The Spanish Riding School (practice session), Vienna

Morning Exercise1_c Spanish Riding School_Julie Brass

You know that we here at The Photographers Guide love animals, and that we try our very best to only support businesses and people that feel the same way. So when we mentioned to a few friends that we were visiting the Spanish Riding School in Vienna they were surprised.

“That’s like a circus isn’t it?” one said, whilst another said they’d heard the horses, during the course of training and performance, are forced to do things they never would naturally and that they’re trained from birth and never have the opportunity to be real horses.

Hence we’ll begin this review with a brief look at the allegations of cruelty that have been levelled recently against this school, not because we believe they’re justified (our visit has shown us otherwise), only that it’d be remiss of us to ignore them.

I’m a vegetarian, I adore horses, but the argument that the Spanish Riding School is cruel because they train horses from birth and don’t let them act like real horses is a little naïve, I think, for several reasons.

Firstly, almost every single horse in the world has it’s natural rhythm bent to the will of mankind, that’s the way life is nowadays. If you’re going to complain about the horses in the Spanish Riding School then you’ve got no choice but to complain about every single horse kept in captivity the world over. And that would be good, except you don’t, do you.

Secondly, this particular breed of horse – the Lipizzaner – literally wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this style of horsemanship. They were bred for this life, the natural qualities their ancestors exhibited in the wild were enhanced and modified by humans over the centuries; if the school didn’t exist, this strain of horses wouldn’t either.

Thirdly, supposing they did exist outside of the school, we must all understand nowadays that mankind does not allow any animal to flourish unless it’s either so small as to not be of consequence or living in a place where humans don’t live or most importantly, unless that animal is of some use to them.

There’s little doubt for me that, bearing in mind how most humans in positions of power act, that horses would have become just another source of farmed meat (like cows) centuries ago if we couldn’t ride them or make some sort of entertainment from them.

So when you look at a riding school like this you have to ask yourself, do I want horses to exist as something other than a food source, or not? And if I do, do I not have to except, if I’m living in the real world, that they’re going to be subject to a little bit of annoyance – not actual cruelty but annoyance – and that some might possibly suffer broken bones now and again (as they do in any horse race the world over)?

It’s harsh, and believe me, as an animal lover the fact that any animal can’t live freely alongside us hits me hard – but if this breed of horse wasn’t used for war and entertainment, do you honestly think they would be allowed to take up valuable living space and food that would otherwise be used for sheep and cows?

As for cruelty used during the training, I didn’t see it during this practice session. I saw treats being offered to the horses at the end of each set of exercise and I saw feint hand movements on the reins and slight flicks of the riders’ heel to change direction. It didn’t seem harsh to me. I certainly didn’t see any arched horse necks, pulled back too far to aid control, or horses forced to do things that were unnatural to them.

Unnatural? Well, the horse training methods in use at the Spanish Riding School are based on the principles of classical dressage, which in turn traces it’s roots back to the Ancient Greek writer Xenophon.  His thoughts on the development of horses’ mental attitude and psyche are still considered applicable today and in his essay ‘On Horsemanship’ he emphasized the training of horses through a process of kindness and reward, rather than getting the horse to answer to the whip.

In everyday language this means a horse had to be prepared to face the rigours of battle by encouraging and rewarding good behaviour. It had to get used to the different noises (often deafening) that it would hear in the midst of the fight, the change of pace that it’d have to run at during different points of the battle and the manoeuvres that it’d have to make whilst, for instance, jumping over obstructions – dead bodies, etc – and kicking it’s way out of tight situations. It had to be trained to deal with this calmly, not bolt from fear and only come under control if it were whipped within an inch of it’s life. See a Lipizzaner jump and kick at the same time and I defy you not to imagine a battle scene where the horse is penned in by hostile troops and, together with the rider, it begins the systematically kick and jump with all legs at the same time in an effort to fight it’s way out. Perhaps this isn’t obvious as you read this but see it in action and it’ll come to you straight away…

There’d be little point choosing a heavy horse for such duties; a breed that was light of foot and agile in the wild was ideal though. The horses that you see today at the Spanish Riding School are not there by chance; they’ve been bred for the past few hundred years because the characteristics they expressed whilst wild were ones that humans considered would be advantageous during battle. The way they jump, move and carry themselves whilst in the field, it’s all natural to them (every bit as natural, for instance, as a Border Collies ability to herd sheep). The only thing that was really needed was to bring about a situation where the rider could make the horse perform these natural movements on demand, and that is the centre of what we were to witness at the Spanish Riding School.

