The Spanish Riding School


The sound 








The Spanish Riding School has lived through wars and fires and, miraculously, survived them all. As the legendary school celebrated its 450th anniversary we travelled to Vienna to experience a mythic place.


By Camilla Alfthan, all photos courtesy of The Spanish Riding School



It’s in the heart of Vienna that the highest form of classical riding still takes place in the baroque building of Hofburg  underneath the crystal chandeliers of Karl VI. Here, riders bow in front of an oil painting of their former Emperour who also founded the capital’s traditions for music and theatre.

A passionate horse lover, Karl VI continued his predecessor’s popular horse ballets – Rossballetten –  which were also a fashion at the Italian courts.


The horses were the same, magic Lipizzaners that we know today – all stallions who are born dark brown and raised in the mountains of Piber, as they gradually go from dappled grey to snowy white while they grow older and learn to master the most demanding exercises.


Contrary to what one might think; the most expressive of them all were originally created for war fare. When the horse reared from the ground in a levade it shielded its rider from frontal attacks. In a capriole – where the horse flies high above the ground with all four legs in the air – it created extra space when the rider was surrounded by foot soldiers.

When two noble men met in a fight they approached one another in several leaping courbettes.


For the past centuries, the exercises have been a testament of Austria’s illustrious history performed as a horse ballet to classical music. The Spanish Riding School is not only the oldest riding academy in the world –  it is also the only place where the high school of classic horsemanship has been cherished and maintained for over 430 years.


As an important part of Austria’s cultural heritage the school receives thousands of guests for its weekly performances.


One of the reasons for its huge popularity is that it has survived countless ordeals – from having it’s buildings destroyed during the war against the Turks to surviving earthquakes and fires during which the horses were evacuated as Austria’s most treasured works of art.

The latest dramatic rescue took place during the Second World War and towards its end, it was General Patton who assured the survival of the academy at a time when its role was purely connected with a cultural pride.




Nowadays, the Lipizzaners only travel when they’re on tour to perform in front of large audiences.

One of its riders is Herwig Radnetter, 54, who grew up in the eastern part of Austria near the Hungarian border. Horses were always a part of his life. His family were saddlemakers and his grandfather was in the cavalry. His father rode horses and when he was seven or eight, Radnetter saw the Spanish Riding School perform for the very first time.


“I knew I wanted to do the same. It was simply beautiful. It opened up a way of working, riding and making a living with horses,” he smiles.


Aged 15 Radnetter left his family to become a part of the historic school. Today, he has specialized in doing the levade in the saddle and on a short hand rein.


“First we learn all the exercises and then we specialize,” he tells.”We each have seven or eight horses to train so it’s important to have a good mixture of young, medium and fully trained horses that we can use for the presentations.”



“If a horse doesn’t want to do a levade or a capriole there’s no way you can force it to do so. That’s why it is so important that we train them honestly and carefully.  We totally depend on them.” 



Work is rigorous and begins at seven o’clock every morning. As the Lippizaner is a little slower in maturing than other breeds the horses are started at the age of four. They live longer than most horses and the oldest performing stallions are around 25. They’re not as big as other breeds which means that the riders can’t be any taller than around six foot.

Their gaits are also a little bit higher than in traditional dressage horses which is why they are rarely seen in international competitions.


The exercises of the Spanish Riding School, however, go beyond any classical dressage programme and the horses thrive on it.


“If a horse doesn’t want to do a levade or a capriole there’s no way you can force it to do so. That’s why it is so important that we train them honestly and carefully.  We totally depend on them,” says Radnetter.


While the Lipizzaners originated from the Lipizza stud in Trieste during the time of the Austrian Empire they are now bred in the Austrian Alps in Piber where there are currently around 250 horses and foals.


“The place is beautiful – the horses grow up in 1,600 meters of altitude and that is a part of the reason why they are so strong. There are few injuries in their legs because they’re out in the mountains all day long,” tells Radnetter who trains the stallions in the same way as generations have before him.


When they come down from the mountains at age four, they are lounged and learn to get used to the rider’s weight. They walk, trot and canter and afterwards; there’s the selection of the horses that are assigned to the different riders. From here on they stay with the same rider until they retire. Radnetter’s personal favourite is Conversano Tiberia.


“Our bond with the horses is very strong. Just consider how much time we spend with them –  about 20 years with the same stallions six days a week. So it becomes a very strong relationship. They are a part of our lives.”


Riders in the Hofburg, photo © Stefan Seelig

Lined up


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