The Spanish Riding School of Vienna and its amazing Lipizzaners horses

The aristocratic Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna are descended from the Iberian Horse. The oldest breed in the world, the Iberian Horses were used as battle mounts. Their Lipizzaners horses descendants are now trained to perform actions that were initially taught to military horses to make them more effective in combat.

A brief history of the Lipizzaners horses

The breed was first developed in 1590 by the Archduke of Austria, Charles II. He started the first stud farm in Lipizza, which was a part of Italy back then. Charles II began breeding the Iberian with the indigenous breeds of Italy. Until well into the late 1700s, these horses were crossbred with the best horses from Spain, Italy, and Arabia. However, in the beginning, they were used as family and carriage horses for the Vienna Royal Court.

Charles VI of Austria founded the Spanish Riding School of Vienna in 1735. It is the oldest riding school in the world and takes its name after the Spanish horses that were the great foundation of the Lipizzaners breed. For more than 400 years, the Spanish Riding School has taught riders and horses to execute the traditional dressage movements that make the Lipizzaners popular.

When Charles started school, he also began recording the bloodlines of the breed. There were nine original studs that were used to develop the breed. Six of them were used exclusively for breeding at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and the Lipizzaners of South Africa in Kyalami. These six stallions are recognized as the purest of the breed:

  • Pluto, born in 1765, gray in color
  • Conversano, born in 1767, black in color
  • Favory, born in 1779, dun in color
  • Neapolitano, born in 1790, bay (brown) in color
  • Siglavy, born in 1810, gray in color
  • Maestroso II, born in 1819, gray in color.

Lipizzaners are labeled with a special symbol to indicate which bloodlines they are descended from. It’s called an Ancestral Brand. Foals are numbered with a number so that they can be conveniently found in the foal register. In addition to these two marks, each Lipizzaner also wears the brand of descent on its left cheek.

Most recently, two other gene types have been recognized internationally as purebred. These are:

  • Tulipan, born in 1850, no color indicated
  • Incitato, no date of birth or color specified.

In 1920 it was decided to move the Lipizzaners from Lipizza (now Slovenia) to Piber in Austria. During the Second World War, the entire stock inventory was moved to Holstau to prevent the animals from being seized and used in battle or seized as food supplies by hostile forces. The race became almost extinct (only 250 horses survived) and would have been completely wiped out without the intervention of General George Patton. He and his men saved the victims so that they could go on to continue their incredible history.

In 1948, after leaving Germany, Count Elemer Jankovich-Besan moved some of the remaining horses to the South Mooi River in South Africa. He donated one of the stallions to Major George Iwanowski, who, in addition, began the Lipizzaners of South Africa School. This is one of the two Lipizzaners accredited centers in the world, the other being the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

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A Lipizzaner stallion (Pluto Theodorosta) being led out of the Spanish Riding School. Photo by David Monniaux [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Profile and conformity of Lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School

Foals are usually dark to black-brown when they are born. They undergo several different color changes before finally reaching their adult color between the ages of four and ten. Most of the time, the color is light-gray or silver. But there are duns and bays as well. They’re just not as usual, and it’s uncommon for an adult Lipizzaner horse to be totally black-brown or black.

The Lipizzaners from the Spanish Riding School are known to live for as long as 34 years. They are very obedient and well known for their impressive endurance, flexibility, strength, and courage. Also, stallions are used for preparation and exhibition. And the breeders/trainers are searching for a certain conformation in the horses that are finally prepared for dressage. These include:

  • The stallion should be 15.2 to 16 hands high (a hand is 4 inches or 6 cm), that is, 155 to 160 cm
  • The head should be moderately aquiline or slightly Roman in form, and the ears at a reasonable width apart
  • The neck should be crested, but not too broad at the top or too thick below
  • The back and neck should be of equal length
  • The chest should be solid and of medium width.
  • The legs should appear shorter so that the horse is better suited to perform the Airs Above the Ground
  • The musculature should be pronounced, without making the horse appear too heavy
  • The hindquarters should be well rounded
  • The mane and tail should be thick and full, but fine and soft to the touch.

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Lipizzaners dressage for the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

Lipizzaners dressage at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

When performed, the Airs Above the Ground brings to mind the motions of a ballerina. In a way of speaking, the Lipizzaners are ballerinas of the equine world. Exercises done by these magnificent creatures include:

  • Levade: a 45-degree pose in which the horse becomes “haunched” over the ground
  • Curvette: the horse stands on his hind legs as he runs, and holds his forelegs from the ground and his hind legs together while hopping
  • Capriole: the stallion hops into the sky, tucks his forelegs beneath him, and pushes out with him.
  • Piaffe: a cadenced trot that the stallion does when standing in place
  • Croupade: similar to the capriole, but both the front and the hind legs are hidden under the torso at the peak of the jump

and many more.

It is fascinating to watch the Lipizzaners run at the Spanish Riding School, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that real horse enthusiasts will experience. They’re beautiful and, at times, awe-inspiring.

The breed is rare today, with only around 3,000 horses recorded as purebred. But the numbers are growing as the breeders use the horses more in the harness. The Slovenes use stallions for dressage display and cross-breeding with their own native stock for use in agricultural work. The Lipizzaners is still the only breed used in Austria by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

About the author

Mirela Letailleur The Travel Bunny

Mirela Letailleur is a Romanian travel blogger living in the South of France. She writes on The Travel Bunny travel blog about affordable travel in Europe, creator of unique free travel guides, local travel expert. Problem solver. Wannabe coffee guru.

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