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TRAVEL TO THE SPANISH RIDING SCHOOL WITH ADULT AMATEUR SUZIE HALLE, THE FIRST NORTH AMERICAN TO ATTEND TRAINING SESSIONS AT THE SRS HELDENBERG CENTER WITH A GRANT FROM THE DRESSAGE FOUNDATION.

WE HOPE THAT THESE MARVELOUS DESCRIPTIONS, PHOTOS AND VIDEO LINKS, WRITTEN AND COMPILED WHILE THERE, WILL MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE ALSO PARTICIPATING IN THE HELDENBERG CENTER'S TRAINING SESSIONS WITH SUZIE.

As the first North American Adult Amateur to receive and use a grant from The Dressage Foundation to attend theoretical courses at the Spanish Riding School’s Training Center in Heldenberg, it is a privilege to share with you some of what I experienced there.  Thanks to Ralph Dreitzler and family, who established the grant, I am able to share these dispatches with you.  I hope that this report, including photos, videos and drawings, will help you feel like you are right there with me at the three riding school centers, Piber, Heldenberg and Vienna, as well as to some cultural stops along the way.  These accounts will delve into some specifics of the training I received in the two courses "Training of the Young Horse" and "Work on the Long Rein" as well as some tips from my private lunge lesson which took place at the very end of my training.

 

I am relatively new to dressage.  I was introduced to the discipline in 2005 and bought my horse, Tennyson, in 2007 when he was a seven-year-old at Training Level.  Since then I have been doing 95% of the riding on him, moving up through the Levels with help from knowledgeable trainers.  We have our sights on a Grand Prix debut this Spring.  My two specific goals for this year are to improve my rider position and Tennyson’s throughness.  The training I received at the Spanish Riding School’s Heldenberg Center has immensely helped in both these areas.  The adherence to the classical methodology employed by the school makes so much sense and has been very useful to me.  My hope is that you will be able to feel as though you are there with me and can apply some of what you learn in this report to your own dressage journey.   

 

To begin, I’ll address a common question - Why is it called the "Spanish Riding School" when it's located in Vienna, Austria?  The school was named for the Spanish horses that were used in forming one of the bases of the Lipizzan breed, which is the exclusive breed used at the school. Lipizza, now called Lipica, was one of the original studs used to develop the breed.  Located near Trieste in modern Slovenia, it is from this Lipizza stud that the Lipizzan breed was named. Today, the horses are bred near the village of Piber at the Piber Federal Stud.  The Habsburg Monarchy first named the school in 1565 and records show that a wooden riding arena was first commissioned in 1565.  The beautiful riding hall used today was designed by the architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, commissioned in 1729 by Emperor Charles VI.  A portrait of Charles VI hangs in the hall, and without fail, when riders enter the arena they pay honor with a salute to this painting. The white riding hall is open to the public to watch the training and performances by the stallions. The school is the oldest of its kind in the world.

 

Another question many ask is if there are any women riders at the school.  There is one female Assistant Rider and two Eleves.  An Eleve is a rider who has been admitted (from hundreds of applicants) to the school for a three year training and vetting period which may conclude with acceptance to the school as a rider.  In addition to these three women, the School's Managing Director is also a woman.   

 

My interest in learning classical riding stems from my belief that in order to improve in anything, you need to draw from a solid foundation.  I learned that the goal of classical training of the horse is to teach them how to use their entire musculature, through tried and true gymnastic movements.  These movements are introduced at specific times by knowledgeable trainers with proper use of equipment and rewards.  The goal for the rider is to develop a proper seat that allows the horse to execute the most difficult movements with ease, balance, lightness and harmony.  The greater my knowledge in classical training, the more connections I can make personally between the SRS methodology and those practiced by my trainer.  The deeper my understanding, the more I am inspired to strive for that ultimate goal where the sport becomes art.  Training at the SRS has provided a valuable reference point, which has given me more confidence to recognize when training is classically correct and an understanding of why correct rider position and exercises will improve the quality of my horse.  I am fortunate to have a trainer who embraces these principles. 

