Tradition and Change at the Spanish Riding School

It took the threat of bankruptcy for the venerable Viennese institution to open its doors to women.

News | Stephanie Levett | September 2009

A white stallion strides solemnly into the middle of the ancient arena behind the Hofburg, his hooves barely touching the ground as the rhythmic movements that seem to float across the turf leave a wake of enchantment.  A senior rider dressed in a bi-cornered hat and the smart double-breasted brown tail coat, buck-skin breeches and black top boots that he could have worn any time since the Congress of Vienna, shifts his weight slightly, uses his leg and hand aids invisibly, and the 500kg pearl white animal springs extended into the air leaving the rapt audience breathless.

The horse is a Lipizzaner, a symbol of Austria recognized around the world. In movements of power and elegance, these stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School re-enact the paces and leaps that once left Imperial enemies cowering in fear, that today still stir awe in anyone privileged to see them, witnessing a tradition that has survived through more than four centuries.

Not much has changed over the years; horses and riders are trained from youth, together going through a long, hard regime that builds to mastery. The young trainee, called an élève, gets his own young horse to school up to grand prix level, a process that takes about ten years. Only then is he granted the status of "rider." It is a military environment, a tradition inherited from the Imperial cavalry of the Habsburgs, where daily chores are done with dressage precision, and that from the beginning has been a strictly male domain.

Until a few years ago, that is, when the threat of bankruptcy led the Spanish Riding School to privatization. For the first time, the school had to prove its worth in the free market and initial signs suggested it might well not succeed. To be able to cover the vast operating costs of the school with its 72 stallions, its stud farm in Piber, Styria, supporting 270 horses and its personnel costs, the traditions had to be bent to fit the demands of the new millennium. And some traditions had simply to be broken.

With Elisabeth Gürtler, a female captain boarded the previously all-male ship in Dec. 2007. And the major changes that she initiated were reason enough for some to mutiny; for the first time in over four centuries women were allowed to apply as élèves, and senior riders were asked to double their performance schedule from once to twice a week to support higher ticket prices. Salaries were re-calculated as differences within the hierarchy became inexplicable. The comfortable lives of older riders were challenged – and they didn’t like it.

"I don’t regret one change that I initiated.  Every single one was important," Gürtler says with confidence about her reforms. "The Spanish Riding School is a huge company – and it has to prevail by itself. We are not supported by the government."

That some of the older riders threatened with mutiny left her unimpressed.

"Some were against the changes, some were not," she observed cooly.

Gürtler knows that her work at the School has just begun. To be able to sustain the traditional institution, it has to systematically become more profit-oriented. "Tours are profitable but hard to sell at the moment," Gürtler describes her future plans. "We have to build up a second team and a training center to be prepared as soon as the economy rehabilitates itself from the crisis!"

In a recent interview with The Vienna Review, Gürtler was friendly yet resolutely straight forward – a quality that has earned her respect in her professional life.

"Elisabeth Gürtler is a professional," her former riding teacher Franz Kapaun told TVR. "She can smile at you and tell you off at the same time – always respectful, she gets her point across and it is very hard to say ‘no’ to her."

Gürtler is certainly no enemy of tradition, which she sees as one of the virtues of the School, whose daily routines are the same today as they have been for centuries. The day starts at the break of dawn for the grooms; the élèves, and the riders follow one hour later. Stables have to be mucked out, the horses groomed, prepared for work and then ridden, the tack has to be kept in order. Three élèves and 16 riders work to ensure the health and training of the 72 stallions of the school. While the riders train an average of five horses per day, the élèves main work consists of stable chores.

To work in such an environment takes an iron will, and the young equestrians need strong ambition, dedication and talent – qualities that at the Spanish riding school were only expected of men.

So for a woman to take control over a male dominated institution and make herself heard had seemed an impossible task to many. But Gürtler herself never saw her job as a male vs. female issue; "You just have to make yourself heard," she says. That only men were allowed to apply for the school didn’t make sense to her. "To be honest, I didn’t understand that rule.  Anyone that is a good rider should be given a chance, no matter what gender they are." She argued her point with the comparison of women and men in dressage. "In international dressage competitions females dominate the top ranks."

So Gürtler decided to change things. In October 2008, two young women were finally given a chance: 21-year-old Austrian Hannah Zeitlhofer and 18-year-old British/American Sojourner Morrell won positions as eleves.  Less than a year later, Morrell had withdrawn. In the riding world, rumors spread about why the young rider had left so abruptly: Mobbing by the male colleagues, too much work and no spare time. After repeated attempts, Morrell could not be reached for comment, so her own views on what happened remain unknown.

Elisabeth Gürtler, however. was not entirely surprised. "The job is extremely demanding," she admitted. Sojourner Morrell expected something else from the job. If she could have begun from a rider level she would have stayed.

"But that, of course, was impossible!"

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