 18th century leaning over the low walls, craning their necks round the marble pillars, straining for a better view. The Spanish Riding School proudly claims to be the only riding school in the world at which the classical art of riding is practised in its purest form. This ‘classical art’ dates back to a Greek soldier named Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates, who led his army on a 1,000-mile march home to Greece across enemy territory. During the march, Xenophon contemplated the skill of training a horse in warfare and the best way to ensure it remained healthy and fit to survive many years on the road. He wrote down his observations in a book called The Art of Horsemanship, which was first ‘published’ in 360BC. Xenophon espoused patience as the only way in which to get the best from a horse, a significant departure from the sometimes violent mastery of horses that is still prevalent elsewhere.

This ‘classical art’ dates back to a Greek soldier named Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates, who led his army on a 1,000-mile march home to Greece across enemy territory

The European Renaissance saw a revival of Xenophon’s theories, as riding schools were established to train horses to perform at the royal courts. When Spanish-bred horses were found to display the best temperament and appearance, they were transported to the village of Lipizza in Slovenia where the first royal stud was founded in 1580 and the Lipizzaner breed was established. In 1920, the stud was moved to Piber in Styria, about three hours southwest of Vienna.

It is here, surrounded by trees, hills and grass, that I get close to Lipizzaner foals for the first time. Born between January and June, they are weaned from their mothers at six months and then split by gender to establish their own pecking order. As yearlings, they are moved to the Alps to improve their muscles and balance (every summer, the performance horses are also put out to pasture in the mountains to enjoy the Alpine herbs and grasses and the purity of the air).

At three years old, the stallions with the best configuration and temperament will start training and the finest mares will be selected for the continuation of the breed. Those not selected are available for sale and are in great demand.

When they are born, Lipizzaners are brown or dark grey. Their colour lightens as they grow older to a bright white, but a few stay brown. Most of these are sold but one brown horse is always included in the performance as a mascot.

The riding school has perfected a synergy between man and horse that is based on patience, kindness, mutual trust and honesty. Its beauty is in its simplicity and in the obvious enjoyment of the real heroes, the gleaming grey stallions

During the Second World War, the Lipizzaner stallions were evacuated to safer territory in the mountains so as to escape the Allied bombing. When the area was then occupied by American forces, word was sent to the commanding officer, General George S Patton, that the horses were there. Patton himself had competed in the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, and when he learnt that Colonel Alois Podhajsky, the head of the Spanish Riding School, was a fellow Olympian and that his stallions were under threat, he agreed with Podhajsky that they should become wards of the U.S. Army. It was an episode later celebrated in Disney’s Miracle of the White Stallions (1963).

At the conclusion of the war, Patton ensured the stallions and the mares and foals (who had been transported to Czechoslovakia) were returned to Vienna and so safeguarded the continuation of the Spanish Riding School.

These are modern-day knights, protecting an art that would otherwise be extinct. The riding school has perfected a synergy between man and horse that is based on patience, kindness, mutual trust and honesty. Its beauty is in its simplicity and in the obvious enjoyment of the real heroes, the gleaming grey stallions.