I recently chanced upon this clip from “White Horses,” a kids TV show about the Lipizzaner stallions which was popular in the UK in the 1970. “White Horses” shaped a love of horses in most of my generation. My childhood diary records a fantasy trip to Lipica and Piber, and how one I day might even be in charge of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The title song by Jackie Lee still gives me goose-bumps.
But Vienna is no one’s dream job these days. The latest drama over who should be in charge is causing ructions at government level, generating as many headlines as Brexit and Trump’s wall!
Last month the school’s distinguished advisory panel resigned in protest over the appointment of politician’s wife Sonja Klima as new Spanish Riding School chief executive.
The panel says Klima – also president of Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Aid – did not fulfil the job specification. The panel overwhelmingly preferred long-time equine administrator and bereiter (rider) Herwig Radnetter.
Klima’s husband Viktor was Chancellor of Austria from 1997-2000. Her’s was a “purely political” appointment, said advisory panel chair and former Olympic dressage champion Elisabeth “Sissy” Max-Theurer, in her resignation letter to tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger.
Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache even felt compelled to deny on TV that he knew Sonja Klima personally or had intervened over her appointment.
Klima responded last month that if the panel didn’t like her, it was probably as well they were the ones leaving. She said discontent would soon die down. Well good luck with that… controversy flared up again last week with revelations Klima will be paid 8,000 euros ($9,037 USD) per month plus undefined bonuses. Federal councillor Elisabeth Grossmann submitted a parliamentary question to Minister Köstinger about “wasting money at the World Heritage Spanish Riding School.”
The School has been on a financial rollercoaster since privatization 18 years ago, so Klima’s profile and business contacts are no doubt perceived as advantages.
The Austrian empire once enveloped most of Europe, and the school was founded by the ruling Habsburg family, who went to Spain in the late 1500s to buy horses. As well as the Vienna set-up (originally a different building to Winter Riding School we know today) they founded a stud farm at Lipica, Slovenia, though later the Piber stud in Austria was established to supply the Vienna school.
Aside from their role in the canon of equitation, Lipizzaner horses captured the imagination as a living link with huge historical landmarks; their ancestors have escaped Napoleon and the Nazis, to name but a few.
So until recently, the school was paid for by spectacular private wealth and then subsidised by the state. The Chief Rider was in overall charge and did not need accountancy skills.
But in 1985, it was controversially decided to bring in a non-rider as chief executive – veterinarian Dr Jaromir Oulehla. As stud director at Piber, he’d salvaged the breeding herd after a horrendous outbreak of equine influenza.
The Chief Rider’s role was then ring-fenced on the equitation aspect.
I felt sorry for Dr Oulehla, who seemed pressurized to undertake overseas marketing junkets when he would rather be at home, hands-on with horses.
To add to his woes, Europe was then being toured by Gary Lashinsky’s World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions, a glitzy Florida-based tribute group which was anathema to the restrained Viennese. Lashinsky impacted on ticket sales for the real thing; Vienna even hired global entertainment promoter IMG to help them out.
What it really costs to run the Spanish Riding School must have been the world’s worst reality check when in 2001 the Austrian government decided it should pay its own way. At the same time, Dr Werner Pohl, also a vet, took over from Oulehla as company director. Pohl’s contract was not renewed in 2005 and he was replaced by Armin Aigner, whose contract was also terminated early.
Both Pohl and Aigner made strides in veterinary and horse-care. I expect it was harder to achieve the same progress with finances in a difficult operational environment. While “privatized,” the School is still answerable to government. Liability towards upkeep of the buildings making up the historic Hofburg complex in Vienna is also unclear.
Elisabeth Gürtler took over in 2007, amid much fanfare as she was the first female boss and also proprietor of the world famous Hotel Sacher. Her tenure also introduced the first female bereiter, and saw installation of a retractable roof on the Summer Riding School.
In a candid media interview last month, Gürtler said she’d inherited losses of 23 million Euros: a staggering deficit for the School to accrue in its first six years without public subsidy. Gürtler cancelled the School’s 2008 US tour to avoid bankruptcy. Profligate staffing costs accounted for some losses: she said that when on tour, riders could earn 7,000 euros a week.
She also tripled the public performance schedule to 90 a year, despite concerns about welfare impacts on the stallions. Horse lameness and ailments did indeed increase. I never twigged how few revenue-earning performances took place when I visited Vienna on three occasions during the 1980s and 90s. It is not really asking much for a horse to earn its keep once every 10 days. But once every three days is a serious step-up, on top of daily training.
A friend of mine fulfilled her own lifelong ambition to visit Vienna last year. She was sad to feel it was anti-climax, having built up the trip in her own mind beforehand. Below the dazzling chandeliers, she said presentation of dusty fixtures, fittings and footing left a lot to be desired; did the school even own a jet-washer?
A whole debate can also be had about the School’s relevance today. Now we have visual access to so much top class modern dressage and are used flashier-moving horses, the baroque showpiece is now marginalised. What they do in Vienna vitally important but I’d reckon it’s on fewer horsemen’s “bucket lists” than 30 years ago.
Gürtler was “let go,” also against her will, last fall. Goodness knows who else can monetise it. I can’t find a note of annual foot-fall, but when the Winter Riding School was built in 1780 it was not intended as a large-scale public stadium. Only a few hundred spectators can be admitted per performance, and tickets are by no means over-priced. You can watch morning training for a mere 15 euros.
The School does tend to convey a lingering sense of entitlement and unwillingness to at least nudge along with the times. Is this a Viennese trait? Vienna is the mecca of classical music, too yet thousands of fans descend every summer only to find its major halls and opera houses shut for weeks on end – because that’s how Vienna has always done things. Out of frustration, in 2007 one wealthy fan began a summer festival outside the city at Schloss Grafenegg. Now the world’s greatest orchestra flock to him – talk about back-to-front!
I feel sorry for the School, though. There is a difficult balance between upholding classical traditions and paying your way for every cultural institution. It is especially acute for anything involving horses.