When wars end and a peace treaty is written up, usually it is land and important resources that are divided up. When World War I finished and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was being shared in 1918, a group of horses became part of the negotiations.
These were not any old horses, though. They were the famed Lipizzaner horses – so important that everyone wanted a share. And, although they were indeed distributed between several countries in the final treaty, it was Austria who kept the most significant of them all – the main stallions.
It is the descendants of these stallions who still make up the famous white horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, whose classical dressage performances are a highlight of the Austrian capital.
Performances in the palatial white riding school built in 1735 were once only for guests of the court, but another consequence of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 was that the school had to open to the public to help pay the bills.
Brief history of the Lipizzaner horses
Hang on, what are the Lipizzaner horses and why is it called the Spanish Riding School if it’s in Austria? Good questions, so let’s just quickly run through the background.
The Lipizzaner horses (also known just as the Lipizzan) can trace their origin all the way back to 1580, when the ruling Habsburgs wanted to breed a new type of horse that would be good for both military purposes and for prestigious riding schools. To do this, they brought the Spanish Andalusian horse to Austria and began to mix it with other stock from across Europe.
Although this breeding took place in two locations, the main one that is relevant to the horses we know today was in the village of Lipica (spelled Lipizza in Italian), which is obviously where the name comes from. Lipica is in Slovenia these days and there’s still a stud farm with more than 300 horses.
Eventually the Habsburgs were happy with the breed they had created by blending all these attributes. By the 18th century, this main stud at Lipica had identified six ‘foundation stallions’ that all the future Lipizzaner horses would be descended from.
While many tourists who visit Vienna will go to one of the school’s performances or take a guided tour of the facilities, there’s another way to get up close to the Lipizzaner horses – here in the southeast of Austria near Graz, at the Piber Stud Farm where they are all born and raised.
The Piber Stud Farm
Only the best of the best end up at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, but they all start here at the Piber Stud Farm (officially called the Piber Federal Stud).
It’s about 45 minutes’ drive west of Graz and, although you’re never far from nature in the city, you’ll definitely feel the countryside in the air when you arrive. Rolling green hills surround the farm, with pockets of forests and charming villages spotted in the distance.
At the entrance to the farm stands the imposing Piber Castle, which was originally built as a baroque abbey at the start of the 1700s, almost a century before the stud was opened here in 1798. Next to it is St Andrews Church, founded on the site in 1066 (although it has been rebuilt several times since).
But you’ve come for the horses, right? So, although you can visit these historic buildings, let’s head through to the stables to see the animals.
Life of a Lipizzaner
The Piber Stud Farm is a woman’s world.
The stallions are transferred to Heldenberg when they are about four years old to start their training, which takes about six years, and then they’re off to the big league in Vienna. Only the best will come back to Piber for a short time for breeding.
The mares, on the other hand, stay here and are at the heart of the Lipizzaner story. Although the horses all have a name that includes one of the six original stallion bloodlines, it is the health of the mares that guarantees the success off the offspring and, as such they’re treated with great care at the Piber Stud Farm.
It takes about three years to rear a horse here, under the watchful eye of the experienced staff. After the mares have got used to their surroundings, they are introduced to bridles, long lines, and harness. It’s not until they’re about five years old that they start to use a saddle.
Visiting the Piber Stud Farm
When you visit the Piber Stud Farm from Graz, you’ll see many of these stages of the life of the Lipizzaners.
In one section are the young foals that have been born this season, nuzzling up to their mothers, both friendly enough to come up and say hi to me, but not interested enough to stick around for pats when they realise I have no food.
Interestingly, you’ll notice that most of the foals are actually dark coloured – brown or even black. It’s only as they get older that they start to turn the grey colour that they are famous for across the world. (Although they’re often described as white, they’re technically grey.)
Through one of the stables is an open-air ring where training sessions take part with the horses, which visitors can watch if they are there at the right time (normally between 13:45 – 14:15, Tuesday to Friday). When I visit, there are a couple of mares relaxing and it’s interesting just to watch the way they move naturally.
In other areas, you’re able to see the horses in the stables, there’s a live blacksmith at work sometimes, and there’s an exhibition of historic carriages.
A recently redeveloped museum called ‘Mythical Horse’ has excellent modern exhibitions about the history of the Lipizzaners and the Piber Federal Stud, including video footage and interactive games.
Visiting the museum before you explore the rest of the site is a good way to get an overview of the importance of the Piber Stud Farm.
Lipizzaner carriage ride
Seeing the Lipizzaner horses train and even having a chance to pat them around the stables will be exciting enough for horse lovers – but there’s one more thing that is a highlight here at the Piber Stud Farm.
For an additional fee, you can arrange to take a carriage ride with the Lipizzaner horses, with two of the beautiful animals pulling the historic open-air carriage through the nearby roads and farm tracks for about 30 minutes.
It’s not just a pleasant way to see the surrounding countryside, it also gets you up close to see why these horses are considered so special, and are one of the most famous breeds in the world. Prices start at €116 for six people for a 30-minute ride.
Where is the Piber Stud Farm?
The Piber Stud Farm is about 45 minutes’ drive west of Graz. It’s official address is Piber 1, 8580 Köflach, Köflach. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to the Piber Stud Farm?
The easiest way to get to the Piber Stud Farm is to drive.
While there is no direct public transport to the Piber Stud Farm, you can catch the train from Graz to Köflach. From there, it’s a 30 minute walk or a short taxi ride.
There is also this tour to the Piber Stud Farm from Graz that will take care of all the logistics.
When is the Piber Stud Farm open?
During the summer month of July/August/September, the Piber Stud Farm is open from 9:30 – 17:00 (with the stables closed from 12:00 – 13:00).
From April to June and October, the Piber Stud Farm is open from 9:30 – 16:00 (also with the stables closed from 12:00 – 13:00).
There are one-hour-long guided tours every day at 9:45, 11:00, 13:00, and 14:15.
How much does visiting the Piber Stud Farm cost?
Admission to the Piber Stud Farm (including a guided tour) is as follows:
Children (6-18 years): €14
Children (3-6 years): €7
Senior (from 60 years): €18
During busy periods, you may like to prebook your tickets here to guarantee a space on the tour.
I’ve written before about how much I love Graz and how there are so many things to do in Graz for visitors. It’s easy to spend a few days in the city itself – exploring the historic centre, the cool art galleries, interesting museums, and just hanging with the locals who love to eat and drink.
But this is also a region where there’s lots to see outside the city, and some of the best experiences are a short drive from the centre. The Piber Stud Farm is one of them, and an excellent example of what you can discover when you travel a bit deeper.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN GRAZ
Staying in the city of Graz is a fantastic base to explore the region, including places like the Piber Stud Farm.
Clean, comfortable, and right next to the main train station, a&o Graz Hauptbahnhof is a great hostel option.
Although the rooms are small, Minihotel Graz is right in the centre of town and is great value.
Filled with art and an interesting design, Augarten Art Hotel offers very cool accommodation.
And for luxury, Schlossberghotel has an incredible blend of modern and historic in a building full of art.