In the visitors’ centre of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, a candle burns alongside a framed photo of Harald Bauer wearing the distinctive cocked hat, as guests queue to sign a book of condolence.
According to local reports, a cleaner found his body in the locker rooms of the riding school early on the morning of 19 September. He was 43.
Officials have said little about his death, other than to express sympathy to his family.
But friends of Mr Bauer – who held the position of Bereiter (rider) – have told H&H he was unhappy about the way the school was being run and was concerned about its future.
Hans Riegler, a former chief rider at the school, told H&H his former pupil had been finding work difficult.
“Harald started in my private yard when he was 15,” he said.
“He was everybody’s darling – friendly, a talented rider, skilled with the horses.
“He loved the school, but I know he was worried about it. He may have had private problems, too, but the situation there was not easy.”
Mr Bauer’s girlfriend told the Austrian newspaper Heute he could not deal with the strain of working at the school.
“Harald was a sensitive person,” she said. “He could no longer cope with the pressure of his profession and the management of the riding school.”
Critics say the problems at the school stem from 2001 when the 400-year-old institution became a private company owned by the Austrian government.
Former Olympic eventer Michael Bullen told H&H: “It has been going downhill since then. They have changed the ride the horses perform and top riders have been leaving. That is very sad to see.”
Mr Bullen – who trained with the legendary chief rider Alois Podhajsky (see box right) – said the school could not be run as a commercial venture.
“Something like that will always run at a loss. It is commercial in that it brings huge numbers of tourists to Vienna – but they never put that into the equation,” he said.
An immediate change in culture
Hans Riegler told H&H recent changes at the school had convinced him to leave in 2008 – after 39 years.
In 2007, businesswoman Elisabeth G ¼rtler took over the riding school.
With an annual loss of â‚¬2.65m ( £2.31m) to address, she doubled the number of performances from 35 to more than 70 a year.
She also cut the wages of long-serving riders and “excessive” extra payments
Mr Riegler said the change in culture had been immediate.
“She was always saying, ‘We need to make money, we need more income’,” he said.
“That was all I used to hear.”
The school did not return H&H’s calls, but its business plan states that the new salary scheme benefits the younger riders, while performance numbers are now back at 1970s levels.
It also states that the horses will visit France twice, Moscow, Brussels, London (in November) and Switzerland this year.
The school insists the “wellbeing of the horses always takes centre stage”. But Michael Bullen believes the new regime may be too intense.
“Their legs can only stand so much,” he said. “If you start putting pressure on them and sending them all over the world, they are going to start going lame.”
To see the full news story, see the current issue of Horse & Hound (29 September, 2011)