SPANISH RIDING SCHOOL - PIBER / Koflach Astria:

The school has three locations. Piber, Heldenberg and Vienna.  Piber is two hours from Vienna, and is where the young stallions, mares and foals live. All the stallions (30+) are stabled in one open space, about 20x40 meters, free to roam about with one another in astounding harmony.  You almost can't believe it until you see the video below. I began my trip in Piber so I could witness the blessings of the young stallions and the associated festival.  It is so unique that National Geographic sent a French photographer to capture the event.  Before the stallions arrive, the churchyard is festive and lively with local performances in music and dance.  This must-see event occurs every Fall:

The Stallions Arrive:

Introductions:

The Blessing of the Stallions:

Stables come into view at the final hill returning from the parade, with stallions clip-clopping behind us.  One mile to the churchyard, standing for blessings, parading through town amongst 8,000 spectators, another mile back to the stables and the stallions are still relaxed hours later. I’m thankful that I’m a runner because it was all uphill on the way back, which was a good workout!  The stallions had impeccable ground manners from beginning to end.  Here they come two by two.

 

 

Here they are in the open, deeply bedded light and airy space, mingling freely and sharing two communal wall feeders.

The grooms of Piber (pronounced Peeber). This scene felt iconic to me, pondering 440 years of grooms and stallions over centuries.

HELDENBERG TRAINING CENTER completed in 2005 as a summer stable for the stallions, is designed with maximum consideration of the horses. Situated in lush farmland hills, 40 minutes from Vienna, riders incorporate into their training long hacks and big grassy turnouts. 80 spacious stalls are deeply bedded with attached runs. There is a tea room, locker room, office, classroom, heated drying and wash areas and laundry. Riders rotate their entire string of horses between Vienna and Heldenberg when they have performances. Typically they stay in one center for three months at a time. All performance stallions spend their holidays at Heldenberg during the hottest months in Vienna.  There are usually 5 to 8 stallions training in an arena at one time.

 

Heldenberg is also where retired stallions, including the oldest of 30 years, enjoy a life of leisure.  This handsome gentleman pictured above is 28 and fully enjoying his retirement, (no, not Andreas, the other handsome gentleman). After their busy public life, the stallions relish in all the attention and are stabled closest to the busy areas where they always feel a part of the action.  Friendly, sweet and gentle, they offer snuggles and gentle kisses to all the visitors.

Introduction of the saddle to the horse:

When a stallion leaves Piber for Heldenberg to begin his training at about 4 years of age, he has never ever seen a saddle or bridle before.  Everything is carefully orchestrated to benefit the horse so that acceptance is easy and without fear.   The sensitivity of the mouth is so respected by the school, every consideration is made to preserve it.  To that end, they are never led by the reins, ever.  A cavesson for leading, custom made for each horse, is what is used for their entire lives.

 

Andreas guided us through lessons of in-hand work and the influences of classical training greats such as Xenophon, Eumenes (Alexander The Great's assistant), Frederico Grisone (16th century), Antoine de Pluvinel and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere. Training techniques basically evolved to where we are today much the way any art form does - borrowing, modifying and adapting over time. For instance, the Greeks (Eumenes) used "pillars" more than 2,000 years ago to keep fit their horses and their troops in very limited space, a practice which was made much kinder by Antoine and further modernized by Francois, whose attention to the horses mind, body and spirit was of greatest importance. He introduced the counter canter, shoulder-in (the mother of all two track work), as well as the modern seat of today.  Francois then created a new saddle specially designed to fit the needs of this modern/new seat. The Spanish Riding School follows his training methodology.  

 

Francois said, "The opinion of those who give no importance to theory in the art of horsemanship will by no means prevent me from maintaining it to be one of the things most necessary for the attainment of perfection. Without theory, practical application always remains uncertain."  We were all there to learn this theory, and gobbled it up in spades. Eternally grateful for Andreas Hausberger, the Director of Heldenberg, we all filled many pages in our notebooks while he guided us through power point presentations and rider demonstrations.

 

Introduction of the saddle to the horse:

Introducing the saddle to the horse is done through lunging and is always done with two handlers. One leads and the other holds the lunge line in the middle of the circle.  The tools used are side reins, a cavesson, a saddle (with stirrups knotted way up high), the front legs bandaged, a lunge and a lunge whip. They lunge for 30 minutes, six days a week, for 2-3 weeks in order to get used to the saddle.  Next the side reins are shortened a bit until there is acceptance, which prepares the horse to accept a rider.  

