Waltzing in a New Year with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and Friends

Ralph Lauren Spanish Riding School

What happened when Ralph Lauren went to Vienna to check out the Spanish Riding School? A holiday fashion line piaffed down the runway; dressage was the premise of a fashion spread. (opener image from Ralph Lauren Magazine)

Does art imitate life, or does it become hard to tell, after a while, if it is more likely life that is imitating art?

Fashion designer Ralph Lauren recently tipped his hand-stitched hat to the Spanish Riding School with a spread in his magazine, and an intimation that the Lipizzaners and their riders had been the inspiration for his holiday fashion line this season. Like everyone else, he loves the stallions, their riders, and their beautiful Winter Riding School because it has hardly changed over the centuries.

When you’ve been doing things the same way for 430 years, generating press can be a tough assignment. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna is famous for not changing–not much, anyway–and, as such, is not in the news as much as you’d expect a hallowed institution of its position to be. You could imagine a New Yorker cartoon illustrating a long succession of press officers at the School, all fired because there was no news about the School in the press.

And then one plucky new-hire press officer comes along and writes the story that says just that: “Nothing’s new at the Spanish Riding School. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.” It’s a Mad Men moment for an almost-holy herd of Lipizzaners.

Ralph Lauren would nod in agreement.

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But if you happened to be in Vienna ten days before Christmas, you’d have seen something new. The famed Lipizzaner horses shared their arena footing with the Vienna Boys Choir. The stallions trotted obediently around the tweens, who didn’t seem to notice them much. The horses focused on their hoofwork. The boys focused on their high notes.

Vienna Boys Choir singers with Spanish Riding School Lipizzaner stallion

Vienna Boys Choir singers got to kick up some footing with a Spanish Riding School Lipizzaner stallion for this photo. The two Viennese institutions presented a joint performance on December 14 and will repeat it in March 2014. Note the boots on the boy at front left: smart kid! Have the others removed their shoes? (Spanish Riding School photo)

Just another day in Vienna? Not quite. The two venerable institutions have hooked up for a series of co-starring concert/performances. Called “A Tribute to Vienna”, these special events even have added music that the horses and boys have never heard before. Two new pieces have been added to the Vienna Boys’ Choir’s repertoire: the Bandit’s Gallop and the famous Radetzky Marsch by Johann Strauss I. Additionally, the boys intonate the Trish Trash Polka as the Lipizzaners strut their stuff.

The horses, presumably, just hum along.

Vienna Boys Choir at Spanish Riding School in Vienna

A removable floor covering--or perhaps a giant stall mat--gave the Vienna Boys Choir something firm to stand on during a set that had them singing in the arena. (Spanish Riding School photo)

Their next performance together won’t be until March, although the stallions will have some of their classic performances scheduled between now and then. Their calendar also calls for a road trip to Sweden in April and a lengthy trip to London with extra performances in Sheffield, England for October and November. At those performances, the audience will have the chance to attend a master class and see a ride by British Olympic dressage gold medalist Carl Hester and Para dressage multi-gold medalist Lee Pearson.

As I’m writing this on Monday morning, the horses are probably being tacked up for the December 30 performance; there’s one tomorrow, as well. But then on Wednesday, all eyes in Vienna turn to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and its grand traditional New Year’s Day Concert. PBS will broadcast it in the USA, as will networks in 89 other nations.

Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna

"Hey, did you hear we have the day off?" Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna don't perform on New Year's Day. That day belongs to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whose concert will be broadcast in 90 nations around the world. (Emmanuelle Contini photo, via Flickr)

New Years Day with the Vienna Philharmonic is to music what the Super Bowl is to football. Instead of a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial, there might be a mention or film clip showing the stallions in their stables, enjoying a day off.

Underneath that calm Lipizzaner exterior beats an ambitious heart, though. The Spanish Riding School’s wish list includes packing up the horses and going on tour to the Middle East and Russia, according to an interview in Ralph Lauren’s magazine.

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They’d better hurry. From the other side of the world comes news that an oversized replica of the famed Winter Riding School in Vienna has been built at the Heilan Equestrian Club in China. Thousands of Chinese patrons are treated to a tribute to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna each night. Dozens of horses bring dressage consciousness to a country where the world was seldom, if ever, heard ten years ago. The imported horses are ridden by women who had never been on a horse five years ago.

Is it the Spanish Riding School of Vienna? No. But it wants to be. Ralph Lauren could probably tell the difference.

And that is all the proof you need that the Spanish Riding School can make news by not doing anything differently today than it did 400 years ago. That’s obviously still news in itself, and hopefully always will be.

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