A visit to the Spanish Riding School (SRS) in Vienna, Austria, is a life-changing experience for most people whether or not they make their lives with horses. For dressage riders, in particular, it is especially moving because these horses and dedicated riders are our touchstone, our mecca—the sacred keepers of our system of training.
Documents dating back to 1572 refer to a riding school in Vienna. A few years later, Archduke Charles II brought Spanish horses to Vienna and founded the Court Stud Lipizza. In 1729, Emperor Charles VI commissioned the reconstruction of the riding hall, and by 1735, the amazing Winter Riding School, dedicated to the equestrian arts, was finished, and you can visit it in Vienna today.
Over the years, many people have worked to ensure the continuation of the SRS. During WWII, Director Alois Podhajsky put on a performance for U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton, showing the unique importance of the SRS and the Lipizzan horses. So impressed was Patton that he put the horses under his protection and moved them to safety. “We must live for the school. Offer our lives to it,” said Podhajsky. “Then, perhaps, little by little, the light will grow from the tiny candle we keep lit here, and the great art of the haute école will not be snuffed out.”
In 2001, the SRS and the Lipizzan breeding facility at Piber were merged into one company, and in 2007, Elisabeth Guertler became managing director. It is her job to increase SRS revenue without sacrificing the school’s integrity. It can’t be easy to be the first woman in the school’s 400-plus-year history to take this on, but take it on she did, and suffice it to say, she has fought off the naysayers. Today the school remains on a steady course. Here is what Guertler says about the tasks at hand.
Q: Can you give us an update on how things are going now that the school is self-supporting?
Elisabeth Guertler: It is a big task. Our income is the result of tickets sold for performances and morning workouts. Our gift shop has expanded, and we now organize guided tours around the SRS premises. We rent out our premises for events and organize others, such as fundraising dinners and our own big summer ball, the Fête Impériale. This is all becoming quite an important business. Of course, we also offer guided tours of the farm in Piber (in Austria south of Vienna) and also sell horses from there and from our training center in Heldenberg. Riders can come for training sessions. These are for people interested in enlarging their knowledge in theory and they also have the possibility to learn about training horses.
Q:Are these sessions mounted or unmounted?
EG: Participants can watch an apprentice being taught by a Chief Rider, but an experienced rider may also ride a fully trained stallion in order to see how to teach people. We try to organize groups from companies and associations for one week, such as the Association for Classical Horsemanship, a group of people who come from in Germany. We do this not on our premises in Vienna but at our training center in Heldenberg about 30 miles north of Vienna. (Find out more at derheldenberg.at.)
Q: What is the most difficult part of managing this large entity?
EG: Well, the hardest thing is that we only have a certain number of horses which are fully trained. So we can only offer a certain number of performances—a maximum of two per week, 70 to 80 performances a year. But this doesn’t cover all the costs we have. So this is a big challenge. Of course, we also try to get sponsors, which is a major task.
Q: How would you describe the reason for continuing the SRS?
EG: First of all, it’s a legal matter. By law, we have to continue the Spanish Riding School because it is part of the cultural heritage of Vienna. It’s not just a matter of whether we do or don’t want to. The SRS is owned by our federal republic but it has been privatized. The Spanish Riding School law says that it is an obligation to continue with classical horsemanship on the highest level and to continue breeding the Lipizzan horses.
Q: How many horses do you have in Vienna at any one time?
EG: In Vienna, we only have 72 boxes, and this is the number of horses we can accommodate here. At the stud farm, we have about 250 horses. At our training center, we have 27 horses that are being trained but also some of these horses are retired and don’t perform anymore.
Q: Why is it so important to preserve the Lipizzan breed?
EG: The Lipizzaners are the oldest European cultural horse breed. They have an excellent character, are very intelligent, learn easily and are ideal for families who want to enjoy riding in every situation.
Q: What has not changed at the Spanish Riding School?
EG: Classical horsemanship has not changed. And the breeding of our horses has not changed. And all the attention we pay to our horses has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that we must focus on ways to find additional sources of income.
Q: Is there a special time of year when you sell horses?
EG: We sell horses all year long. The prices differ according to age and level of education of the horse. You can find details about horse sales on our website piber.com/en/horse-sale.
Q: How are the female apprentices, or Éleves, working out?
EG: Yes, we have two female Éleves and they are doing quite well. One of them is here for her third year; the other one was accepted a year ago. It is working very well because the girls are very ambitious. They are hardworking and also seem to be quite gifted, so we are very optimistic that they will do a good job in the future.
Q: In the United States, there is a big push for dressage riders to wear helmets. What is the SRS policy?
EG: All our Éleves do wear helmets, but we have a mandatory way of dressing our riders. The uniform coat is dark brown with white buckskin pants and high boots. Riders wear this every day along with the traditional bicorne hat, which is also a kind of protection.
Q: Is it possible to have an SRS rider give a clinic in the United States?
EG: When riders give lectures in the United States, this has nothing to do with the Spanish Riding School. They are doing this as private persons. It is strictly forbidden to market the clinics under our brand name. Our brand name is registered and we have to protect it.
Q: What’s new at the SRS breeding facility in Piber?
EG: We have a number of very good horses there. When we did not have a training center and could only take a maximum of four to six young stallions to Vienna, we had to be very restrictive. But now with the training center, we don’t have to narrow down our choices anymore if we have enough good horses. For example, if horses are too tall—Lipizzaners for our exhibitions should not exceed 1 meter 58 (about 15.3 hands)—we can sell them. Our stallions featured in the performances are also for breeding and must be the right size. We don’t sell fully trained horses, only those that are under the saddle two or three years. By this time, we know whether they will grow or not grow or will be able to learn all of the difficult lessons.
Q: Do you have plans for the school’s future?
EG: We have a business concept which says that we plan to establish a second equipe of horses so that we are able to go on tour abroad while we continue our performances in Vienna. This would mean twice the income. Right now, we are going to perform in Germany, but at the same time we have performances in Vienna. This is quite a big challenge.
Q: Is the SRS coming to the United States anytime soon? Will you be at the 2012 Olympic Games?
EG: No, we have no plans at present to go to the United States or to the Olympics. We have European tours set up for this year in Saumur, London, Brussels and Basel in Switzerland.
Q: If you had a wish list, what would be on it?
EG: Well, I would like to have very gifted riders, and I want to have healthy horses. And I would like to have more space here in Vienna, but of course, this is not possible.
Find out more about the Spanish Riding School at srs.at.