 

Introduction of the rider to the horse: 

Four people are involved in the first time “backing” of the horse, and I was fortunate enough to witness the process.  The side reins are removed so if there is panic there are no restrictions.  One person holds the lunge, the second stands next to him with the whip away from the horse, the third person, at the stallion's head, assists with mounting and dismounting of the fourth rider. From a mounting block, the rider steps up and down four times on the near stirrup, giving the horse much praise.  Depending upon acceptance and relaxation, the rider steps up and lays over the saddle resting on his belly.  This is repeated multiple times with careful attention to the stallion's reaction.  Everything is done with rewards and reassurance and is quiet, calm and slow.  This is all to benefit the horse.  Once the horse has accepted the rider’s weight (still no reins, just a grab strap), the rider slides a leg over and sits onto the saddle.  The stallion steps, halts, and is rewarded, then steps, halts and is rewarded, and so on.  Depending upon the stallion, training in this manner may progress for weeks.  The demonstration went very well.  The horse and rider were calm, accepting and happy.

 

Introduction of the rider to the horse:

New riders to the school are just as carefully introduced.  Once an applicant is accepted into the school for a vetting period of three years, they are called Eleves. All riders at the school train their stallions six days a week for 30 Minutes. The Eleves commit 30 minutes daily to lunge lessons in the saddle, in order to develop the proper seat.  If you think about it, that's 936 days focusing on the proper seat and body position!  No wonder the SRS riders have the most spectacular seats!  Eleves, like riders, train under one of the Chief Riders and older/experienced riders.  After three years, a full review, evaluation and final exam, they are accepted or denied entrance into the Spanish Riding School.  We watched a new Eleve, Ulla, under the supervision of Andreas, perform the gymnastic movements on the lunge to develop fitness, improve balance and deepen her seat.   She did "the windmill", the "360 in the saddle", "toe touches" and "planking" among other exercises. To achieve the desired classical leg position, the Eleve began her session by rolling her hamstring back and placing it flat against the saddle, until it “rests like a slab of raw meat," as they say.

 

3 Training Stages:  

After the stallions are fully confident and have totally accepted the rider, which can take weeks, the first stage of their training begins.  This state is called "Forward Riding" or in German, “Remontenschule.” The focus and aim is forward riding on a single track, in big lines and in working tempo.  The second stage is called  “Campain School.”  After the first year of training, at about 5 years old, all two-track work, counter canter, flying changes (up to 2-tempis), work in hand for Piaffe and the double bridle are introduced. This stage takes about two thirds of the whole training! The third and final stage is the “High School” where the horse is brought to perfection. Piaffe and Passage, Canter Piroutettes and 1-tempi Changes are part of this stage.

 

Arena Etiquette:

During the "first stage" of training, the oldest leads the direction. The other riders follow on the same rein. Since most young horses don't understand the outside rein, the inside rein is used for turning in the beginning. Training for outside rein takes place later on. They always start on the bit, never on a long rein. The riders are looking for a standard of obedience from the get-go. They do not begin riding long and low, which they feel has two purposes -  reward and work over the back.

Saddle pad stripes (pictured above) are not just decoration, as the stripes indicate rider level. Three stripes denotes the highest level of rider.

Mounted riders after demonstrating stand with the super 8 - representing Normandy, Belgium, Germany, England, Austria, and yours truly from the USA.

Every stage of training was demonstrated.  It was spectacular to see the "Specialists" performing their first capriole or levade up close and personal.  Each rider will work with the same five stallions throughout their levels of training. More experienced riders will train closer to nine. Currently, there are 110 stallions in training, which is the most ever! 

Rider Position: Developing a proper seat - shoulder, hip, heel, must be aligned. The rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth should create a straight line. For your hands: position them one fist above the pommel and one fist apart. If your gloves were removed, you should be able to see your finger nails.

Redopp - pronounced "reh top" is an exercise the horse must learn and master as preparation for capriole - leaping with all four legs off the ground while simultaneously kicking out with both hind legs in unison.

