Shopping for a Stallion at the Spanish Riding School Part 2
“When the Horses Still Lived at the Palace” by Nikki Alvin-Smith
(Want to read Part 1 the trip to Piber. Please click here)
As I headed out of the ancient Astoria Hotel the sun was shining and the day held the promise of finding my dream stallion at the Spanish Riiding School. I checked my handbag for the slip of paper that Dr. Oulehla had scribbled on the day before, the precious five stallions that he had deemed suitable for my review. I had been explicit that I wanted a stallion started well under saddle, and one that had good breeding options. I personally liked the Neapolitano lines both for their size and their overall genetics, but I was happy to take his advice.
As the appointment at 'The Palace" was not until ten, I had time to walk the city of Vienna and to stop in a few of the just opening shops, admire the Baroque statues that adorned every square ('Platz'). Of course I took the opportunity to also shop for horse lover delights. A tiny little art shop on a back street yielded a lovely watercolor of a SRS stallion in pirouette, and then there were the touristy postcards, silk scarves and china horses. The artwork hangs by my bed to this day, and serves as a reminder of my exploits in Austria.
Finally the designated meeting time approached, and I made my way eagerly to the Palace. I diligently followed the directions I had received the day before in Piber from Dr. Oulehla, the Director of the School.
It was not that easy to find. I found the covered square, which was thronging with tourists purchasing everything SRS (Spanish Riding School) as they left the morning performance of the stallions. I looked about for a sign or entrance and could see none. I re-checked my directions and looked up and checked the street sign to be sure I was in the right "Platz." I was. So I explored a bit more and was starting to panic just a bit. I could not be late again! With relief I discovered a corner and tall wooden doors that were somewhat hidden and not immediately apparent. As the day before in Piber I had experience the 'Alice in Wonderland' size factor I knew to look high up for some bell or buzzer. I could see neither but did spot what looked to be some sort of intercom which was literally just a few slits in the wall. I stood on my tiptoes and said," Guten Morgen," and happily a lady's voice came back with the reply. I gave her my name, and in my usual excuse for German stated my appointment time with Dr. Oulehla. And lo and behold the massive door swung silently open and I was in a beautifully tiled and carpeted hallway where a tall reception desk loomed and a lady bid me come in. The door closed as if by magic behind me and I walked up to her. She was the wife of the then Head Rider of the Spanish School as I found out later, but at this time she asked me to wait in the chairs to the side and took up the phone and chattered for a bit to someone on the other end of the intercom.
Within a few minutes, a tall young man dressed in a long brown wool coat appeared, his hat the classic Spanish Riding School cadet hat, and he bid me 'Guten Morgen," with a beaming smile. I liked him immediately. He led me down some steps and along a corridor where I could hear the voices of young men chatting and joking. I glanced to my right and saw a group of the riders standing smoking and drinking coffee or tea in a kitchen off to one side. All were wearing the same long wool coats. It felt as though I was stepping back into a bygone era.
Soon we were in the main Hall of the School and my guide showed me into the plush velvet blue chairs which were sectioned together on ground level in the corner of the school, almost hidden from view from the great hall seating above. Each chair was carefully covered with a special cloth and he removed it and bid me sit down. There were only two others seated in the area and each were avidly watching a stallion be worked alone in the School. The morning performance over, this evidently was either a horse they were looking to buy or a horse just receiving an additional schooling session. The young man returned and asked me if I had the names of the stallions I wished to see and I hurriedly handed him the paper. I was excited. He trotted off and I watched the stallion in front of me for a bit. The young man returned fairly promptly, and asked me to follow him in broken English. I think my attempts at German he found to be a sweet effort and was trying to meet me in the middle. As I answered him in English the lady that had been sitting to my left looked up, " Are you English?" she asked in an American accent.
I gave her the affirmative answer she expected and she reached out her hand and we introduced ourselves. She explained she was here to buy a horse and I told her I was on the same mission. The young man seemed a little uncomfortable with our greeting and was clearly anxious to leave so I politely bid her good luck in her search and followed him off down the arena to a side door. In a gentlemanly manner he opened the door for me and I found myself in a very narrow corridor only wide enough for one person. I followed him along enjoying the adventure of it all and suddenly he popped open another door and light shone through and a fresh breeze hit my face. He then cautiously opened the door all the way to allow us to pass through and I found myself on a narrow lane or back road, that was covered above by the building itself, and across from me giant gates of wrought iron. Ah, the back door to the stable yard. He unlocked the gate with a big old fashioned key and ushered me in to a small courtyard. To one side there was a giant pit and I could see the straw and manure that had been emptied into it that morning.
He confirmed what Dr. Oulehla had told me the day before, that he would fetch the horses one by one for me to inspect and to see which one or ones I would like to come back and ride in the afternoon.
