After 436 years, Austrian stables take in women

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VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- It's no longer a man's world in Austria's most sophisticated stables.

The country's prestigious Spanish Riding School, for centuries a bastion of masculinity, is modernizing: On Wednesday, the 436-year-old institution officially presented its first female riders-in-training.

The school, which was founded in 1572 and is part of Vienna's former imperial Hofburg Palace complex, is known for elegant white Lipizzaner stallions.

Every year, throngs of tourists from around the world watch as the horses, led by male riders in identical uniforms, gracefully perform exercises and jumps.

Allowing women to sit in the saddle marks a distinct break with tradition. But for Elisabeth Guertler, the director, opening up the exclusive club reflects the realities of modern life.

"What speaks against it?" Guertler told reporters. "Today, ladies and gentlemen both have to earn their keep and prove themselves."

In the 18th century, ladies of the Austrian royal court regularly rode the Lipizzaner horses but were not recruited to be trainers.

Spanish Riding School spokeswoman Barbara Sommersacher said Guertler, who started managing the institution less than a year ago, personally pushed for the candidacies of women to be taken into consideration.

"For her, it just wasn't acceptable," Sommersacher said. "For Ms. Guertler, traditions are good as long as they're adapted to current times."

Wednesday's announcement was a bright spot in a rough year for the school: In January, officials warned that the renowned establishment was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that a planned U.S. tour had been canceled to save on travel expenses.

The young women making history are 21-year-old Hannah Zeitlhofer, from the Austrian capital, and Sojourner Morrell, a 17-year-old British national who grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The two were dressed in identical riding gear with their hair tucked into caps.

"I'm very happy - it's my dream come true," Morrell said.

Morrell, whose father is British, said she has always loved horses and wrote to the school "out of the blue" after taking a tour of the establishment while on vacation in Vienna with her mother when she was 15.

Zeitlhofer, a broad smile on her face, echoed Morrell's enthusiasm.

"I'm still trying to believe it," said Zeitlhofer, who always wanted to become a rider and recently got a degree in equestrian science.

"People are totally nice and we're not treated any differently ... I'm completely elated!" she said.

The competition for the posts is fierce.

The school, which claims to be the world's oldest, receives "countless" applications from around the world, Guertler said.

The last time it accepted a rider-in-training - known as an "eleve" - was five years ago.

To qualify for the intense rider training program, which can last up to 10 years, candidates need to be at least 17 years old, have a passport from a European Union country and speak fluent German.

Morrell said she learned hers while on a student exchange program in Hannover, Germany, several years ago.

Certain physical attributes - slender legs that appear long in relation to the upper body - are a must, as are determination and stamina, Guertler stressed.

The Lipizzaners long served as a symbol of Austria's past glory during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which stretched across much of Europe.

Austria's former ruling royal family, the Habsburgs, went to Spain centuries ago to buy horses and founded a stud farm in what is now Slovenia. The school, privatized in 2001, also operates the Piber stud farm in the southern Austrian province of Styria.

Change usually raises new issues. In this case - perhaps not surprisingly - the school is now debating what the women will wear once they're experienced enough to perform alongside their male colleagues.

"There are a couple of questions about that, but we have a a few years to think about it," Guertler said.


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