When I was growing up, I was totally horse crazy. If I wasn’t at school or sleeping, you could find me at the barn. Imagine my excitement when Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions came through the nearby town of Salisbury, Maryland. They weren’t quite the same as the world-famous stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, but they did the same tricks. Luckily for me, I won tickets to see the Lipizzan stallions perform through a radio trivia contest. The question was “what was the name of Alexander the Great’s horse?” I immediately shouted out “Bucephalus!” but I was too shy to call so I made my mom do it.
And boy, was the performance awesome. The horses really seemed to be dancing and did the amazing airs above the ground, where they leap into the air in a series of gravity-defying movements.
So when we decided we’d go to Vienna, I suddenly remembered my childhood experience watching the Lipizzaners. I knew I needed to see them in their home arena, so I contacted the riding school to see if I could make it happen.
The Spanish Riding School offered Jeff and I tickets to the morning exercises, which we gladly accepted.
Image by Herbert Graf, courtesy of the Spanish Riding School
The Spanish Riding School was established in 1572 during the Austrian Empire. It’s the oldest riding school of its kind in the world. The Winter Riding School, pictured above, where the morning exercises and the performances take place, was completed in 1735. The school takes its name from the Spanish stock used to create the Lipizzan breed, which is now exclusively used here. All the horses ridden are stallions, and they all come from the Piber Federal Stud.
The morning exercises are more or less what they sound like; a time when horses and riders can get practice every morning. They are held to music and in the hall where they will later perform, presumably to get the horses and riders used to it.
During the morning exercises, the horses were brought out in groups of five to be schooled. What was practiced varied based on the level of training of the horse and rider.
We saw plenty of instances of movements typical of the Olympic Grand Prix dressage test, such as piaffe and passage (both very collected and elevated trots; the piaffe is done in place), flying changes, pirouette and half pass (the horse moves across a diagonal, sideways and forward at the same time).
A couple of the more advanced stallions were being worked in hand (meaning the rider was on the ground). We got to see a couple of instances of the levade and one very special instance of the capriole, probably the most impressive thing a horse can be trained to do. In this movement, a horse jumps straight into the air, kicks its back legs, and lands on all of its legs at once.
We also saw some of the younger stallions being worked. In the title of this post I called the Lipizzaners the “white stallions,” but that’s not quite right. In horse terms, they’re actually gray, white as they may look.
A gray horse, interestingly, is born a different color. In the case of Lipizzaners, they’re usually born black or bay (aka dark brown). They then lighten as they get older – generally for this breed they will have fully white hair by 6-10 years of age. You can tell a gray horse from a white horse because a gray horse’s skin is black, while a white horse’s is pink (plus they are born white).
So if you go see the morning exercises at the Spanish Riding School, you may see some stallions that are varying shades of gray, or white with a little bit of gray. Now you know that these are the younger horses.
Overall, the morning exercises will give you a great taste of what you would see in a performance while remaining doable for most people’s budgets. If you are really keen on seeing the stallions perform, I think it’s worth the money but be sure to book well in advance. If you arrive in Vienna unexpectedly or simply can’t afford the performance, the morning exercises are a good way to still see the stallions and sit in the Winter Riding School. You don’t need to book in advance, but do make sure to get there a bit early if you want a good seat; the box office opens at 9.
- Price: The morning exercise is €14, combine it with a guided tour for €28. Performances can vary from €23 to €158.
- Times: Morning exercises are from 10 AM to noon but it’s rather informal and people were coming and going the whole time. It happens almost every day but check the website to be sure there’s one on the day you want. Note that the school doesn’t work in Vienna from late June to late July.
- Location: Michaelerplatz 1
- Buying tickets: Get your tickets at the visitor center which is open Tuesday through Sunday 9 AM to 4 PM. You can buy tickets in advance if you want.
Have you heard of the Lipizzan stallions? Would you want to attend a morning exercise session?