Reprint from September 1958, National Geographic Magazine
THE WHITE HORSES OF VIENNA
by Beverley M. Bowie
The great double doors at the end of the riding hall swing slowly, slowly open, moved by invisible hands. The violins of Bizet’s “Arlésienne Suite” breathe a gentle invitation, and from the gloom of the passageway the first horse and rider, an apparition in brown and white, move gravely forward into the hushed arena.
A tall, iron-gray man with lean, ascetic cheeks and grieving mouth, the rider sits his snowy stallion in complete composure, hands as still as marble, back firm, boots straight and tranquil, eyes fixed ahead. Under him his horse moves with quiet pride. Its neck is arched, its hoofs spurn the smooth-raked sand.
Seven other riders in file follow the leader. Soberly uniformed in the cinnamon livery of a bygone era, they exhibit the same impassive, taut control of themselves and their mounts. Beneath the many-faceted chandeliers -- Christmas trees of dripping ice -- they parade the length of the gold-and-ivory hall until, approaching the lofty portrait of Charles VI, they doff their two-cornered hats in wide-sweeping salute.
Austria Preserves a Greek Legacy
The deliberate, majestic gesture wrings a spurt of applause from the audience packing the double balconies. For the spectators instinctively recognize in this homage more than a formal tribute to an imperial patron of the Spanish Riding School. They sense here a willing acknowledgment by today’s riders that they are the trustees of a fragile but precious tradition of horsemanship that has been passed along, by word and example, from one generation to another through the centuries.
This high and exacting technique of dressage, once common to the Greek world of Xenophon, sank out of sight in Roman and medieval times, emerged again in the Renaissance, and came to full flower in the imperial courts of the 18th century. Today it survives in its purest form only in Vienna, home of the Lipizzaner stallions.
Art of the Disappearing Rider
Should anything happen to the school and the thin line of continuity with the past be snapped, more would be lost than the livelihood of a few score horses and riders. An art from of great subtlety and power, as abstract and as moving as the ballet, would vanish from the world’s cultural heritage.
Horses walking. That is all the stallions of the school troupe are doing when Col. Alois Podhajsky leads them into the hall to begin the quadrille. Is there anything exciting about a walk?
One might not think so. Yet the spectators hunched over the red-velvet balustrades seem almost hypnotized, drawn into this tense spell in which horse and rider appear to move as in a dream. Some of them may know, others merely surmise, that it takes two years to teach a Lipizzaner to walk. But all of them respond to the achievement: the high knee action, the stately vertical carriage of the head, the slight downward thrust of the haunches, the precise and delicate placing of the feet--in sum, the indefinable impression of great vitality under the most sensitive and unobtrusive control.
Here, indeed, we come near the heart of the haute école. For the objective of this demanding discipline is not so much the hackneyed goal of “making the man and his mount seem like one,” as it is that of causing the man himself virtually to disappear. So serene must be the rider in his seat, so disguised or invisible his guidance by the pressure of thigh or heel, rein or body weight, that the audience’s attention slips away from him altogether and becomes focused wholly on the fluid movements of his horse.
Names Link Horsemanship and Ballet
Those movements range from the exact performance of walk and canter to the piaffe, a sophisticated “trotting on the spot,” and the passage, or Spanish step, which Colonel Podhajsky describes thus: “The horse throws the diagonal pair of feet upward with the greatest of energy and pauses a moment longer than when trotting. This awakens the impression that he sways free of all earthly weight.”
The feats also include pirouettes and half pirouettes, the mincing cross-steps of the plié, the intricate weaving and shuttling of the quadrille and pas de trois--and much more. Most dramatic, of course, is the “work above the ground”--the courbette, levade, and capriole.
Stylized these various exercises certainly are. Yet, paradoxically, they are all based upon the spontaneous action of the horse in nature, a formalization of the leaps and kicks, curvetting and prancing that can be observed in any pasture. Nothing artificial or grotesque enters the curriculum of the school--none of the three-legged gallops, the backward canters, the waltz steps of the circus and the trick-riding ring. Each movement simply develops to its ultimate refinement a natural pace or position.
An antique art, if you will, but one with a curiously timeless and universal appeal. Emperors and archdukes, kings and queens once graced the galleries of the riding school; so concerned with its work was Emperor Jospeh II that he requested weekly reports on the progress of each pupil. Today in republican Austria royal visitors are rare, and the school falls officially under the aegis of the Minister of Agriculture. But each performance finds the hall crowded with commoners no less entranced than were the aristocratic spectators, and cherishing quite and possessively this unique national legacy.