As the first horse was presented I inspected him carefully, evaluating him by checking his back with my hand spread across his spine from wither to tail.
I then requested the horse be walked away from me and back on the concrete yard, and then the same exercise at the trot. I then watched him in profile. A crowd gathered at the metal railings, eager to see the famous stallions and to decipher what was going on. After each exercise I felt each leg and examined each hoof, checked the muscle tension in the shoulder, checked the crest wasn't 'broken,', looked in the mouth. The usual stuff.
At the end of each horse's exam, I noticed the young man who was my guide would glance up high at the windows to the right of the closed square. And there I saw Dr. Oulehla, watching my proceedings with great interest. He would pick up a phone and I would hear it ring in the stables behind me. This happened several times and I can only assume he was issuing directives for daily duties.
By the time the fifth horse had been presented to me, quite a crowd had gathered to peer through the gates. As I finished and thanked all the handlers for their time, Dr. Oulehla appeared, briefcase in hand. He shook my hand and asked me which horse I had preferred. I think he thought I would like all five. I clearly liked one the most and as he had been watching from the window I was certain he knew just which one because I had spent the most time with it. I told him the name and he smiled.
"Come back this afternoon and you shall ride it in the hall," he said, and explained he had to get the train back to Piber but that the guide would show me in and that the Chief Rider would showcase the horse and do whatever exercises I wished before mounting and trying the horse myself.
Dr. Oulehla then patted me on the shoulder and gave me a price on the horse, which he said was discounted to me as a professional trainer, and bid me farewell.
So off I trotted back to the hotel to change into my riding gear and grab a quick lunch, eager for my afternoon appointment. It couldn't come soon enough.
I was there on the dot of 1pm, succumbing briefly beforehand, to buying some souvenirs from the SRS stand. My guide was there to greet me, and we walked companionably together and he asked me what horses I had brought in Germany. He was very familiar with the Hanoverian lines I mentioned which for some reason surprised me. Soon we were in a narrow corridor and he opened the door and our view was of the wonderful hall, and I stepped in once more.
In front of me the Chief Rider, the revered Mr. Kottas, trotted a stallion in a very precise circle. He was in full regalia and I could see immediately that this was not my first choice horse, but my second.
"Is there some mistake," I queried, " This is not the horse I am interested in."
The young man looked at me sagely and his eyes flickered and he gave a sigh.
"This is the horse that Dr. Oulehla thinks would suit you best," he answered, not looking happy.
I did not hide my amazement but kept my mouth tightly shut.
"What would you like to see," he asked.
To be asking the Chief Rider to 'perform' exercises for my review seemed surreal but I was here to buy a stallion and wherever else I had bought horses I had never been nervous to do so regardless of the fame of the rider aboard so I steamed ahead. I could discern almost immediately a slight lameness on a front leg of the horse. It was small but it was there. I watched as the rider deftly held that rein slightly higher and with more support. Humm. This was going to be tricky.
I asked for circles in both directions in an effort to discern whether it was range of motion or weight bearing lameness. Obediently the rider did as I directed and my guide exchanged a look with me that told me he knew I had seen it.
"I'm sorry but I think I can see some lameness in the horse, "I said to him sorrowfully.
His eyes met mine and he nodded.
"Would you like to ride the horse?" he asked quietly.
Well I was here I supposed and if I rode the horse I would be certain so I agreed to take a trial. The horse was a nice sort. He did not have the height or the amount of fluidity in his gait my preferred horse had displayed but he was a quieter type. I rode briefly, not wishing to stress the horse but wanting to see if what I thought I had seen from the ground was what I felt in the saddle. It was clear to me as soon as we began to trot that the horse had some issue so I hopped off after just a few circles.
" What did you think? the guide asked after I thanked the rider and as the horse was led away.
I shook my head. "I would like to see the other horse if that is possible. But I am sorry this horse is not for me."
My guide looked sad. I was annoyed with the whole scenario but knew it was not his fault.
"I think that is a good decision, "he said in a whisper and seemed pleased with me. " But unfortunately the other horse is not available."
"Ahh," I said and shook his hand. I thanked him for showing me the horses and his time and he wished me well with my German horse acquisition and a safe trip home. He showed me to the foyer and the lady peered at me over the 'Alice in Wonderland' counter.
I said goodbye to her politely and she stood up and came around to stop me leaving.
"You do not wish to buy the horse, "she said, astonished.
"No," I said. " Thank-you but I do not."
The big door glided open and I stepped into the daylight of the square and it quietly shut behind me and on my dreams of owning a Lippizaner stallion.
Footnote: Later that same year this stallion was imported to the USA by a lady on Long Island. It appeared to my knowledge once at Devon, and after that I never heard of it again. The lady had bought several horses from Dr. Oulehla, and I had visited with her before my trip to Austria. Sadly she went out of business a few years later.