The history of the art of horse riding dates back almost 2,500 years to the time of the Greeks. Xenophon — a student of Socrates — wrote the first (and for a long time only) books on the subject: On Horsemanship and The Cavalry General (the links take you to online translations).
Horsemanship continued to flourish under the Romans, but the dark ages and the rather simple demands placed on medieval warhorses — “run as fast as you can at the enemy” — did little for the development of classical horse riding skills. It was only in the mid-1500s that equestrianism experienced a resurgence, led in part by the need for more intelligent use of the horse in battle now that the riders wielded firearms.
This resurgence reached Vienna, too, where documents dating back to 1572 already refer to a wooden Spanish riding hall.
Why Spanish? Simple – Spanish horse breeds were best suited to the equestrian arts and were used exclusively for that purpose at court. It’s a tradition that continues today. Though not just any Spanish horse finds its way into the riding school, but only the Lipizzaner, a breed which dates back to 1580 and Archduke Karl von Hapsburg’s Imperial Stud Farm (see the article on the Lipizzaner stallions).
By the late 17th century, it was decided the court needed a more permanent and sturdy riding environment than the existing wooden riding hall could provide. As usual in those days, various wars interfered with imperial plans. So it was only in 1729 that work on today’s Spanish Riding School (German: Spanische Hofreitschule) began within the buildings that form the imperial Hofburg Palace.
The enclosed arena is largely unchanged since its official opening in 1735 under the aegis of Emperor Karl VI (whose portrait hangs at one end of the hall). White stone balustrades, galleries and columns dominate the architecture, with soft lighting from mammoth chandeliers.
It’s a majestic environment for the world’s oldest working riding school still practicing the classical art of renaissance dressage.
Although synonymous with the Spanish Riding School, the building is actually just the winter school – elsewhere there are stables and other buildings, as well as an open-air “summer” school for the warmer months. These are not normally accessible to the public outside of guided tours and public performances take place in the winter arena, of course.