Vienna’s Fiaker Horses at Work (Horse carriages in the City)

Vienna’s Fiaker Horses are a vital part of the city’s cultural heritage. These beauties are an important part of Vienna’s history and culture and are loved by locals and tourists alike. Here’s everything you need to know about the horse-drawn carriage tradition of Vienna.

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The heat rises in waves from the street as temperatures soar to 38 degrees Celsius in Vienna. Several horses and carriages stand in the sweltering heat in front of the Albertina. 

But along the Fürichgasse, large trees pour their shade out over the park onto the street, giving a reprieve from direct sun to both horse carriages and drivers. The traditionally clothed men and women pass out water buckets, smoke cigarettes and wait their turn to move forward in the line and into the heat.

These are Vienna’s famed Fiaker. They are named after the coaches at Hotel de Saint Fiacre in Paris, the patron saint of taxi drivers.

The history of Vienna’s Fiaker

This oasis of shade on Fürichgasse by the Albertina was once the site of the Philipphof. This handsome 1865 apartment house in whose cellars hundreds had sought refuge from American bombs. In the final months of WWII, a direct hit destroyed the building, killing everyone sheltered inside. This was one of the most gruesome civilian tragedies of the war.

Now, this lovely garden of grass and trees reminds us of these “other” victims of war. They are not forgotten, but time has mercifully altered how we remember them. Now, an American can walk her dog, take time to pet the horses, and chat with the Fiakerfahrer, the traditional Viennese coachman.

Meeting Vienna’s Fiaker horse carriage operators

Wolfgang Stoffler sits in one of two folding chairs in the shade reading a paper, a cooler at his feet. He has been a Fiakerfahrer since 1983. His career for the last 30 years has kept him fit, tanned, and full of humor. My dog discovers his hand and he pats her lightly on the head while offering me a chair.

Glancing over at the horses, heads hanging at rest as they stand patiently in the heat, I ask him the question many think they already know the answer to: “How do the horses hold up in these temperatures?”

“Oh, they like the sun and heat,” Wolfgang assured me, “actually, far better than the cold. And of course, we rotate them from the shade to the sun, so no team is in the sun full time.” This is lucky because they earn most of their income from May to August, Wolfgang tells me.

But many clearly don’t understand, don’t know horses, he says, and make their feelings known. “People often shout at me, calling us animal torturers.” Then he opens the cooler at his feet. I was expecting sandwiches and cold drinks… But no: It was full of bite-size carrots and apples for the horses, who are often, as with Wolfgang, the best of friends with those who care for them. These treats speak for the bonds between man and horse that people don’t see.

Wolfgang introduces me to his pair of 5-year-old greys, Peter and Paul, who perk up at the sound of their names. Soft muzzles find their place; their affection is immediate.

The Carriage horse – A horse with a job

Wolfgang’s team is next up. But until a customer arrives, he has time to talk about what happens to horses that don’t have a job, a purpose, as Vienna’s Fiaker horses do. In his younger days, he tells me, he had a trotter and worked in a barn full of racers.

All owners want is a fast horse and if it’s not fast enough, his boss would be ordered to send perfectly sound horses – even as young as four years old – to the slaughterhouse for the price of their meat.

One stable of 100 racehorses was whittled down to two within just a few years. I’m aghast. To the owner, it was just a balance sheet. “These people have no relationship to their horses,” he tells me.  The Fiakerfarhrer do. “Our horses are like family.” Many of the Fiaker horses are in fact ex-racing trotters taken on by people like Wolfgang. So the trade is not just employment for drivers, but a role in life for the horses who might otherwise end up as “Pferdeleberkäse”, a traditional Austrian sausage made of horse meat.

According to DIEFLEISCHER.AT at the Vienna Wirtschaftskammer (WKW), they claim that most of their horse meat comes from Haflinger and Noriker horses, moderately heavy Austrian draught horses, bred for slaughter like cattle.

They even have a market for young horses, foals slaughtered at a mere six months old. Austrians eat about 200 tons of horsemeat a year, according to the WKW.

400 horse carriages in Austria’s capital

So Vienna’s Fiaker horses are lucky. They have a job working 260 days a year for a maximum of 4 days a week, leaving them 125 days of rest, far more than the rest of us have and certainly more than the drivers get. Around 400 horses are registered with the government veterinary office and 58 licenses to drive horse-drawn carriages.

On any given day, approximately 116 horses are at work in Vienna. Unlike the unlucky racehorses, the Fiaker horses can often reach the ripe old age of 30.

Now, every time I catch the sight of one of these lovely carriages pulled by a loping, and sometimes even prancing, pair, I count myself lucky to live in a city that cherishes the past as easily as it reaches into the future. Here in Vienna, where the magnificent stables of the Habsburgs have been brilliantly transformed into the MuseumsQuartier, the past is always evolving.

As Wolfgang pulls away with his next customer, I settle back on my park bench to take in the scene, as an exhaust-free, hybrid bus slides silently along with these elegant horses, tradition and innovation move together side by side.

If you’re ever in Vienna, be sure to take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage! You’ll never forget the experience.

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