Sign of the Times: Saratoga Teen Lives Out Every Girl's Dream as Rider Trainee at Vienna's Spanish Riding School

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The four new rider trainees at Vienna's tradition-embedded Spanish Riding School include for the first time two women, a British-born teenager who has been living in the USA and a native Austrian. (Spanish Riding School photo)


You read that headline correctly: "Girl".

A 17-year-old Saratoga, New York teen has broken through several traditional barriers this month. Sojourner Morrell, who is technically a British citizen, survived the month-long try-out phase as a stableworker and an entrance selection process to become one of four initiate riding student "Eleves" at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

Even if an ?leve is given the unique opportunity of training with the Spanish Riding School, this does not necessarily mean that he or she will automatically eventually retire as a Chief Rider. Each prospective Rider is faced with challenging requirements and must meet high personal qualifications. It takes approximately four to six years - depending on the individual's talent and personal commitment - for an ?leve to progress to the position of an Assistant Rider.

The ?leves are the equivalent to apprentices at the Spanish Riding School. Until now young boys aged between 15 and 16 years were admitted. However, this age limit has been raised so that ideally young people wanting to join the Spanish Riding School have already either completed their school education or an apprenticeship. Sojourner is 17; the female Austrian Eleve is 22.

There's more to the ideal Rider than just a love for horses and an equestrian talent. The baroque Lipizzaner, bred specifically for the High School of Classical Horsemanship, is smaller and more compact than the average dressage horse today. The rider should match the horse in his or her proportions.

If age and personal requirements fit, it is now a question of an Eleve completing the first four years of the equestrian training under the guidance of an experienced Rider and learning all about the Spanish Riding School. Working in the stables is just as important as learning to care for the saddles, bridles and all the other equipment.

After those first four years the ?leve is officially evaluated by the Director of the Riding School, Ernst Bachinger, and the Riders with regard to his or her skills and also in his or her own ability to pass on to others what has been taught. A positive evaluation will enable the promotion to the position of an Assistant Rider.

An Assistant Rider is expected to train a young stallion independently and present him in a public performance. This phase also takes at least four years and sees the Assistant Rider working closely with the experienced Chief Riders. This is the time the acquired equestrian skills should be developed into an art form and be passed on to a horse. This project demands a great deal of discipline and sensitivity from a young person. Taking into account all these stages, it takes about 8 to 10 years to progress from an ?leve to a Rider.

The tradition of training the art of riding at the Spanish Riding School will remain unchanged: the experienced Chief Rider passing on traditions and expertise to the next generation. An excellent Rider is not only able to train horses but must also be a good teacher. This way the quality of training has been upheld for centuries.

For the first time since the end of the Austrian monarchy, women will sit astride the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School. In the 18th century, during Empress Maria Theresia's reign it was perfectly normal for the ladies of the royal court to take part in the famous carrousels and equestrian feasts which took place in the Winter Riding School. Allegedly Empress Elisabeth, a superb rider, used the world's most beautiful riding hall so she could enjoy her personal training sessions beneath the sparkling chandeliers.

The Spanish Riding School has been planning a tour of several US cities for 2010.

Thanks to the Spanish Riding School for explanations of the road that lies ahead for the Eleves.