Training at the Spanische Hofreitschule

The Lipizzaners’ Reitmeister Andreas Hausberger wants to share the famed tradition with riders from around the world

Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger and Shelley Stark | Photo: Julian Mullan

Photo: Julian Mullan

The Lipizzaners’ traditional morning exercises at the Spanische Hofreitschule; below: Shelly Stark gets instruction from Andreas Hausberger | Photo: Spanische Hofreitschule / Herbert Graf

The Lipizzaners

The Lipizzaners’ traditional morning exercises at the Spanische Hofreitschule | Photo: Spanische Hofreitschule / Herbert Graf

At the back of the Hofburg Palace in central Vienna, amid cafés, shops, banks and law offices, the smell of fresh hay floats over the air from the Stallburg, stands the winter home of the Lipizzaner horses. Here the white stallions train and perform for their devoted crowds, week in, week out, earning upwards of €6 million in ticket sales annually. Their workday begins by crossing the busy Reitschulgasse to the riding hall for morning trainings, where the public often queues up just to catch a glimpse as they pass. Others watch inside from the Lipizzaner Café located just inside the Hofburg’s St. Michael’s Gate.

Here, on a chilly morning in November, Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger takes a sip from his mélange and looks up at his visitor. His passion for his work flickers across his face. This is not just a skill, and it’s far more than a sport; the Spanish Riding School is a way of life, he explains, that plays a unique and vital role in upholding the art of classical dressage.

“Classical dressage is not just about a performance for the audience, it is about conditioning and training,” says Hausberger. It keeps the horse healthy – many are still performing at the age of 25 – and beautiful, as more weight is placed on the hindquarters. “Young horses put only 40% of their weight on the hindquarters,” he explains, “but through training, weight is shifted, so that by the time a horse is at Grand Prix level, he carries 60% of his weight on the hindquarters.” All dressage movements are done without a rider, and are natural to the horse, as a good wellness regime is to people, a kind of pilates for quadrupeds.

Photo: Julian Mullan

Shelley Stark gets instruction from Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger | Photo: Julian Mullan

The café windows overlook a small courtyard where the stallions cool off after their morning training. A brown stallion enters. Although the Habsburg royal family had bred for greys since the 18th century, several browns are kept in the stable out of tradition. Tradition matters to the Viennese, Hausberger says. “We Viennese speak of ‘our’ Spanish Riding School, our Opera, our Burgtheater. Art and tradition are part of the Viennese understanding of themselves.”

The magnificent Baroque riding hall, built in 1735 into the Hofburg Palace, is the world’s oldest riding school, representing 430 years of careful supervision and training of horses and riders.

Women and Foreigners – Finally

Until recently, its doors were closed to both women and foreigners, but all that changed when Elizabeth Gürtler took over in 2007. Gürtler is well known locally as the owner of the Sacher Hotel and organiser of the world famous Opera Ball. Her business acumen is what brought about the School’s powerful surge of financial vitality and modernisation. She welcomed the first women riders to the school in 2008, one American and one German, and recently introduced a dreamy summer ball, the Fête Impériale, to be next held on 28 June, 2013.

And now this coming spring, the epicenter of classical dressage will open its doors, to welcome qualified riders, professional trainers, and judges the world over to attend seminars taught by Chief Riders. Since their move in 2005 from the Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten to their new summer quarters, Heldenberg, just an hour from Vienna, the new Lipizzaner Training Centre has been an opportunity in waiting, its 81 box stalls standing empty 10 months of the year. It would be a classic win-win: strengthening the school’s financial base and spreading the tradition that is its raison d’être, prompting Gürtler to open the centre to the public.

The new facility is flooded with natural light. It boasts a vast indoor riding hall; large stalls with private runs, and highly attentive grooms. Both young stallions in training and older pensioned stallions reside here at Heldenberg.

As I approach individual stallions, I feel welcomed like a long lost friend, as they press their soft muzzles into my hand. There is no sign of shyness and no biting.

