There was a small red and white sign pointing the way. The doors were wide open. In a matter of a few steps I was in the foyer of the Spanish Riding School, physically on the premises, the hallowed ground itself. Here, much to my surprise, there was no historic charm. This foyer was all business, the height of functionality – modern, white, clean-edged with no frills. There were glass doors to a gift shop on one side of me and glass doors to a rather ordinary looking café on the other. Ahead of me, across the high traffic flooring, were red velvet ropes and grey double doors that were certainly locked. A sign above indicated that they led to the Winter Riding Hall. But what really seized my attention at that moment was a long ticket counter with its bank of computers and clerks. The foyer was almost empty. There were only a handful of people. No lines. A situation, I was later to realize, that was almost miraculous. I was able to walk right up to the counter and be served immediately. It was a very lucky moment for me.
I had read that if you wanted a ticket to a performance of the Spanish Riding School then you had better book it four months in advance. The Winter Riding Hall where these performances take place has a very limited capacity for spectators compared to most venues. I had heeded the advice. I had gone to the Spanish Riding School website (the only place authorized to sell tickets) and I had tried to book. Believe me I tried. But with the patchy internet in my corner of the world I’d never succeeded in completing the full process of internet ticket purchase. After repeated sessions of misery and frustration that left me in a very bad mood I’d given up before the urge to bludgeon the computer got the better of me. Fate would just have to take care of me I’d decided.
So, “I’d like to buy a ticket for a performance,” was what I said to the lady serving me.
Even before the words were out of my mouth her face had assumed an expression of regretful apology. I realized that indeed this must be a well-practiced expression, perfected in all its nuance through much experience dealing with hopeful, naïve and inevitably disappointed tourists like me. As a matter of form she briefly swept her eyes over the computer screen. She didn’t really have to look.
“I’m so, so sorry but the next performance is sold out,” she informed me sadly. Of course it was. What was I thinking? They were all sold out. They’d been sold out four months ago. It suddenly occurred to me that after all this, the dream, the planning, the traveling, I might not fulfill my mission! I’d come all this way and now that I was finally here maybe I wouldn’t be able to see these horses in a formal performance. But I was in Vienna for twelve days, I explained to the lady. If there was anything at all during that time period I’d take it. Maybe someone would return a ticket, maybe there was something left in the standing room section? Well, how many tickets did I need, she asked. Just one, I replied, just one for me. Her expression lifted slightly and she turned back to the computer.
“There’s this at 7pm next Friday.” She swung the computer around so that I could see the screen myself. There in a sea of black was a lone yellow dot, a single electronic ray of hope.
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation, acutely aware that any second it might vanish, that stray seat snapped up by someone somewhere on a computer or even someone at the counter beside me. I handed over my credit card. Elated with relief, I then bought a ticket for a guided tour and a ticket for admission to morning exercise as well.
Afterwards, as I stood there with a brochure and the three tickets in my hand, my jet-lagged brain doing the horrifying math of currency conversion, I felt a bit faint. It was less the money than the concept of what I had just done. The idea that I, of all people, had actually paid money to watch horses was absurd. It was normally the other way around. I was a horse vet; people paid ME to watch horses. OK, this was totally different I reminded myself. Firstly, I was retired. And secondly, I was ON HOLIDAY. Here in Vienna I was just another of the thousands of tourists. I had no connections and these horses were not my responsibility. What a novel concept to absorb. Hard to believe, but seriously, if something went wrong at the Spanish Riding School nobody was going to call me! Nobody was going to call me in the middle of the night for a colic, nobody was going to call me to suture a cut or diagnose a lameness or treat a sudden case of hives. For all their endearing innocence, horses are magnets for trouble. It made me look at my clutch of tickets in a whole new light. Maybe the real question was: how much would I pay NOT to worry about all that? Which made the tickets look almost cheap. Plus, the brochure was emphatic in pointing out that the full price of all tickets went to the funding and upkeep of the Spanish Riding School only. No money was funneled off. I felt happy about that. Horses are ruinously expensive creatures. I could imagine what it must cost just to keep the Spanish Riding School going.
Still reeling, I wandered into the gift shop to survey everything from postcards to Augarten porcelain statuettes. There were pencils and notebooks stamped with the SRS emblem, there were Lego sets and T-shirts. But what I really wanted to look at were the books.
In the months between the decision to come to Vienna and my actual arrival I’d read everything I could find about the place. Big fat library books on the history of Vienna had shed oblique light on the role of the Spanish Riding School. And naturally I’d watched and read everything I could find that was more specific including a recent book by Elizabeth Letts called “The Perfect Horse” (it’s a masterpiece).
I thought that I had pretty much exhausted all my resources when the universe gifted me with a rare gem. The encounter was one of pure luck. I happen to be the kind of person who browses thrift stores. I’m always on the look out for unusual books, old classics that are ignored or long forgotten and those that have fallen into obscurity. I’m not talking about finding valuable books, those antiques with nice covers that are worth money. No, for me it’s the same with books as with people: it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Never judge a book by its cover. Moreover, I’m a big believer in the serendipity of books, the idea that somehow the right book will find its way to you when you are ready to read it, a bit like the old adage “When the student is ready the master will appear”.
So it was that on one of my infrequent treks to civilization I took a break from my long to-do list to fossick around a hospital charity shop. In this shrine to lace curtains and bone china teacups I found a bookshelf. There, sandwiched between a book by Angela Lansbury on how to stay young and a book on how to play contract bridge, what did I spy but “My Dancing White Horses” the 1960’s autobiography of Alois Podhajsky who was director of the Spanish Riding School for twenty-five years. I paid a dollar for it.
Now, in this gift shop, I was looking for something a bit more up to date. I chose a glossy booklet with profiles of the riders, lots of nice colour photos and sections about Piber and Heldenberg. Most interesting was a message from the directors announcing that the Spanish Riding School had recently been awarded status by UNESCO as a treasure of intangible cultural heritage.
Tickled pink by this brand new nugget of information and having solved the problem of my tickets you’d have thought that I’d be happy. In fact my contentment was short-lived. That’s just human nature I’m afraid. Already my mind had moved on to the next goal. I wanted to see the horses and I knew that I didn’t have to wait for the night of the performance to get my wish.