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One of the most unique shows you can see during your visit to Vienna is that offered by the Spanische Reitschule, or Spanish Riding School. With over 400 years of history, this prestigious institution has the privilege of being the oldest school in the world dedicated to dressage.
Created in 1572 by the Habsburgs in an effort to cultivate horsemanship, the school initially only used magnificent Spanish horses that were specially equipped for high-level dressage, hence the name of the school. At a later date, in 1580, the brother of Maximilian II, Archduke Charles, acquired some land in the Lipizza area near Trieste, in Slovenia, where he installed extensive stables and crossed thoroughbred Spanish horses with those of Karst. The first foals of the new race, the Lipizzaner, were born in the late 16th century. These supplied both the school and the stables of the court.
The magnificent stallions that have been part of the Spanische Reitschule since 1920 are currently bred on farms dedicated to this breed that are found in both Lipizza and the town of Piber, in the Austrian state of Styria.
According to an imperial decree from the early 19th century the horses in the Lipizzaner School must only be white, whereas previously other colours were also permitted. As a curiosity, you may be interested to know that these horses are often born dark grey, black, grey-brown or dark brown, though they become increasingly white as they grow up. Some turn white and at the age of 3 or 4, while for others it takes over 15 years.
The Lipizzaner is one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. Between 155 and 160 cm tall, they boast long, noble heads, broad foreheads and long, muscular, 'swan-like' necks. While the Lipizzaner is not the tallest of horses, the shape of their neck makes them more elegant. Their eyes are bright, vivid and intelligent.
About forty Lipizzaner horses are born every year. Mares with offspring graze in open pastures and, at the age of 3½, the foals "go to school". In their fifth year, on the basis of tests, breeders decide which of them will enter the training school and which will be neutered and used as tourist horses.
The extraordinary choreographed exercises performed by these animals are rooted in the classical Renaissance equitation tradition and include movements such as the piaffe and the capriole, which form part of what is essentially an equestrian ballet.
Another major attraction of the school are the surroundings in which the demonstration takes place, the Winterreitschule, or Winter Riding School. The building, built in the 18th century by Emperor Charles VI, was designed by Josef Emanuel Fischer von Erlach and is said to be inspired by the chapel of the Palace of Versailles. The monarch's portrait still hangs in the room where the show takes place and the riders show him their respect by saluting with their cocked hats.
Construction, which took place between 1729 and 1735, resulted in a beautiful, baroque, ivory-coloured hall adorned with plaster mouldings and crystal chandeliers. The enclosure, surrounded by 46 columns, is one of the most beautiful in the world.
The smart uniform of the riders consists of a black cocked hat crossed by a golden ribbon, a brown coat with gold buttons and white deerskin pants with matching gloves, and serves to complete this supreme demonstration of elegance in which rider and animal reach an incredible degree of communication.
The Spanische Reitschule remains one of the great Viennese icons, the love of which is reflected in the image portrayed on the 5 euro collectors' coins from 2006. Do not think twice. Do something different and go and see a show. You will love it.
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