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The Spanish Riding School: A Rider’s Look Inside Europe’s Oldest Classical Academy

For over 450 years, the Spanish Riding School has been a centre for cultivating classical riding from within the baroque walls of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. Once at the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the School began in the 16th century, and continues today with dressage performances all around the world with its riders and their famous white Lipizzaner stallions.

As the oldest and perhaps most well-known of the four classical riding academies in Europe (the others being in Portugal, France, and Spain), the Spanish Riding School has aimed to preserve and pass on the riding and training methods developed over centuries in Europe’s royal courts, for training its horses and riders up to the highest levels of haute école.

These classical methods, so carefully refined over hundreds of years, have laid the foundation for today’s riding, and yet are far from being outdated. Rather, they provide a proven system for training the horse to the highest levels, and through the process, carefully develop the horse’s body to keep it healthy and sound.

Besides its renowned performances, what is it that sets the Spanish Riding School apart from the other classical riding academies in Europe? And, with the school’s historical focus on classical riding, why is it so important today to continue the tradition and knowledge of classical training?

Here, we’ll take a look inside the Spanish Riding School, explore the history of its riding, and gain insight from Philipp Burg, one of the School’s riders who is dedicated to preserving classical riding about his work, what makes the school unique, and the importance of classical riding today.

The Spanish Riding School riders performing a quadrille in the School’s stunning arena in Vienna, Austria.
Photo by © Rene van Bakel/Spanish Riding School.

Combining Spanish & Italian Equitation

To begin, and to understand the traditional riding at the Spanish Riding School, let’s have a look at how the Austrian style of classical riding developed through its history.

In the 16th-19th centuries, Vienna served as the seat of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy, and therefore had great influence over an enormous expanse of Europe, with the empires extending from Italy northwards to Norway, and from Hungary to Spain.

Early in this period, Spanish horsemanship became highly regarded throughout Europe, as the Spanish and their skills in mounted warfare became much admired as well as feared through their conquests in Europe and the Americas. As the Iberian style of riding spread across Europe, so too did the popularity of the Andalusian horse, which was thought of as best suited to the agile, highly collected Spanish style of riding, and perfectly fit for excelling in mounted combat.

As Spain became part of the Habsburg Monarchy, many of Austria’s rulers were then born or raised there, surrounded by Spanish horses and equitation. This key connection is what would eventually bring Spanish equitation and horses to Vienna as we will see, and lead to the Spanish Riding School gaining its distinctive name.

Walking through the centre of Vienna in the Hofburg Palace, one can easily pass by the School’s stable courtyard, and see the stallions socializing or being prepared for their daily training.

Meanwhile, likewise influenced by the Spanish style, horsemanship in Italy then flourished during the late renaissance, which continued to profoundly shape equitation in Europe. With Naples becoming a renowned centre for mastering the art of equitation, young aristocrats from all over Europe were sent to the Neapolitan School to learn to ride as an important part of their noble education. Here, a practical system of training was established that also embodied the values of the renaissance, with a focus on achieving grace, balance, and mastering riding as a noble art.

These two key riding influences, the Spanish and the Italian, then flowed to Vienna as the Empires’ rulers sought to provide their court with Europe’s best horsemanship and horses. In 1565, Emperor Ferdinand, who had been raised in Spain, imported the first Spanish horses to Vienna, where the first stables at the Hofburg Palace grounds had also just been built, with the court’s nobility riding and receiving training in the Palace gardens.

From this beginning, the Spanish Riding School and its Austrian tradition began to take shape.

Philipp Burg performing with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.
Photo by © Rene van Bakel/Spanish Riding School.

The Austrian Tradition of Classical Dressage

In Vienna, riding masters primarily from Naples then passed on the Iberian-Neapolitan style of riding in the 17th century, shaping the riding style of the Spanish Riding School into one characterized by a quiet, kind manner with the horses, and an elegant, centaur-like style of riding where the aids, when best used, were imperceptible except by the most careful eye. The Austrian style became both practical and elegant; maintaining all the energy and agility required for the exercises of warfare, while also incorporating a sense of refinement, reflecting the Neapolitan focus on mastering riding as an art.

