During the quiet time at the museum between Christmas and New Year’s, Michael and I also went to see the Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg complex. I’m a total sucker for these beautiful beasts, ever since reading Mary Stewart’s “Airs Above the Ground,” and I think I also saw a movie about them as a child. There are some old films out there: The Lipizzaners are every horse-crazy little girl’s dream – huge, nimble, and easily anthropomorphizable with their soulful, intelligent faces. (And open to Freudian interpretation, as I’m well aware!) I’m still smitten. I was delighted to hear a (possibly apocryphal?) story about Anna Freud and the Lipizzaners as well. An analyst who knows practically everybody was told that in the late 60’s when Viennese scholars and analysts were trying to get her to come back to Vienna to help honor Freud properly here. She was understandably reluctant to return after the family’s narrow escape from the Nazis. So someone who knew someone (which is how everything works in Vienna) arranged for her to see them up close and personal. I doubt she actually rode one (no mean feat), although she was quite “sportiv.” But I love the story!
Lipizzaners 2
Lipizzaners 1

We were too frugal to spring for a full-on performance, when watching the morning exercises is accessible and fun. We even saw one horse do a “cabriole” (not pictured here – photos are frowned upon except when everyone is snapping them at the lineup at the very end.)
Lipizzaner royal box
The 16th century arena is as gorgeously appointed as a Habsburg banquet hall – except for the sawdust floor! The imperial viewing box with velvet chairs and drapes is shown in the photo above. In fact, it was used to host the Congress of Vienna in 1815 because there was no other venue large enough. Of course, the horses performed for them there.

We heard that PETA and other animal-rights groups oppose the training of the horses as cruel and unnatural. The official statements of the Hofreitschul state that the exercises are based on natural movements the horses make, and that horse and rider have a close bond. The history is published on their official web site at What I observed in this regard is that the horses’ heads are forced (by yanking on the bridle) into an unnaturally low position during performance to create a beautiful neck line, and there is some use of crops that looks rather unpleasant. On the other hand, these horses get more days off than the average Viennese government worker (i.e., a lot), and a luxurious retirement. Maybe there is a metaphor here to the sad story of Sisi and the strictures of the aristocracy before the 20th century (more on that in a subsequent blog.) Horses who don’t “show a talent” for the work – i.e., are too independent or untrainable – do not end up in a glue factory, but are sold for stud and/or other lines of work which is likely more burdensome than the posh lives of these pampered ponies.

A behind the scenes tour allowed us to get very close to the horses (no touching – they are stallions and sometimes bite; and no photos, sorry!) The tack room includes these elegant horsehead saddle racks.
Lipizzaner horse head saddle rack
Lipizzaner tack room

At the end of our outing of course I bought our 4-year old granddaughter a stuffed horsie and a picture book about the rescue of one of the horses by a brave little girl during WWII.
Lipizzaner stable


About pcooperwhite

Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York NY
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