The life of a Lipizzaner stallion is not all pirouettes, gala evenings, and sharing a nosebag of hay with your groom. It begins far from the Viennese crowds in the rural idyll that is the Piber stud farm in Styria.
A career summary
(A Dappled Gray Stallion Tethered in a Landscape from the late 16th century. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)
When last I visited Piber, I learnt that a week after the birth, the mare and foal return to the main breeding herd. Six months later, all that season’s young foals are separated from the mothers and form their own herd. And another six months later, the male foals join the colt herd, where they remain for another 2 to 3 years.
During these early years, the horses remain under constant observation and supervision, and also enjoy plenty of time roaming “free” on alpine pastures. This social and physical environment allows the horses to develop those skills they’ll need later if they’re to make it as performance stallions: build, stamina, dexterity etc.
Approaching four years old, the horses undergo a selection process to judge their suitability for Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Key criteria include their genealogy, constitution, size, build, natural ability and willingness to keep smiling while signing autographs. (One of those I made up.)
For more info on the early years of the stallions, see the Piber website.
The very best horses transfer to a training program which lasts around six years before the stallions are considered suitable for public performances. Each horse has its own specialties, depending on its aptitude for particular moves.
Though a horse might work with apprentices and senior riders, each has its own designated (student) rider and the two form a long partnership. For more on the training program, see the Spanish Riding School website.
There are a few dozen stallions at the school at any one time. Though they work hard, they live an opulent lifestyle (for a horse). Each has a large stable with 24 hour supervision. They eat organic food, have their own dedicated city water supply, and the facilities include a solarium should they feel a little tired after a performance…
(You can get a look behind the scenes on one of the tours* offered by the school.)
The stallions also get regular holidays in the country at Heldenberg in the province of Lower Austria. The facility also doubles as a training centre for the younger horses. Retirement age is about 25, and because of their fitness, genetics and healthy upbringing, the stallions may live until 35.