Now, that they are all gone, the Riders and Chief Riders of the “Old Masters” generation, the question arises: does the Spanish Riding School still deserve the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage designation? And what is even more: is the Spanish Riding School still needed at all?
With the departure of Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger, the Spanish Riding School has lost its last traditional* Chief Rider. The number of riding staff is also slowly dwindling. The quality of training has been lurching through the sand of the “most beautiful riding hall in the world” for some time now. A whole series of personalities from the riding arena are no longer available. They are trainers and (senior) riders who are highly respected in the international dressage sport and in the horse world. Their training successes are reflected in medals – national, international, and Olympic.
Yet maybe it is not so dramatic. It could simply be a sign of the times to place the classical training of horses and riders outside the Hofburg palace in the future. The long and serious study of the criteria of classical horsemanship has always been the essential characteristic of the Spanish Riding School. But if you don’t know anything about art, you can’t curate it. No matter how great the economic mandate.
What would the Albertina be without Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the Kunsthistorisches Museum without Sabine Haag, the Burgtheater without Martin Kušej or the MAK without Lilli Hollein? No one would entrust a painting, an art collection or an actor to a director who is not a professional. That used to be the case at the Spanish Riding School. In equestrian Germany it is still the case today. Whether Astrid von Velsen-Zerweck at the Marbach Stud, Felix Austermann at the Warendorf State Stud or Soenke Lauterbach as Secretary General of the German FN – the list could go on and on – they are all experts in breeding and/or training.
Intangible UNESCO cultural heritage
“The original courtly tradition has survived the various political systems and upheavals in Austria unscathed up to the present. Since 2001, classical horsemanship has been explicitly enshrined as a task of the Spanish Riding School in the public interest,” UNESCO writes on its site. The word “unscathed” can now be deleted without replacement. “The task in the public interest” is not fulfilled.
Training periods cannot be shortened and dazzlers are eventually busted. “The horse determines the duration of the training” was THE guiding principle of the Spanish Riding School. But once the management is mainly concerned with keeping up appearances, it is deeply unprofessional and to the detriment of all. The essence of what Chief Rider Hausberger refers to in his letter as a “downward spiral” did not just start yesterday. For years, horse experts have been watching with concern how the Spanish degenerates into an arbitrary pony farm. The quote “Every schoolchild should have been to the Spanish Riding School at least once” was strained by two managing directors at once.
What is deemed to be an intangible cultural heritage, is supposed to cost the state next to nothing, and is meant to maintain a horse breeding program – which has also been recognized by UNESCO – is bound to fail in the end. If there has been enough lamentation about the outsourcing and the accompanying economic mandate in the past, currently it is all about professional competence. At least this could not be denied to the first woman at the top of the Spanish Riding School. She successfully rode dressage up to advanced level and knew the history of the Spanish Riding School long before she was appointed Managing Director. However, even she was not up to the task of leading the company into the profit zone. On the contrary, she got involved in a business management gambit with more performances, which at least partially reduced the training time of the stallions.
Her successor was not quite as proficient in dressage lessons; however she did not care about traditions and horsemanship at all, appointed Chief Riders herself and was happy to make personnel changes for the good of the circle of friends. This may have accelerated the downward spiral, but it could no longer be stopped anyway. With the current Managing Director, we have someone at the top of the Spanish Riding School who at least knows his way around bottles, having marketed them more or less successfully until recently.
Now the fundamental question arises as to why someone who by definition is not a specialist would be appointed to such a specific position. Mind you, in a cultural institution that – of all things! – is subordinate to the Ministry of Agriculture. As is well known, this ministry is mainly entrusted with the added value of farm animals and not much with that of riding. Consequently, the youngest of all Austrian Federal Chancellors once cheekily and freely snatched up one of the noble “farm animals” and presented it as a gift to the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates. The headline was right, the tabloids were happy.
Maybe, however, it is much simpler and the current Managing Director was explicitly appointed to put an end to the hustle and bustle. For many, especially horse people, the question arises anyway whether horses are really needed in the city centre for the little bit of riding. Or whether a few circus horses wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the tourists. Lipizzaner, Sisi and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the unbeatable marketing trio at a special discount.
The Heldenberg training centre could be used for the classical riding training of the Lipizzaner stallions. The location is not far from Vienna. The horse breeding at Gestüt Piber is anyway exemplary and a true showpiece. Here as well as there, the international equestrian world could meet, exchange expertise and pass it on in training courses. One could invite the best of the best, the old and the young, male and female masters. Then maybe even all those dressage riders who have benefited from the knowledge of the Chief Riders and Riders in the past, including Olympic gold, would come. It was not so long ago that three Olympic champions were guests at the Spanish Riding School when in 2017: Charlotte Dujardin, Elisabeth Max-Theurer and Christine Stückelberger met Princess Anne. Even if the glamour of the olden days was already starting to crumble at that time, the damage in its current dimension could not have been foreseen.
Horse people whose expertise is no longer available to the Spanish Riding School since it’s outsourcing (in chronological order):
- First Chief Rider Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg (early retirement)
- First Chief Rider Klaus Krzisch (suspended)
- Chief Rider Johann Riegler (suspended)
- Chief Stud Master Leo Weiss
- Riding Master Ernst Bachinger (Head of Riding School, retirement)
- Head Stable Master Johannes Hamminger (retirement)
- Equine veterinarian Dr. Georg Hladik
- Stud manager Dr. Max Dobretsberger
- Rider Herwig Radnetter (administrative manager of the Riding School, suspended)
- Master blacksmith Karl Jänicke
- Stable Master Lars Peters
- First Chief Rider Wolfgang Eder (early retirement)
- Rider Jochen Rothleitner
- Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger (suspended)
* The tradition of the Spanish Riding School stipulates that only those who have made a name for themselves through outstanding training performance can become Chief Riders. Impeccable conduct should also be taken into consideration. Until 2019, head riders were only appointed by high-ranking representatives of the riding school, who were usually also head riders.
Andreas Hausberger was the highest-ranking Chief Rider in the Spanish Riding School. He was traditionally to be appointed First Chief Rider after his predecessor retired, a move that was not implemented. Since 7 March 2023, Hausberger has been relieved of duty and banned from entering.
TEXT: Andrea Kerssenbrock, PHOTO: © Beatrice Oanes