Horse sense: Lessons in trust from Vienna


He quivered and struggled the first time he tried it. When he failed, a mass of indrawn breaths pierced the hushed hall.  His handler whispered to him, then, with a light touch, encouraged him to try again.  This time he jumped, forelegs drawn, kicked out his rear legs and landed in the sand.  Not a high kick; nevertheless, a collective cheer ran through the crowd, applause echoing through the gallery.

It was at the Spanische Hofreitsschule (Spanish Riding School) in Vienna, home of the Lippizaner stallions, that I witnessed what can happen when there is a bond between horse and rider.


This year, PBS aired a segment devoted to the stallions. On a recent trip to Vienna, tops on my “must-see” sights was the Riding School.


Jet lag and cold November winds didn’t keep me from rushing to the 11 o’clock show. In the Winter gallery, visitors crowded the seats and standing room areas.  Below: a pristine, raked-sand floor.  Above: three large crystal chandeliers glittered.  After a short introduction, double-doors at the far end opened.  In strode eight horses and riders and faced the gallery.  They appeared elegant and stately.  Still, a horse is a horse is a horse.  And so, raising neat tails, several promptly fertilized the sand before flaunting their skills in the hour-long performance highlighting the Airs above the ground jumps of classical dressage.



A few days later, young Katarina guided us through the school, revealing   some of its history, traditions and requirements.

As a child, Emperor Maximillian II fell in love with the breed. In 1562 he brought 200 horses to Vienna.  Emperor Charles VI commissioned the school, built between 1729 and 1735 in the late Baroque style.  To keep the audience focused on the horses the interior design was kept simple with one exception –the Kaiser Salon (Royal Box).  A large portrait of the mounted Emperor Charles fills the Salon.    Tradition mandates that the riders salute it after entering.  “Most visitors that sit on the ground floor think the riders are saluting them” said Katarina.

Riders wear black hats, brown tailcoats, and taupe jodhpurs with gleaming black, above-the-knee boots. To my surprise, I spotted two young women among Saturday’s presentation.  The riders were lean and athletic.  Only the taut buns twisted at the nape distinguished the women from the men. According to Katarina,  women were allowed to enter into the centuries-old, male-only profession in 2008.

Currently, the school has 24 men and 5 women riders. To qualify, riders must be between 16 and 24, approximately 172 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) tall, fluent in German and have excellent dressage experience.

The training process is lengthy. For the rider, the first 4-5 years consist solely of caretaking duties.  After that, the “Bereiter Anwärter” (Apprentice Rider) receives a 4 ½ year-old stallion and 6-9 years of training begin. After 12-14 years the rider’s sole responsibility is his horse.

The school has 115 stallions. 72 stay in Vienna, rotating 40 horses every three months. Their fame rests on their ability to render three jumps –Levante, (Levade) Kapriole (Capriole) and Courbette.  Once used in wartime for defensive purposes, today the difficult stances wow thousands of international tourists. In wartime, the Levante protected the rider.  It is the most difficult for the horse to achieve since it must hold the position for several seconds.  The Courbette challenges the rider –he must hold still for many seconds; the pose also risks injury to the horse.

For their work, Lipizzaners receive two major rewards: 1) a yearly, 6-week vacation in lower Austria where they lead the life of a horse on the land — frolicking and being free, and 2) a pension, attained at 23 – 26 years old, with retirement in lower Austria.  Riders can progress in rank up to Oberbereiter (Chief Rider), carrying it into a pensioned retirement.

In the gear room, row after row of saddles in black and beige and white adorned one wall with gleaming name plates below. “The most expensive are black. They are made in Switzerland.  Each costs between 15-20,000 Euros” said Katarina.  (Approximately $16-22K).  Tradition dictates the horse’s names.  Six bloodlines trace back to the original stallion brought to Vienna.  The first name points to the father, second to the mother.

Katarina shared that 99% of the horses are born dark and over time develop into the white Lippizaner. Occasionally a stallion remains dark.  The school considers this fortunate — a “Glücksbringer”.  Legend has it that as long as one is born the school continues.  The current Glücksbringer is Maestoso Alma, born in 2010. That afternoon, Maestoso was frisky, sticking his muzzle through the barriers and nuzzling the stallion next door. Neopolitano Dahes, born in 2001 was also restless as was  Favory Fontesca II who paced, snorted and neighed in his stall.

Outside, as darkness settled on the quiet courtyard, one lone stallion poked his head out of his stall. I lingered, reflected on what I had just learned and recalled a day long ago.

In my mid-twenties I went to a stable.  I expected an hour of easy riding.  The chestnut mare was wise; she sensed I was a novice untrained in the ways of the horse whisper. We wrangled over which path to take. For her, the pleasures of the meadow appealed less than the comforts of home. After tolerating me for mere moments, she turned and trotted back to the stables with me, tongue clicking and shouting “whoa” to no avail.

So ended my first (and only) riding lesson.

Despite my failed attempt at riding, I admire horses — their strength, stamina, beauty and remarkable sense. In Vienna, I saw horse and rider perform a beautiful equine ballet. I discovered that mastery is achieved only after years of learning together, in the process, forging a strong bond of trust.  This was missing when, long ago,  I placed “the cart before the horse.”


A horse is a thing of beauty…none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendor.    Xenophon






3 thoughts on “Horse sense: Lessons in trust from Vienna

  1. vcaseyg

    I have always wanted to go to this riding school. It must have been amazing. I like your observation about your own riding experience and how you relate it to the school.


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