Its empire is long gone, shrunk to a small nation of largely skiing and hiking fanatics. But thanks to a few hundred stallions, a bit of Austria's past glory lives on.

"Austria - oh, I know," the taxi driver in Las Vegas mused to his Viennese passenger recently. "The Lipizzaners - the white horses - and Arnold Schwarzenegger."Leaving aside the Terminator, along with wiener schnitzel, oompah bands and "The Sound of Music," the Lipizzaners have reigned as Austria's symbol of imperial might for more than four centuries.

Once part of the Austrian war machine, today the Lipizzaners are all about the nobility of art and breeding - and a lucrative source of schillings for the nation's tourist industry.

"There are only a few institutions in the world that have survived 430 years," boasts the school's director, Jaromir Oulehla, who related the tale of the world-wise Vegas cabbie.

From the moment visitors enter the Spanish Riding School, a white, crystal-chandeliered building in an 18th-century building of the Hofburg palace complex, it's clear they are in the presence of royalty - albeit the equine version.

In an elegant hall that looks suited for an opera or an emperor's ball, except for the dirt floor, the Lipizzaners perform a show of maneuvers that are essentially unchanged since the 1500s.

Even the director concedes they could be viewed as an anachronism. But admirers wax poetic about the artistry, the tradition.

"These peerless Lippizaners, which come before the public full of proud, prancing, pristine movement with their quiet, discreet and disciplined riders, centaurlike in the saddle, are testimony to art," raved Sylvia Loch, founder of England's Classical Riding Club.

The same stylishness and power caught the eye of the imperial courts of Europe in the days when a kingdom was only as good as its horses.

Spanish stallions were widely admired as the strongest and most talented horses of the Middle Ages. Austria's ruling Habsburgs, who went to Spain to buy horses for an empire that stretched across much of Europe, decided to found a stud farm with them in the village of Lipica - or Lipizza in the Italian spelling - in what is now Slovenia.

Today, their meticulously trained descendants strut before audiences under poker-faced riders in two-cornered hats, performing, in the absence of war, to Chopin and Strauss.

"You need to be pretty keen on horses to be happy about paying such prices" - from about $20 to $72, or about $16 for standing room - gripes one skeptical travel writer from Lonely Planet.

In one riveting demonstration, the Lipizzaners perform an intricately choregraphed pas de deux to Mozart, only their occasional snorts and foaming hinting at the difficulty.

In another, one horse after another bounds along on its back legs - "like a demented kangaroo," in the words of the grudgingly appreciative Lonely Planet.

The crowning move is the capriole, in which the horse leaps into the air and flings its hind legs out vigorously, an exercise requiring special strength and courage. Some in ther audience, momentarily forgetting their regal environs, whoop in delight.

No one could doubt these magnificent beasts are the sole authentic claimants to be pure Lipizzaners, the same Lipizzaners that powered the Iberian war machine. Or could they?

When Austria staked its claim with the European Union in 1996 as the original country of the Lipizzaner horses, none of the other countries where some of the world's 3,000 Lipizzaners live disputed it - until last year. Then Italy, which got some horses from Austria at the end of World War I, put in a belated claim for the same title.

The Austrians were as amused as they were disgusted. It was as as if Austria claimed to be the home of pasta.

Now the weighty matter will be argued before - and decided by - EU commissioners in Brussels. Oulehla of the Vienna Riding School can't wait to show them the ancient breeding documents he says will prove Austria's case.

"It is more than ridiculous," Oulehla said.

The brouhaha has made headlines in Europe, but for Oulehla there is one consolation.

"The whole world," he says, "now knows where the good Lipizzaners live and are bred."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

If you go

Performances: The Lipizzaner horses perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna for about half the year, with shows sold out months in advance.

Regular performances are March through June and September to mid-December at 10:45 a.m. Sunday and most Wednesdays at 7 p.m. In July and August, they are at their stud farm in Piber, southern Austria, which is open to tourists year-round.

Ticket prices range from about $20 to $72, or $16 for standing room. Tickets are also sold for their training sessions, 10 a.m.-noon most days.

Piber gala: Piber will be host for a gala weekend Sept. 24-27, featuring the Lipizzaners and the Vienna Boys Choir in performance at the stud farm, a Renaissance castle.

International tours: The Lipizzaners do one international tour every year. They are scheduled to visit Denmark-Sweden-Norway in 1999, Germany-France in 2000 and Netherlands-England in 2001.

Information: For information and reservations, contact: Spanische Reitschule, Michaelerplatz 1, A-1010, Vienna, Austria. Phone(43-1) 222 533-9032. Fax (43-1) 535-0186.