Perhaps they value it the more because is was so nearly lost. In the closing days of World War II, as the guns of the Red army were thundering at the gates of Vienna, Colonel Podhajsky confronted a desperate situation. He had managed unobtrusively to smuggle many of his stallions out of the city to a refuge at St. Martin in Innkreis in Upper Austria. But the Nazis balked at dissolving the school althogether; the people, they argued, would take it as a sign that the jig was up.
The colonel was left, then, with ten horses and two riders to survive the approaching cataclysm as best he might. Bombs probed at the vitals of the capital with fingers of fire; buildings to right and left of the riding hall flowered suddenly into flame and collapsed in smoking rubble.
Lipizzaners Gallant Under Fire
“The horses--they behaved like veterans,” the colonel told me. “Magnificent! The air-raid signal would sound, and, without even being called, they would calmly file out of their stalls, ready to take shelter in the passageway alongside the riding hall. A bomb would come down --crash!--in the Michaelerplatz, the glass would fall around us like hail, and the Lipizzaners would crouch down, down, down, like this”--and he held his palm out flat--”until the attack was over, and then they would just get up. They shivered. But they never panicked.”
Nevertheless, by early March of 1945, Colonel Podhajsky knew that Vienna might soon be without heat, light, water. Somehow, he must get his horses away.
“I went to an officer I knew in the Transport Section and demanded boxcards for my stallions and fodder and gear. He threw up his hands. ‘I don’t have enough even for munitions, much less your precious horses,’ he said. But I knocked upon his Austrian heart, and in the end he produced them.”
Quickly the colonel packed the school’s trophies, hid the great chandeliers, rolled up the huge portrait of Charles VI, and put his charges aboard a westbound freight. Strafed and bombed, the train crawled haltingly through the night like a wounded animal, zigzagging, hiding in tunnels, waiting for blown rails to be replaced. The 250-mile journey to St. Martin im Innkreis took six days
Relatively safe in a castle once used as a stage on the old coach route, the white horses waited patiently while the broken Nazi divisions reeled back upon Germany and the American XX Corps took over. On the last day of the war in Europe, General George S. Patton, Jr., and Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson attended a special performance of the school troupe in their honor.
At its conclusion the colonel, mounted on his favorite stallion, rode alone to the general’s box, saluted with a wave of his gold-cockaded hat, and formally rquested Patton to place the school under American military protection. Patton, who like Podhajsky had been an Olympic Games equestrian, consulted with Patterson and agreed.
He went further. He flew Podhajsky to Hostoun in Czechoslovakia, where one of General Patton’s advance units, while rescuing a group of Allied prisoners, had captured a string of Lipizzaner brood mares, foals, and breeding stallions. This herd, driven north by the Nazis early in the war, was made up of horses from the Austrian stud farm at Piber, from the Yugoslavian stud at Demir-Kapija, and from the Yugoslavian village of Equile Lipizzano, from which the whole strain of Spanish horses take its name.
Col. Chalres H. Reed, informed by a congenial German general of the existence of this equine treasure-trove, had sent a German prisoner on a bicycle through the lines to contact the herd’s supervisor, Capt. Rudolph Lessing. Mounting a Lipizzaner stallion and leading another, Lessing had returned by night to confer with Reed.
Plans were hurriedly drawn for an attack, Lessing felt confident he could handle his own herdsmen, but the SS troops guarding the border would be another matter. Nevertheless, he and an American officer slipped back to Hostoun to organize the coup, and two days later the Americans went into action.
After a sharp fight, Reed’s troops broke through the German defenses, leaving 100 enemy dead, and swept into Hostoun. The prisoners were freed and, within a few weeks, all the school’s breeding stock had been convoyed across the frontier to safety.
The nucleus for the rebuilding of the school troupe and its stud was now assured.
For 10 postwar years the Lipizzaners wandered in the wilderness, exiled from their handsome hall in Vienna. Neither bombs nor shells had destroyed the lovely creation of baroque architect Joseph Emmanuel Fischer von Erlach, but it stood in need of more repairs and refurbishing than the busy capital of an occupied country could immediately afford. Among other projects, the rebuilding of the Opera came first, and while that was being accomplished, the Opera’s scenery was stacked upon the floor of the riding arena.
Colonel Podhajsky, stumbling upon the old cavalry barracks at Wels, where he had first learned to ride, made it the school’s interim headquarters. From here he took the “first team” on repeated tours of the Western World -- Switzerland, Italy, West Germany, Scandinavia, England, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States. ( See “New York Again Hails the Horse,” by Walter B. Devereux, National Geographic Magazine, November, 1954.)
