The history of the art of horse riding dates back almost 2,500 years to the time of the Greeks. The history of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to the 16th century.
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Greeks and Spaniards (?)
Xenophon — a student of Socrates — wrote the first (and, for a long time, only) books on the subject of horse riding: On Horsemanship and The Cavalry General.
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 given that the riders wielded firearms.
This resurgence reached Vienna, too, where documents dating back to 1572 already refer to a wooden Spanish riding hall.
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.
Not just any Spanish horse finds its way into the riding school, however…only the Lipizzaner, a breed which dates back to 1580 and Archduke Karl von Habsburg’s Imperial Stud Farm (see the article on the Lipizzaner stallions).
(An excerpt from an equestrian portrait of Emperor Karl VI, who reigned as today’s Spanish Riding School formally opened. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
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 days past, 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 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 arena building is actually just the winter school, where the gala performances take place.
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*.