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The Spanish Riding School of Vienna – Wembley Arena

November 16, 2016

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 13th November 2016)

Still high on my “bucket list” has to be learning to ride a horse. Not something I had a chance to try as a child, but as an adult it just feels like something I’d like to do. Preferably during a relaxed month or three at a luxury 5 star “dude ranch” in Arizona, so maybe there’s a touch of “cowboy” there (no barracking at the back, thank you)… but now, well, Vienna seems tempting.

Since around 1565, The Spanish Riding School (and its forbearers) has taught noblemen and the military to ride. Not just ride, but bond with a horse to an extent where it can perform the most precise movements with just a voice, touch or light movement of reins, and even become a powerful weapon itself on the battlefield.

This 450th Anniversary tour is a chance for those in London and Birmingham (be quick, they are performing there this coming weekend) to get a glimpse of what goes on in the impressive 18th Century building in Vienna that now houses them.

In an almost 2 hour long programme, incredible horsemanship mixes with Austrian classical music and interesting audio-visual slides (presented live by Nikki Chapman) to form a fascinating afternoon.

The show is designed to demonstrate every aspect of the horse / rider partnership – which is for life, as the rider usually stays with the horse right until it retires at around 25 years old. The Lipizzaner horses themselves come from just 7 blood-lines, and the oddest fact of all is that only a horse from one of those lines may be regarded as “white.” All other white horses should, for strict accuracy, be considered “grey.”

The bond is shown first with four horses performing basic steps – yes, in exact time to Mozart – before moving on to explain “Work In Hand – Schools above the Ground;” to us, how they make those horses leap as they do. A horse takes two-thirds of its weight on its forelegs, so it’s quite a feat, beginning on a short rein without a rider.

Moving on, an amusing “Pas De Deux” – literally a ballet for two horses and riders – is a highlight of timing as they keep pace over the wide expanse of the arena. Closing the first half with a solo demonstration of a horse guided only by a long rein and voice, I couldn’t wait to see how exactly these skills came together.

The second half explained it. The three iconic “leaps,” “Courbette,” where the horse rears up on its back legs and jumps forwards, “Capriole” as it jumps with all legs in the air and moves forward, kicking out (lethal in war, the reason for the move) and “Levade” (assuming a statue-like pose on hind legs only for seconds at a time) are demonstrated to full effect. A horse has more than “forward gears,” with the right training they go up, down and sideways as well – often simultaneously… who knew?!

With a finale “School Quadrille” of 8 horses in the arena, the programme closes with each skill demonstrated and a stunning visual memory of animals and riders in harmony, moving together in beautiful, sometimes heart-stoppingly close formations.

It’s an incredibly gentle, horse paced afternoon. That takes some getting used to, coming from our modern fast world. Yet as the time passes, it seems more and more natural and my appreciation of the skill of riders and the standard of the work presented grew exponentially with every passing moment.

A genuinely fascinating afternoon, and I hope one day to take up the invitation they close with, to visit the actual school itself. Another one for the “bucket list,” I guess.

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