The Spanish Court Riding School looks back on a 425-year long tradition and is the only institute in the world where the classical horsemanship in the Renaissance tradition of the High School is retained and preserved to this day.
The term “High School of Horsemanship” (“Hohe Schule der Reitkunst”) denotes the gymnastic design of the entire musculature of the horse and the thereby achieved excellence of mastering the most difficult exercises in complete balance and all perfectly in tune with the natural fine mechanics of the horse. The horses find their expression with apparent ease and lightness and in harmony with the movement.
The Spanish Riding School derives the indication “Spanish” from the breed of horse which is native to the Iberian Peninsular. These horses proved to be particularly suitable for classical horsemanship and were famous even in the Roman Age.
The High School of horse-riding experienced a rebirth at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, when the Renaissance found its way into the royal courts. It spread rapidly throughout Europe, fostered by a venerable riding tradition and a highly sophisticated appreciation for ceremonial at court.
This applied, first and foremost, to the imperial court in Vienna, since the Habsburgs also ruled in the Mediterranean region, an area vital to classic horsemanship. Thus the crown of the Holy Roman Empire belonged to a Habsburg, while someone else resided in Spain and was at the same time Lord of Naples.
These two and their respective countries, engaged actively in trading goods, including those of an equestrian nature. The breeding of Spanish horses was introduced to Austria around 1562 by Archduke Maximilian, son of Ferdinand I. He founded a stud farm in Kladrub (Czech Republic). Three years later, reference was made to a so-called “Ross-Tumblplatz”, situated in front of the Stallburg. This was an uncovered riding ring which was unusable during bad weather. For this reason, a wooden “Spanish riding hall” (“Spainischer Reithsall”) was built, where the Josefsplatz is located now, in 1572. This is the first documented reference to such an establishment. A document dating back to January 1593 mentions the defectiveness of the “steed cavorting place in the royal pleasure garden” (“Ross Dumbl Platz im Hoflustgarten”), and it also reveals something about the exterior of the hall. It seems that it involved an elongated, narrow hall which was situated town-wards at the wall, and that it was resting on pillars. It was surely not one of the most outstanding buildings, yet it provided protection against bad weather and it ensured a promising education in appreciation of the High School; more than would have been possible in the open. It is highly likely that horses from Lipizza were among those that were trained in the “Spainische Reithsall” in 1593. In 1580, the stud in Lipizza was founded by Archduke Charles of Inner Austria.
The wooden hall was at first quite probably only intended as a temporary arrangement; however, it survived – like many provisional arrangements of today – longer than expected. In the years 1641 and 1642, a constructional combination of treasure chamber and riding stable was considered and a first estimate of costs was provided. But it took until the regency of Emperor Leopold I for the imperial riding school project to be set in motion. Not only did the Habsburg lay the foundation stone for the theatrical and musical city of Vienna, he also surpassed the Italian courts in grandiosity and other features with his ostentatious carousels and steed ballets.
The first documented steed ballet in which music directed the rhythm of snow-white Lipizzaner horses took place on 24 January 1667, on the occasion of the marriage of the emperor with the Spanish Infanta Margarita Teresa.
In the year 1681, the artistically inclined Emperor Leopold I decided to commission a “new riding school unto Vienna on the Tumelplatz”. And so, after obtaining an estimation of costs on 31 July, a command was given to start with the construction of a building where the first floor was intended for the court library and the ground floor for the riding school. As reported in 1683, the building was practically finished except for the roof tiles which needed to be hooked in. Soon afterwards the Turkish wars broke out and like so many other things, parts of the nearly finished riding school were badly affected.
In 1685 a reconstruction was intended with the aim to take up riding practice in the new building that winter. However, year after year went by without a completion being mentioned in the records.
In 1729, under the rule of Charles VI, the construction of a new building commenced, using the existing main wall, but following a different building plan. This time there were no delays, and the building of Josef Emanuel Fischer von Erlach took on its present form in 1735.
Emperor Charles VI visited the completed building accompanied by his wife Empress Elizabeth-Christine, their daughter Maria Theresa and her fiance Franz Stefan of Lorraine on 14 September 1735. From this year on, the Spanish Court Riding School exclusively used Lipizzaner horses from the Karster stud (Lipizza) and no longer any unknown Spanish horses.
The Winter Riding School guaranteed that Charles VI could control the performance of the Lipizzaner stallions as he intended. In this way, everyday work in the new building could be carried out non-stop. The first names of the Senior Riders (Oberbereiter) date from this period; for example, Oberbereiter Edler von Regenthal who was probably highly esteemed by Charles VI., since the latter ordered him to Lipizza with instructions to determine the state of things on location, to report back and to make suggestions for improvement. Attesting to Charles VI's achievement is his riding portrait hanging in the court loge of the hall, as well as the marble panel with the Latin inscription: “The imperial riding school established for education and for practice of the aristocratic youth as well as to train horses for artistic riding and the war by command of Emperor Charles VI, son of erstwhile Emperor Leopold I and under custody of the court building director and master of the royal mews Count Gundaker von Althan in the year 1735.”
To this day the riders express their respect for the constructor of the hall every time they ride into the hall: they lift their bicorn hats in salutation in front of the portrait of Charles VI. After Charles’ death in 1740, Maria Theresa took over the regency. She was the first to celebrate medieval tournaments and carousels in the new Winter Riding School. She loved entertainment of that kind and participated actively in ladies’ carousels. What is more, pompous court balls and lavish masked balls were put on during that time.
The shape and form of the Spanish Court Riding School as we know it today came into existence at the beginning of the 19th century: The Empire-uniforms of the “Schulreiter”: golden-edged bicorn hat, coffee-brown frock coat, yellow toned buckskin breeches, buckskin gloves and high leather boots. The red and gold saddle cloths and the slender, gold-plated breastplate and crupper of the stallions.
The period of the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) provided a new impetus for the Spanish Riding School: festive carousels in front of an international audience of high and highest politicians. After the festivities of these years some peace and quiet was reinstated for the benefit of the daily routine. The Imperial Senior Riders and other riders were able to pursue their work in a more sedate atmosphere. This was all the more important since the French Revolution (around 1792) and the Napoleonic Wars and their repercussions had brought to an end nearly all institutions that were dedicated to horsemanship throughout Europe. When Emperor Franz Joseph ascended the royal throne of Hungary on 8 June 1867 on the coronation hill near Budapest, he sat on the Lipizzaner stallion Maestoso Cerbero. The very last carousel took place on 28 April 1894, twenty years before the gun shots of Sarajevo were fired. That work proceeded in the Spanish Court Riding School despite decades of distraction and interferences, is the achievement of the famous Senior Riders: the Weyrothers, notably Max. He was succeeded by Burgstock and Kampen, Rieder and Herr von Nadasty, Mattheus Niedermayer and Franz Gebhardt.
In the year 1898, Johann Meixner was Senior Rider; he wrote down the fundamental directives with His Excellency Holbein. Each one of them, however, continued the great tradition of passing down the oral tradition of horsemanship to their successors.