Austria’s wonderful white horses

By | Category: Travel destinations
© Rene van Bakel

© Rene van Bakel

We drive over the crest of the hill and see a white castle set amid forests and rolling green meadows. We are in Styria in south-east Austria approaching Piber Castle home of the famous Lippizaner horses. It is open thee public all year and as well as the castle itself and an interesting old church, the Federal Stud consists of impeccably maintained stable buildings, a cinema, shop and a café.

The horses came to Piber in the 1920s prior to which they were at Lipicia in Slovenia – hence the name Lipizzaner but their lineage is much older, originating with horses brought by the Moors to Southern Spain which were developed during the time of the Renaissance when horsemanship became an aristocratic pursuit.

Soon we see some of gentle white mares suckling their dusky long-legged foals. All Lipizzaner horses are born black and one in every hundred stays dark and if it makes it though the rigorous selection to become a performer, it will be a valued ‘lucky horse.’ It takes around eight years for the colour to change and we are lucky enough to see the gradations when we are taken up into the meadows and see  a group of ‘juniors’ young  mares and stallions running freely together. They are surprisingly tame and friendly as they are accustomed to human handling almost from birth. At a year old they are divided into mare and stallions herds and at 18 months the stallions undergo the first selections to see which will make it to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. For this intelligence, movement, size, behaviour and temperament are taken into consideration and these tests will continue until the animals is four at which time 10 stallions will be selected and sent to the Training Centre at Heldenberg for breaking-in by the riders- something which takes nine months. The education of a stallion is not rushed and continues in Vienna where he will perform until he is well into his 20s. When his performing days are over he will be brought back to Piber to end his days peacefully in the meadows where some have been observed executing an impromptu leap as if to re-live past glories.

Young Lippizaners

Young Lippizaners

Our visit to Piper whetted our appetite to see these beautiful creatures in action – something in fact I had longed to so since I was a pony-mad little girl. We accordingly head back to Vienna and make our way to the magnificent baroque Winter Riding School. The chandeliers are glittering and air by Mozart playing as the white stallions begin to emerge and fill the huge oval arena for their Morning Exercise. The riders, immaculately clad in the traditional bi-corn hat, white gloves, coffee- coloured double-breasted tail coat and high boots then start to put them thought their paces. It is the utterly harmonious coordination between man and horse which is so entrancing to watch. It is as if the ride is glued to the saddle and conveys messages to the animal by telepathy. We notice a bay horse amongst the white ones, the ‘lucky horse.’ He is performing well.

We watch these graceful disciplined beasts executing the famous Shoulder-In or sideways walk, the crossed legs or Travesale and the controlled trot of the Piaffe. These movements are known as Airs on the Ground but soon afterwards we see two riders on foot who, using long wands and words of  encouragement, persuade a  stallion to rise on his haunches in a Levade and  then jump into a Courbette without lowering his forelegs – balletic movements known as Airs  above the Ground. Everyone applauds and the rider reaches in his tail coat pocket for a piece of sugar to reward the stallion.

mare and foal

mare and foal

After the Morning Exercise we make our way across to the Stallburg, the elegant stable building which dates from the 1560s and was first used by Maximilian II for his menagerie which included elephants and of course the Andalusian horses brought from Spain which form one of the bloodlines of today’s Lipizzaners.

Here we see the horses which have not taken part in the Morning Exercise being escorted across the road by their grooms to the purpose built horse- walker. We smile as on whinnies and the call is taken up by all those stallions looking out of their stables and soon the whole yard echoes with the sound.   The fact that each groom leads two stallions speaks for their docility, something essential with so many, currently 72, males living together. This, as well as tradition accounts for the absence of mares in Vienna.

Beyond the yard are the inner stables, each dark wooden box bears two names for each occupant, the first is the name of one of the six bloodlines of the sire and the second, written larger the bloodline of the dam. There are marble drinking troughs and decorative horses heads above each door. All around the grooms are working; the stables are mucked out every hour which is easier than cleaning the stains off the white coats  if the horses lie down and get dirty. Each horse is fed 3 meals a day consisting of specially energised hay, carrots, linseed, horse nuts and a sort of muesli –even their drinking water is re-vitalised Grander water.

In the tack room we see that each horse has two made-to-measure saddles, hand-crafted in Switzerland – a white deerskin one for performances and a dark one for exercise. The dressage snaffle bits are quite soft- fortunately the days of cruel bitting to achieve results, are over.

It is in the tack room that we see another rare creature – Hannah Zeitlhofer, the first female to have been accepted as an Eleve and the first to qualify as an Assistant Rider. We had noticed her at the Morning Exeercise, slim and elegant riding impeccably. It was Elisabeth Gürtler, who took over as director of the Spanish Riding School in 2008 who broke the all-male tradition and now four girls are undergoing  the arduous training. It takes 4-6 years to reach Assistant Rider and 25-30, that of Chief Rider.

05_srs_slideshow_enBefore we leave there is one more treat is in store for us. Enjoyable as the Morning Exercise had been, it is the Gala Performance which really demonstrates the perfection of horse and rider skills – and in the evening we attend one. We watch spellbound as horses and riders wearing their smartest and most opulent attire, undertake the most breathtaking moves until they reach the exquisite finale in which eight perfectly synchronised white stallions dance the complex steps of the Finale Quadrille.

A long-standing dream is realised.

The Federal Stud Piber at

Piber is a 250 km drive from Vienna  or it can be reached by train from Vienna to Körflach via  Graz

All details, ticket prices and opening times for the Spanish Riding School can be found at






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