The Spanish Riding School and Art in Equestrian Sport

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is on the “I simply have to go there one day” section of my travel wishlist. The main attraction for me is of course the rich history of horsemanship, despite the fact that the beautiful buildings with amazing features such as chandeliers in the riding arena, are just about enough to warrant a visit on their own.

Maestoso Basowizza & Oberbereiter Hausberger

Previously, I had read many interesting things about the Spanish Riding School, but I have just had a fantastic refresher course on the classical principles that are the heart and soul of their work. It has been a great opportunity to reflect on how much this faraway place has influenced my mental approach to riding and training. In one of those serendipitous moments that I love the internet for, this refresher course came in the form of a randomly stumbled upon youtube video, which you can see here, and part 2 here.

The truly heartening thing to see from this video on the Spanish Riding School is that good horse sense and horsemanship run through everything they do. Although the riders may dress in uniforms from a bygone era, it is difficult to spot anything about their practices that is so old fashioned that it should be left to the history books. Much has been made of the gap between classical dressage and competition dressage of today, but from this video I see much that can be learnt from the past and applied to the competition arena. 

At the beginning of the video we are given an insight into the management of the young horses prior to entering the Spanish Riding School. Their life appears to be very much in the “natural” vein. The mares and foals run in large herds on beautiful pastures, where they can learn all of the important lessons of equine society. When they are a bit older, the colts run in a large herd in the mountains, and it is a beautiful sight to see them running together, playing games as colts do, and developing strength as they grow.

There is much to be said for allowing young horses to get their teenage rebellious phase out of their system in the company of other horses. This must be particularly beneficial for colts, destined to be stallions for their entire lives. I’ve seen far too many colts and stallions with behavioural problems due to isolation from other horses.

Another key element in the methods of the Spanish Riding School is surely the patience and empathy they show for the horse in training. The young horse can take from six to eight years to train, and the prevailing attitude appears to be one of setting the horse up to succeed, and patiently working towards the end goal. There is no sense of desperation, or urgency in their work, as there is no judge to impress down at the local show next week and no owners wanting a return on their investment. They know that the methods they use will slowly but surely establish a solid foundation which will ensure a reliable performance horse for the long term.


At one stage in the footage they show a young stallion being introduced to his first experience with a rider. The horse has apparently been allowed to get used to the saddle for a period of months, and there are three handlers on the ground to assist the lightweight apprentice who is set to be the first jockey. The horse is then lunged with a rider aboard until it becomes accustomed to his presence.

There is a beautiful quote from the narrator that sums up their approach:

“Patience and trust are an infallible formula”

This is an approach whereby the trainer of the horse always looks to the bigger picture. The end goal is a horse that is calmly established in high school dressage movements, able to work in harmony with both its rider and other horses. There are no short cuts here.

Another important insight, that I was taught when I began riding, but that I have since been surprised to learn is not a universally know and accepted truth:

“The young stallion learns from an experienced rider.  The young rider learns from the experienced, trained stallion – the ‘horse professor’ “

At several points we see apprentice riders riding without stirrups on the lunge under the careful eye of an experienced rider. It was great to see that they perform some of the exercises I was made to do when I was a beginner on the lunge. A few years ago I asked a coach to lunge me without stirrups on my horse because I could feel that my position was not as good as it used to be. She wasn’t keen, she thought my position was fine and that I was just showing a lack of confidence. Sure, my confidence is not equal to many riders, but I truly believe that lunge exercises are incredibly valuable. I was very glad of the reminder that the Spanish Riding School and I are in agreement on this point:

“It can take 8, 10 or more years for an apprentice to become a rider. Correct posture in the saddle is the basis and starting point for all equestrian skills. It requires a lifetime’s practice.”

I am so glad I found this video. I have two great books by former instructors at the Spanish Riding School – Horses Are Made to Be Horses: A Personal Philosophy of Horsemanship by Franz Mairinger and My Horses, My Teachers by Alois Podhajsky (both of which I will review in detail in future.) I was very glad to see the same respectful, common sense approach to horses in the books as in the video from more recent times. This is a brilliant window to the past, where traditions are not just carried on because that is how things have always been done, but because they are the tried and tested methods of over four hundred and thirty years of living and breathing horsemanship at the highest level.

“This is a never ending learning process, with horses, there’s something new to learn every day. Even the master riders go on teaching each other, another aspect of tradition. They learn with and from one another.”

-Porzellan Augarten Vienna 2007 006 1

In addition to the above, here are some things to look out for when you watch this video:

  • A rider sitting quietly, allowing an unbalanced horse to find his own balance in the piaffe. No frantic nagging of spurs here, just quiet assistance from the ground.
  • One horse receives a food reward for his hard work.
  • Brilliant old paintings of the airs above the ground in reference to their roles in battle – Just imagine doing a canter pirouette when there are men on horses trying to attack you with swords…

And although I don’t wish to spoil the ending for you, I just loved this final quote from the narrator so much that I had to transcribe it. I’ve added it to my collection of horse quotes to refer to in times when I need inspiration.

“There can be true understanding between humans and horses if we’re prepared to bring tolerance and friendship to our perception of the way a horse thinks and feels, and to enlist it, as man’s partner, without depriving it of its innermost nature.”

This could so easily apply to the work of every other horse person that I respect. Some of them being high level competition riders, but many being those who work with young and problem horses establishing the lines of communication between horse and human that will set the horse up for life. It’s a great reminder that good horsemanship, in any discipline, comes back to the same basic concepts of respect and empathy for the horse.

2 thoughts on “The Spanish Riding School and Art in Equestrian Sport

  1. Thank you for this, it follows the lineage and instruction I received from my second dressage instructor, who was a friend of Alois’ and had been accepted into the Spanish Riding School..but never went as WWII intervened.

    • Must have been amazing to learn from someone who was exposed to this world of classical training. Over the years I have struggled to find coaching that agrees with the classical principles I have read. Thanks for the comment!

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