Passage Aid - think of lifting the horse with this pictured part of your leg.

Piaffe- The front hooves should lift to the knee and the rear hooves should only lift to the fetlock, so the front is more elevated than the hind.

In-hand work.  There is a great deal of in-hand training at the SRS. What is necessary for in-hand work?  Fitness is the top priority for both rider and horse. This is paramount. You must also have the ability to read the body language of the horse while being self-confident in your own body language.  In other words, always present yourself with the understanding that the rider is “alpha.” Empathy, or knowing how far to push and when to stop, is key. Hand/eye coordination is also important, as you must know where to apply the aid and be capable of applying it. Working in a good arena with vertical walls is best for in-hand training.  Correct equipment includes: back lunge line, gloves, proper whip (minimum 180 cm), a cavesson, side reins, surcingle, and passage stick, just to name a few. Understanding how and being able to properly use your equipment is mandatory.  Timing is of the utmost importance.  For instance, negative reinforcement must be done within 4 seconds or you're too late. Likewise, you must also know when and how to use rewards of soft assuring pats and sugar.  You must have firm knowledge of safety etiquette with other riders in arena and have a systematic approach to your training.

 

Work on the Long Rein 

 

Before beginning long lining, it must be determined with absolute certainty that the horse has full acceptance of the whip in-hand. It is very accepted that some horses will never have the temperament for it. In long lining, the most important quality is going forward.  Once introduced, one month is considered a very short time to be doing long lining. Equipment used is a bridle (no cavesson) and the long lines, which are not adjustable. There is one set for each horse. If a small adjustment is needed, you can make a knot at the end. It is a mistake to use the handler’s body to influence the horse, especially in the corners. The inside to outside rein connection is paramount. If the horse is cutting a corner, for example, a whip is added at the inside leg position rather than the handler’s temptation to physically push the horse over. It is standard practice to use a voice command by clicking the tongue. The position of the handler is the key. The handler can be directly behind the horse, almost touching the tail, or to the right or left.  At walk or trot non-lateral work, the position is directly behind or just to the inside of the horse, but the handler’s body position moves to cue for "canter".  The canter aid is to physically change your body position in relation to the horse by moving to the outside. Moving your body to the outside in long lining is interpreted by the horse just as a leg aid would be when it slides back. The horse makes this connection and the training is easily transferred from long lining to under saddle work.

 

Contact with the bridle while long lining is the same as under saddle. If the horse is behind the vertical, you do the same correction – drive the horse forward to regain a correct connection. The handler’s stride indicates rhythm and tempo to the horse. It should be long and cadenced. The whip is used carefully and is never a punishing aid.  

Sketch: Proper body and rein aids at the walk or trot for shoulder-in right along the wall, which acts as your outside leg to prevent haunches out. Note in this sketch how the rider's position is slightly to the inside, bringing the outside rein directly next to the inside hand. Reins always remain in two hands. Notice just as when under saddle, the outside rein never crosses the wither. Its purpose is to add pressure to ask the shoulder to move over. The whip always remains in your dominant hand for best reaction time.

Silke from Germany with her stallion Mr. Mir receiving instruction.

Fitness. You are working in arena footing, in tall riding boots, directly behind your horse for 30 minutes.  It requires stamina! For non-equestrian friends, think wind sprints in hiking boots at the beach. Everyone went a bit "pink" in the cheeks except Andreas. The point is that to be successful you must be fit. One of the SRS riders had just completed running a Marathon, so they do take their fitness seriously.  As mentioned earlier, when asking the horse to canter, you position your body to the outside of the horse.  To indicate a change of lead you must move your body from the old outside to the inside of the horse such that it becomes the new outside.  No body change is done with one tempi changes, only the clicking of the tongue is used.  It’s quite remarkable to see how the horse evolves to this understanding with the careful progression in their training, filled with rewards and praise.

This demonstration proved the importance of fitness and light, deliberate, well-timed aids to master long lining. It made me appreciate how sensitive riders and their horses can be with one another.   We learned from horses that were just beginning in the process, right up to the well-trained specialists. 

