Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spanish Riding School

Last Sunday we attended a performance of the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I remember seeing them on the Walt Disney Show in the 1960s, but that's no comparison to seeing them in person.

The show lasts just over an hour. First music, then a moderator walks out on the floor and explains the next act in German and English. Then the horses and riders enter. The riders take off their hats in unison to honor the Spanish Riding School founder, Emperor Charles IV (whose painting is on the wall facing them). The first exercise was for the young stallions and riders to show the elementary steps.

What's most striking is realizing that these are living animals, they have personalities and minds of their own. The horses and riders work closely together, riders train their own horses for years. Actors never want animals on stage because you can never be sure what they will do. But here, horses and riders work together as partners.

At the end of each act the horses and riders leave, the moderator walks back out onto the floor and explains the next act. Then another set of riders and horses comes out. The program (pdf) is great, it lists the horse's names first (on the left side) and then their riders. In true Austrian style the riders have titles based on their experience.

We went with my wife's godchild (10 years old) and her mother Susan. They both love horses and Susan is an expert trainer. After the show she said that it was clear that the horses were extremely well cared for and trained. She seemed most impressed with the time the school takes; many "sport" horses end their career after only a few years.

In the second act a set of more experienced horses and riders performed all the main steps. Third was hand work, in this exercise the 'riders' walk along side the horses as they go through their steps. Fourth was Pas de Deux, two "senior" horses with riders performed a dance together, mirroring or complimenting each other in time with the music.

All the acts are set to recorded music by Mozart, Handl, Chopan, Schubert and others. Interesting to me was that the audience is almost silent during the performance - often more silent than in some classical concerts I have attended.

The fifth act was "on the long rein," in this exercise the riders were once again on the ground and the horses performed a set of stands and jumps. The sixth act was a highlight, five horses and riders performed a series of stands and jumps. Again, as the moderator pointed out, it is fascinating to see the horses react to each other; when one horse made a jump or stand you could see that the others wanted to do one too.

The final act was the Quadrille. Eight horses and riders performed a choreographed set of movements. This is what you often see on television, but it's fascinating in person. Amazing to see eight horses and riders dancing as if they were as light as a feather.

I highly recommend this show, even for a non horse person it was truly impressive. You are witnessing history, no where else can you see this type of riding in such a beautiful hall. It's expensive; we paid over 80 Euros for a children's ticket (with 20% discount) and we adults stood for 26 Euros each. But, it's worth it. They have full performances a couple times a week, but they are open Tuesday to Saturday morning from 10-to-12 noon for morning exercises, not a real show, but accompanied by music (I will try to go and blog on it again). They also have tours of the stables and "back stage" areas during the afternoon. Book ahead for a performance on the internet if at all possible and I recommend splurging on good seats (our standing place view was obstructed a bit), how many times will you have a chance to see living history?

After the show we enjoyed a nice coffee in the courtyard cafe. My wife said she needed to simply sit calmly so she could absorb the beauty and harmony we had just experienced before heading back out on Vienna's bustling streets.

My Spanish Riding School flickr photos are from this visit and also a dinner I attended several months ago in the building, so they give a horse's eye view. Here's a YouTube video of the Spanish Riding School building. Note that there are no horses in any of the photos or video since taking photos disturb them during the performance.

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