Then in the autumn of 1955, the Lipizzaners came home.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” the colonel confessed. “When I had left the school in ‘45, with Vienna coming down around my ears, I had thought I would never see it again. Yet here we were, putting on a gala performance for members of the cabinet, for Parliament, for the diplomatic corps--everyone--and do you know, it was exactly 220 years since the opening of the riding hall! I wrote the dates into the sand of the arena for all to see: 1735 - 1955.”
School Dates from 1565
The beginnings of the school itself, of course, go even further back; in 1565 a state document noted that money was allocated for a riding ground in the Hofburg gardens. And in 1572 there cropped up the first reference to the “Spanish Riding Hall”--then a wooden building on what is now the Josefsplatz.
Why Spanish? The term had nothing to do with a “Spanish” mode of riding, or with any court school ever established in Spain. It referred simply to the Spanish ancestry of the Lipizzaners.
Basically, the Lipizzaner derives from a fusing of three bloodlines--Andalusian, Arab, and,, to a lesser extent, Vilanos. The Andalusian had been famous even in Caesar’s time as a swift, courageous, high-spirited horse. When the Moors took over Spain, they crossed the native mares with their own fine desert steeds, and, in the centuries that followed, they refused to permit adulteration of this stock by mixture with the gross, heavy-gaited war horses of Western Europe.
With the fall of Spain to the Christian knights, however, the Arab-Andalusian was bred to the Vilanos of the Pyrenees, a taller and stonger horse. The objective was to attain a mount powerful enough to bear an armored rider, yet still agile and fleet.
The experiment proved a distinct success, a nd the new strain soon dominated the royal studs established in Italy, Denmark, and the Hapsburg Empire. Of all the breeding farms, the one set up in the obscure village of Equile Lilpizzano, near Trieste, by Archduke Charles of Austria, proved over the years the most satisfactory. Its rugged, limestone terrain served to keep the Lipizzaners in excellent fettle, sinews toughened, gait elastic, bones strengthened by the minerals in the sparse, sun-baked grass. Before long, the term “Lipizzaner” came to be the very definition of the Spanish horse at its noblest.
Mares and Foals Frolic Like Puppies
With the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the loss of Trieste to Italy at World War I’s end, the stud moved to Piber, a 900-year old village 15 miles from Graz. I went down to visit it one day in June.
Some 150 Lipizzaners are quartered here now, under a staff headed by Dr. Heinz Lahrner. A slender young man in jodhpurs and dark glasses, a riding crop tucked under his armpit, Lehrner strolled with me to a pasture where a group of mares browsed with their foals. No sooner had they caught wind of us than they ambled over and crowded around us like a batch of inquisitive puppies, nuzzling our pockets in search of a possible carrot or lump of sugar, the mothers no less curious and insistent than their offspring.
Turning to Lehrner as a foal tentatively nibbled my shirtsleeve, I said: “Are those really Lipizzaners? Somehow, after seeing them in the ring, these mares look, well--ordinary.”
“Not to me. But I can understand your surprise, perhaps, at their difference from the Thoroughbred. The Lipizzaner, you might say, is a baroque horse--compact, somewhat thickset, with occasionally a rather heavy neck. But you mustn’t judge him as he browses in a pasture.”
“When you see him with a good riderup, he’s an entirely different animal--taut and proud and full of grace. The grace is always there, implicit in the horse and his basic conformation. But you may miss it in the meadow, just as you might not recognize a ballerina wearing her overcoat and sitting in a tramcar.”
Resting my notebook on the velvety rump of a nearby foal, I scribbled steadily for some minutes as Lehrner talked on about the characteristics of a Lipizzaner--thick chest, large, limpid eyes, long and broad back, low withers, muscular legs, well-shaped hoofs, height of about 14 to 15 hands, great docility and intelligence.
Supersition Smiled at--but Not Ignored
“What about the head?” I asked. “In the old paintings at the school, the Lipizzaners generally have a somewhat ramlike nose. But most of these mares seem quite straight nosed. Has more Arab blood been introduced over the years?”
“There was quite a strong infusion of Arab blood in the early 10th century, through the Siglavy line, at Equile Lipizzano. But the more important fact is that we’ve been deliberately breeding away from the ram heads--a selection within the race, you might say.”
“And you’re concentrating on white?”
“Technically, we call them grays. But fortunately, we produce an occasional bay or black or cream-colored stallion, too.” He grinned. “I say ‘fortunately,’ because there’s a superstition which holds that Austria has fallen on bad times in the years when we didn’t have a non-gray among the school troupe. There was 1809, for instance, when Napoleon invaded our country; 1934, when Dollfuss set up his dictatorship; 1938, when the Nazis swallowed up Austria altogether.
