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Gallop to watch Vienna’s famous dancing white horses

Meet the Lipizzaner stallions that are the stars of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the oldest institution of its kind in the world.

By Jeannine Williamson

Home to nearly 70 magnificent Lipizzaner stallions, Spanish Riding School of Vienna is based in part of the grand Hofburg Palace complex in the city centre and is known the world over.

Founded almost 450 years ago, in 1572, it’s the world’s oldest equestrian organisation and years of painstaking work goes into training both horses and riders to perform haute école, or high school dressage. The highest form of classical riding features spectacular ‘airs above the ground’ where the most talented stallions perform high leaps and jumps.

Most people associate the Spanish Riding School with grand gala dressage performances to music held a couple of times a month, where tickets can be costly and hard to get. But what they don’t realise is that you can see the horses for a fraction of the price during the daily morning exercise sessions and afternoon stable tours.

One-hour exercise sessions are held in the ornate Baroque hall where full displays take place beneath the glittering chandeliers. It was built in 1729 by Emperor Charles VI, of the Habsburg monarchy, when he wanted a winter riding school in the grounds of his palace.

Set against a background of music, both fully trained stallions and their younger counterparts practice their movements. It is a fascinating spectacle for all horse lovers visiting the Austrian capital and anyone interested in finding out more about the historic institution, its equine stars and their riders.

Oh Vienna

The school takes its rather incongruous name from the Spanish horses that were imported during the Habsburg dynasty and prized for their strength and spirit which made them suitable for the art of classical horsemanship. Today’s Lipizzaners are ancestors of these horses and bred at a stud in Piber, in the south east of Austria. Only stallions are used in the riding school and the mares are kept for breeding or sold to private owners.

It’s fascinating to find out that the horses are all born black and only become their characteristic snowy white (or grey in equine terminology) at the age of seven to 10. A few never change color and one ‘lucky’ black stallion is always kept at the riding school. 

It takes around six years to train the stallions, who are rewarded with a treat after completing the morning exercise sessions. Riders generally enrol at the school as teenagers, first working in the stables before embarking on their training programme which can take up to 10 years, with the chosen few going on to become chief riders. In 2008 women were allowed to join the Spanish Riding School for the first time.

Tickets for the morning session and afternoon stable tour can be bought separately or at a discounted price for both. In between, visitors can eat at the school’s café, which has an outdoor terrace, or head to one of the many restaurants or Viennese coffee shops nearby.

During the stable tour the guide explains how the horses are fed and cared for, which includes a well-deserved summer vacation in the lush pastures of a farm outside Vienna along with several other breaks during the year.

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Published 03.03.22