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The Arts

Defending the Age of Empire

Vienna’s Spanish Riding School carries longstanding traditions onward.

One by one, the pure white stallions enter the chandeliered baroque hall, seemingly unaware of the audience, lights and polka music. Evenly spaced, four walk regally to one side of the grand arena and four to the other. Upon passing the enormous painting of Emperor Charles VI, their riders solemnly remove their caps and bring them to their chests, in reverence of the man who commissioned this elegant space.

Then, it’s a single-file line through the traditional wooden pillars, a pirouette here, a canter there, the spring and kick of the capriole, the gravity-defying courbette, and the strenuous balancing act of the levade. All the while, the deft, unflappable riders offer encouraging pats and strokes.

Although the gallant horses are most definitely working for their keep, it appears they can’t get enough of the spotlight and the sheer fun. It’s as if they know they’re lucky enough to have been called to this oldest, most prestigious of equestrian academies — and they want you to know it.

Here in the heart of Vienna, the Spanish Riding School has proven its staying power since battle on horseback was still in fashion. Throughout the 450 years since its founding, the ambience and tradition have undergone little change: The same uniforms, music and horsemanship are on display for performances throughout the year, and the school is still considered a significant part of Austrian cultural heritage.

Indeed, in a city that today boasts boutique designer hotels, eclectic restaurants and trendy cafes, the Spanish Riding School — part of the Vienna Imperial Palace — insists on being a traditional emblem of the Austrian capital. Determined to keep it classic and regal, the school reflects the noble Age of Empire but with one admirable exception: A visit these days is no longer reserved for the elite and, moreover, can include a behind-the-scenes peek at how these majestic creatures are groomed for the limelight.

While leading a tour through the school’s adjacent stables, guide Christina Arthold explains the careful selection that takes place deep in the hills of southeastern Austria. Since 1920, she says, breeders at the Piber stud farm there have observed which among the Lipizzaner horses — admired for their intelligence, adaptability and willingness to work — would be best-suited for classical dressage.

In addition, the school selects only stallions. According to Arthold, they are unbowed by the rigor of intense training and the pressure to perform.

“They are natural show-offs,” she says.

Likewise, the Lippizzaners’ human partners embark on a road that requires patience, dedication and skill. Before they are allowed to perform, cadets spend up to six years learning not only classical horsemanship but also how to care for their equestrian charges.

Andreas Hausberger, one of the school’s two chief riders, began riding at age 7 with the dream of performing here. “Of course you have the Spanish Riding School in mind,” he says.

Applicants face fierce competition, says Hausberger, who began his training at the school in 1984, at age 19. Out of hundreds of would-be pupils, only one or two new riders are admitted each year; the school accepts applicants solely from the European Union; and women weren’t granted entry until 2008. Today, one female assistant rider and four women pupils train alongside the men.

Every stallion at the school stays with his rider till the horse retires; horses are broken in at age 4 and eligible for retirement at 25. “We are still the only place where the High School of Classical Horsemanship has been preserved,” Hausberger says. “We see the horses as partners.”

Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon first described this ancient art around 350 B.C. His treatise On Horsemanship dispenses thorough advice for selecting, breaking in, caring for, grooming, mounting, training and riding horses.

More than a millennium later, when the Moors invaded Spain, they crossbred their native Berber horses with Spanish stock. In the 16th century, when the Habsburgs ruled both Spain and Austria, the new breed was introduced to the latter; a stud farm was established at Lipizza, in modern-day Slovenia, and the horses were given their moniker. While their trademark is their gleaming white coats, one dark horse is always included in Spanish Riding School performances “as a good-luck charm,” Hausberger says.

So prized are these snow-white horses who perform the world over that, at the end of World War II, U.S. General George Patton cooperated with GermanWehrmachtofficers stationed in Czechoslovakia to protect some 250 Lipizzaners. Fearing that the famished Red Army soldiers would capture the horses for meat, the Germans asked Patton for help escorting the animals safely to Vienna.

Patton, brusque and no-nonsense by most measures, later reminisced about the Lipizzaners in his diary, noting how “ . . . it is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth.” He then added, “To me, the high-schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music.”

Watching the lithe, rythmic Lipizzaners train and perform, visitors are left with the same gratitude for the Spanish Riding School. Having withstood the whims of monarchy and republic, the school, its horses and its riders proudly carry on age-old traditions in a world that seems to change as quickly as a horse’s gallop.

Elizabeth Zach is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her writing on travel, arts and culture appears in The New York Times, The San Jose Mercury News and London’s The Independent.