A Lippizaner stallion on the "Long Rein" at Vienna's Spanish Riding School // Photo by Michael Rzepa provided courtesy of the Spanish Riding School
Last summer on a transatlantic cruise, I met an elderly Canadian guest who’d survived World War II as a teenager in what's now the Czech Republic and was headed home for a visit. Despite the decades that had passed, he still was emphatically vocal in his praise for U.S. General George S. Patton's actions late in the war, including his decision to help rescue the Lippizan horses from advancing Russian troops.
The guest's World War II-era tales, as well as Patton-related photos and newspaper clippings that he'd brought along on the cruise, reminded me of the 1963 Disney movie, “Miracle of the White Stallions.” In the movie as in real life, the horses were whisked by riding school staff from Vienna to the Austrian countryside for safety, against Nazi orders. But the Lippizan brood mares -- critical for the future survival of the elegant breed -- had been moved by the Nazis to Czechoslovakia, territory designated for the Russians to occupy at war's end.
After viewing a performance by the stallions, though, Patton, a horse enthusiast, was persuaded by fellow soldiers to authorize a rescue mission. Brood mares and foal were herded by American troops back to Austria, thereby protecting the breed's future bloodlines. To read a full account of the "rescue," check out this link on HISTORYnet.com.
Equine Experiences for River Cruisers
Many Americans recall the real-life story and wish to see the descendants of those World War II era horses perform "haute ecole," a Renaissance tradition of classical equitation. An easy way to do so is by booking a Danube River cruise that calls at Vienna.
The Spanish Riding School, the oldest classical horse riding venue in the world, was first mentioned in literature in the 1500s. Today, it's still going strong more than 450 years later in downtown Vienna.
During a recent AmaWaterways cruise, we strolled through downtown Vienna during a line-provided walking tour of major sites. Along the way, we traversed a street adjoining the riding school's stable.
|Playful Lippizaners in Vienna // Photo by Rene van Bakel (via ASAblanca.com) courtesy of the Spanish Riding School.|
Lingering for a few moments along the sidewalk, we "oohed" and "aahed" as white horses' heads popped in and out of the stalls. More than 70 horses reside at the Vienna school's stables, but cruisers typically have the potential to see a dozen or less peering out from their stalls along this viewing street.
To see the Lippizaners' skills on display, though, it's suggested river cruisers catch a performance at the Winter Riding Hall just across the street. Boasting impressive Baroque architecture, the hall was built by Josef Emanuel Fischer von Erlach between 1729 and 1735.
The Lippizaners are elegant horses of Spanish/Arabian/Slovenian/Neopolitan descent; they're born black, turn grey as they age, and become pure white when they mature. They arrive at the school's Vienna facilities or its Training Center in Heldenberg when they're four years old. It takes about six years until the horses are ready to perform.
Accompanied by classical music, the Lippizaners perform what's called “haute ecole,” a Renaissance tradition of classical equitation. It's a meticulously choreographed harmony between horse and rider; many of the moves are exceedingly difficult and take years to learn. The horse must have a skill set that combines athleticism with ballet-type elegance.
During performances, horses perform such moves as “Pas de Deux,” "the Long Lead" and “School Quadrille,” which involves eight stallions in unison.
|A rider from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and his mount soar in the "Capriole." // Photo by Rene van Bakel (via ASAblanca.com) provided by the Spanish Riding School|
In the so-called "Airs above the Ground," horses perform leaping and soaring moves including “the Levade,” “Courbette” and "Capriole" (shown in the photo above).
To get a colorful look at the Spanish Riding School's sights and sounds, agents might check out thisViking River Cruises video hosted by Karine Hagen, the line's vice president, and daughter of Torstein Hagen, owner of Viking River Cruises. It gives a good overview of the Lippizaner experience river cruise guests might enjoy when their ship visits Vienna:
Some lines have organized shore excursions that visit the school. Guests of Scenic Cruises on the 16-day "Vienna to the Danube Delta" cruise departing April 7, 2015, have a choice between three complimentary Vienna tours: (1) a Vienna city tour; or (2) a guided tour of Schönbrunn Palace; or (3) a visit the Spanish Riding School to see the Lipizzan stallions perfecting their skills during a morning exercise program or a guided tour of the riding school behind the scenes.
While Avalon Waterways doesn’t offer formal tours to the Spanish Riding School, a spokeswoman told Travel Agent that if a guest would like to arrange a Spanish Riding School tour or tickets, they should speak to the cruise director once onboard about setting up arrangements.
In addition, Karin Mayrhofer, press spokesperson for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, said visitors may make independent arrangements for performances and guided tours online at www.srs.at or via [email protected].
|The Lippizan stallions parade in formation within the magnificent Baroque-style Winter Riding Hall at the Spanish Riding School. // Photo by Rene van Bakel courtesy of Spanish Riding School.|
The school itself has many touring options. For example, a guided tour will take guests to the Winter Riding Hall to see the Baroque architecture; the Summer Riding School, located in a quiet and shady courtyard of the Imperial Palace which also has the world’s largest oval horse walker; and the Stallburg, a Renaissance building with an arcade courtyard and the historical stables mentioned above.
A relatively new architectural tour will provide access to the Winter Riding Hall's Baroque-era roof structure and other previously inaccessible areas of the school. The architectural tour is usually offered only once weekly, but individual arrangements can be made. Another tour combines two iconic Vienna experiences -- the Spanish Riding School and Vienna Boys' Choir.
If clients don't want to attend a full performance of the Lippizaner stallions but want to get a sense of their skills and training, it's fun to watch the "morning exercise" between 10 a.m. and noon. Accompanied by music, horses and riders undertake relaxation and muscle exercises aimed at perfecting certain movements.
Not all the most difficult movements are done daily, though, to avoid strain on the horses. Visitors cannot reserve tickets online for the morning exercise, said Mayrhofer, but she noted that tickets can be purchased at the Visitor Center, Michaelerplatz 1, 1010 Vienna.
Hint? The worst time to visit if you want to see a stallion performance is during the heart of the summer. That's when the horses are spending the equine version of "vacation" at pasture in Heldenberg, home to the riding school's training center and summer quarters.
"There will be no morning exercise and no classical performances from June 21 to Aug. 3, 2015," notes Mayrhofer. She says morning exercise will start on August 4 again, while the first performance after summer break will take place on August 15, 2015.
But river cruisers might enjoy the summer replacement program,“Piber meets Vienna,” which runs from July 7 to Aug. 2, 2015. Essentially, this program consists of a delegation of four-year-old, performance tested mares as well as brood mares and their foals from the Lipizzaner Stud in Piber, Austria.
Visitors will learn about the the horses' heritage including service as carriage horses as well as how today's Lippizans are bred, raised and trained. Historical carriages and uniforms are on display. Check out the details at www.srs.at/en/repertoire/programme/piber-meets-vienna.
In June, the school also hosts the Fete Imperiale, a Baroque ball, when the Winter Performance Hall is transformed into a ballroom dance floor for elegant soirees.
For more information on the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, go to www.srs.at/en.