The Spanish Riding School (performance), Vienna

On the day we saw the Spanish Riding School perform it was a full house. The ticket office was manic (so definitely pick up your tickets in advance, or you might well miss the start of the performance) and we were shown to our seats by ushers, who also offered programs.

The chandeliers were glowing violet as we sat waiting; we were just six rows back on the ground floor and only had one tall person sat  in front of us, we had a superb view and were very excited!

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A Japanese style gong boomed to introduce the start of the announcements. There’s to be no photography, a man said, and no mobile phones either. The chandeliers then rose towards the roof, their violet shadows climbing the 18th century walls slowly.

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The first performance was to be younger horses, between four and six years old, ridden by assistant riders. They appeared to the sound of classical music (the music of the performance was to be purely Viennese in style – Schubert, Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven) and were spirited, excited and lively, tossing their manes over white coats that were actually off white, as they hadn’t fully developed yet.

As canter turned to gallop and the faint thud of hooves grew to a thunder my thoughts turned to Tennyson, the Crimea, and then to a lad I’d met once in an cheap Cairo hotel, who held a book covered in burnished gunmetal in which was set am amber jewel.

It’d belonged to a soldier, he’d told me, a survivor of the final cavalry charge of the First World War. His unit had been decimated so he’d rode his horse back to his village only to find his family all dead. So he rode east, for six months. After many trials (it’d made for a fascinating story) he and his horse found themselves in Singapore, broke. There was a ship sailing for Australia, and the chance of a new life, and the only thing of value that the soldier had was his precious horse. Later he was to say that despite all the hardships of war, the most difficult thing he’d ever done was to sell his mount in order to board the ship.

On his deathbed he’d passed his cavalry officer’s amber ring to his nurse and confessed his sorrow, his last thoughts were of his horse. The nurse had in turn passed on the story, and the ring, to her son, who had made it into the book that he had in his hands that day in Cairo. It was an amazing tale, and one that came back to me now I was looking at these riders and their horses, who are surely as precious to them as that old horse had been to the French soldier.

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The riders rode out of the arena through the white barn doors that sit at the centre of one end of the hall, with red spotlights shining out towards us, silhouetting the horses. The second performance was announced, is was to be experienced horses and riders, with the first batch doing ground exercises (signified by the saddle cloths being green) and the second taking to the air (their saddle clothes were red).

Strauss the elder heralded them in. I’m certainly no dressage expert, in fact whenever I see it on TV I reach for the OFF button, but this wasn’t dressage. I’d say that, for me, dressage is to the Spanish Riding School style what Viennese palace architecture is to the ancient Greece that it takes it’s example from. It lacks style, it’s far too masculine and, sorry to my Viennese friends, the architecture there is rather vulgar at times, much like our own Buckingham Palace is. The performance that we were seeing though was full of grace, the high stepping horses, the natural movements, the extended necks, the slow trots that look like gallops from a head on view, the jumps and kicks…

Of course, there was the horror too, of imagining just why these movements were needed in the field of war, which is what all the training was for many centuries ago. The jumps for avoiding obstructions, such as bodies, and also for kicking ones way out of a tight spot, the change of pace and running slow but appearing to go faster to confuse archers and then gunners, no doubt.

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The crowd clapped rather too much in between sets. They were having a good time, sure, but it was a little much to applaud the chap who came on to clear up the horse poop. He probably just wanted to get his business done and slip away as quietly as possible.

Many people who were sat near me didn’t heed the frequent announcements and were taking photos all through the performance. Their fur trimmed collars were obviously obscuring their ability to hear correctly and obey basic instruction.

Jokes aside, if proof were needed that class doesn’t walk hand in hand with money then this was it. If you attend the performance yourself, please don’t be like the ignorant rich, please don’t take photos. It spooks the horses and your images will be rubbish as the lighting and conditions won’t allow you to take any good stuff, so why bother; just relax and buy a postcard if you need a reminder of what you’d seen…

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I enjoyed the different sets of actions, and the sound of leather squeaking in polished stirrup, and then the last performance started, a synchronised set that made use of eight horses and riders. With this I could finally see some very clear personality from the horses; some had a lovely swagger whilst others were happy to keep their heads down and get on with it.

After an hour and twenty minutes of brilliance the riders prepared to leave the arena. Strauss’s Radetzky March was playing so I steeled myself against what was surely to follow; audience participation.

I’m far from being a snob but I have never understood this need to clap along with certain pieces of music. It adds nothing to the occasion, it’s vile when it’s done at the Last Night of the Proms and it was vile here too. I shut down my ears and just enjoyed my last sight of the lovely Lipizzaner.

“It’s clear that there’s no cruelty involved here,” said Lamia as we left the building, “to me it looked like there was a friendly, even loving connection between riders and horses. I really liked the announcements between performances, too, I learnt loads. That bit about the riders having to go into the woods near Vienna every year to cut their own Birch whip, to show humility and respect, I loved that too.”

Our opinion is that attending a performance at the Spanish Riding School is a must for anybody visiting Vienna. We loved it.

To discover more, please visit http://www.srs.at/en/ or www.facebook.com/SpanischeHofreitschule

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