I exited the foyer, passed back out the Michael Gate the way I had come, turned immediately right and crossed over the street named Reitschulestrasse. There I found, as I knew I would, the stable block called the Stallburg. This beautiful arcaded Renaissance building, one of the oldest in Vienna, encloses three sides of a paved, open-air courtyard square. On the ground level of the building are the stables occupied by horses. The two levels above house various offices and riders’ facilities. The fourth side of the courtyard is open to the street.
Here, anyone walking by can see the horses.
In the pictures that I had seen before I arrived in Vienna a wrought iron fence was what served as the boundary between the street and the courtyard. This I found was no longer the case. The railings were gone and had been replaced with panels of plexiglass that stretched from one pillar to the next and extended right to the top of the roof that sheltered the covered sidewalk of the Reitschulestrasse. In a way the Stallburg, though still fully visible, was completely sealed off. Though I was disappointed and hated it, I was there only a few minutes before I understood why the plexiglass had been installed. There were crowds of tourists. Perhaps in the past they had hung over the railings calling to the horses. Now they stood with their noses almost pressed against the plexiglass like children outside a candy store avidly watching what was happening inside. What’s more, while I stood there, a large tour group swamped me. The guide, holding aloft his leader flag, carefully staked out a prime position from which to deliver his packaged nutshell talk about the horses of the Spanish Riding School in a voice straining to make itself heard above the general commotion all around. A forest of cameras and cell phones swayed in the air at the ends of outstretched arms, each seeking an unobstructed view. Then, as abruptly as it had arrived, the tour group moved on. Chop, chop, no time to dilly-dally. There was a lot to see in Vienna. One group was followed by another and then another.
The plexiglass gave me the weird feeling that I was looking into a giant aquarium, into an underwater world. I was staring at ordinary, domestic horses, wasn’t I? Not exotic tropical fish. From the fascination of the crowd it was hard to tell. How did the horses cope with this fishbowl existence? Well, they seemed perfectly oblivious. I suppose not much noise passed through the plexiglass and perhaps the activity seemed no more significant than the theatrics of a muted TV screen.
There in that aquarium the ordinary, messy morning routine of a stable yard was being enacted no differently than anywhere else in the world. About fifteen stables or stalls looked onto the courtyard and several happy and relaxed snow-white horses watched the comings and goings of the stable staff. However, I knew that the Spanish Riding School had seventy-three stallions in training, not fifteen, so I watched with interest as a groom disappeared through a wide doorway at the back of the courtyard. The majority of the stalls were somewhere back there.
Normally I would have been worried. I could not have stood there looking at the Stallburg with any curiosity, in fact, could not have enjoyed the whole idea of the Spanish Riding School, the thought of perpetuating this ancient institution and supporting it as I just had by spending crazy money on a ticket, without already having a lot of background information. Here was a large number of horses living cheek by jowl in very tight quarters. Many of them lived in interior stalls that looked only at each other across a corridor, stalls that were reached by that wide doorway at the back of the courtyard. For all these horses opportunities for exercise were limited to either training sessions in an enclosed hall or time on a covered mechanical horse-walking machine. Of course space was tight. This was Vienna’s historic district. But horses don’t care about history. They don’t appreciate baroque architecture. There wasn’t a blade of grass anywhere here. This was an urban environment and city life is stressful enough for people, even people who love it, never mind large animals with the inborn requirement to move, large animals that don’t love it. This was not a recipe for long-term equine well-being, no matter how sympathetically the horses were cared for.
Luckily, I knew that the Stallburg was not a full-time home for the horses. The Spanish Riding School also owns a big farm at Heldenberg to the south of Vienna in the vineyard region of Lower Austria. The performing stallions are regularly sent there for rest and relaxation. In the past all the horses had the full summer off. The Vienna premises were shut, the horses were all moved out of the Stallburg and there were no performances. Now I was told (and I hope that I understood correctly) the stallions are rotated: six weeks in Vienna, six weeks in the paddocks at Heldenberg.
Though most of the horses in residence at the Stallburg were actually not within sight of the public the fifteen white horses that were on view, those in the courtyard stalls, were more than enough to enrapture the hordes of tourists. With the help of an unwitting supporting cast, those horses could manage that trick with virtually no effort at all.
Even as I watched, a mini drama unfolded. In one of the courtyard stalls that could be seen, one quite near the plexiglass, a horse was being groomed by a girl dressed in a grey jacket and peaked officer’s cap which I knew to be student attire. She stopped and frowned like perhaps she had forgotten something. She came out of the stall, shavings spilling out the door, put her dusty brush on a ledge beside the stall and strode off. The horse, stretching his elegant, crested neck over the door, watched her go with blasé satisfaction. He lipped the latch of his door idly until she was well out of sight then turned his attention to the brush she’d left behind. It was just barely within his reach. Little by little he nibbled the brush closer and closer. On my side of the plexiglass the crowd was transfixed watching him. He was making real progress. That brush was almost within his possession when at the last minute it tipped, fell off the ledge, bounced and lay prone on the stones of the courtyard. On my side of the plexiglass a collective groan of disappointment filled the air. You’d have thought we were fans of a football team that had just lost by a goal at the World Cup. The horse sighed with philosophic resignation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the courtyard a large tabby cat came into view. Now that the brush excitement had fizzled out, cameras focused on the cat in hopefulness. For a moment the action looked promising. The cat circled a wheelbarrow and then jumped on top of a trolley loaded with bales of shavings – but then he simply curled up and went to sleep, one paw extended into space, toes kneading the air in contentment. As a character in this aquarium stage show he was dropping the ball but what did he care?
On my side of the plexiglass the crowd was still coming to terms with this anticlimax when something really big happened. From the back doorway saddled horses emerged, each led by a groom. A frisson of excitement ran through the crowd. The gold borders of saddle cloths gleamed in the sunlight as the horses stepped out of the gloom. Their hooves shone with oil and their freshly combed tails hung like heavy silk. It was ten o’clock. They were on their way to morning exercise and from the glint in their eyes they seemed to be looking forward to it. Ahead of the group, a man opened the barrier that separated the courtyard from the street and waved his arms at the crowd to make way. The five horses of the group clip-clopped across the Reitschulestrasse and disappeared once again through the gates on the other side that led directly into the Winter Riding Hall.
I had an open ticket to morning exercise but I didn’t intend to use it right away. Not today. I had all of Vienna to explore first.