A cynic at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna

“Come on, dear, let’s go watch some horses dance!”

I paraphrase my wife there but that was the first time I’d ever heard of the Spanish (or Winter) Riding School in Vienna. Those Habsburgs sure knew how to have fun didn’t they: Commissioning ultra-realistic wax anatomical sculptures, setting up the best police force in the world, rampant in-breeding, attempting to unite half the world under one monarchical dynasty, et cetera, et cetera. Well it turns out that Vienna’s daintiest attraction is actually pretty good.

The hard sell

Kristina told me she really wanted to go and see Vienna’s ‘legendary’ Lipizzan display. As she had bought me the trip to Vienna as a present who was I to say no? I had a quick look and reserved some tickets on-line. The cheapest ones were still €23 so it isn’t a cheap event. I did a bit of reading and managed to fathom that these horses are magical because they dance the most difficult horse-dance in the world. The School Quadrille. “Ooooooooooo” I said, underawed.

Getting there

Fast forward six months and we were wandering around Vienna following our noses towards the stables. You can smell these fleet-footed phillies from quite a distance. And yeah I know they are all males, not females, but stallion doesn’t alliterate with fleet-footed so lay-off, okay? They are quite handsome animals, as horses go. They have a bearing and posture that looks like it was inherited directly from classical sculpture. Immediately I began to sense that there might be something to this silliness other than pageantry and tourist trappings. The box office for the Winter Riding School, situated in the Hofburg Palace complex, is actually located just north of the stables, underneath the cupola overlooking the circus full of horse and carriage rides. Those horses are also pretty, as horses go, but not of the same calibre.

One stabled Lipizzan horse at the Winter Riding School, ViennaA quick note on the Lipizzan horses and the show: They were brought to Europe via the invading Moors into Spain in the 7th Century. Ever since then Spain has rocked between ruling dynasties but the Lipizzan (also called the Lipizzano in Italian) remained a stalwart of their cavalry. The Habsburg control of Spain naturally led to their interest and by 1572 elite horsemanship skills were being demonstrated to the Emperors and Empresses in Vienna. The current stark white hall where they perform was built much later, by 1735.

We entered a true melee in box office. Oh my word that was a lot of Crazy Horse people jousting with each other to get in the poorly demarcated queues. We found the rabble at the end of the desk was actually the line for tickets booked on-line so we perched ourselves on the periphery until it began to squeeze itself forward to the counter. Once there I had a moment of panic when the lady issuing tickets seemed to have no record of my order. I must have said ‘Booth’ in a funny way because once she saw my passport everything was okay and we were in possession of our passes to Strictly Come Prancing.

A brisk walk back around to the stables leads you to the entrance. The sullen ticket collector let us up the stairs and both me and Kristina let out a genuine ‘OOOOooooooo’ at the view on the inside.

Beautiful blue chandeliers at the start of the show at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna

Pretty nice, right?

Settling in

The tickets range from standing around the mid-level balcony to sitting in the royal box. Naturally we had standing tickets so we moved all the way along the edge and positioned ourselves on the balcony just behind some seats. As everyone else was doing. It was really busy in there but some seats were left unoccupied until just before the performance began. Some sneaky cheeky chancers decided to abandon their standing positions and stole some of these seats. Of course when the rightful occupiers arrived they evicted the interlopers, who found that they now had neither a seat nor a standing position because their previous position had been taken up by more standing arrivals. They did not look happy but more fool them! Me and Kristina had predicted just that outcome.

One of the blue chandeliers of the Winter Riding School still lowered.

The Slovak latecomers in the seats in front of us finally arrived and sidelined the two grumpy Spanish girls who had also trespassed. Unfortunately for the seat owners these Spaniards decided it would be best if they pretty much sat on their laps and forced their way to the balustrade, partially blocking the Slovaks’ view throughout. Not cool, señoras.

Watching horses dance

After all this kerfuffle the start of the show was heralded by the chandeliers suddenly starting to rise to the ceiling, the lights turned from blue to bright white, and then a recording of a woman’s voice started to lay down the order of the show. First in German, then in English. We were to see four separate displays which would demonstrate the steeds’ and riders’ mastery of classical horsemanship. The first display would be entirely composed of young horses, under four years old, with riders of various seniorities. These ranks are displayed by the number of gold bands around the outside of the saddle cloth. Two for a normal rider, three for a master, with an entirely gold cloth reserved for the head rider, though we never saw the latter.

