Like a lot of little girls, my sister and I went through a horsy phase when we were growing up. This involved memorizing and showing off our knowledge of horse colors, and bringing home stacks of books with horse protagonists from the library, everything from The Black Stallion to Misty of Chincoteague.
Somewhere along the way, we found out about the Royal Lipizzan Stallions. I think Walt Disney might have produced a TV special about them, because I remember thinking that their exotic-looking, uniformed riders, and their even stranger performance moves, seemed far outside the experience of two girls growing up in Western Canada.
But today, I had the chance to see these horses up close and personal.
I had checked out the Lippizan performance tickets weeks before we left Canada for Austria, and found that even the cheapest one with a limited view was more than $250 CA. But, for only 31€, I could watch the horses during their morning workout inside the winter arena at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, and take a guided tour of the stables and the tack room in the afternoon.
You’ll have to rely on my words to create the images in this part of the post because no photography of the horses and riders was allowed during the morning exercises – although apparently this rule didn’t apply to some people in the crowd who blatantly snapped away, even using their flashes with no regard for the well-being of the horses and riders.
We sat up above the action at one end of the chandeliered arena as the horses, ranging from dappled grey to snow white, were put through their paces by their uniformed riders, strutting their stuff to the waltz rhythms of Mozart and Strauss. We’d been told not to expect to see any of the more strenuous jumps the horses can perform, but we did see some of the trot-pause-trot cadence they’re known for, and one horse doing a double-footed rear kick. The horses received lots of neck pats for their efforts and even sugar cubes, slipped to them from the pocket of a workout supervisor.
In the afternoon, I returned for the guided tour. I passed by the stables on the way in and saw some of the horses curiously poking their heads out of their stalls, watching the passing crowds.
The first stop on the tour was back in the winter arena, where we heard about the horses’ Spanish origins (they had to walk from Andalusia to Vienna in the 16th century at the behest of Emperor Maxillian II, which took several weeks). Also, although female riders are now seen on board, only stallions are used in the performances because the maneuvers they show off capitalize on the natural moves used by the males during mating and herd protection. And the horses don’t have to be pure white to appear in performances – the current solo star of the show is mostly grey.
One question I was curious to have answered: why didn’t the flashy arena carry any…er…horse aroma? The guide assured me that “anything left behind by the horses” was removed so quickly, it had no chance to perfume the air.
Just before we left for the stable area, the guide warned us not to hug, kiss, pat, feed or photograph the horses, a significant disappointment for all the children in the group, and the children in the adults as well. Many of the huge animals- they all stand 15 or 16 hands high and are known for their Rubenesque stature – came right up to the front of their stalls to say hello, but the most we could do was return their greetings in words, rather than pats.
The one place we were allowed to take pictures was the tack room. All the horses have their own personalized saddles and bridles, designed to custom-fit their bodies. One visitor asked if it was possible to buy any of the tack second-hand. The guide, only half jokingly, said he should inquire. Oddly, the Spanish Riding School receives no funding from the Austrian government, in spite of the Lippizaners being a national treasure.
After the tour, I saw some of the same horses I’d seen on the way in, back at their stall windows. The 8-year-old in me said goodbye to them and wished there was a way to sneak back through the now-locked gates. After all, one horse nuzzle with a Canadian kid couldn’t do either of us that much harm, could it?