Oddly Enough

Women ride Vienna dancing horses after 436 years

VIENNA (Reuters) - An Austrian and a Briton have made history at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School by becoming the first female riders to pass the entrance exam and trial period in 436 years.

British horse rider Sojourner Morrell sits on a Lipizzaner horse at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The women rode the school’s white Lipizzaner horses in public for the first time Wednesday and now have the chance to train for five years to become part of the official performing troupe at the school, which was founded in 1572.

The school did not ban female riders previously but has a masculine image because of its military background.

“Today both men and women need to equally earn their daily bread and prove their worth,” said Elisabeth Guertler, who became the school’s first female director a year ago, and said it needed to keep up with the times.

The horses, which are trained to perform complex moves such as springing from their hind legs, draw sell-out crowds in Vienna and on tour abroad.

But the new recruits have to do some unglamorous stable work before performing difficult manoeuvres on the white stallions.

“We have to feed and groom the horses and clean the stables,” said 21-year-old Austrian recruit Hannah Zeitlhofer.

“I always wanted to work directly with horses. I didn’t want a purely theoretical job.”

The school has been on the lookout for riders with short torsos and long legs, suited to the physique of the smaller horses. In terms of character, riders have to be tough and persistent, Guertler said.

“I think (the horses) are wonderful,” said 17-year-old British trainee Sojourner Morrell, who grew up in the United States. “I thought a barn full of stallions was going to be a lot of work but no, they are very calm and beautiful.”

Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Jon Boyle