Family Day at The Spanish Riding School, Vienna

This Spring we visited Vienna with our two young daughters. As always, I did my best, to plan an itinerary that combined historic sites, fun activities and sporadic blocks of free time to be spontaneous (or rest, which is often necessary for the kids!). Traveling abroad with young children can be challenging, and there is no guarantee that the plans you make with them in mind will be received as well as you had hoped. But keeping their ages and specific interests in mind when planning has always proven to be a step in the right direction for me. During our family trip to Ireland in August 2012, my daughters went horseback riding for the very first time and since then, they have had a love affair with the sport and everything horse-related and have become avid riders.. Knowing my daughters’ passion for all things equine, I decided to plan a visit to The Spanish Riding School while in Vienna.

The Spanish Riding School’s Winter School is located at the Hofburg Palace, in the heart of Vienna. If you are not familiar with this world-renown place and the famous Lipizzaner Horses, allow me to enlighten you about the oldest riding school of its kind in the world. It is believed to date back as far as 1565 when a wooden riding arena was first commissioned. In 1729, Emperor Charles VI commissioned the building of the “plain” riding hall that is still used today. I say “plain” because, as we learned during our visit, this is precisely how architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, was told how to design the riding hall. I can attest to the fact that it is anything but plain, for it is elegant and full of architectural details! Prior to visiting Vienna, I was remotely familiar with the Lipizzaner Horses, but not the riding school. I knew of these beautiful regal-looking “white” horses that prance and dance gracefully, but, that was the extent of my knowledge. After some research and armed with the fact that my girls LOVED horses, I decided to buy tickets to both the Morning Exercises and The Spanish Riding School Tour. I figured I would learn a thing or two and so would the girls! Excitedly, I told my daughters about the visit I had planned and some particulars about the Lipizzaners and was corrected, (quite snippy, I might add) with my pronunciation of the word Dressage, having placed the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Dressage is the highly controlled and stylized movements (or what I like to call “dancing”), for which the Lipizzaner horses are famous. Apparently, my kids knew more about this than I did and let me know it! Interestingly enough, I picked up a piece of scientific knowledge from my veterinarian, who told us that there is no such thing as a “white” horse; they are all gray, even though they may look white – just a little trivia for the next time you are among equine aficionados!

With the kids’ attention span in mind, we decided to break up our Spanish Riding School excursion over two separate days. The tickets we purchased were for a tour of the riding school and this included entry to Morning Exercises. We opted to take the tour first, since it would bestow on all of us, history and knowledge to better appreciate what we would be observing during the exercises – not to mention, a close-up and personal look at the horses! Our day started off with lots of energy and excitement and a leisurely twenty minute walk from our apartment towards the Hofburg. We walked past the Vienna Opera House and passed a wonderful statue of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which just captured the beauty and romance of this lovely city. Upon arriving at the Hofburg Palace (where the Spanish Riding School is housed), we strolled the beautiful grounds, admiring the architecture of the buildings and watched the horse drawn carriages as they clopped through the archway leading to the Spanish Riding School entrance. Our tour was at 2:00pm, and we were promptly ushered along with our group of about a dozen, down an outdoor stairway to an area filled with stalls, and then through a tunnel that led to another part of the building, where the horses and the riding hall were located. All along this walk, we were imparted with a great deal of information about why The Spanish Riding School was created and what remains the key characteristics of it today. The walls of the entranceway to the school were garnered with posters and newspaper clippings, one of which featured U.S. General George Patton on a Lipizzaner horse during a visit. Unbeknownst to me, The Spanish Riding School has its origins in military tradition and not for the “sport” of entertainment, which it is characterized by today. Back in Ancient Greece and in the post-medieval ages, when knights engaged in battle on horseback, they wore heavy armor and carried weapons all while maneuvering quickly as they fought. As such, training both men and horses alike to master key moves was preparing them for necessary movements and skills that were necessary for military horsemanship. These moves are natural to the horse, but through training, both horse and rider are prepared to work together. This was perhaps, the most surprising fact I received on the tour because I arrived with a pre-conceived notion that the training of the Lipizzaners had its roots in entertainment. Some history for you history buffs – back in the 16th Century, during the Habsburg rule, they found that the Lipizzaner breed was ideal for both military use and leisure for the growing number of riding schools for the nobility of central Europe. These horses had the necessary size, strength and agility required for both purposes. In 1562, Maximillan II, the Hapsburg Emperor, first introduced the Spanish Andalusian horse to Austria. The name Lipizzaner was obtained from the village of “Lipizza”, located in what is now modern-day Slovenia, which was one of the breeding villages for these horses during the 16th Century.

We saw and learned some pretty impressive things as we followed our guide. Arriving at the indoor horse stables was enormously exciting – these were star horses! The stalls were impeccably kept and walking so close to the gorgeous stallions was the highlight for our whole family. Each of these horses has its own special diet; a personal trainer and personal rider and, best of all, receives vacation time throughout the year to relax, romp and rest at the summer riding school in Heldenberg- Wetzdorf-Lower Austria. Interestingly, there are also black Lipizzaners as well! They are not as common, and therefore, considered good luck when they come along! We were not permitted to take pictures around the horses and pictures and video taping was also not permitted during the Morning Exercises either. The tour included seeing the tack room where the saddles and saddle pads hung perfectly along the walls, along with other items for the horses and used by the riders.The last segment of the tour was the Riding Hall., which is quite breathtaking. So romantic and elegant. Since there were no riders inside during the afternoon, photography was allowed. Our guide took questions at this point and my girls were interested in knowing about whether girls were accepted at the riding school. They were thrilled to hear a resounding yes. Historically, there were only male riders but in October 2008, two women, passed the entrance exam and were accepted to train at the school – these were the first women to do so in 436 years!

The next day, we returned early for the Morning Exercises. If you do visit, it is wise to get there early so you can get a seat around the riding arena. The view is fine from anywhere, but you may be standing. It is probably also wise to get your tickets in advance. For me, it was something out of a movie as the beautiful Lipizzaners enter the hall while watching from above in the gallery. With such grace and as if weightless, these magnificent horses with their skilled riders captivated the audience with each move they made. The atmosphere is further enhanced as the music of Mozart, Strauss and Schubert filled the air. I did not want to leave and we stayed for a full hour, caught up in the atmosphere of this historic place.

The morning exercises are from 10am-12noon daily and you are free to stay for as little or as long as you like. The visit would not be complete without stopping into to the gift shop (which we certainly did!) for a memory of this extra special place!