“See that little bay foal over there by his dam? We smile at the superstititon, of course, but all the same we take very good care of him!”
The bay foal was not particularly conspicuous. All Lipizzaners are born dark, reminiscent of their heritage from six great Andalusian sires---Pluto, a dappled gray from the Denmark stud, born in 1765; Conversano, a Neapolitan black, 1767; Neapolitano, a brown from Naples, 1790; Favory, a dun-hued stallion, 1779; Maestoso, a gray, 173; and Siglavy, an Arabian gray, born in 1810. The young Lipizzaner doesn’t acquire its handsome milk-white coat until it is from three to seven years old.
High spirited, often fiery in its bearing, the Lipizzaner is yet fantastically gentle--largely because from birth it meets nothing but kindness. Its mildness comes not from being cowed, but, on the contrary, from being free of fear. Slow to mature, the young stallion does not enter the school until he is nearly four and will not be fully trained until he is eight. At the age of two, when a Thoroughbred is earning his oats on the race track, a Lipizzaner is still spending long, carefree days on Piber’s Alpine meadows, unfamiliar even with a snaffle. On the other hand, at 25 the Lipizzaner may still be a star performer in the riding hall, and the Thoroughbred be long since dead or retired to pasture.
At three years and a half the young stallion finally joins the school troupe. His life of freedom is now behind him; henceforth his world will consist of the stables along the Reitscchulgasse and the riding hall across the street.
It is a world compounded of affection and formality, great demands and respect. Morning after morning I have sat in the quiet sunlit hall and watched the novice stallions brought in, one by one, for their intensive individual schooling. Bright eyed, eager, nervous footed, they dance forward as if made of tight-coiled springs, vibrant with a kind of adolescent passion to perform.
An Exercise in Understanding
Their anxiety is underscored by the atmosphere of the arena; the solemn silence is broken only by the occasional bark of an instructor giving a command to some apprentice or berating him briefly in stinging Viennese for a particularly horrendous blunder. For the rest, riders and their mounts pace and pirouette, leap and turn in profound concentration, like figures in a trance.
Part of this ritual and yet unmistakably dominating it, too, is Colonel Podajsky, schooling his own string of stallions or appraising the work of other riders. At 59, hard and spare as a leather crop, relentless in his quest for perfection in himself and others, he seems telepathically aware of every movement in the ring, every slight mistake.
Pausing between a change of horses one day, he talked to me of the school’s philosophy. “This drill,” he said, “you must not think of it simply as discipline, as mechanical repetition. Nein! It is an exercise in understanding. The horse must understand what we want him to do, and we must understand precisely what he is capable of doing.”
The colonel shook his head sternly. “The rider must be firm, he must be in command, but he must not be cruel. That is stupid. We do not indulge in great whips and special spurs and devilish bits. We remember the words of old Guérinière, the 18th-century riding master who said, ‘The more iron in the mouth of the horse the less the knowledge of the rider.’”
He interrupted himself to stare reprovingly at an instructor attempting a third and fourth levade. The horse, sinking back on its haunches, was trembling violently, its breath came in snorts, its flanks were slick with sweat. “Ach so,” said the colonel gently, “he has had enough, eh? Have him do some other movement and do it well and then let him go, with some sugar.”
He turned to me again. “That is the important thing: never let a horse stop with a sense of defeat. If he is going well, release him early, in the flush of achievement. If he is misbehaving, continue until he has done something to please himself and you. In that way, he will come back to the ring the next morning eagerly, with a fresh heart.”
“How many hours a day do you train each horse?” I asked.
“Not hours,” he said. “Minutes. Forty-five minutes a day. You must realize: a courbette, a capariole, even the passage, the Spanish step, demands the utmost from the horse. The Lipizzaner is strong; he is willing. But I assure you--three-quarters of an hour is quite enough.”
Fan Mail for Pluto Theodorosta
A stable boy came up with another mount for the colonel. Podhajsky looked at the horse for a moment with the fond, slightly bemused air of a parent whose child has won every conceivable school prize. The stallion gazed back at him serenely, an artist quite inured to the world’s adulation. His transluscent skin, the texture of old soft silk, clothed muscle and sinew so tautly as to bring up a faint rose-tinted blush from the flesh beneath.
“This is Pluto Theodorosta,” said the colonel. “He has traveled much of the Western World. Queen Elizabeth of England rode him when he visited the royal stable.
“One day, before we returned to Vienna, a letter came to Wels, Austria, addressed to Mr. Pluto Theodorosta. He received it, all right, though I had to read it for him.”
