Maestoso Petra, page 1
#2: Bell’s Star
#4: Maestoso Petra
For Serena Du Bois
The Spanish Riding School
The Winter Riding Hall
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is …”
—from Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
I am old now, but I have been young. And I remember.
I remember the Alpine meadows of my youth, where the grass was sweeter in the mouth than the lumps of sugar we were given as treats. I remember snow-topped mountains, so sharp against the bright blue sky I wondered if they were real. I remember learning to gallop on sturdy legs that changed month by month, as I watched in amazement, from black to gray to a smooth creamy white.
I remember the years of training that made me, step by careful step, into the perfectly mannered creature I became.
I remember war. I remember a sky turned red with fire, and the girl who whispered soothing words and fed me carrots stolen from her mother’s soup pot. Her name was Liesl, and she always ran, her thick yellow braid bouncing down her back. I remember the soldiers who came to help us—tall, strong boys from America with loud voices and wide smiles and easy ways.
I am a Lipizzaner, proudly bred to dance the ancient steps, my hoofbeats silenced by the sawdust-covered floor of a gold and white ballroom. I remember the music, lilting and lovely, and the warming sound of applause. I remember it all.
But I should start, where all good stories start, at the beginning. I was born in 1932 at Piber, in the state of Styria in southeastern Austria. There the wheat fields stretch in waves of gold to the low brown hills and the mountains beyond, where the streams run icy with melted snow. We were all born there, my brothers and sisters and cousins, born in the lazy sunny years before the war.
I came at night. Josef, the stableman with the drooping mustache, held the lantern in his trembling old hand, the dim light dancing around the walls of the stall where my mother lay. The first touch I felt was her soft muzzle and then her tongue, rasping and strong as she cleaned me. I stood … and then I fell to the straw, my legs folding under me, and old Josef laughed. I stood again, this time firmly, and I remember his voice saying, “A fine little Maestoso stallion. He should do well.”
My name was decided at birth, as was the life I have led. I am called Maestoso Petra. My father was of the Maestoso line, which reaches back to the Spanish horses of Lipizza, and even further to the Arabians of the desert and the horses who carried the Romans into battle. Petra is for my mother. At first I stayed close to her, for I needed her warmth and comfort and milk, but soon she pushed me into the world beyond the foaling barn.
Go on, little one, said Mama Petra as she nudged me forward. Feel the air on your face; taste the grass. Run!
That first year I ran and ran, racing my brothers and sisters along the paddock railings. We nipped at each other’s flanks to go faster, faster, always faster. Sometimes important-looking men would come to watch us, leaning on the railing and talking in low voices.
In the spring I would see my mother guiding a new foal, as wobbly and coal black as I had once been, into the sunshine. Another little brother or sister, I would think, and wait for the time when they would find their legs and come to race me. Every summer we would leave our winter paddocks and be turned out to graze the high pastures. I remember the two grooms, Janni and Fritz, who led us up the long road into the mountains. They whistled and laughed as they strode along. That first year my mother and the other mares came, too. In the warm air that smelled of pine trees they would toss their heads and play with us. Those were happy times. I had no cares or even very many thoughts, nothing to do but race and eat and roll in a meadow dotted with white flowers, the sun warm on my back. The turf was soft and springy beneath my unshod hooves, and I would play and leap until the shadows grew long across the grass and it was time to go.
When I grew older I went up the mountain with just the stallions. Sometimes my father, Maestoso Elena, came with us. How proud I was to walk beside him and match my steps to his! Old horses like to talk about when they were young, and he told me of the wonderful things he had done in a city far away. It is every Lipizzaner stallion’s dream to go to Vienna, he said. To be chosen for the Spanish Riding School is a great honor.
Only stallions are chosen? I asked him.
Mares are not strong enough, he said seriously. They cannot dance as we do, or fly through the air.
That sounded very exciting! So I asked, a little shyly, if he thought I would be chosen.
Perhaps, he said, eyeing me. You are light on your feet, and strong, and your coat is fading nicely.
I was a medium gray by then, with a paler mane and tail. When will I be white like you? I asked.
Patience, Petra, patience, he said. Only time will tell.
At two I was branded. This sounds worse than it was, for it was done very quickly, in the blink of an eye. I remember standing in the courtyard of the main barn while the blacksmith heated his branding irons over glowing charcoal. Janni had a firm grip on my halter, and he kept patting my neck.
“This won’t hurt, Petra,” he said, patting away. “Honest. It’s just that we have to know who you are all the time. And you can’t exactly tell us, can you, boy?”
He was right. It didn’t hurt, although the places did itch when they were healing. I have three brands. First is the L on my left cheek, which means I am a Lipizzaner—as if you couldn’t tell by looking! On my left hindquarter there is a P under a small crown, because I was born at the Federal Stud at Piber. On my left side, where it’s hidden by my saddle, is M for Maestoso. Under that is a squiggly line that means Mama Petra was descended from a great stallion named Pluto. I never thought about my brands until the frightening day I learned they could keep me from being stolen. Then I was quite glad I had them.