Morning Exercise2_c Spanish Riding School_Julie Brass

We collected our tickets a few minutes before the session was due to start (I advise you to turn up fifteen minutes early, there was quite a crowd waiting at the ticket office even on a cold December morning), took our seats and admired the hall, said to be the most magnificent riding hall in the world.

Winter Riding School_c Spanish Riding School_Michael Rzepa

An announcement asked that visitors should not take photos as it might upset the horses (this is something to take note of – not all tourists did and we felt this was a poor show indeed. All photos in this article were provided for us by the Spanish Riding School and we advise that if you want a memory of the day then buy a postcard or a book from the gift shop rather than risk spooking the horses), then proceeded to say, with a note of pride,

“…the practice will be accompanied by traditional Viennese music from our city, including Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and of course Mozart…’.

There was strong odour of horse circulating under the three grand chandeliers and the thirty-eight columns that flanked the baroque hall. The riders entered as they wished – there was no set routine for most of the session – and every horse had their manes brushed to the left. Each time they appeared the riders doffed their caps to the audience and then proceeded to exercise their mount. There was no sign of any mistreatment during the whole two hours as far as I could see, not in the reactions of the horses or the actions of the riders. One chap had a long cane which he tapped the back legs of his horse with to try to get the horse to close the gap between front and back legs. I was definitely close enough (row 5, ground level) to see that there was no heavy contact though, I doubt the horse felt it much more than we feel a fly on our arms. Rather annoying, obviously, and something that we would all react to, but nothing more than that.

Now, I know some might say that there may be mistreatment happening behind the scenes, as we’ve all seen documented on Youtube videos about circuses and amusement parks, but for me aiming this accusation at the Spanish Riding School doesn’t make sense. If you want your horse to perform well in a life or death situation, which is the thought pattern behind this style of training, then you’re not going to risk beating it, perhaps causing it undetected injury, or have it harbour a grudge against you (and horses can do that), when really what you need is a strong bond to ensure you both through the tough times.

Stables c Spanish Riding School_ASAblanca.com_Ren+® van Bakel

Several of the horses moved with a swagger, like boys bowling down a high street four abreast on a Saturday evening, whilst some kept their heads down shyly and yet others were quite visibly individually flightly at first, snorting and pulling at the reins. I know that feeling, I thought, I never liked being reined in either. But that’s the way it goes in our world I’m afraid, it happens to the best of us, you start out by wanting to spend your life sitting watching the sunset and all the beauty in the world and the next thing you know you’re pretending that your day job actually matters…

At the end of each little session (there were a great many sessions during the morning) the riders rewarded the horses with treats from their back pockets; sugar probably.

Work on the Long Rein_Spanish Riding School_Michael Rzepa

Most of the visitors in the balconies above us left after an hour or so but we stayed for the full two hours. I loved the cantering, the prancing, the grace, beauty and controlled power on show. There was none of the leaping that these Lipizzaner horses are famous for – they can’t do that during every practice session for risk of injury…

Capriole_Spanish Riding School_ASAblanca.com_Ren+® van Bakel

…but there was much to admire all the same. The grand hall, the beauty of the horses and the music, the skill of the riders, the civilised atmosphere.

It had been a relaxing, enjoyable practice session for us, kind of like going to watch your favourite team on the training ground, and at the end of it we left the building thinking

“Ok, great, we really enjoyed watching that, now we really can’t wait to see the real performance on Sunday!”

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