Podhajsky swung up into the saddle in one easy motion. Pluto Theodorosta moved not an inch until the colonel, gathering three reins in his left hand, one in his right, unobtrusively shifted his weight forward, and the stallion moved away in a stately walk.
They passed a slip of a boy in gray-green uniform astride a Lipizzaner on a longe, or guide rein, held by an instructor on foot. The stallion trotted in an endless circle while the apprentice, with neither stirrups nor reins, sat him as lightly as a leaf.
Sometimes, at the command of his sharp-eyed tutor, the boy would rotate his arms in paddle-wheel fashion, fold them across his chest, wave them from side to side, or hold them straight down like sticks. No matter what his position, his balance never wavered nor did his back slump.
In the middle of the arena an older member of the troupe was schooling a young horse “between the posts.” From a padded halter, two short straps ran to the wooden pillars; the horse, urged on by his instructor, performed his exercises in place. By practicing such movements as the piaffe and the levade under this kind of control, the stallion strengthens and lowers his haunches, renders all his muscles more supple, and unconsciously provides his trainer with clues as to where his specific talents may lie.
For while all the Lipizzaners take part in the “school on the ground”--that is, the stylized walks, trots, canters, pirouettes, the piaffe and passage, and lateral movements--only a few especially gifted stallions can go on to master the great leaps of the :School above the ground” And of these, each will concentrate upon one particular exercise: ballotade or capriole, courbette or croupade. No one Lipizzaner has ever learned to do them all, and Colonel Podhajsky is quite certain none every will.
Old Horses Teach Fledgling Riders
The process of learning in the school is curiously reciprocal: the old horses teach the fledgling riders, and the veteran instructors school the young stallions. A wise and learned Lipizzaner can provide a rich education for a novice rider, but he also can and sometimes does make a fool of his master. Many a tale is told in the stables with a slap of the thigh and a rich guffaw, of pretentious pupils who took their mount’s effortless performance as a tribute to their own equestrian skill--and then were dumped onto the sand by an unscheduled capriole or courbette.
The bond between rider and horse, however, is more apt to be close and even uncanny. Each man has four horses which he alone may ride and educate, or be educated by. He lives and works with them, day I and day out, until he knows their moods and idiosyncrasies better than those of his wife.
In the riding hall this rapport can be sensed in oneness of action. In the stables it bubbles out more overt expression. The colonel, rigidly correct in the ring, sheds his formality at the door, gladly, like a stiff collar.
I was with him one morning when he paused before a gleaming mahogany stall, rubbed his cheek against the stallion’s outthrust nose, and explained to me: “This one, he is a great straw eater. He would eat his whole stall if I let him and, by morning, there would be no straw and he would be fat, ach, like this ....”
At another stall Podhajky entered and tried to protect his coat pocket from a forthright attack. “Ja, ja,” he murmured, “sugar. But not only sugar. A little love, too, eh? That is what a horse wants. However, in the end, yes, some sugar. Of course.” And he parted with a handful poured from a small leather pouch.
He turned to me. “They like the talk. They are important then, and they know it.”
The Sum of One Man’s Life
Later, in his handsomely appointed office, the colonel moved a yawning dachshund aside so that I could sit down on the sofa near his desk, and folded his own lank frame into a dangerously fragile, gilt armchair. The dog burrowed down beneath Podhajsky’s discarded overcoat and disappeared.
“In my next life I shall be a dachshund,” declared the colonel. “Now, as the director of the school, I must begin every day at seven, and work six full days a week. If I were just supervising, and not a trainer and a rider, too .... But I think it is better this way. Otherwise, the men start saying to themselves --’Ja, you talk it very well, but--can you do it yourself?’”
With a sign Podhajsky ran his fingers through his hair. “Before World War I, you could have gone to almost any court in Europe and found an excellent school of classical riding. Now? Now, there is only one.”
He stared through the tall windows which gave on the Michaelerplatz. “We must live for the school. Offer our lives to it! Then, perhaps, little by little, the light will grow from the tiny candle we keep lit here, and the great art--the art of the haute école--will not be snuffed out.”
Later, as I rose to go and we were shaking hands by the door, he returned to this theme. Talking partly to me but possibly more to himself, he said:
“These are drab materialist times. Drab! Surely, if we can let into them one beam of elegance, of splendor, of glory, from the ancient classical world...that would be worth a man’s life, no? When I am tired, I tell myself, yes, it would.”
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I spent the evening typing this story from the 1958 National Geographic to help preserve it because it is a historical document and contains important information, and because I think it is of great interest to Lipizzan lovers. I left the background and text of this page uncolored so it will come out very clear if you decide to print it. Laura Wiener
P.S. If you see any typos, please let me know via email@example.com