Purpose & Precision
Riders and Dreams at Vienna’s Fest der Pferde
An immense arena, glistening animals, and classical choreography; polished boots, top hats and the sweet smell of leather – these make up a skill once essential to life and war, and today a sport of international recognition, the ancient art of dressage. The name stems from a French term for "training" – a vague word for a sport that is vastly meticulous. And every year in November, Vienna’s Fest der Pferde (Festival of Horses) becomes a meeting point of the sport’s finest.
The annual event combines dressage and show jumping competitions at the highest level with acrobatics and entertainment to lure the less-trained eye. This year, the Fest der Pferde attracted Olympic-level competitors from Sweden, Great Britain and the Netherlands, among others, and the shows included a stirring performance by "Lorenzo The Flying Frenchman," an acrobat who that can control up to eight horses at a time.
But it wasn’t the spectacular evening shows that I wanted to see. Nor was it the show jumping competition, which actually dominates the event, with prizes including the Wiesenthal Mercedes Grand Prix, offering 35,000 Euros to the winner.
I came for the Dressage, a lesser-known sport in which I myself had once been a professional.
"This is the end of the season and, in a way, the highlight of the season," said Peter Gmoser, one of Austria’s top dressage riders, in an interview between events during the Fest der Pferde. The event consumed Vienna’s Stadthalle between Nov. 8-12, where the massive venue was temporarily transformed from a concert hall to an abode for horses, including stables and large competition and warm arenas. Though the dressage competitions at this event are not qualifiers for other international shows, it serves as a meeting point for riders after a long and exhausting summer season, which many of the them spend traveling from competition to competition.
Dressage riders present at this years’ Fest der Pferde included Olympian Victoria Max-Theurer, daughter of the European Championship Gold Medalist Elisabeth Theurer, and of course, Gmoser, two-time Olympian and Austria’s only representative in Sydney in 2000. He was there with two horses competing in the "small tour" – the competition involving the two levels below that of the highest Grand Prix. His hope for the future, however, was also there with him: an 11-year Oldenburger stallion Cointreu, with whom he won Sunday’s Grand Prix Musical Kür – an event where horse and rider choreograph a series of challenging movements to music of choice.
From the press booth next the entrance of the white-fenced arena, I witnessed Gmoser’s ride on the glistening black Cointreau, for which he received an impressive score of 74.833%. Gmoser’s style was strong without being overpowering, and his ride presented the best passage-piaffe tour of the evening – movements of Grand Prix translating as a highly collected, cadenced trot, and a trot in place respectively.
Cointreau, or "Curty" as Gmoser has dubbed the black stallion (who is awe inspiring enough to deserve a far more menacing name) showed all the signs of star in the making. Gmoser chose a classical repertoire for his music, a safe bet in this sport, and had a clean and accurate choreography. Though "Curty" showed weakness in strength and straightness in certain movements, he demonstrated a potential as top contender with more schooling from his new trainer. At 11 years old, he has several competitive years still ahead of him.
While witnessing the tremendous harmony between horse and rider and combination of precision, subtlety and grace necessary to execute the required movements, I felt a familiar pang of nostalgia that often resurfaces when watching others do what I once enjoyed on a daily basis. But with the tremendous investment needed to participate in this sport (the cost of a top-level horse ranges anywhere between 10,000 Euros to more than 1,000,000 Euros), as well as the strenuous life of a competitive athlete, it seemed that combining a life in the "real world" with Dressage was impossible, and I put up my spurs at the age of 21.
But there are other reasons for the sports obscurity in many parts of the world. With international Dressage competition historically dominated by Germany, it has been difficult for other countries to take a medal in many decades, with only Holland stealing medals from German masters in recent years. A lack of national achievement in a sport often leads to a lack of sponsorship and media attention.
Austria, however, has a special relationship with the sport. The Lippizaner stallions and classically trained riders of the Spanische Hofreitschule located at Michaelerplatz in Vienna’s first district represent a tradition that dates back more than 430 years. It is the only institute in the world in which the classical riding art of dressage is still trained in the Renaissance tradition of the "high school" and demands a level of expertise that exceeds that of even the best competitive riders. The training of the "high school," which include the "airs above ground" – ancient battle maneuvers in which horse and rider literally challenge gravity – is often too demanding for breeds besides the chosen Lippizaners, which are bred for their compact bodies capable of maximum "collection," or placing utmost weight on the hind legs. Gmoser was himself trained at the Hofreitschule before deciding to pursue a competitive career.
"The contract for the Spanishe Hofreitschule is 9 to 10 years, and if I had continued there until my thirties, it would be to late to do anything else," said Gmoser over several cigarettes in a small office next the bustling warm-up arena at the Stadthalle. Gmoser, now 36, runs a successful training stable in Burgenland where he prepares clients’ horses as well as his own. Gmoser is sponsored by two Austrian companies, but maintains that his main sponsor is still himself – a luxury not every rider can afford.
As to Austria’s reputation in Dressage, Gmoser holds that the scene is improving.
"Austria is indeed getting better," Gmoser confirmed, "and the money needed to excel in the sport is there." Well-known riders such as Max-Theurer do much for the publicity of the sport, he said, and Eastern European countries should also become contenders in dressage as the economies of these countries grow.
But for now, Austria still strives to touch the German masters, ranking eighth as a team in the 2004 Olympic Games. Gmoser doesn’t seem affected by the impossibility of ever standing on the Olympic podium, however. When asked about his goals for the future was, he responded, grinning, with a determined "Gold medal!"
With a horse like Cointreu, an Olympic gold might not be unimaginable.