We were beautifully cared for, all of us treated like gold. Every night the straw in our stalls was freshly laid, the water in the bucket was always clean and cool, and the oats were fine and crisp with never a speck of chaff. We were groomed every day, too, brushed and curried until we shone like brass, our hooves picked clean and our manes and tails combed free of tangles. And while I liked the attention—I must say I liked it very much!—I wondered how my time in Piber would end. Would I go to Vienna, as my father and I hoped? If you are not chosen in your fourth year, you will be sold. You could wind up in a circus, he said, and snorted in disgust. Or pulling a carriage. Or in the army.
At the end of my fourth summer I found out. It was the close of a perfect afternoon. The barn swallows were chirping and calling as they darted in and out of the eaves. After he brushed me, Janni fastened a thick blue felt rug around me. We went out of the barn and across the courtyard to a large open truck with the back ramp let down. He led me to the ramp, and then I realized he wanted me to get in that thing. I didn’t want to, so I balked and dug my feet into the dirt. But he put one strong hand on my flank and pushed me.
I was so surprised—Janni had never touched me any way but gently—that I skittered up the ramp before I knew what I was doing. He climbed in and fastened my rope to a ring on the side of the truck. Conversano Nina, a light dappled gray, had already been loaded into the truck, and he was breathing noisily and rolling his eyes.
“Be a good boy, my Petra. Be a good boy,” Janni said in a husky voice. Then he ran back down the ramp, pulled
As we drove away I saw Mama Petra standing at the paddock railing, her eyes so dark and liquid and loving. I wanted to break free and run to her and nuzzle against her as I hadn’t for years. Then the truck turned onto the road that led to the town and I couldn’t see her anymore.
The long journey to Vienna had begun.
The road was narrow and dusty, no more than one lane of packed dirt. We went past fields of grain that were alive with bees, past whitewashed farmhouses and brown and white cows being driven home, their copper bells ringing in the twilight. (I didn’t know the names of everything I was seeing, of course, but it was still pleasant to watch.) Once we passed a hay wagon that was pulled by a sad piebald horse with a long coat and shaggy feet. In between the farms the road wound through the forest, where the air was cool and damp and the shadows lay long and blue across the road. After an hour or so the road widened and we began to meet other trucks, and once an automobile honked its horn at us.
Then the farms ended and I began to see houses, and then more houses, and the road turned to pavement. Before I knew it we were rattling across a long stone bridge over the Mur River. By stretching my neck over the side of the truck, I could see the river, winding wide and dark to the horizon. I could also see a mountain and, on the top of it, a castle with high walls and towers with pointed roofs like witchesȇ hats. All of this was Graz, and it was the first city I had ever seen.
We went through the center of town, through squares lined with old-looking houses with red tile roofs. Then we came to a building that took up an entire block. The truck turned down an alley at the end of the building. I began to hear the most frightful noises—grindings and clankings, and puffing, like the snorting of a giant beast—and I could see clouds of oily black smoke. Then we stopped, and the two men in the truck came around and let down the back ramp. Conversano Nina and I were led out of the truck, this time backward.
“Just in time,” one of the men said. “I was worried we’d miss the train.”
We came out of the alley onto a long concrete platform, with a roof made of hundreds of little glass panes that winked and flashed in the sunset. Lined up alongside this, stretching back as far as I could see, was a series of long cars all hitched together, with many doors and windows, gleaming with brass and shining green paint. Was this the train? At the very front the great black monster—the engine—was making all the grinding and clanking noises and spewing smoke. The platform was busy with men in uniform carrying suitcases, and people getting into the train and leaning out of the windows and calling “Auf Wiedersehen!” and waving their handkerchiefs.
Conversano Nina and I were led down the platform to the last car, which was not shiny green but was made of wooden slats like a barn. A small boy in knickers tugged at his mother’s hand and said, “Look, Mama, such pretty horses!” One should always respond to a compliment, so I lifted my head and tossed my mane, and he laughed.
Then a stout, whiskery stationmaster in a blue uniform with brass buttons came running up to us. “Get those horses off my platform,” he said angrily, waving a sheaf of papers under the nose of the man who held my halter. “I need them loaded, now.”
“Calm yourself,” said my man, and put a hand up. “All is in order, and someone will be along tomorrow morning to pick up the truck—”
“Truck?” the man sputtered, now quite red in the face. “What truck?”
“You don’t think these horses flew here, do you?” said my man. “Although Lipizzaners have been known to leave the ground. You relax, Father,” he said to the stationmaster. “All that matters is that we deliver these two fine boys to the Spanische Reitschule.”
The Spanische Reitschule? I had been chosen! If my man hadn’t been holding my halter so tightly, I would have leaped into the air and kicked up my heels!
“Why didn’t you say so?” the stationmaster said. “That’s a horse of a different color.” Ah, he was all smiles now, chuckling at his own joke. “Right over there, and you will find the hay and feed all loaded for your trip.”
