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Beautiful prisoners? The dancing white horses of Vienna

on November 10, 2013

They say you should be careful what you wish for because you might get it. And this can definitely be true, as I found out yesterday.

As a child I was one of those horse-mad kids, the kind whose every waking (and sleeping) moment was consumed by thinking about horses. My idea of heaven was to be around horses. Any horses, anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse that I didn’t find beautiful in some way. And my ultimate dream was to have my own horse – preferably a grey one. My ideal horse would have been a Lipizzaner stallion, one of the horses from the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna. (I’d been mildly obsessed with the Spanish Riding School ever since reading My dancing white horses by Alois Podhaksky, a former director of the school). My dream of a horse never came true, and over the years my horse-madness faded, but I always wanted to see the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And then I got what I wanted…

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Yesterday, having fallen for a weather forecast that said the weekend weather would be good, I got on a train to Vienna, just a couple of hours from where I live. I didn’t have any particular plan for the day – just wanted to wander around town and practice my German a bit. However when I got to Vienna it was very cold and raining heavily. So I decided to visit a museum or two to get out of the weather. I was wandering around a square with some interesting statues and architectural details when I noticed a poster of a grey horse on the opposite wall.

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I wandered over to see what it was advertising and discovered that I was right there. At the Spanish Riding School. Even better, there was a sign saying there would be a guided tour, in English, at 2pm. I walked around the corner to find the entrance and found myself right outside the stables which were across the road from the square. Right at the time when some horses were being led across the road to and from the hall where the morning performance was being held. To say they were gorgeous would be putting it mildly. Not too large, with long flowing manes and tails, crested necks, white coats and huge black eyes they were like rocking horses come to life, or a unicorn with the horn removed. I watched them until they were out of sight and then shot round to the booking office and got my ticket for the tour.

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The tour started with a warning – we weren’t allowed to take any photos in or around the stables, and weren’t allowed to touch or feed the horses. The second part of this made sense – the horses would probably not enjoy being patted by large groups of strangers. After all, there were two tours taking place at the same time, one in English and one in German, and a further two tour sessions later that afternoon. With around 15 people in each tour group that would mean 90 potential horse patters during the afternoon. And the horses are stallions so therefore could possibly bite someone. And not being allowed to feed them makes sense for a lot of reasons. But I couldn’t see the sense of the no photos rule. What harm could be done by taking photos without a flash. But best not to argue. So off we went. I had managed to take some photos of the stableyard through the open gate earlier anyway.

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The first part of the tour involved going past an enormous horse-walker capable of exercising 24 horses at a time (although they usually just have up to 12 horses in there) and a very small training area. The guide explained that the horses are trained for just 40 minutes each day, with a further 45 minutes spent on the walker. Add to this whatever time the horses spend performing in shows, which seem to last for around 80 minutes two or three times per week, and the horses appear to be standing in their stables for over 21 hours most days. The stables are in the centre of Vienna so there is nowhere for the horses to be turned out for grazing and exercise. The horses are given a break during July and August each year, and also have an additional 6 to 8 weeks break every year at the school’s training centre in Heldenberg, but that still leaves them cooped up indoors (although some boxes do have a door onto the main stable yard) for around 36 weeks per year.

On we went to the stables. The boxes varied in size, but seemed comfortable enough, with deep bedding, either straw or wood shavings, water available constantly via automatic drinking bowls which are activated when the horse touches a sensor, and charts showing that the horses are fed three times per day. The stables were the type which have bars on the top half, so the horses can see out and into the adjoining boxes, but not put their heads out and interact with anyone going past. There seemed to be little stimulation for the horses and most of them were just standing with their heads down, looking bored and a bit miserable. The overall impression was of beautiful powerful animals kept in cages.

The next stop on the visit was the tack room, where the saddles and bridles were kept. The guide explained that for some of the “high school” work which involves the horse carrying out a series of jumps the riders do not use stirrups in case they bang off the horses stomach and frighten or hurt them. This seemed good. And the bridles for the young horses (without a bit) and the less experiences horses (a jointed snaffle bit) didn’t look too harsh. But the double bridles used on the experienced horses for the more complicated work looked very severe, with long shanks on the curb bit that looked horrendous. At least one of the horses I photographed going between the riding hall and the stables was foaming heavily at the mouth and looked to be in some discomfort.

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A visit to the main riding hall was the final part of the tour. The hall was smaller than I expected from having seen it on tv, but it was nonetheless impressive, and very beautiful. And we went through a door which brought us back to where we started, conveniently close to the gift shop.

For me, the visit raised a number of issues. As a vegan, I am against the exploitation of animals. I don’t eat them, I don’t buy products that are tested on animals and I hate to see wild animals in captivity and forced to perform in marine parks, circuses etc. But I’ve never really thought of horses as “captive animals” until now. But there was something about the conditions that the horses at the Spanish Riding School are kept in that reminded me of animals in a zoo. Kept in stables that look like cages with very limited periods of freedom, what seemed to me like very little exercise and an awful lot of standing around looking bored and sad. The Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna live lives of luxury compared to a lot of horses in the world, including Vienna’s numerous carriage horses, but there was something about seeing them confined in their stables and looking bored and sad that just didn’t seem right. In my opinion horses should be kept somewhere where they can have some period of freedom and interact with other horses, rather than being indoors in a city centre stables with no freedom or opportunities for interaction apart from just being able to see each other. So although the horses are beautiful I won’t be going back to the Spanish Riding School for another visit. Keeping horses in the centre of Vienna and having them perform for the public (for a hefty sum of money) may well be a Viennese tradition, but like many of the world’s “traditions” this one might be due for a rethink.

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