On the long rein, we saw all the movements required for a Grand Prix test, and then some.  Riders had stallions executing half pass zig-zags in trot and canter, beautiful lines of one-tempi changes, pirouettes, piaffe and passage. It was inspiring to see it all done without anyone in the saddle! This training demonstrates that a rider and a horse can transfer their knowledge of impulsion, rhythm, cadence and everything from the saddle to the long rein. Light, effective aids create harmony between horse and rider on foot or in the saddle and we are so fortunate for the kind spirit and intelligence of our horses.  They enjoy their work when they understand what we are asking and become proud of this understanding and yearn to show us what they have learned. Ultimately, correct training and rewards make them confident, secure and happy. This mutual love and respect between horse and rider at Spanish Riding School certainly cannot be surpassed.

LET’S TRAVEL NOW TO THE VIENNA RIDING HALL FOR A PRIVATE, BEHIND THE SCENES TOUR 

Above each stall is a name plaque. FAVORY AGUILEJA is a very special bay stallion.
Comfy and deeply bedded, indoor stalls have stunning ceilings. Above each stall is a unique relief sculpture.

Kitties the world over find tack rooms prrrrrrrfect for naps right?!

Outdoor arena encircled by the largest walker in the world, where four straight sides eliminate having to walk in circles.

The crosswalk from outdoor stable to indoor hall. In these narrow corridors horses await riders tethered in small alcoves.

My studies at the school coincided with the Vienna Masters.  I was invited to the opening gala where eight of the Spanish Riding School riders performed under the lights to the most stunning backdrop ever - the offices of The House of The Mayor.  I loved the juxtaposition of the old and the new art (below). I also loved the airs above ground.

Adelinde Cornelisson and Parcival's winning ride Vienna Masters CDI****
Click through to watch her ride.

You can not study at the Spanish Riding School without exploring Vienna’s rich history.  Wonderful museums transported me to centuries ago. Many traditions have passed, but many are still in place, such as the use of horses and buggies through the streets of Vienna today. To my delight, they can be found everywhere!  Private museum tours given by my friend, Tina, the Exhibitions Manager of the Weil Museum, revealed glimpses of the fashion and art from when the school was founded 440 years ago.  In particular, the armory wing put into cultural context the importance that horses have had in our lives. Check out what people wore to battle and for the sport of jousting. Can you tell the difference between which was used for what purpose?

Did you know you could tell from what army a knight belonged based on the decorations on the armor?  And did you know entire wardrobes were made of mix and match pieces for knight and his horse?  Some were quite delicate and so intricate.  After you go to the museums, a Viennese favorite is a must - the 1640's eatery, Esterhazy, in the heart of the oldest part of Vienna. It is housed in underground tunnels. These tunnels go everywhere under the city and have been closed off in places creating cozy underground eateries like this one.

If you love coffee and desserts, Café Demel and the Sacher Hotel have the best sweets.  Cafe Central, around the corner from Spanish Riding School is very popular too.  I met up with seminar friends, Silke and her husband, for coffee, recaps, stories and laughter at Café Central. Meeting so many people from all over the world proved that equestrians are really one community. We are bound together through the spirit of our horses, no matter the language or discipline. Equestrians are united in our love for these amazing animals, passion for learning, and obsession with progress, which makes friendship instant and easy. Self-deprecating humor abounds and therefore laughter is ubiquitous the world over!

If you check the calendar of the Vienna Opera House prior to going, you are in for a treat.  I was able to get in to the standing room only ($4 what a great deal!) for the single sold out performance of Jose Carreras, who was honored by the Opera House for his long association with them.  I lucked into the first row behind the first floor center stage.  Have a listen -http://youtu.be/hF24znTdrCA  http://youtu.be/4IqBzyJSp0s   When opera is going on inside, those strolling the town can enjoy it from the outside as well – free, right on the street.  Mounted high up is an enormous screen with excellent speakers (see above).  It's quite social - a great idea.  Every city should do it.

 

After our final seminar, Rupert (my carpool buddy who, together with his wife, restores 100-year-old carriages for their driving Halflingers) kindly drove Liesbeth (a seminar friend from Belgium) and I to a local tack shop to obtain "essentials" for my lunge lesson (I was over the moon excited about gorgeous over the boot flare breeches and matching brown gloves). No adventure is ever complete without a visit to a tack shop, and this one’s just fabulous.