So it was up another ramp (I was getting better at them) and into a stall with a good thick bed of straw. My man fastened a padded collar around my neck, which he tied to rings on the boxcar wall. He was a kind fellow, however, and left the rope loose so I could easily reach the manger in the corner. Then I heard the stationmaster yell, “All aboard!” A steam whistle sounded in a deafening shriek that flattened my ears against my skull, the floor jerked once, hard, underneath me, and we were on our way.
Conversano Nina was poor company throughout that long night, for he fretted and strained against his collar, his neck slick with lather. (I confess that by daybreak I had come to think of him as Conversano Ninny.)
I’m afraid, he cried. I don’t know what’s happening.
We are going to the Spanish Riding School, I said proudly, but he didn’t seem to hear me. My papa says there is no finer honor. Still no reply. At least we have food and straw. Maybe it will be an adventure.
After a while I paid him no mind, for the scene that unrolled beyond the open door of the boxcar was as beautiful as anything I had ever observed. As night fell, and then passed, the train went through the villages and farmlands of Styria, going north, north to Vienna. I saw rivers tumbling over their beds, and craggy cliffs outlined against the stars. I saw tiny churches in mown fields, and the bells in their white steeples swayed and sang in the night wind.
Dawn came, the sky lifting to a pale cloudless blue, and I saw houses painted in pink and blue and yellow, their window boxes blooming in purple and red, and market squares coming to life with mounds of vegetables and trays of round bread and flowers bright in pots. The wheels on the rails hummed a soothing rhythm, and the stations flicked by like scraps of paper on the breeze: Lassnitzhöhe, Bad Blumau, St. Johann Herberstein. Then up through the Vienna Woods, with its dark fir trees and ruined castles on the hills, the towns and taverns clustered along the tracks: Bad Schönau, Wiener Neustadt, Enzesfeld-Lindabrunn. Finally, the train slowed and we pulled into a station that was larger and grander than any we had passed. A loudspeaker crackled, “Südbahnhof—Wien!” and we were in Vienna.
Again Conversano Nina and I were led into a truck; again we were driven through a strange city. But this city was different—so large the buildings, so wide the streets! First we drove down Prinz Eugen Strasse, which ran beside a park with tall trees and winding paths. (I was pleased to see a number of handsome statues of horses with men on their backs.) After the train it felt good to be near trees and grass again, but everything was so tidy, so groomed. The paths were neat stripes of gravel and the flowers grew in rows like teeth. For a moment I longed for my Alpine meadow with the ragged sweet grass and the wildflowers, but then I shook off the thought. I was here, in the great city of Vienna, and I would make the best of whatever came my way. I might have been proud and foolish and young, but I was also determined.
Then we turned onto the Ring, a spacious avenue that made a two-and-a-half-mile circle through the heart of the city. Here was the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace that for centuries had been the winter home of the emperor, and the Parliament, with its grand steps like a Greek temple. Here was the State Opera House, and the grandest of grand hotels and the most fashionable shops and cafés. The Ring was many lanes wide, so wide that the streetcars ran both ways and there were little parks in the middle of the street.
And was it noisy! After my peaceful life in the countryside, not even the streets of Graz nor a night on a train had prepared me for the noise of a great European capital. It was constant, as never-ending as a river over stones, but, somehow, I liked it. I craned my neck to see over the side of the truck, to look at the Viennese. They strolled along the Ring talking and laughing and chatting, and sat gossiping at the café tables that spilled out onto the sidewalks. The city smelled of dust and stone and automobile exhaust—and I caught my first whiff of the rich aroma of coffee, for
The Spanish Riding School
My life truly began the morning after I arrived in Vienna. On that memorable day in August I began my training at the Spanische Reitschule, the Spanish Riding School. Here I would accomplish the purpose for which I had been chosen; here I would learn the dressage moves of the haute école, the high school, which I would perform all over the world.
I awoke in the roomy stall that would be my home for the next nine years. For the first time, I heard the bells of St. Stephen’s Cathedral sweetly tolling the hours. The stables were in the vast complex of palaces and state buildings that made up the Hofburg—I was living in the Imperial Palace! We were just off the Josefsplatz in an old three-story building with steep slate roofs and many tall chimneys. The building was set well back off the street behind a large square courtyard, and wide covered walkways ran along the front of each story. It was very quiet, the noise of the city no more than a distant hum.
The Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School were housed in two long rows of stalls on the first floor. (The offices and quarters for the Oberbereiter, the cavalry officers who trained us, and the Bereiter, our riders, were on the floors above.) I thought the barns at Piber were wonderful, but they were no match for the Stallburg. The ceiling was high and arched, and set into the carved molding over every stall was a graceful white statue of the head of a Lipizzaner. Remember who you are, they seemed to say. Although they were all cast from the same mold, I imagined that mine looked like Mama Petra, and I often spoke to her in those early days when I was feeling lonely. There were signposts at the front of each stall with our names on them, and our hay cribs were made of marble.