The turbulent history of the Spanish Riding School


The turbulent history of the Spanish Riding School


The first existing information about a precursor of the Spanish Riding School is dated September 20th, 1565: in a document to that date a sum of one hundred guilders is mentioned as being invested “to build the Thumblplatz in the gardens at the Purgkh alhie’”. An open riding and tournament arena was built in the location of today’s Josefsplatz, right next to the Imperial Hofburg Palace. This has to be seen as the first mention of the later Spanish Riding School. In 2015, the Spanish Riding School will thus celebrate its 450th anniversary.


Archduke Charles II of Inner Austria founded the Court Stud Lipizza in the Karst near Triest to which he brought horses from Spain.


More than a century later Emperor Leopold I commissioned the construction of a riding hall which was practically completed in 1683 but badly damaged during the Ottoman Wars.


In 1729 Emperor Charles VI commissioned the renewed construction of a riding hall, the Winter Riding School. In 1735 the famous building designed by Josef Emanuel Fischer von Erlach was completed. It has retained its original form to this day and is considered the world’s most beautiful riding hall.


Maria Theresia ascended the throne in 1740 and subsequently staged numerous carousels, masked balls, jousts and court festivities in the Winter Riding School.


It was not until 1780 that the horses bred at the Court Stud in Lipizza were referred to as “Lipizzaners” – until then they were called “Spanish Karsters”.


The Spanish Riding School as it is known today exists since the 19th century. The Congress of Vienna (1814 to 1815) and its international guests brought an abundance of new impulses. With the exception of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars resulted in the closure of all the European establishments which had until then practiced the art of classical horsemanship. Since then Vienna has been the only place where the High School of Classical Horsemanship has been continuously cherished and maintained in its true tradition to this day.


During the revolutionary year 1848 the first Reichstag convened in the Winter Riding School.


Emperor Franz Joseph was crowned King of Hungary on June 8th, 1867 near Budapest – during the ceremony he rode the Lipizzaner stallion Maestoso Cerbero.


For the first time Field Marshal Franz Holbein and Chief Rider Johann Meixner put down in writing the “Directives“ which describe the verbally handed down knowledge on equitation at the Spanish Riding School.


After World War I, with great personal commitment, Mauritius Herold and the remaining loyal riders ensured the continuation of the School which was henceforth assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture. One-and-a half years after the end of the war the first public performance took place. Since 1920 Piber in Western Styria has been the home of the Lipizzaners.


In 1925 the closure of the institute was briefly contemplated, but this brought on a national and international outcry of protest; that same year Rudolf Count van der Straten, the first post-war director of the Riding School, organized the first international tour to Berlin and thereby laid the foundation for the subsequent successful and popular tours of the Spanish Riding School.


In March 1938, shortly after the invasion by the German Wehrmacht van der Straten resigned. Alois Podhajsky, a major of the Austrian army and Bronze Medal winner at the 1936 Olympics in dressage became the new director (1939 to 1964). Alois Podhajsky wrote down all his knowledge and experience in his book “Classical Horsemanship” which to this day is a standard reference for dressage. In 1945 the School Stallions from Vienna and brood mares which had been evacuated to St. Martin in Upper Austria were reunited and transferred to Wels and Wimsbach in Upper Austria. 10 years later, in 1955, the Spanish Riding School returned to its roots at the Imperial Palace in Vienna and held its first public performance on October 26th, 1955, the Austrian National Holiday, which was celebrated for the first time that year.


In 1964 Colonel Hans Handler succeeded Colonel Alois Podhajsky; under his directorship the School celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1972. This date has officially been revised. Lorenz Mikoletzky ascertained already in 1985 that the date of foundation has been wrongly communicated due to a reading error.

On October 2nd, 1974 Handler tragically fell dead from his stallion Siglavy Beja during a performance. He was succeeded by his deputy of many years Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Albrecht, who among other things was able to improve the equestrian staff’s status. He also strove to meet the growing demands of the increasing tourist industry whilst at the same time maintaining the high equestrian standards developed over the centuries. He retired in 1985.


In 2001 the Spanish Riding School and the Federal Stud Piber were merged into one legal company and separated from the federal administration and made legally independent whereby the establishment is still wholly owned by the Austrian Federation. The two entities were merged into one legal company and a special Spanish Riding School Act charged the establishment with fulfilling certain duties for the public benefit. These include above all the continuation of the traditional breeding of Lipizzaners, the rearing and provision of prime stallions for the Spanish Riding School and the pursuance and preservation of the High School of Classical Horsemanship.

For the first time since its foundation the School’s Managing Director is a woman: Together with her Commercial Director Erwin Klissenbauer Elisabeth Gürtler manages this traditional establishment.


On September 9th, 2008, for the very first time in its existence, two young women started their training with the Spanish Riding School.


In 2015, the Spanish Riding School will thus celebrate its 450th anniversary with numerous festivities. Glittering highlight of next year’s celebrations will be two gala performances (and one final rehearsal) held at the Heldenplatz in front of the Federal Presidency at the end of June. In honour of this special occasion, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre) of Jerez will be coming to Vienna to join the riders and horses of the Spanish Riding School in an extraordinary display of classical horsemanship. One of these gala performances will precede the 6th Fête Impériale on Friday, June 26th, 2015.