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The White Stallions and Me

I was one of those kids who loved horses from the day I was able to tell them apart from dogs, cats and humans. I grew up on Marguerite Henry—that genteel purveyor of equine crack for young girls everywhere—and the dream of the white Lippizzaner stallions.  When I had the amazing chance to visit Vienna at the age of 13, my only goal was to see the horses of the Spanish Riding School.

Every summer, my aunt took a trip.  She went all over the world, but this time it was Europe, and she took me and my sister and cousin with her.  When we arrived in Vienna, Austria, no one else wanted to see the horses, so my aunt arranged for me to take a city tour that was to go to the Spanische Reitschule. It was summer, so there were no formal performances, but you could see the training sessions until they ended at noon. The rest of our group went off to see the Summer Palace. I waited anxiously in front of the hotel for my bus, unable to read the German signs, but a bellhop was supposed to tell me which bus to board. A bus arrived, he nodded to me cheerfully, so I got on.

I was too young and shy and naive to verify that this was the right tour. We went here and there in Vienna, I have no recollection of where, but as time ticked by, and noon drew closer, I began to worry. Finally, when we pulled up in front of the Summer Palace at 11 am, I asked the guide if we were going to the Riding School. Oh, no, she said. The Summer Palace was the last stop.

I had boarded the wrong bus.

I was devastated. We were leaving Vienna the next day. Wandering through the crowds of tourists in the Summer Palace, listening to the guide drone on about fusty old paintings, I burst into tears.  To come all that way, and miss my once-in-a-lifetime chance!  Then a small miracle—amid all those throngs of tourists at the Summer Palace, I saw my aunt.  I deserted my tour, ducked under the velvet ropes and told her miserably that I’d missed the horses. 

She didn’t hesitate a moment.  She grabbed my arm, headed outside, and hailed a taxi. It was 11:30.  Somehow she made the German driver understand the urgency of the matter, and we raced to the Spanish Riding School. We arrived at 11:45. The person at the window shook their head; it was too late to get a ticket or enter. My aunt explained in desperate English, while I stood there biting my lip, and the ticket lady finally jerked her head and let us pass. It was 11:50.

Photo: Benjamin Scalvenzi

The Spanish Riding School is a baroque wonder of a building, with tall windows and light falling down in brilliant shafts on the tanbark below. You view the school from above, looking down on the horses from the balcony. In the strict procedure of the training, the youngest horses go last, after all their superiors have finished. I was in time to see the very last group enter.

Lippizzaners are born dark. They turn gray, and then pure white at about the age of 6 or 7. Below us, in the utter silence of the school and the now deserted balcony, was a line of ten young horses with their riders in full uniform. Some of the horses were white, some were nearly white, but one was still iron-gray. There was no sound but the regular beat of the hooves, no light but the shafts of sun streaming down, with the horses passing in and out of shadow and sunlight as they trotted in single file around the school.  Around, across, on the diagonal.  I vividly remember that one rider gave the iron-gray horse a tap with the whip, and the horse tossed its mane and kicked out, just once, and went on without missing a step.

For ten minutes, I had the honor to watch, until they turned in their perfect single file and silently exited the school. I have ever since wanted to paint that picture, with the light and the horses, all white but one. I tried once, with oil paints, and it was a miserable failure. I tried again with S.T.‘s ride in the school in Italy, in The Prince of Midnight, and perhaps I succeeded a little better there.

Lippizzaners are very long-lived.  I have often thought of them over the years.  Those young horses must be the old men of the Spanish Riding School now, or passed on. When they came to the U.S. in 2005, the oldest stallion to come was Siglavy Mantua I, born 22 January 1979. 

I’m sure that same scene takes place every day, as it has for hundreds of years, the pursuit of equestrian perfection, and a little snort and kick for spice.

My aunt is no longer here for me to say thank you so much, Elva, for making sure I had the chance.  I’ve never forgotten it, and I never will.

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[1] Posted by laura kinsale on 01.08.2010

All opinions are welcome, positive or negative, but civility and polite language are required for comments to remain.  Political or religious references are not allowed, unless directly related to a Laura Kinsale book under discussion. I do answer questions but I seldom give interpretations about my books or characters, because I enjoy hearing what readers see in them.  These comments and discussions replace my old forum at The Terrace. (Note that the spam captcha is an english word interspersed with a number—this may help you tell a letter from a number.  If it’s still too hard to see, reload the page for another one.)

[2] Posted by Becky Worthington on 01.09.2010

Laura,

I just finished reading about your adventure w the Lippizzaners and could relate to every word.  For nearly 50 years, since the first time I saw them on the original Walt Disney show, I have wanted to see the Lippizzaner Stallions.  In the last 10 years, I been close to seeing them, both times withing 50 miles of my home, once in Florida and once in Ohio.  The first time, I was flat broke and couldn’t go, even though I had transportation.  The second time, I had the money, but had no transportation!  Maybe the third time I get a chance, it will all work out!  I absolutely will see them one day, even if I’m old and gray and have to have someone push me in a wheelchair by then!