Movements and exercises still practiced by the School today are both those originally developed for war, as well as those for court presentations. For example, the pesade (a collected rear at about 45 degrees), most useful for protecting the rider from oncoming attacks at war, often featured centuries ago as a core part of training, while the passage (an elevated, collected, and cadenced version of the trot) was developed for courtly presentations and parades, to elegantly and powerfully show off the horse and rider.

One of the most influential riders at the School in Vienna in the 17th century was the Italian Giovanni Battista Galiberto, who became the Head rider of the Spanish Riding School, and published the first book on practical horsemanship for the Viennese court, in 1650.

This marked a particularly significant yet little known moment in the School’s history, as the tradition of riding in Vienna had been until then, and continues even today, to be passed down primarily verbally, and from teacher to student directly. Before Galiberto’s book, the methods used at the School had never been formally written down, and amazingly, throughout its history, the School has always focused on passing on the tradition verbally in this way.

Inside the original stables within the grand Hofburg Palace, up to 74 stallions are cared for and trained, in rotation with further stallions at the School’s Training Center Heldenberg outside of the city.

Interestingly, in Galiberto’s book, Il Cavallo da Maneggio (The Manége Horse or The Riding Horse), which was also a great success, there are sections that indicate that he practiced and taught the shoulder-in at the School 100 years before foundational French master De la Guérinière, who is usually credited with its invention along with the Duke of Newcastle.

This tradition of passing on the principles of riding and training verbally at the Spanish Riding School has sadly meant that, in its long history, the knowledge and experience gathered by many of its head riders has often been lost, without any written record to convey the lifetime of experience they had accumulated. Because of Galiberto’s efforts to write down the horsemanship he taught, we are able to gain a glimpse into 17th century training through his book, and see that the shoulder-in was practiced likely not first in England or in France, but in Vienna, 100 years before previously thought. Besides this treatise, there remain only a precious few more writings from the School’s previous head riders.

The Austrian tradition of riding, which had made Vienna arguably one of the best schools in Europe, depended on maintaining a strong, unbroken chain of instruction from the most experienced head riders to the next generation, which continues to be critical for the School today. Riders with a lifetime of experience, having learned directly from those before them in the School, must always be available to pass on the full extent of their knowledge to the next generation for the classical tradition to continue.

Nevertheless, key elements of the Austrian tradition have been successfully passed on through the centuries, such as the calm, gentle style of horsemanship, integration of military and high school (haute école) riding, a strong focus on developing the seat, and taking the time required to develop both horse and rider carefully and thoroughly.

Even today, at the School riders perfect their seat on the lunge for years alongside their other riding, and young horses are given time to develop, being started no earlier than at four years of age. Typically, training takes about four years until they are ready to perform. This key principle of giving the horse the time it needs, and using classical training methods to develop the horse’s body, keeps the horse healthy and allows it to perform at a high level for much longer.

Getting ready for his training session, this young stallion waits in the cross ties in the stable before heading to the arena.

The Beginning of the Lipizzaner

Fifteen years after the initial School was set up at the Hofburg, there was an impetus for the empire to establish its own stud farm and produce its own horses for the Viennese court. In 1580, Archduke Charles II established a stud farm in Lipizza (Lipica in Slovenian, now located in Slovenia), using Spanish and Italian horses, and crossing them with horses from other European royal stud farms, such as from Denmark (Fredriksborg) and Germany (Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg). Here, in Lipizza, resulting from the crossing of these horses, the Lipizzaner breed, now so iconic of the Spanish Riding School, was born.

At this time, Lipizzaners existed in all colours, from chestnut and black, to palomino, paint, and even some showing spotted flanks, which you can observe in old paintings of the stud farm. It was only later, in the 18th century, that the Lipizzaner became selected for the white colour which exists almost exclusively now, leading to the characteristic white and grey coats of the Lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School today.

Depicted here, we can see stud farm in Lipizza showing all the original coat colours, before white became selected for.
The Imperial Stud, Johann Georg Hamilton 1727.

The Winter Riding School

In 1729, the awe-inspiring riding hall that now serves the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg Palace was ordered to be built as the Winter Riding School for the Viennese court. This hall, perhaps the most beautiful in the world and well-worth a visit, is fit with baroque columns and intricate stonework, reflecting the opulence of the Viennese court as the seat of two empires in the 18th century, and creating a stunning centre for classical riding.

Today, the Spanish Riding School continues its work in this arena, with its riders astride their white Lipizzaners, and working their horses with the calm, quiet, and effortless appearance that is signature of the Austrian tradition.

