The dance of the white stallions

The Spanish Riding School is one of the wonders of the horsey world! And the beautiful white Lipizzaner stallions are the stars of the show

The world-famous quadrille (Image: CM Rzepa)

If you are ever lucky enough to travel to the city of Vienna, capital of the European country Austria, there is one major MUST – visit the famous Spanish Riding School.

This is the home of what is known as classical dressage, it’s the oldest riding school in the world, and it has been operating for nearly 450 years – since around the time William Shakespeare was born!

The Spanish Riding School isn’t somewhere to go to learn how to ride though! It’s where specially bred and selected Lipizanner stallions – always grey – are trained to do some uber-special dressage movements with their highly skilled riders (who train for many, many years before they are even allowed to ride off the lunge). There are public performances, and you can also go and watch the horses schooling and tour the amazing palace and stables.

The most famous part of the show is the perfectly in-time quadrille, a group dressage display, and of course, the ‘airs above the ground’, which are extremely difficult movements that only a few, very special, stallions are able to perform (see box below for more on these).

Training the airs above the ground Image: Spanish Riding School)
Training the airs above the ground (Image: Spanish Riding School)

Why is it called the ‘Spanish’ Riding School when it’s not in Spain? It’s because the horses who were originally selected for the school were from a part of Spain called the Iberian Peninsula and they were considered especially noble, spirited, willing and majestic. The Lipizza Stud began with nine Spanish stallions and 24 Spanish mares, and at one stage a single Arabian stallion was added. From this mix, the Lipizzaner breed was born.

The stallions who perform at the Spanish Riding School today are all descended from these original bloodlines – they are equine royalty! Lipizzaners are not big horses, but they are powerful. The average height is around 15hh, and they are strong and compact in build, with powerful hindquarters, essential for the collected dressage work. Most of them have slightly Roman (curved outwards) noses.

The horses who work at the school are bred at the Piber Federal Stud; around 40 foals are born each year. The very best colts are selected by the Chief Rider to be trained as Riding School stallions from the age of four; others are gelded, schooled and then sold as wonderful riding or carriage horses. The best fillies, of course, join the broodmare band.

Mares and foals at the Federal Stud
Mares and foals at the Federal Stud

It takes about six years for the stallions at the school to be ready to take part in the quadrille – for most of them, that is where their training is complete. Only very few, particularly talented and sensitive stallions master the ‘airs above the ground’ movements: the levade, the courbette and the capriole.

It isn’t all work and no play for the Riding School stallions though – the school has summer stables in the south of Austria, where the stallions go for seven weeks of relaxation. There, they live in paddocks (yay!), don’t do any schooling (double yay!) and go hacking in the forest (triple yay!). The summer stables is also where the stallions go to retire, at around the age of 25.

Airs above the ground

The levade is the first high school movement (image

Levade: this is the first ‘high school’ movement taught, and is the basis for the others, though strictly speaking it’s not an air above the ground! It’s a real test of strength and balance, and looks like a very controlled, sustained rear – the horse raises his forehand off the ground and tucks his front legs up evenly. Not many horses are capable of a good quality levade!

The capriole is the hardest of the airs (Image: Spanish Riding School)

Capriole: this word means ‘leap of a goat’ which will give you some idea what it looks like! The horse jumps from a levade straight up in the air, kicks out with the hind legs, then lands with all four legs on the ground. It is the hardest of the airs above the ground, and requires an enormously powerful horse to perform it correctly.

The corbette - a series of hops from a rear! (Image: Spanish Riding School)
The corbette – a series of hops from a rear! (Image: Spanish Riding School)

Corbette: in this movement, the horse goes into levade, then jumps forward on his hind legs, in a series of ‘hops’. Extremely strong and talented horses can do five or more leaps foward before having to touch down with their forelegs.

So, you wanna be a rider at the Spanish Riding School?

It won’t be easy! It takes around 12 years to become a fully qualified Rider at the school, and many give up along the way. After passing the entrance exam, you start as a Eleve (cadet), reporting to the Stable Master, and your duties are mainly caring for the horses and their equipment – every strap and buckle must shine! For about four years, you are only allowed to ride on the lunge (without stirrups or reins!) on a fully trained school stallion. After that time, the Chief Rider will evaluate your progress, and you may then be promoted to Assistant Rider. You will then have a young stallion entrusted to your care, and you will be allowed to ride a fully trained stallion in the public quadrille performances. You will be personally responsible for your young stallion’s training over the next six to eight years, and only after that can you achieve the status of a fully qualified Rider.

The criteria for becoming a cadet are:

– Minimum age 16

– Ideal height around 172cm, slim build

– Athletic and creative talent

– Fluent in German and English

– Strong connection to horses

– At least basic equestrian skills

The next intake of cadets is this year, so best you start practising German now!

Boys only?

While the horses are all stallions, and traditionally the riders all men, there has never been an official ban on women! In 2008, two woman – an 18-year-old from England and a 21-year-old from Austria – passed the entrance exam and were accepted to train as cadets; the first women in 436 years!

Did you know?

Some Lipizzaners stay bay. Although they are not used for breeding, it’s a tradition for a single bay stallion to be kept in training at the school.

Facts & figures

Number of stallions at the school: 72

Number of workers at the school: 53

Number of riders at the school: 20 (2 chief riders, 11 riders, 3 assistant riders, and 4 cadets, called eleves)

Expected number of visitors each year: 300,000!

  • This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of PONIES! magazine