Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

The Spanish Riding School at Emirates Palace: 'we will show the best stallions we have'

The imposing, half-tonne horses move with the grace of a ballerina, as they carry out intricate pirouettes, flying changes (when a horse switches its lead leg at a canter) and a series of extraordinary jumps

The Spanish Riding School perform the Quadrille at the Winter Riding School in Vienna. 
The Spanish Riding School perform the Quadrille at the Winter Riding School in Vienna. 

A Lipizzaner stallion does not start performing until the age of 10. In equine terms, that is positively middle-aged. But the complexity of the dressage routines these horses are required to master means training cannot be rushed. In total, it takes six years.

Within about six seconds of watching the Lipizzaner stallions perform, however, you will understand why. The imposing, half-tonne beasts move with the grace of a ballerina, as they carry out intricate pirouettes, flying changes (when a horse switches its lead leg at a canter) and a series of extraordinary jumps known as “Airs above the Ground”.

This style of dressage, in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole (which is on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity), has been practised for more than 450 years. It is all about balance, controlled power and a perfect synergy between horse and rider. “Everything is very difficult, everything,” says Andreas Hausberger, one of only two chief riders at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where the Lipizzaner stallions are trained.

Earlier this month, 25 of these milk-white animals were flown to Abu Dhabi, where they will perform on two consecutive nights at Emirates Palace, the first time the Spanish Riding School has visited the Middle East. “Flying the horses is no more strenuous to the animals than travelling by lorry,” says Hausberger.

A Lipizzaner stallion performing in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole
A Lipizzaner stallion performing in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole

The “Ballet of the White Stallions” show, which is accompanied by classical music, will feature demonstrations of some of the most impressive dressage exercises, including the levade, where the horse stands on its hind legs at a 35-degree angle, and the capriole, where the horse tucks its forelegs up into its chest and jumps forward, kicking out its hind legs. There is also a section where the riders walk behind the horses, only communicating with them via a long-rein, as the stallions complete more moves, including the piaffe (a bit like jogging on the spot). The performance concludes with a Quadrille, where eight stallions perform in unison for 20 minutes.

“We will show the best stallions we have,” says Hausberger, who has been at the Spanish Riding School since 1984. “Horses are not machines but in general, the performances are of the highest standard.”

The Spanish Riding School is the oldest in the world, dating back to 1565 when a rudimentary wooden dressage ring was installed in Hofburg, central Vienna. The famous Winter Riding School standing in its place today, with its white walls, marble pillars and light-flooded arena, was built between 1729-35 by Emperor Charles VI. “It is the most beautiful riding school in the world,” says Hausberger.

But what’s the Spanish link? In 1521, 200 Spanish horses arrived in Vienna with Archduke Ferdinand, who grew up in Spain, but served as Archduke of Austria from 1521-1564. Those Spanish horses have since had Arab bloodlines bred into them to create the unique Lipizzaner breed.

'The performances are of the highest standard' – The Spanish Riding School
'The performances are of the highest standard' – The Spanish Riding School

It’s a long journey to the top for the riders as well as the horses. “The pupils who enter the Spanish Riding School have to realise the training is blood, sweat and tears,” says ­Hausberger, who saddles up his first horse at 7am every daily. “If you are dedicated, and have the horse in mind all the time and not yourself, you will make it. If you use the horse as a tool to show you, you will not make it as a rider.”

Hausberger grew up around horses and starting riding at the age of seven, but he insists that the Spanish Riding School does not exclusively seek out experienced riders. “We look first at the confirmation of the rider,” he says. “Ideally, not too tall with short upper body and long legs. But what is really important is dedication.”

So if you like what you see this week in Abu Dhabi, a trip to Vienna and the Spanish Riding School might be in order.

The Spanish Riding School will perform at Emirates Palace on March 24 and 25. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.ae

Updated: March 24, 2019 12:21 PM

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