Before and after the lights change colour at the Spanish Riding School

So beside the tip to stake out your watching position early, and stick to it, I would say you need to watch out for the three-banded riders most of all. They are clearly superior.

A woman above the royal box at the Spanish Riding SchoolThe woman’s voice droned on for several minutes before telling us to expect perfection of style and symmetry. “Perfection, eh? Well I’ll be looking for just that then.” said my brain as it put on its glasses and sat back with a pipe in its mouth.

The young horses came out to much applause as the riders raised their caps to the huge portrait of the Emperor at the end of the room. And then they started whizzing around the room in figures of eights and zig-zags, performing ‘ground’ displays of legwork. Scuttling like crabs etc. I happily concede that they are very talented horses and riders. The disembodied voice had warned us that the youthful high-jinks of some horses can lead to disruption, and so we observed with some snorting, rearing, and general tail swooshing. However, perfection and symmetry completely in time with the music? No. Not at all. But it was still very entertaining. At one point I found myself barely stifling a laugh when I watched one horse skipping across the room as if it had been trained by John Cleese.

The Spanish Riding School, Vienna, from WikipediaThe second performance was for horses more suited to ‘air’ work, meaning pirouettes and funny little jumping kicks. Audible gasps of admiration filled the shining room. Again, very impressive that you can persuade a horse to do this at all. And most admirable that the riders never needed to beat their wards. Each winter the riders go to the forests and cut their own sapling to be used as a riding crop. The only time I saw them being used was to gently tap the hocks of the horses to get them to rear up at the right moment. The horses pulled off the balance and poise excellently.

Section number three was an individual performance by a standard rider. There were (I think) two distinct sections to his routine and the public kept clapping well before he was finished – look out for the cap raise to signify the end. The horse in question behaved itself most of the time but would occasionally try to reverse for some reason. Overall another entertaining show.

In fact it was so entertaining that several people spent almost the entire thing being told off for taking photographs. Crap photographs at that! Flashes were strictly outlawed because they would distress the horses so I bet hardly a single image will have come out well from the various mobile phones pointed at the sawdust arena.

The Spanish Riding School seen from above

Copyright: Jesús León

The School Quadrille is supposed to be the most difficult horse dance in the world. It forms the fourth segment. Out came eight more horses. My cynical judging eyes were wiped and popped into their sockets, and so they began. It really is a thing of beauty. The coordination is very, very, good and the effect is a lot like watching an Olympic gymnast twirling tapers around herself. The horses cross over within centimetres of each other, often with their noses right up each other’s arse, but there was almost no complaint or stutter to the display. It wasn’t perfect but to be honest I never expected that, I just wanted to prove to myself that the ‘voice’ was wrong. They are animals and you have to expect that they don’t actually give a monkeys or have a clue about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They are proudly elite though. By the end of the School Quadrille I ‘got’ the hype and gave credit where it was due.

Dissection, perception, and respect

Cacophonix the Bard from AsterixAnyone who has played Wii Sports or Guitar Hero should, I hope, be aware of the massive perception gap between what you do with the controller and what the game decides to show you in response. You swipe at a tennis ball and you serve a searing ace pass your juddering opponent. What skill! What finesse! You hit the three or four necessary coloured buttons on your plastic guitar and suddenly you’ve blazed through Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’ with nary a note wrong. Bravo! But alas you are just not that skilful. It’s an illusion, theatre. You think you are a Guitar Hero, but you are not. Pick up a real guitar with these skills and you become Cacophonix the bard.

In the same way I think because you are told to expect perfection you buy into the expectation of that being the case, the sense of awe in such a fantastic room does nothing to detract from that feeling. Because it is so alien to our normal environment you have a different perception of everything around you. There were occasions when certain horses moved in an almost supernatural way. They did genuinely seem to understand what they were doing, these horses stole your attention but when you looked at others you would see the imperfections glaring back at you with grunts and whips of the tail.

Maybe I was being too harsh but I’m not one to buy into hyperbole and rampant assertion. Nevertheless I came away from the Spanish Riding School with a genuine respect for the horses and the riders. Is it worth the €190 maximum ticket price? Absolutely and unequivocally no. You’d have to be a complete horse nut to believe it is! But is it worth €23 for a standing place? Yeah I’d say so, I cannot put it any better than saying that I would go again, and find an even better place to stand.

If you’re going to visit Vienna then get some tickets far in advance for the Winter Riding School and see for yourself. Let me know what you think.

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