For hundreds of years the striking all-white Lipizzaner horses of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School have pranced and posed for the entertainment of imperial crowds and curious tourists.
On Friday, however, Austrian state auditors accused the riding school of tiptoeing around another issue: for the best part of the past decade the school’s finances have been in crisis.
“The [school] is only economically viable due to public grants,” the Austrian Court of Audit said in a report into the school that also pointed to the consequences of the financial problems for the welfare of some of its horses.
One of the most famous tourist attractions in Vienna, and a symbol of Austria’s imperial past, the school is named after the original lineage of the Lipizzaners that it breeds. It is the world’s oldest equestrian academy and one of its most prestigious, tracing its foundation to the late 16th century.
The school was spun out as a commercial venture in 2001, while remaining wholly owned by the Austrian state. But its finances have steadily deteriorated and it has lost money every year since 2014, the audit report reveals.
In 2020, it adds, the coronavirus pandemic pitched matters from a state of precariousness into an “existential” one. The report says the school only survived last year thanks to a €7m bailout from the ministry of agriculture that allowed it to continue to pay staff wages and cover its costs. The state auditors say the money is still not enough.
The school did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings.
The audit also concludes that the school’s financial crisis has had an impact on animal welfare. “The economic situation of the Spanish Riding School required more and more performances . . . [but] as a result, stallions were occasionally not given the appropriate time for convalescence. Further, stallions were used in performances whose physical constitution did not allow this,” the report states.
Under the vision that was set out when it was made independent 20 years ago, income is supposed to come from tickets the school sells to tourists and equestrian enthusiasts to its spectacular choreographed performances, which claim to showcase the world’s most demanding ridership and equine skills.
The average retirement age of performing horses has steadily declined over recent years, auditors said, indicating the extent to which the animals have been worked.
Moreover, for all their grandeur, the school’s baroque stables in central Vienna need urgent modernisation and professional upgrading for the horses’ health. The financial situation of the school means such capital investments are impossible.
The ventilation system in the stables has been broken “for years” auditors said, meaning stable doors must be kept constantly open. And horses are rarely exercised enough, because of staff and time pressures.
A “multiyear” financial settlement and emergency grant is now needed from the Austrian government, the court of audit concludes, so the school can make a strategic plan to put it on firmer foundations.