[3] Posted by laura kinsale on 01.10.2010

I hope you do get to see them, Becky.  (BTW anyone who wants to see the real thing, be aware that the Spanish Riding School very seldom tours overseas.  There is a similarly named group that tours the US under the “World Famous” label.  These are not the horses from Vienna, though they are an entertaining show.)

[4] Posted by Judy Thommesen on 01.14.2010

Laura,

I enjoy the beauty of a horse from outside the rink having discovered that one actually does see stars when ones head hits a solid object. I confess that a fear remains from having been thrown off several times at the age of 18. What I loved about your story was your Aunt Elva. She knew the value of dreams and soul and how vital they are. She didn’t settle for giving you heartfelt hugs for having missed the riding school, but without hesitation took charge and did her best to rectify the situation. I admire her spirit very much. She turned devastation and heartbreak into smiles and memories. Through her actions those measly 10 minutes showed a young girl not to give up but to find a way to make whatever it is happen; a life lesson for sure. Elva rocked.

[5] Posted by laura kinsale on 01.14.2010

Judy, she did indeed.  I learned many many lessons from both of my aunts.  In fact The Shadow and the Star is dedicated to them and my grandmother and cousins who were a very big part of who I am.

And you are right, I’ve seen a few of those stars myself. Whoof. ;)

[6] Posted by hope101 on 01.16.2010

Ah, where would any of us be without those feisty elderly women? My grandmother had her faults, but she allowed herself to both feel passionate about a few things and pursue them. She encouraged the same in her grandchildren. Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

[7] Posted by Becky on 01.16.2010

And let’s not forget those wonderful older women in our lives who had a sense of humor!!  What a gift that is to us while growing up! My grandma - in her late 60s or early 70s at the time - was weeding her tiny garden beside her house one sunny day and lost her balance.  Not being all that steady at the best of time, she couldn’t get up from the sidewalk.  So, she settled her dress to cover her knees, crossed her ankles in her lady-like manner, and proceeded to reach over and continue weeding her garden.  A neighbor soon looked out his window, saw her, and came hurrying over.  He asked her what happened and she grinned up at him and said, “Well, I pulled on a weed and it pulled back, so here I am.”  Learning to see the humor in any situation is one of the greatest gifts I think anyone can teach us.  Like the old saying goes - grief shared is halved and humor shared is doubled!

[8] Posted by Meredith Harris on 01.18.2010

I enjoyed your reminiscence.  I was another horse-crazy girl from my earliest memory.  My thoughts were consumed by horses - my favorite books (including Henry), my vacation souvenirs (horse figurines), my school projects (science - the anatomy of a horse, history - American horse breeds, home-ec - hunting attire—my teachers were probably taking bets on how I would work horses into math class LOL).  And I clearly remember one of my favorite books - a story of the Lippizzaner stallions and the Spanish Riding School with beautiful illustrations of the airs above ground.  It caught and held my imagination.  The scene in Prince of Midnight did take me back to that book and those dreams.  I still hope to make it to the Riding School in Vienna at some point.  I’m glad you had that magical experience at the wonderful age of 13.

[9] Posted by Elizabeth Essex on 01.22.2010

Oh, the bliss of young pony love.  Much, much better than puppy love.  I read everything by Henry and then discovered British author K.M. Peyton.  In the 70’s I read everything of hers I could get my hands on: books like The Flambards Series, Fly by Night and the Team just let me fall headlong into that marvelous pony-centric world.  She’s still writing fabulous YA horse stories if you want to relive those ecstatic teen feelings. :)

[10] Posted by Robin Wilson on 01.22.2010

Back in the 1970’s, the Lipizzaner tour came to Washington, DC.  I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks as I watched them perform the “airs above the ground”.  So beautiful.  I was glad to read that your story had a happy ending.  For a minute there I was really worried.

[11] Posted by Robyn Huffman on 05.31.2010

I just found your books and thought I’d check out your website. I’m a dressage person and I loved this story. I have not been to the Spanish Riding School but I did get to see them in US. {The real ones} I’ve ridden a few Lippizzaners over the years, turns out none of the classic dressage horses are really my ride. I prefer modern German Warmbloods.

Anyway, lovely story. Very similar to the types of things that inspired me.

