When I was a child, I read Marguerite Henry’s fabulous book, White Stallion of Lipizza, which tells the tale of a baker’s son who wants to become a rider at Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, training the famous white Lipizzan stallions. Against many odds, he succeeds.
That was a time when the dream didn’t include girls. Breaking with 436 years of history, the world’s oldest riding school –founded in 1572 — has admitted two female riders: a 21-year old woman from Austria and an 18-year old from Great Britain. The two young women must now pass a month long probation period to train at the school. If they pass, they will enter into a training program that lasts approximately 10 years, with 5 years before they can ride in public.
I can still remember, from reading the book, how rigorously the riders must train. Most of us groan about taking the odd lessons on the lunge line; students at the Spanish Riding School, called Élèves, spend their first six months riding exclusively on the lunge line as a way to develop their seats. Riding on the lunge continues to be an active part of their training for at least three years!
A spokesperson for the School stated that there was never a ban on female riders, rather that none so far had met their requirements. The Spanish Riding School continues a tradition that began with the cavalry tactics that originated with Xenophon in ancient Greece. In the 16th century, classical riding enjoyed a rennaissance. Horses of Spanish origin were preferred because their characteristics made them suitable for classical training.
In fact, very few applicants are accepted each year (this year there are four who were selected to participate in the one-month trial) and even fewer complete the training; 80% of those accepted either quit or are dismissed before they complete their training as an Élève.
Élèves start at the Riding School working as grooms in the stable for a specific rider. After to 6-8 months riding on the lunge, they begin to get lessons on an experienced schoolmaster that was trained by their teacher and study riding theory and the management of horses in a classroom. If the Élève does not make adequate progress during the first year, they may be dismissed.
After three years of training, the Élèves each get a young stallion to start under saddle (under the supervision of his teacher) to the point where the stallion can be ridden in the Young Stallions section of the performance. This generally takes about two years.
On a trained horse, the Élèves learn to ride the Quadrille movements and ride them in performance. The Quadrille is a 20-minute performance that includes practically every movement that is found in a Grand Prix dressage test, with the additional complication of riding with seven other horse and rider combinations! Considering that when someone applies to the riding school they generally have little riding experience, in just four to six years they are expected to have achieved what most of us only aspire to! If they achieve these skills, they are promoted to Assistant Rider. To achieve the highest rank, that of Chief Rider, typically takes 25-30 years.
So why did the Riding School choose to accept two female candidates in 2008? Perhaps the management felt that it was time to include female riders in the execution of the classical ideal of riding. After all, the majority of dressage riders today are women and including them might boost attendance at the shows.
Could is also be a last ditch effort to save the School? In early January of this year, the School announced that it was on the verge of bankruptcy. According to Elisabeth Guertler, business advisor, the Spanish Riding School lost nearly $2.9 million in 2007. To help get the Riding School out of the red, several cost cutting measures have been put in place. They canceled their U.S. tour, added more performances in Vienna, and have considered growing their own grain to cut feed costs. Perhaps including women in their performances is just what they need to bring in larger audiences and to get some positive press.
After, all, as Guertler said earlier this year, “”Tradition is important, but tradition alone is no prescription for success.”