One of the School’s riders who is dedicated to mastering and continuing this tradition of classical riding is Philipp Burg, who can be seen riding with this same composed and effortless appearance, while bringing out the best in the horses.

While visiting the School one morning to watch a training session and see the stables, I had the chance to catch Philipp working a couple of horses, and was struck by the amount of feeling with which he rode.

Wanting to gain some insight into the School, and after exploring the riding hall, stables, and palace, I got the chance to meet with Philipp to talk about his work, riding, the Spanish Riding School, and the continued importance of classical riding today.

Here is what he shared;

Philipp Burg with School stallion Maestoso Bona.
These two regularly perform together, including on occasion as a not-to-be-missed solo in the School’s shows.

Reflecting on Classical Riding with Philipp Burg

Could you share a bit about yourself and your background?

My name is Philipp Burg, I’ve been at the Spanish Riding School since September 2002 and started as an apprentice. This was at the age of 15 or 16, after the 9th grade, and I had already been riding for some time – I started riding when I was 4, as my parents have a small riding stable in Styria (located in Southern Austria), so I grew up with it. When I was 12 or 13, I saw a photo in a local newspaper of the Spanish Riding School and said to my parents – that’s where I want to go. Then, I had a test ride at the Riding School, though unfortunately I still had to go to school for another year. And then [after that], I started here.

What distinguishes the Spanish Riding School from the three other three riding schools in Europe (Lisbon, Jerez, Saumur), and what makes it unique?

Essentially, you can’t compare them – we work with Lipizzaners, whereas for example, the Spanish work with Andalusians, and they are two different breeds, and the history of the Spanish Riding School is also longer […].

With us, we really take care that the horses stay healthy and fit for as long as possible, and we also start riding the horses a lot later, at around the age of four. Then, the horses have a year to really work only on straight lines, large tracks and long lines at the walk, trot, and canter, and only when the horse is five does training really begin. So, that’s really our big advantage; we don’t have the pressure in training. A horse may take longer; it may take one year longer, two years longer, but because of this [freedom to give the horses the time they need], we are able to keep our horses healthy and working until they are 24, [even] 29.

With us, we really take care that the horses stay healthy and fit for as long as possible, and we also start riding the horses a lot later, at around the age of four. Then, the horses have a year to really work only on straight lines, large tracks and long lines at the walk, trot, and canter, and only when the horse is five does training really begin. So, that’s really our big advantage; we don’t have the pressure in training. A horse may take longer; it may take one year longer, two years longer, but because of this [freedom to give the horses the time they need], we are able to keep our horses healthy and working until they are 24, [even] 29.

Philipp Burg

At this time, when more modern riding is more prevalent, why is it important, or perhaps even more important, to keep this classical tradition of riding?

[It’s important] to be able to see how one can train the horses properly, in quiet and calm, where the horse determines the pace of the training, and not as it [sometimes] is now, where horses are expected to have completed S level (4th level dressage or advanced level) by the time they are six, and compete at Grand Prix when they are seven. We simply don’t have this stress, and that’s how it’s supposed to be… because in private stables there’s [often] a lot of stress and pressure, and the sense that it has to work, and here, we can take our time, and the horse is the one that sets the pace.

How are the teachings at the School passed on? For example, the Portuguese School has a book in which everything is written down and so they always have a basis, a reference, but as I understood, at the School everything is passed on verbally?

We do have some directives that are part of the School’s basis; in that they are the principles of training slowly, where the horse sets the pace of the training’s progression, that the Lipizzaner must be maintained as a baroque horse, that the young horses are given one year of very basic training, and that each step comes one after the other after that. These principles, yes, but otherwise, everything is passed on verbally.

Where do the methods used by the Spanish Riding School come from, for example from the old books…?

Exactly, yes, like the book by Alois Podhaisky, for example, this is one. I’ve personally read through it – but one can say that one can only learn to ride by riding. The more horses you ride, the better you get. Every horse is different to ride, and you have to adapt to each horse as quickly as possible. Every day the horse is different; it’s a living being and isn’t a computer. You cannot just push a button and the horse “works.” You simply have to adapt yourself to each individual horse as quickly as you can, and not just ride a predefined plan. This doesn’t work.