[12] Posted by June Ranson on 09.06.2010

Hello Laura, 
I read “Prince of Midnight” years ago and still love it. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the story became a movie some day!!
Thanks for writing it!
June

[13] Posted by laura kinsale on 09.08.2010

Thank you, June.  I would only let them make POM into a movie if they could find a guy who could ride like—oh, say Mattias Alexander Rath—and a horse like Sterntaler. At least for the stand-ins. ;)

[14] Posted by BethS on 07.29.2011

Laura, thanks for sharing this. I, too, have been utterly besotted with horses from a very early age (Marguerite Henry! Walter Farley! And endlessly flipping through Alois Podhajsky’s book The White Stallions of Vienna). Back in 1988, I realized my own dream of seeing those stallions perform in the Spanish Riding School. I will never, ever forget it.

I love your books and I’m looking forward to whatever the next one will be. I adored Lessons in French.

You and I exchanged a few messages from time to time on Forward Motion, Holly Lisle’s site, about ten years ago, but you will likely not remember me. But I remember being thrilled that you were writing again after your long hiatus.

Oh, and remember how you once posted on your old website some photos of nothern Italy and the Dolomites? I was so entranced by the gorgeous scenery that I talked my husband into a trip there a few years back. It is truly a stunning part of the world.

[15] Posted by laura kinsale on 07.30.2011

I remember you on FM, Susan! Glad you got a chance to see the Dolomites, amazing aren’t they?

[16] Posted by Sylvia Kelso on 11.01.2011

Laura, I had a variant of this happen this very year - going to Vienna on a trip, absolutely bent on seeing the Spanish Riding School after years of longing to do so (not in small part influenced by Mary Stewart’s *Airs Above the Ground*, which has some of the School’s recent history plus a story about a long-lived lost Lippizaner (if you haven’t read it.)) I too was going to the practice session, since we wdn’t be around for a performance, but in my case I took the wrong exit from the Opera underground and got bushed in the streets - so I arrived puffing and sweating at the School about 11 am instead of at opening time. But they did let me in, and I did manage to watch a number of relays of horses - though not a line of young horses at the v. last. But the arena was sheer magic, and it was fascinating to watch the horses warts and all, so to speak - there were a couple of tantrums and some stronger schooling at times during the time I watched. But the absolute silence of the spectators, so you could hear the horses’ strides, their breathing, even at times, and the flashing sequences of immaculate white and grey shapes criss-crossing under the chandeliers was fantastic in the most literal sense.
It did amuse me, coming from the Australian bush, to watch when some horse and rider “took a spell” - came out of collection, let the reins go loose and the horse just walk round taking it easy - how much, despite the vast differences in tack, shape and setting, like working Australian stock horses they did appear then…
So yes, in answer to your comment above, the scene was still taking place, almost every day, as recently as May 2011.

[17] Posted by laura kinsale on 11.03.2011

Sylvia, your description brings it all back!  I have read AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND, though it’s been a long time.  In fact, while writing THE PRINCE OF MIDNIGHT, I was talking to my editor about some of the action, and describing the capriole, courbette and etc.  I guess I mentioned what they were called, and she said, “Oh! I always wondered what the title of that Mary Stewart novel meant!”

I wonder how many readers never have known…

[18] Posted by Sylvia Kelso on 11.03.2011

Hey Laura,

Your editor wondered what the title of Airs Above the Ground meant?!? I wd. have thought it was pretty clear if you’d read the book, but maybe she didn’t… I thought Stewart explained it somewhere, because I certainly had no idea before I read it, heh. My youthful equine crack tended more to the Australian variety.
But one of my most favourite of all horse scenes in fiction remains the discovery scene in *Airs*, when the old Lippizaner starts to dance to the Rosenkavalier waltz.

[19] Posted by Pat Wittorf on 04.24.2013

I would like to thank your aunt as well because without her your “The Prince of Midnight” might never have been as perfectly written.  I love your bird-with-a-broken-wing heroes and S.T. was my introduction to your books which led me out to find more.

[20] Posted by Sigrun on 07.10.2013

I’d been in love with the Lippizanner for a long time too, before I went to Vienna (while living and teaching English and French in Germany) in the hope of seeing them perform. Of course, it was summer with no performances, but we were able to see some of the stallions in the stable beside their performance area. Just seeing them and reading their names was a thrill. I did get to see a performance of some Lippizzaners some time ago in London, ON, Canada where I now live. It was a real thrill, but I still wish I could have seen “real” ones performing in their “real” home.

I still have not read all of your books, but I certainly love them. In fact, I want to take the time to really enjoy them. Because of a move, most of your books are in storage. I’m hoping to get around to unearthing them soon.

Thanks so much for the wonderful stories. I love the ones I’ve read.

Your grandmother’s story below reminds me of myself. I’ve been caught in bookstores sitting on the floor and having great problems getting back on my feet. I can totally empathize, and I try to avert ending up like that if I possibly can.

[21] Posted by laura kinsale on 07.11.2013

Sigrun and Pat, thank you for commenting.

And I love hearing the stories of those who have seen the horses—any of them!