The Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School

Anyone who has had the good fortune to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna will know of the marvellous Lipizzana horse breed. Performances of the 'white ballet' are given in the Baroque Winter Riding School. This magnificent building with its sparkling chandeliers and ornate pillars is a perfect foil for the white stallions adorned with gold-embellished harness.


It is impossible not to mention the Spanish Riding School when discussing Lipizzan history. The Hapsburg monarchy decided to replace the old winter riding hall and school which dated back to 1572. The new riding hall and school was built in 1735 in the imperial palace in Vienna under the auspices of Charles VI as part of the major rebuilding of that city after the repulsion of the Turks.

Spanish Riding HallCredit: Vince Evans

The purpose of the Spanish Riding School was (and still is) to perpetuate the art of classical horsemanship. This includes the training of the young riders and the horses according to the principals of dressage. The second purpose of the Spanish Riding School is the breeding of the Lipizzan horses. Only the best are kept to continue the line.

The Lipizzana (or the Lipizzaner as it may sometimes be called) can trace its history back to the early 1560's when the finest Arabian blood was introduced and fused with the local athletic Spanish horses during the Moorish occupation of Spain. Interest in the art of classical riding had been revived during the Renaissance period when the Spanish horse was considered the most suitable mount because of his exceptional sturdiness, beauty and intelligence.

Maximillian II brought the Spanish horses to Austria about 1562 and founded the court stud at Kladrub. His brother, Archduke Charles established a similar stud with Spanish stock in 1580 at Lipizzaner in Slovenia near the Adriatic Sea. From the Lipizza stud farm, came the name Lipizzan. Both studs flourished. The Kladrub stud became known for its heavy carriage horses while the Lipizza stud produced riding horses and light carriage horses. However, the two studs were linked closely and on occasion exchanged breeding stock. Maestoso and Favory, two of the foundation sires of today's Lipizzan, came from the Kladrub stud.

To strengthen the original Spanish-Arab strain, several stallions were purchased during the 18th and 19th centuries for use at Lipizza and Kladrub. During the 1700's these horses, although of Spanish and Italian origin, included sires from Denmark and Holstein, but were of pure Spanish descent. By the 1800's, there were no longer any original Spanish horses to be had and Arabs were chosen to replenish the Lipizzan line but of the seven Arabian stallions used, only Siglavy founded a separate dynasty. Of all the sires used during the 18th and 19th century, only six of these horses were accepted to found the family lines of the Lipizzan as known today:

CONVERSANO, black, a Neapolitan (b. 1767). Conversano stock have Arab blood, strong ram-like heads, short backs, broad hocks and dignified movements.

FAVORY, dun, a Bohemian origin (b. 1779), transferred from Kladrub stud. The Arab influence is noticeable in this family by their light build but the soft convex curve of their nose still calls to mind their Spanish ancestry.

MAESTOSO, white (not grey), a crossbred of a Neapolitan sire and a Spanish dam (b. 1819) was also transferred from Kladrub stud. Maestoso stock are powerful with a long back, extremely muscular croups and heavy heads.

NEAPOLITANO, bay (brown), from another Neapolitan sire (b. 1790). Neapolitans retain their original tall, more rangy appearance and have graceful movements and high action.

PLUTO, grey, Danish stud (b. 1765). The ancestors of this line came from Spain and Denmark. They are sturdy horses with a rectangular build, ram-like heads and a high set neck.

SIGLAVY, grey, an Arabian (b. 1810). The Siglavy family typify the Arab Lipizzaner with aristocratic heads, a slender neck, high withers and a relatively short back.

In addition to the stallions, there are 18 mare family lines. Every stallion has two names, the sire's name and the dam's name. This explains why the last part of a stallion's name may be feminine eg Pluto Theodorosta.

Lippizanas are branded with an 'L' on the left jaw and a crown over a 'P' on the left rump. Each animal also has a unique brand denoting the stallion family which is placed on the nearside under the saddle area.

The great majority of Lipizzanas are grey. Since white horses were preferred by the royal family, the color was stressed in breeding. As late as two hundred years ago, there were a great number of blacks, browns, chestnuts, duns and even piebalds and skewbalds. Today non-white Lipizzans are a rarity and only now and then is a black or bay found.

Lipizzana BayCredit:

Traditionally at least one bay stallion is always retained in the group of High School horses kept in Vienna. They are regarded as 'good luck' and in 2010 there were two bays in residence. The foals which will become grey are born black and take from five to eight years to become grey then white. The skin is dark.

The breed has faced extinction several times. After World War I, the possessions of the Hapsburg monarchy were distributed between several new republics. Then, in 1943, during World War II, there were frenzied efforts taken to keep the horses safe in a city that was being continually bombed. Colonel Alois Podjahsky, head of the Riding School, was able to persuade Colonel Patton of the American Army to step in and save the Lipizzanas from a very uncertain future. This traumatic period of the breed's history is well documented in Colonel Podjahsky's book My Dancing White Horses. The films Miracle of the White Stallions and Florian also document the events of the period.

The Lipizzan exudes strength and nobility. The early Lipizzans were small with a height range from 14hh to 15.2h. The modern Lipizzan may grow to 16hh although the stallions at the Riding School are all of the older type. The breed is very slow maturing and so not start their training until four years old. Once fully trained, the stallions at the Riding School are often still performing when they are in their twenties.

The Lipizzana is muscular, with brilliant action and a proud carriage. The athleticism required to perform the 'airs above the ground' calls for a short back with strong loins and well-rounded hindquarters. The neck is strong and arched. The head is medium in length. The eyes are large and expressive and set well apart. The ears are short and broad. Depending on the lineage of the horse the profile may be slightly 'dished', straight or evenly slightly convex. The legs are sound with good, heavy bone. The feet are well-shaped and round. He is an intelligent horse with an obedient temperament. He is quiet and steady. To be chosen for the School, he will have natural balance, rhythmic paces and great endurance and courage.

Outside of the Spanish Riding School, the Lipizzana is an all-rounder but particularly in demand for dressage or driven disciplines. He has long been considered the ultimate steed for Haute Ecole and classical horsemanship.