What would you recommend for an amateur rider, to help them develop in their riding?

What helps a lot is to ride with the right people – there are so many people who know a lot, and have probably read a lot of books and who have the knowledge, but have never ridden really well themselves. You can only learn from someone who rides well, and can convey that to you. There are many trainers, but few good ones.

“What helps a lot is to ride with the right people – there are so many people who know a lot, and have probably read a lot of books and who have the knowledge, but have never ridden really well themselves. You can only learn from someone who rides well, and can convey that to you.”

Philipp Burg

What do you think the riding world needs more of at this time?

I think that the horse must be put much more at the forefront and not… simply knocked through the exercises, and where the horse “has to,” “has to,” “has to.” You simply need to give the horse a lot more time, and not just for the advanced exercises. […]

There should be much more attention paid to simply working on throughness and the activity of the horses, and that they respond harmoniously, and not simply on [the rider adding more leg by] kicking; not simply holding the horse in front, while pushing from the back.

What does it take to become, and be a rider at the Spanish Riding School?

It takes a lot of dedication; you have to really like the job. It’s a 6-day week, where you only have one day off and you just need to have the dedication to the horse. As already said before, the horse is not a computer. Everyone who works here, I think, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else or do anything else, and you can see that very clearly with young people, who often imagine it to be easier [than it is], and then discover that it requires a lot of discipline.

Lots of young people who want to start with us, or who are here for the first 3 months, imagine it will be super fun to ride some horses, and then become a rider, but it’s not like that. It demands a lot of self-discipline – and work, a lot of work. With yourself, and also with the horses.

What are the most important lessons you find you’ve learned?

For me personally, a lot of self-discipline and keeping calm is important when I work with a horse, with a living being. I think that’s the most important thing, and with this work you never stop learning; there’s something new every day.

What gives you the most joy about working here?

It’s just nice to be able to work here – the daily routine, working together with the horses, riding in such a beautiful arena, preserving the tradition, working together with my colleagues… and the horsemanship, and the show tours. When you’re traveling abroad it’s also an honor to take part, and when you’re younger and start looking after one or two horses in the stable, and get lessons, and then get a young horse to train… then you always keep developing yourself, and that’s a really nice thing. When you work with horses, you never stop learning. It doesn’t matter if you’re a trained rider or not, you can always improve something. That’s actually the best thing of all.

Inside the tack room at the Spanish Riding School.
School dressage saddles are kept below, while specially-made show saddles are stored above.

Continuing the Classical Tradition

In talking with Philipp, who’s been with the Spanish Riding School for over 20 years, he drew out several key points, such as the importance of giving the horse time, and of working the horse classically in order to keep it healthy and sound throughout its lifetime. Emphasizing that one develops in riding only by riding, his practical approach to mastering his work, along with his dedication and focus on developing self-discipline, has allowed him to carry on the Austrian tradition, and bring out the best in the horses he works with.

For riding today, learning classical riding principles remains of critical importance; for the health and wellbeing of our horses, and for developing as riders and trainers to master the art of riding. As it’s been said before, the art of riding takes more than one lifetime to learn, and so preserving and passing on the accumulated knowledge and principles of classical riding by those dedicated to it, is absolutely key for progressing the level of knowledge and ability in the riding world today.

Riders like Philipp contribute to making this possible; through years of dedication and training, and the ability to share his work through performances and teaching. Since its inception, the Spanish Riding School has been a centre for classical riding, passing down the principles of the Austrian tradition from teacher to student, and going on to perform worldwide. Focused on passing down knowledge verbally, having senior riders always available in the School, with a lifetime of experience to pass on this knowledge, continues to be incredibly important for carrying on the tradition.

With its long history, the Spanish Riding School remains the oldest riding school in the world, and, for those interested in its influential place in equestrian history and riding, is well worth a visit. The School, with its stunning arena and stables is in itself a beautiful place, and, having been a centre for classical riding for over 450 years, the continued work of the School and its riders for preserving the original Austrian tradition is incredibly important – for helping ensure that classical principles, curated over centuries both in Vienna and throughout Europe and to optimally develop horse and rider, continue to be passed on to riders today.

References used for further reading:

The Lipizzaners – Sonja Klima (Editor)

Austrian Art of RidingWerner Poscharnigg

See more behind the scenes at the Spanish Riding School:

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