In October 2008, 17-year-old Sojourner Morrell from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., (along with a 21-year-old female rider from Austria) broke the 436-year-old gender barrier at the esteemed Spanish Riding School (SRS) in Vienna, Austria. She was accepted as an Elève (i.e., student or cadet). Sojourner enjoyed an incredible eight months in the SRS program and learned a tremendous amount about the legendary training of horses and riders; nevertheless, she realized that she was not suited to the lifestyle required and resigned from the SRS June 2009 to begin her college education. She still holds a special place in history as one of the very first females to be accepted to the school. That accomplishment will always be hers. Here is this American teenager’s journey and arrival at this historic dressage destination.
Sojourner had her first riding lesson on her seventh birthday. When she was 11, her family moved to upstate New York, where, under the tutelage of R. Jeffrey Lindberg, owner of Bishop’s Gate Farm, Sojourner focused on classical dressage as her discipline. She participated in regional shows, worked at the barn and devoured dressage literature during the six years she studied with Jeff. Included in her readings were at least two books by the former director of the SRS Alois Podhajsky. When the SRS toured the United States, Sojourner and her mother, Sydney, attended several of their elegant and inspiring performances.
In her mid-teens, Sojourner began thinking about having a future in dressage. As she explored this locally, she also looked at opportunities outside the United States. She holds dual citizenship with the United States and the European Union and speaks German and French. At 15, she secured a summer grooming and riding position with Leonie Bramall, trainer of German Olympian Heike Kemmer. The following spring, she spent one semester at the Waldorf School in Germany, further enhancing her command of the German language. During that trip, she visited the SRS with her mother while on vacation. They took a backstage tour of the stables, tack room and performance hall. The tour conveyed the history of the classical dressage school, founded by a succession of Habsburg nobility and the development of the Lipizzaner breed. During this tour, Sojourner inquired if the SRS might be open to female applications and learned that it would.
Back home, Sojourner continued high school as a junior at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs. Meanwhile, she planned to take the fall semester of her senior year in Lausanne, Switzerland. At this time, she submitted a written application in German and a video recording of her recent dressage tests to the SRS. Why not? She reasoned and was stunned when several weeks later she received an invitation inviting her to appear for a performance interview–September 3, 2008, at 8 a.m.
Six weeks later, as Sojourner stepped into the revered halls of the SRS, she felt incredulous to be auditioning in the ornate indoor arena with three other girls and four boys chosen for the audition from 90 applicants. Three riders led three stallions into the arena, mounted them and briefly rode. Then, three candidates at a time mounted the compact white stallions and rode walk, trot and canter for 10 minutes while the director, management and the riders observed.
Sojourner speculates they judged the riders according to their potential and how they looked on the horses. The SRS written materials state that to be considered ideal, applicants must minimally hold European Union citizenship, have completed compulsory education, speak German fluently with a good command of English and demonstrate a strong affinity for horses and basic riding skills. Immediately following these surprisingly short performances, Ernst Bachinger, the school’s director, informed the candidates that they would be contacted within the next week regarding who would be invited to return for a month-long trial period.
With unanticipated time on her hands, Sojourner returned to view the morning exercises, during which horses and riders train daily. As she re-entered the school, Erwin Klissenbauer, SRS Manager, and Elisabeth Gurtler, SRS managing director, spoke to her and asked about her preparedness to devote herself to the long-term training program at the SRS. After her response, and to her astonishment, they offered her the one-month trial period, beginning in four days. Sojourner accepted and scrambled over the next few days to prepare for this remarkable opportunity. She communicated with her parents and school administrators, moving her possessions from Switzerland and securing local housing.
On September 9, 2008, she began her first work week with three other prospective Elèves. Two males and one female were given grooms’ clothing and assigned to individual grooms with six horses to learn how to clean and muck the stalls, groom the horses, pick hooves, carry and care for the equipment, tack up and feed the horses.
“The horses never have any manure in their stalls, which are lined with straw. We only have to clean out the stall once a week because of this system. It is quite good actually,” Sojourner explains.
A few days later, the prospective students had their first longe lessons, which are a hallmark SRS tradition. Apprentices ride all three gaits and perform strengthening exercises designed to increase the depth of the seat, balance, coordination and overall proficiency. One exercise has the rider holding the cantle of the saddle with both hands and swinging the legs forward over the horse’s neck until the heels click. Another exercise includes stretching both arms out to the side at the height of the shoulders and turning the body from the hips as far as possible in both directions. They also ride while swinging the legs into a three-quarters turn in the saddle ending in a side-saddle position. In addition, pre-Elèves practice vaulting, mounting and dismounting without the use of stirrups. In the dismount, the rider is required to grasp the pommel, swing the legs behind and click the heels before landing gracefully on the ground.
After several weeks of supervised training and evaluation, all four contenders were offered and accepted positions as Elèves. Much media fanfare on October 15 marked the introductions of the new Elèves to the larger world. Sojourner’s daily life at the SRS closely mirrors her initial weeks. Every day there is a half-hour longe lesson and, on some days, a private riding lesson.
“The reason I wanted to be at the Spanish Riding School over any other position is that the training for the rider and the horse are based on classical principles of dressage and equine development,” Sojourner says. “That means that our training is not compromised by the necessities of competition. We can focus on the horse and ourselves and develop our skills and sensitivities.”
It usually takes Elèves four to five years to be promoted to Assistant Rider and another six years to become a Rider. As they progress through this sequence, they assume the responsibilities and honor of training the stallions, performing in public and assisting in teaching the next generation of riders at the Spanish Riding School.