This photo compelled me to blog it. It was taken last week in that little street between the stables and the riding hall in Vienna. The photographer was a Spanish doctor who happens to be very, very good with a digital camera and the expression of color saturation. One of the world’s most classical horses peers out over a common plastic wheelbarrow. The woman with her back to the photographer is probably Hannah Zeitlhofer, the first female eleve, or apprentice rider, of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. She stands in the cold February sunlight wrapped not in an Austrian boiled-wool riding cape, but a sensible classic modern rider’s jacket. Except for her cap, she could be any rider, in any barn, in any country.
Is nothing sacred anymore? I ask this for a reason, though I don’t really care what they wear or what wheelbarrows they use behind the scenes. This photo is almost intrusive, yet it captures a moment.
We count on traditions in the horse world. On the first Saturday in May, we count on hearing the strains of Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home as the fastest three-year-old Thoroughbreds step out onto the track at Churchill Downs.
In the fall, we expect to hear the baying of hounds and the thundering of hooves as the hunt passes. In spring, we’d be disappointed if there weren’t a few foals to admire out in the pastures as we drive past.
And we know if we are ever lucky enough to get to Vienna, each and every one of us will pay any amount of money to watch the Spanish Riding School perform their exhibition of the finer points of classical training. For 400 years or so, people have been coming to Vienna and doing exactly the same thing.
It is that certainty of expectation that makes the recent dribs and drabs of news (rumors?) from Vienna so disturbing. Changes are afoot in an institution that is famous for not changing. And yet…
On Monday, the Spanish Riding School announced in a press release the opening of the School’s summer farm at Heldenberg, normally a sort of vacation retreat for the horses, as a second training center. The School plans to run a year-round classical training center for more Lipizzaner stallions until the number of performing stallions is doubled and two troupes will be available–one for Vienna and one for touring. An indoor school at Heldenberg and other improvements there will receive one million euros of investment.
Since only 20 foals, according to the School’s web site, are currently born at the state stud at Piber each year, and the number of fillies vs. colts must fluctuate annually, it is curious how the Spanish Riding School plans to stock the new training center with another 70 or so stallions going through the six to eight years of training to reach the higher levels of the performing horses that the public comes to see. At the same time, rumors run rampant that the beautiful stud farm will be closed.
In October, the School announced that it lost 900,000 euros in 2009.
I think of that great line, “We’ll always have Paris,” from the Bogart-Bergman film Casablanca; the horse world has always been able to say, “We’ll always have Vienna.” The problem is that we like it just the way it is, which is the way it always has been.
After all, not changing is what’s made the Spanish Riding School so famous, so beloved, so revered. And soright. For so long.