Women at the Spanish Riding School The End of a Viennese Legacy

For the first time ever, two young women have gained acceptance to Vienna's Spanish Riding School. They have a long apprenticeship ahead, but the pair say just being there is a dream come true.

By Marion Kraske in Vienna

The two girls have bright eyes and ruddy cheeks. Now and then they emit a shy giggle. Here, they are maids of honor: Hannah Zeitlhofer and Sojourner Morell, two girls with ash-blond hair arranged in neat buns, are the newest stars of the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

It's almost noon, and the girls are sitting on a bench in a stall. Meticulously cleaned saddles hang on the wall. The floor is so spotless you could eat off of it. Both of them look tired, but that's understandable -- they've been working since the early morning. That Zeitlhofer and Morell are here at all, in gray work clothes bearing the emblem of their school, is remarkable. They are the first girls admitted as students in the school's 436-year history. One of the last bastions of male-only privilege has fallen.

Emancipation is a tricky thing. In Germany, laws guaranteeing women equal rights didn't arrive until 1957. It took the Swiss until 1972 to give women the right to vote. After tremendous public pressure, the Vienna Philharmonic first hired a full-time female musician in 1997. Now, in 2008, one of Austria's oldest and most respected institutions -- the Riding School -- is finally taking the idea of equal opportunity seriously.

"I was really surprised when I was invited to an admissions interview," said Zeitlhofer, smiling. "Something like that has never happened before." The 21-year-old doesn't see herself as a women's rights crusader. While at university in Upper Austria, Zeitlhofer studied horse science and competed in dressage tournaments with Joker, her Halfinger-breed horse. Now she's just proud to be here: "This is the best place in the world to learn to ride."

For Sojourner Morell, too, the legendary school has always commanded fascination, even if from a distance. The 17-year-old Brit with the deep blue eyes lived with her parents in Saratoga Springs, New York until she came to Vienna. She says being here is a dream come true.

Morell walks into the stall where her charge, the stallion Siglavy Narenta, is waiting for her. "Siglavy" stands for the father's line, Morell explains. Stallions are the pride of the school: they are the only ones presented during shows. Narenta was the horse's mother. Morell picks up a pitchfork and spears a chunk of manure, carrying it outside. After giving one last loving pat, Morell closes the stall door.

No Sound, No Smiles

Every five years, the riding school takes four new students. They have to work hard. The day begins at 6 a.m. when the horses need to be fed. At 7, there's an hour of riding lessons. Students must take pains to learn how to sit, how to maintain perfect posture and how to lead with the reins. Next the horses are cleaned. The stalls and courtyard must be spick-and-span, too. At 2 p.m., the day is over. The students work six days a week. For their labors, they get €700 ($888) a month.

After three or four years of working in the stalls, the students are elevated to the rank of Assistant Rider. It can take up to 15 years to make it to the top level of Chief Rider.

Discipline is important in the Riding School. Even during the morning training sessions, there are strict rules: in the magnificient, chandelliered riding hall, six stallions are always ridden at once. This is the same room where riders perform for the public, majestically decked out in their Empire-uniforms, complete with coffee-brown coats and high, polished boots.

Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger, 43, a friendly man with an open face, seems thrilled that there's a feminine presence in his elite troupe of riders. "Thank God," he said. "We're not living in the Middle Ages anymore."

It's a sentiment that not everyone in the school shared at first. A few of the riders grumbled when the new students arrived. "But we've won them over," Hausberger says with a wink.

'Traditions Can't Stay Static'

We have a woman to thank for the break with tradition that Zeitlhofer and Morell represent. For a year now, the dynamic Viennese society lady Elisabeth Gürtler -- who also runs the high-end Hotel Sacher across from the Viennese State Opera -- has been the riding school's general director. She sits in a salmon-colored office decorated with large horse paintings, wearing large earrings and sporting a blow-dried hairdo. "I love tradition," she says, the rings on her fingers sparkling in the light. "But they can't stay static."

No one ever mandated that only men could study at the riding school, Gürtler says. "It just sort of ended up that way." Gürtler is a businesswoman through and through, and she knows what modern marketing is all about. The financially strapped riding school must prepare itself for the next millennium. Part of that process, Gürtler says, involves "making itself more open."

The two students must prove themselves every day. In the stall, it's fun, the girls say. But by the riding lessons it's clearly a lot more serious. They sometimes are afraid of doing something wrong.

Is there anything specific that sets them apart from their male colleagues?

Yes, they both say, and nod. Mounting without stirrups can be really hard -- their upper arms simply aren't strong enough. Sometimes they need help from their fellow students. "That's pretty annoying," Zeitlhofer says. "Suddenly everyone's looking at you."


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