Horsing around Vienna

You cannot miss them when you visit our city. The Fiaker, a form of hackney coach, is ubiquitous in the inner districts of Vienna. Our Fiaker carriages are horse-drawn four-wheeled coaches for hire, and among the city´s most popular tourist attractions. The other day IgersVienna were invited to a behind-the-scenes tour by Marco, co-founder of Riding Dinner Austria, to a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the old established Fiaker enterprises, Fiaker Paul. To me this was very special, as I love horses, but had not been in a stable in quite a while. I really enjoyed watching the morning routine, preparing the horses and coachmen for their working day.

Curious Max is one of the many beautiful horses at the Simmering stable of Fiaker Paul

The taxis of yesteryear

The term Fiaker was borrowed from the French name Fiacre in the 18th century. It took its name from the first stand for horse wagons in the Parisian street Rue de Saint Fiacre. The French merchant and horse dealer Nicolas Souvage had established this stand in 1662. In Vienna the first Fiaker license was granted in 1693, replacing the previously unnumbered “Janschky” carriages by the numbered Fiakers — think of them as the equivalent of license plates. By 1900 there were over 1000 such horse-drawn coaches in Vienna. Now the city has 26 Fiaker companies. There are currently 152 concessions for wagons and 355 horses in the federal capital. Half of them allowed to circulate on even days and the other half on odd days.

Fiaker carriages at Michaelerplatz
One of the horse parking spots in the city is at Michaelerplatz

There are twenty-one Fiaker companies in Vienna, which among them share 152 carriage concessions. Fiaker Paul, the company I visited, is a family business that has been running carriages for more than 50 years. They have stables based in Vienna´s Simmering and Meidling districts and they have 13 coach concessions. They can drive 6 of those on even days and the other 7 on odd days. The horse teams work 4 out of 7 days. There are assigned horse parking spots in the city, but they are not assigned to specific companies, which can sometimes lead to conflicts among the companies, because it works on a first come first served principle.

Like cars, the carriages have license plates.

Most of Fiaker Paul´s beautiful horses are Lippizaner or Hungarian cross-breeds. They are one of the few Fiaker companies in Vienna who train coachmen and horses themselves, and take their time doing so to make sure both are well trained and understand and know how to deal with the situations they may encounter. It is better to invest more training time upfront and that way ensure a long and productive working relationship. Training a Fiaker horse takes between five months and a year. A carriage horse not only has to learn to walk in step, but also to behave calmly in traffic. It has to get used to the cars and not get nervous when someone honks a horn or accelerates, or when an unexpected situation comes up. The horses are not used in traffic until they are at least four or five years old. Part of the horse training also involves the use of the appropriate mouth bit — making sure it is the right size, as each horse´s mouth is different.

In addition to two stables in Vienna, also has a 15 hectare horse farm near Göttlesbrunn in Lower Austria, where the working horses get to spend periodic vacations and where they go for retirement.

Like people, horses have different characters and get along better with some than with other of their kind, and with the specific humans around them. This is why in putting together a pair to pull a carriage together, the company is careful to select horses that like one another. Once a good team is found, those two will go together all the time (as long as both are fit to work). The two that work together are also stabled next to each other when not working, so that they do not miss one another. They also usually work with the same coachman, so that together horses and driver become a well-practiced team.

An elegant affair

It turns out that Fiaker coachmen (and the occasional coachwoman) must wear elegant hats by law. The bowler hat is the standard, although in the heat of summer some will switch that for a more comfortable straw hat, and Coachman Kristijan, elegantly dressed in a black suit and tie for his first working day after the Covid-19 lockdown period, told me that he unfortunately had lost his old hat and had to dish out 100 EUR for a new one!

The horses are washed down and brushed every morning, and so are the carriages. Everything has to be meticulously clean, the blankets for guests folded, windows shiny, and even the spokes of the carriage wheels are polished.

The traditional coaches that are used in Vienna are a bit more modern nowaday than 200 years ago. They now have breaks, which makes it easier for the horses and coachmen, and electric lights. Still, many of these horse-drawn carriages are now over 100 years old and have been retrofitted. A lot of care is put into maintaining them in good running order, with polished interiors and exteriors. There are only very few coachbuilders left in Austria – the Schlagbauer and Marius companies, for example. These companies partially restore old ones and build new carriages. However, most of the carriages that are reproduced from old models today come from Poland or Hungary. The classic “Landauer” was once the most noble type of carriage, which could be equipped for all types of weather, with a roof and windows, and this is what is used here too. A coach ride in the winter can thus be quite comfortable.

All this elegance is strictly regimented. How the coaches and drivers must be equipped is even described in a “Fiaker tradition law”. The drivers must have a well-groomed appearance and also adapt their clothing to tradition – a one-color shirt or blouse, bow tie or tie, vest, blazer, street shoes (not tennis shoes) an the already mentioned elegant hat are required.

Asen takes a break, watching the carriages being rolled out, before getting them ready to hitch the horses on

Animal welfare

There are a lot of discussions about animal ethics in Austria (a topic that is also important to me), and one of them concerns the welfare of carriage horses. Fiaker companies are repeatedly accused of animal cruelty by animal rights organizations. From my vantage point it is difficult to judge how animal welfare is handled in other Fiaker companies. The one I visited more than complies with existing regulations and scientific guidelines.

