A rare woman rider tells Susan Buckland about the famed Lipizzaners

Ulla Reimers didn't tell anyone when she applied for a trainee position at Vienna's famous Spanish Riding School in case they laughed. What chance had a young girl from a small German village to be accepted into the world's oldest riding academy — and a male dominated one to boot?

She applied only after learning two women had joined the school in 2008 — the first to be accepted in 436 years.

"I had loved riding since childhood but never imagined this dream of mine would come true," says Ulla.

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"As part of my application I rode one of the Spanish Riding School's Lipizzaner stallions.

"The seat is the basis of horsemanship and they were watching very carefully."

They liked her seat, as it were. Aged 21, Ulla has joined the Spanish Riding School's team of four Elves (cadets) to learn the classical dressage riding skills that have been maintained since the Renaissance.

Part of her training is in Vienna's grand old Winter Riding School building, commissioned by Emperor Charles V1 in 1729. In this baroque hall, the handsome Lipizzaner stallions and their riders demonstrate their skills for the public. And audiences are moved, sometimes to tears, by the majestic horses and the bond between horse and rider.

For Ulla and the other Elves, there is no quick ride to the top of the Spanish Riding School. She will be under the guidance of an experienced rider for four to six years, working in the stables caring for the horses and equipment. If she passes the test to become an assistant rider, a young stallion will be entrusted to her care and the experienced chief riders will help her train the horse.

Assistant riders can graduate to rider and chief rider level after several more years if they have acquired not only outstanding riding and leadership skills but also an all-important empathy and sensitivity with their horses. The aim is to achieve perfect harmony between horse and rider. It is generally a partnership for life.

"My dream now is stay here," laughs Ulla, in her impressive English.

"You have to be self-disciplined and to want to learn and improve. And to be fit. I go regularly to the gym."

She and the other three Elves (including two other women) live over the stables and are up at 6am to feed the horses and ready them for the riders. Then come riding lessons.

"The young horses can be nervous of their new surroundings when they arrive from the Federal Stud in the Austrian Alps. A timid young stallion didn't want me to touch him but after a week began looking outside his box for me."

The Spanish Riding School takes its name from a proud Spanish breed, crossed with Arabian and Berber horses. In 1580 the Hapsburg Archduke Charles II imported them to breed with local Karst horses.

Lipizzaners, renowned for their nobility, courage, strength and temperament, are Europe's oldest domesticated horse breed. Their name derives from the original Imperial stud in Lipizza (now Lipica in Slovenia).

In today's Federal Stud at Piber, the foals spend their first four years in the rich mountain pastures. They are then carefully selected for the training, which takes several years.

By the time the horse graduates to the steps and movements of the High school he will be mastering pirouettes, side steps and flying charges. For the pinnacle stage known as the Schools above the Ground, only some horses have the ability for the demanding steps known as the Levade, Capriole and Courbette.

These steps, during which the riders don't use the stirrups, are a highlight of the 80-minute performances. Under the historic hall's crystal chandeliers, the horses rise above the ground, alternating both fore and hind legs in a perfect display of strength and agility.


A performance at the Spanish Riding School. Photo / Spanish Riding School

Audiences also give a standing ovation to the final performance of the School Quadrille, in which eight riders and their mounts appear to be dancing to the music of Mozart, Schubert and other great composers.

There are 72 public performances each year and some training sessions can be viewed.

"The horses deserve their annual holidays," says Ulla, laughing.

"They go to the summer stables for seven weeks for long walks in the fields and forests."

As for Ulla, she dodges with a smile the question about whether her dream is now to become one of The Spanish Riding School's first female chief riders.

IF YOU GO

For more information visit the Spanish Riding School website. Bookings are essential.