Updated: Wednesday, 11 December 2013 20:55 | By Agence France-Presse

No horsing around for Vienna's elegant Lipizzans

Elegant and disciplined at all times, they trot, pirouette and capriole with what seems like the greatest of ease, steered by impeccable riders in tailcoat and hat.

No horsing around for Vienna's elegant Lipizzans

A Lipizzaner stallion and his rider practice during a training session at the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) in Vienna, on November 14, 2013

But it takes years of training to achieve the level of perfection exhibited at Vienna's elite Spanish Riding School -- for both horse and human alike. 

The white Lipizzan horses have delighted tourists visiting Austria's capital for decades and have become a trademark of the city. 

But there's no getting in the school without the right lineage -- for a horse that is. As for budding riders, they had better be prepared to get up at 6:00 am six days a week, in their first years, to clean the stables.

No horseback tricks for them either: most of their first year will be spent just learning to sit properly in the saddle. 

"It's hard and you know when you start that if you don't later succeed in training a young horse, you'll have to leave. And it's the dream of everyone who starts here to make it and one day become a rider," Marcus Nowotny, 30, told AFP.

He is one of the few who made it through the tough selection and training process, which takes about 10 years, before joining the elite cast of 16 riders at the school. A job he now has for life. 

For the horses, all descendants from long lines of Spanish steeds bred by the Habsburg court since the 16th century, training begins at age four and takes about six years until they are able to perform difficult jumps and perfect formations. 

However, life is also good for these fine equines -- worth an estimated 400,000 euros ($540,000) each. 

"We have three solariums, with infrared and ultraviolet rays... we also have magnetic therapy," said stable master Johannes Hamminger, who oversees the more than 100 horses kept by the school. 

"The stallions are like top athletes so it's really very important that we look after them as we would look after a top athlete."

That includes a healthy nutrition plan -- muesli, oats, flaxseed, carrots and hay twice a day -- daily exercise, sometimes open to the public, and holidays at the school's country estate for these city animals. 

"It's vital for their psyche. They need to get out... to enjoy nature, experience things in the forest, like a rabbit crossing their path," Hamminger said.

Privatised by the state in 2001, the school struggled with millions of euros in debt for years. 

The arrival at its helm of Elisabeth Guertler, director of Vienna's famed Hotel Sacher, turned things around, but critics have also accused her of commercialising a traditional institution and overworking the horses with additional performances. 

Nonsense, she insisted: "Horses are animals that need movement."

"I don't think a horse has any problem crossing the street twice a week and exercising for 10 minutes (in front of an audience) in a riding hall it sees every day."

Moreover, the school has almost twice as many horses as before, she said.  

But even with this increased business, the institution will soon need state financial support, Guertler warned. 

With a history going back 448 years, the Spanish Riding School is the oldest institution of its kind in the world, teaching classical horsemanship in its purest form. 

But lately, audiences have been treated to a new sight: since 2008 the school has been accepting female riders.

Every once in a while, one might also spot a dark Lipizzan among the immaculate white steeds: legend has it the school will exist as long as it has a dark horse in its stable. 

Dark at birth, these horses -- carefully bred over centuries -- turn white at the age of six or seven. 

Aside from their weekly performances in Vienna, the Lipizzan horses also go on tour every year around the world, including to the United States and Japan. 

"I think our horses will touch a lot of people. When you think that these are stallions and you see what kind of character they have, how well they perform... then anyone who loves horses will be moved to the core," Guertler said.

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