Fiaker operations in Vienna are subject to the Vienna Fiaker and Horse Rental Car Act as well as additional regulations to this law. The 2016 amendment brought improvements for carriage horses. For example, the horses may no longer be used when temperatures rise above 35 ° C. The working hours for horses have been reduced from 20 to 18 days per month (meaning they have a four day working week). The operating time was reduced by one hour: Fiakers can take customers from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The official city veterinarians check regularly if the animals who are currently “parked” in one of the Fiaker parking spots are actually scheduled to work in accordance with their official work plan.

Also, when a horse has become too old to work, they do not suffer the fate of the average cow. Instead of being sent to the butcher, they get to retire and live out their old age.

Most of the horses are quite trusting, even with strange visitors.

One of the often cited problems is that carriage horses have to work under heat stress during the summer months. An extensive 2008 study of the University of Veterinary Medicine found that working carriage horses are not overwhelmed by the ambient temperature or the intensity of the workload. Extreme temperatures tend to be more of a problem for the coachmen than for the horses, as long as they are given enough water. A Platzmeister cools horses down with a water hose whenever necessary, cooling their ankles as needed. In the winter, on the other hand, the horses can adapt well to low temperatures, and since they grow their hair in winter they become well isolated. Nevertheless, they are also covered with blankets when standing still.

There are a lot of myths associated with horses and in particular with carriage horses. Did you know that the “blinders” that horses wear are not actually to make them not see traffic? That is what most people think. Actually, they serve to prevent the horses from observing one another, because this would lead to an unrhythmic pace and therefore an unpleasant driving experience.

I learned that a foaming mouth is also not a sign of thirst, it is actually a sign that the horse is feeling good and chewing, which causes the foam to be made; and a horse that hangs its head is not in bad shape or totally exhausted — they are using a break time to save energy and take a nap. Horses can sleep standing up.

If you are interested in some more myth busting about the Viennese carriage horses, Marco has put together some short videos, which are quite informative and tackle all kinds of animal welfare topics. The videos are in German.

The Paul company owns around 75 horses, mostly Lipizzaners from Hungary, which are used on alternating days. They either live on the estate in Simmering, from where they go to work in the city centre, or in Meidling, from where they are used in Schönbrunn. Every 3 months the horses are allowed to spend 14 days on farm pastures in Lower Austria. The horses that are used for Schönbrunn work 7 months a year and then take 5 months off. This type of “vacation period” goes beyond the industry standard and is, according to the company, economically not really viable. It is for the love of the horses and to make sure they stay healthy and well until they have reached old age.

Nibbling on some fresh straw, and keeping an eye on that photographer

At least from what I was able to observe in the spacious and clean Simmering stables, where the horses rest in stables full of straw and have an enclosed paddock for occasional free movement, these horses are well cared for, the interaction with between horses and coachmen and stable staff seemed to indicate trust, and they have the possibility to move freely for certain periods in a fenced paddock area on location. It is precisely to allow people insights into the workings of a Fiaker enterprise and to allay fears about mistreatment of the animals that the company allows the option of a stable visit. Meanwhile, you could take a virtual video tour of the stables and listen to Marco explain a lot of things about the horses and the training.

Meals on wheels

Fiaker Paul collaborated with Marco Pollandt and Raimund Novotny to create a new enterprise that combines the horse carriage and culinary traditions into a unique event: Riding Dinner Austria. You can book this very exclusive event where you can have an elegant private dinner while touring Vienna in a horse-drawn carriage. (There are variations, with drinks only, or coffee and Kaiserschmarrn, a typical Austrian dessert.) That would certainly a special thing to do for a birthday or anniversary. It is also possible to book the behind-the-scenes tour on their website. The “Secrets of the Fiaker” tour is definitely recommendable. That is how I got to know so much about Fiaker!

Always a friendly smile on his face! One last shot of Kristijan before saying good bye.

6 thoughts on “Horsing around Vienna

  1. Wow!!! Thank you Karin. I have lived for 14 years in Vienna and almost nothing about the Fiaker. How could this be? This story covers it all, answers all my questions that I had and did’t know I had but that were important, and with beautiful pictures to go with it!!!! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting and informative read, Karin! I must say I’m thrilled to hear these horses being so well cared for as it’s something that often concerns me when I see carriage horses. Enjoyed the myth-busting tidbits, too. Had no idea about the real purpose of the blinders. Incredible photos as always!

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    1. Thanks so much for your nice comment! I must say that the horses are well treated at the stable I visited, and the law protects them here, so I hope this is the case at other stables as well. I do not think it is universally the case in all countries, unfortunately. I am glad I could inform about some of the myths (I myself did not know these things before researching them.)

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  3. This is very informative. So much about carriage horses is not well known, I think. Foaming at the mouth, the blinders… Carriage rides in NYC have also become very controversial, especially in the summer months.

    Nice article Karin. 👍🏻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bill. I do not know if the animal protection laws protect the horses equally well in New York as they do in Vienna. For example, when I lived in New York, once or twice I went riding in Central Park, borrowing a horse from a local stable. Those horses lived in stables in a basement, with no daylight. This is against the law here. Not sure if in New York it is still like that, this was some 20 years ago. I am told that horses, which evolved from the steppes of Asia, are quite well able to bear the heat, as long as they are given plenty of water and are being hosed down with water on very hot days.

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