It is a warm summer evening and the tiered seats overlooking a sandy arena are aflutter with people waving hand fans, only stopping briefly to applaud for the brass band playing a rousing tune. Minutes later, when the band exits, an excited clip-clop rings through the air. Silky manes whoosh and a group of grey and dark horses and adorable foals trot into the arena. They peek around mischievously, lapping up the attention while responding to the commands of the rider in the centre, who has them stop, start and change direction. This is the annual Lipizzaner Gala in Heldenberg, about 50 kilometres from the Austrian capital where the summer stables of Vienna’s renowned Spanish Riding School are located.
These young horses are the famous Lipizzans, who along with their highly skilled riders, are trained at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in classical dressage, often described as the art of riding in harmony with the horse. The Spanish Riding School is dedicated to the preservation of this classical form using Lipizzan stallions. It’s a show that attracts visitors from around the world.
The riders are impressive in their white breeches and gloves, brown tailcoats and bicorne hats which they sweep off their heads in a smart salute during the performance, the outfit mostly unchanged for two centuries. Traditionally only men rode here, but since 2008, women were enlisted too. “Each year around 400 candidates apply to be riders here. We accept two,” says Andreas Hausberger, chief rider at the Spanish Riding School. At the school, the riders care for, train and ride the same stallions through its lifetime. Dressage dates back to those smart Greeks who realised that a method of training was essential to help the horse and rider in war, one that relied on cooperation and trust. Moving quickly from side to side, changing direction or running swiftly were skills horses needed in battle. The art form was revived centuries later by the Spanish Riding School in 1729.
Bred at the Piber Stud Farm in western Styria, Austria, the Lipizzan strain of horses is named after one of the original studs, Lipizza, who was used to develop the breed. Hausberger mentioned fans of the breed in India, with the Maharaja of Mysore buying two Lipizzans in the 1930s!
Back to the show, after the first batch of playful young horses delight the audience, it is time for four trained stallions to dazzle us with charming pirouettes, piaffes (trotting in place) to the music’s beat, and what looks like a playful skip in their step, or a flying change, which is a complex move that requires the horse to change legs mid-canter.
Between performances by the Lipizzans, we are regaled by the renowned Vienna Boys Choir, a choral group of young male singers aged nine to 13, who perform often with the Spanish Riding School. The show goes on with sections like the pas de deux, with two stallions performing in mirror image. Yet another showcase is the “Work in Hand” display, in which the horses are trained for movements such as the levade, where it raises its front legs and balances on its hind legs at a 30-degree angle, and the courbette where the Lipizzan rises up on its rear legs, glorious mane flying, and hops across the arena. Most impressive of all is the capriole, a dazzling jump with all four legs airborne as the horses kick out their back legs before landing, all to the soaring strains of Viennese classical music.
But it’s the finale that I cannot take my eyes off. In the “School Quadrille,” reportedly one of most difficult routines in the world, riders and horses move together as one. It’s a balletic sonata and I silently nod to Hausberger’s assessment, “This is not just a training system. It is a form of expression, like opera, classical music, painting or dance.” (srs.at; tickets from €27/Rs2,200)
Reem Khokhar is a musical theatre buff, looking out for great shows wherever she goes. When not belting out show tunes enthusiastically in the audience, she enjoys homestays, walking around, copious amounts of gelato, and collecting Christmas tree ornaments as souvenirs from her travels.