(© Kip Mistral 2020. “The Bäckahäst“, artist unknown.)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…especially if it’s a loch or pool in Scotland…
Unless you are a reader of Celtic or Scandinavian mythology, you wouldn’t for a moment suspect that the log or overturned boat you find innocently floating in a lake might suck you into the depths and eat you if you approach it. You might catch a glimpse of its baleful, phosphorescent stare, but probably you won’t have time to notice it looks like a black horse.
A black horse with a beautiful, gossamer mane that floats in the breeze and a tail that trails the ground, that on another occasion might prance up to you inviting you to ride, but once you have mounted, you can’t get off, and it plunges with you aboard into the nearest deep water and, well, you know the rest…
Or, being a shape-shifting water spirit, it can look like a human, tricking you to believe it friendly, like that person you thought was nice, and as you grow closer with the speed of a shark it will turn back into that black horse, who will drag you off to the pond and, you know…
I think we’re all a little cranky these days and this Nordic Bäckahäst looks how I feel, personally. And those of you with black horses, especially the ones with long manes and tails who look annoyed, you might be best to stay far away from lochs or pools…
(© Kip Mistral 2020. Painting by Alexander Pock 1940, Spanish Riding School Levade.)
When as a child I first read Marguerite Henry’s wonderful book about the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, titled “The White Stallion of Lipizza,” equally wonderfully illustrated by her creative partner Wesley Dennis, I was fascinated with the idea of a supremely orderly program of learning and teaching a venerable and highly cultivated horsemanship.
This was no haphazard affair like the way my friends and I learned to ride…we were told to get on, kick to go, pull back on the reins to stop and neck rein. Then off we tore with our kind-hearted and forbearing mounts, all asses and elbows for too long as we learned the hard way.
(© Kip Mistral 2019. “Fragments from the Writings of Max Ritter von Weyrother, Austrian Imperial and Royal Oberbereiter,” published by Xenophon Press, 2017. Images and quotations from within are used with permission of the publisher. Image detail from Courbette by Ludwig Koch 1866-1934)
Maximillian Ritter von Weyrother (1783–1833) was Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna from 1813, and Director from 1814 to 1833. And why should we care to read a book of his writing fragments, you might ask. Is he just one more riding master in the cavalcade of horses and riders through time who codified his personal embrace of equestrian art? The answer would be no.
(© Kip Mistral 2019. Detail from the “Apotheosis of Kaiser Wilhem” by Ferdinand Keller, 1888. National Gallery, Berlin)
Everyone knows, on an archetypal level, that anyone riding a white horse in a movie is a good guy and anyone riding a black horse is a bad guy. Why is that? Why is Pegasus white and why is the Unicorn white? Why is the horse the King rides so often white? Well, white is the color identified with the qualities of purity and nobility, and also it just so happens that real white horses are extremely rare…literally, the pearl of great price.
(This excerpt from “Dressage for No Country” by Paul Belasik–available April 15, 2019–has been made available by its publisher, Trafalgar Square Books. The excerpt describes Belasik’s visit to the Spanish Riding School in the 1990’s.)
I would not be late, so I planned to arrive in Vienna early the day before I was to meet with Kottas. The plane connections all went smoothly. Kottas had arranged for a room, as he said, in a pension near the Spanish Riding School, nestled in the heart of the historic city, and after I settled in, I went out to wander. Vienna was beautiful in the fall, already cold enough to warrant a coat. The city looked palatial. I walked over to the school so I would know where to go the next day. It was headed toward evening, and the city glowed in a warm yellow light; the majestic buildings, the shops with perfect pastries, the whole place felt like classical music. It was imposing but somehow not martial. That night I had a hard time sleeping. I thought I was coming down with something: I had cold sweats and chills like a fever. I called my wife, and she calmed me down. By morning I was fine—it was all nerves.