Lunge Lesson

EXCERCISES TO DEVELOP CORE, INDEPENDENT SEAT, ARMS, BODY ALIGNMENT:

So here we are in our lunge lesson. Yup, that’s us planking, clicking our heels three times behind in that plank. I was determined to execute it properly and was proud of myself for being able to do it. I have to thank my “pilates for equestrians” class here in Colorado for developing core strength all year to pull it off.  Here’s what we worked on: 

Straightness in your torso: At trot and canter - turn your core right then left. It is harder than you think to keep both arms exactly even and parallel to the ground without flapping while the body is deep in the saddle moving with the horse, relaxed.

Independent arms: At trot and canter - inside arm relaxed down, outside arm up at ceiling. Rotate like a pinwheel. Maintain loose hands/fingers, no tension. Reverse direction. Don’t just circle your arms, really open the chest muscles to feel the stretch while staying quiet in the saddle with your seat.

Core: Plank at the halt - Seated, legs down, hold pommel, swing straight legs up behind into “plank,” click ankles together 3 times, lower legs to sitting. Repeat 3X quickly.

Core: Reverse plank at the halt - Seated, legs down/straight, hold the cantle, swing straight legs up in front, above the mane, click heels. Return to sitting. Repeat 3X.

Independent seat:  At the halt, turn around in the saddle. Front/side/back/side/front.

Body position: Visualize in the canter that toes are up. Keep arms down, relaxed hands, legs and seat quiet. For me, keep inside shoulder down and back. Feel seat bones.

Body position check: Are shoulders back?  Without leaning forward, just glance down. If you see your toe, move your lower leg back. Move wrists and fingers to relax them and your arms.

 

Thank you Marius, a 17 year rider with the Spanish Riding School and Natalie, owner of this lovely barn and super 9-year-old, 3rd level horse.

I received a personal invitation to a special evening to witness a wine baptism in the name of the bay stallion Favory Aguileja, hosted by Winzer Krems and the Spanish Riding School. A bay adult Lipizzan is rare and the SRS believes it’s good luck to always have one in training.  Favory Aguileja is one of two at the school now. I rode the bus with SRS riders, seminar friends and dignitaries from Austria.  Fun!

Photo by Elia Zilberberg

Managing Director of the SRS, Elisabeth Gürtler, the stallion's rider & vineyard owner. Wine is removed from its barrel in the traditional way to prepare for the blessing. Yes, all sipped from this massive goblet after its blessing.

A 4 piece brass band keeping things lively. Tray after tray of delicious food prepared by the top culinary school in Austria. The stunning green floor is actually a google map of the countryside of Lower Austria, (where all the local wines are made) illuminated from below.  It was a fantastic effect... like walking on air. All were given a bottle to bring home. I’m now wondering what extraordinary occasion will be reason enough to uncork mine!

TRAINING COURSE CERTIFICATES OF COMPLETION, SIGNED BY ANDREAS HAUSBERGER, DIRECTOR OF TRAINING IN HELDENBERG AND ELISABETH GÜRTLER, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE SPANISH RIDING SCHOOL.

Proud Graduates from all over the world made history and friendship through this coursework, in the very first year the SRS opened their doors for this training. 

 

As an impossibly wonderful experience came to a close, I captured this glowing arc within the arc of my hotel window overlooking Vienna. I’d never been close enough to see the end of a rainbow. They say a pot of gold rests there.  And here it was. As I pressed my nose to the glass, with all the others also “ooing” and “ahhing” at this remarkable event, I reflected that certainly, it was true. I’d found my pot of gold at the Spanish Riding School in Austria. Here’s hoping this grant allows you to find yours as well.

 

The Heldenberg Training Center Fund was established by Ralph and Freddie Dreitzler and their family, with personal donations from friends, family, and colleagues, in memory of E.L. Dreitzler. The family worked with Andreas Hausberger, Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School and Director of the Training Center in Heldenberg to establish this opportunity for North American, non-professional riders to participate in educational sessions at the Heldenberg Center. For more information, visit our Heldenberg Training Fund page.