Lipizzaner Stallions and Classic Dressage Still reign Supreme in Vienna

There are four classical riding academies in the world and by far the most famous is The Spanish Riding School with their unique Lipizzaner stallions, based in Vienna, Austria. For very nearly 350 years, the school has reigned supreme and been the centre of ‘classic dressage performance’. The other three are also Europe based – The Cadre Noir based near Samur in France, The Portuguese School of Equestrian Art and finally the Royal Andalusian School, both based in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Hofburg Riding School of Vienna

The Spanish Riding School was first started in the Habsburg era in 1572, and from its early days, performances were held in a rather ordinary wooden arena in the middle of Vienna. However, the school was not really established until 1729 when Emperor Charles VI commissioned the famous riding school to be built. He commissioned one Emanuel Fischer Von Eriach to design a riding school right in the middle of Vienna, fit for a King, with flamboyant and opulent  elegance as its theme. Using gold and white with a colonnade of pillars down each side with two huge chandeliers down the middle, the wealth of the Austrian Dynasty at the time was there for all to see. The building was named The Hofburg Riding School of Vienna. The architect came to the job with a wide reputation for style, having designed castles and palaces for the ultra-wealthy in Austria and France.  The result of Eriach’s work is still used today for weekly winter performances as well as a major Vienna Tourist attraction for the rest of the time. Tourists can often see the horses being trained on a daily basis when they are not actually putting on their weekly performance as they freely walk around the wonderful building.

The performing horses have always been from the Lipizzaner breed. They are exclusively bred at their own stud, Piber Federal Stud in western Austria since the stud was established in 1798. During the Second World War, the Nazis moved the horses to a stud in Czechoslovakia, and the horses nearly became extinct as the Russians started to win much ground from the Nazis they found the horses a good source for meat. However, luckily, the Americans came across the horses and saved them as the conflicts ended and they were returned to their former base.  The stud today is set in over 1000 acres, and has around 500 horses there at any one time. Like the Riding School in Vienna, the stud has also now become a major tourist attraction. Each summer the performing horses return from their Vienna base to the stud for a six week holiday.

Performing the ‘Levade

The Lipizzaner horse is an agile horse and is always white. They are always born bay or black however, and they retain the pigment even when as they grow older and become white. It is rare to see a black or bay older horse that is a Lipizzaner. They are small by most standards, only reaching a height of 14 to 15 hands high. (147 157 cms) They are compact with a deep jaw and have small ears. They are a slow maturing breed and it often takes a horse over six years to fully loose its bay/black coat and become completely white. They are not broken in until they are generally four years of age or older, and the performing stallions, (they only allow stallions to perform in Vienna) often do so until they are well into their twenties. It is not unusual for a Lipizzaner to live beyond thirty years. All Lipizzaners today are descended from only eight original stallions, known as dynasties. Six are from the old Habsburg empire regions of Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Northern Italy, while the other two dynasties appeared from the Iberian Peninsula when the Habsburgs had a little foray into that part of the world. In addition to the founding stallion lines, there are fourteen recognised female lines. To keep the names of the lines going, any foal of a Lipizzaner has to have both the names of its parents, and the name has to end in an “A”.

The salute

In 1983, the Piber Stud had a viral infection which wiped out 40 of the mares, but since then with modern veterinary techniques and over 100 mares, the breed thrives with about 80 foals produced each year.  More recently, the popularity of the Lipizzaner has grown and there are several studs around the world breeding the horses, particularly in Slovenia and surrounding countries. Apart from the Federal Government in Austria, who pay for most of the breeding and training of the horses, the Lipizzaner fraternity have come up with other ingenious ways to keep the breed financed. Anyone can now sponsor a Lipizzaner, paying a little each year for the duration of horse’s life.

Performing the ‘Capriole

Once selected as a performing stallion in Vienna, the horse starts its training at four years old, but usually is not fully trained until eight or nine. The principle of the Riding School is Classic Dressage – ‘haute ecole’. Each horse is trained in the usual half pass, counter canter, pirouette, passage and piaff, but is not considered ’trained’ until it can perform in the classical ‘school quadrille’ with at least eight other stallions. Further training, which includes the really hard and fancy stuff, usually takes another three or four years. The ‘Levade’, when a horse stands on its back legs at an exact 33 degrees. (Some riders can do this anyway – but at shows we have attended, this has not been the idea!!!) The second trade movement of the Riding School is the ‘Courbette’, which is when the horse performs the ‘Levade’ but then hops on both back legs together in a forward movement. The final movement is the famous ‘Capriole’, which is when the horse jumps from a standing position tucking his fore legs under himself and kicking out dramatically with his hind legs.

Together with the distinctive horses, the riders also have the distinction of their riding uniform for performances. They are always seen in brown tail coats, bicorne hats and white buckskin breeches. The horses are equally well attired with a special ‘school’ saddle, also made of buckskin and are larger than the normal saddle. They have gold woven into both the reins and breast plates. The stallions wear either red and gold saddle cloths, but for those performing the most difficult movements wear a green and gold saddle cloth.

Performing the Courbette

Lipizzanners have been in constant demand for performances in films. The most famous one was inspired after the release of the horses from the Russians by Walt Disney – ‘The Miracle of the White Stallions’. They also featured in the film ‘Crimson Tide’, the film about a US submarine which nearly started a nuclear war as it very nearly sank its Russian equivalent. There have been hundreds of books written and inspired by the Lipizzaner horse.

With all its history and fame, however, the stallions rarely perform at venues other than the Hofburg Riding School in Vienna, despite many attempts to lure them away from their home. They haven’t performed in the UK for example for 14 years. There are many breeds of horses which excel in some sphere or another, but there is no doubt that the Lipizzaner is the most extravagant and accurate dressage horse in the world. (Despite what the world warmblood fraternity may think!!)

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