“Our aim is to be the focal point of classical dressage,” says Hausberger. But the institute will also offer classes to be held by international experts for dressage judges and advanced training courses for grooms and horse-shoeing, providing an excellent opportunity for earning credentials in these niche careers.

The Chief Riders will offer clinics for riders and their horses lasting several hours to several months. But just like an elite university, there are high standards, so riders will need to submit a video illustrating their level of competence before acceptance to the school. And if at first one doesn’t succeed, keep trying, says Hausberger with a laugh. He himself had applied to train at the Hofreitschule at age 15 and was turned down, and again at 16; at 17 there was no vacancy, and at 18, they said he was too old. Then, at the ripe old age of 19, the School called, and he was given the opportunity to “try out”, test-riding a Lipizzaner before the critical eyes of the Chief Riders.

As Chief Rider, Hausberger is charged with the duty to maintain perfect continuity and tradition in the Spanish Riding School training program. “The key”, he says, “is how information is passed to young students,” referred to by the term Eleve, adapted from French. After careful evaluation by Chief Riders, the Eleve advances to Assistant Rider, and is assigned a young stallion to train up to Grand Prix level and “airs above the ground.”

For the next six years, an assistant is under the supervision of chief riders, but the horses also play a role. A school stallion referred to as a “Professor”, “trains” assistant riders in the use of seemingly invisible commands. Wrong command, no response. This knowledge becomes invaluable to the rider when training a young stallion.

The Stallions Perform

To fully appreciate Spanish Riding School training, it was time to experience a performance. The Spanish Riding School’s Gala 2012 begins with three crystal chandeliers slowly rising to the ceiling illuminating the Baroque riding hall as a brown Lipizzaner enters wearing a Swarovski crystal covered horse blanket that was later auctioned at the gala dinner. This is surely horse bling at its best!

trainer and horses

Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger and Shelley Stark | Photo: Julian Mullan

As the white stallions enter, several give off a thunderous whinny. The riders ignore this and remove their hats, giving their traditional salute to the portrait of Emperor Charles VI. But from this point on, the stallions steal the show. Their white coats shimmer below the muted earthy tones worn by the riders. The stallions enter poised with anticipation, prancing in place, an elegant gait known as piaffe.

Many of the “airs above the ground” are performed with two handlers giving those invisible signals to the horse for a capriole, courbette or a levade. The concentration is visible, ears twitching and hind legs moving well underneath; one stallion approaches the spotlight, leaps into the air and kicks out his hind legs performing the breath-taking capriole.

For 10 months out of the year, the stallions live and work in Vienna at the Stallburg; their chiselled white heads poking out of their box stalls overlooking the open courtyard. But tonight is special: For this year’s fund-raising dinner and auction, the roof has been covered, the courtyard heated and filled with large round tables lit with towering candles. An orchestra plays waltzes in the background as the sumptuous five-course meal is served, enjoyed and cleared away, along with most of the wine.

As the auction gets underway, the crowd is clearly very mellow, except for me, as they are auctioning off a finely bred Oldenburg colt. My hand is itching to stretch up and bid on the Rosenkönig. I am never completely clear-headed when it comes to horses and ambience only serves to weaken my resolve. Should I… should I…?

The hammer slams down and Rosenkönig is sold for a mere €5,000. I am dismayed and relieved in equal measure. The auction continues as hands go up to spend thousands of Euros on the Swarovski crystal covered bling-blanket, a private riding lesson on a Lipizzaner in the riding hall (talk about a great photo op!), and a variety of other wonders, all donated by the rich and royal. In total, the Gala raised €100,000 towards meeting the School’s needs.

“Next year,” I tell myself, my hand will rise to the occasion. Because there will certainly be a next year and many years to come. The Spanish Riding School will always remain a time-honoured tradition of horses, art, beauty, balls, and galas. And now, just as people from around the world come to “our” Vienna to learn music, opera, and art, “our” Spanish Riding School will again open its doors and share the beauty of perfected horsemanship with the world at the Lipizzaner Training Centre Heldenberg.

Spanische Hofreitschule
1., Michaelerplatz 1
(01) 533 90 31

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