A flinty sun was dropping brilliantly, taking the temperature with it as the countdown to show time began Friday evening in the outdoor horse ring at the agricultural fair ground — but it was the gleaming white Lippizan stallions that shone.
The historic horses were first bred in 1564 — the year Michelangelo died and Shakespeare was born. They were brought to the United States in 1962. Since then, they’ve become quite the showmen, performing everywhere from San Francisco’s Cow Palace to New York’s Madison Square Garden. And clearly the steeds have picked up some crowd-pleasing tricks. Bred for military use — they are known for both strength and agility — here they not only demonstrated dressage, they danced. That’s right; they trot to the beat of Cheek to Cheek, pointing their horseshoes as smoothly as Fred Astaire’s soft shoe.
When the speakers played Puttin’ on the Ritz, the horses’ hooves were hopping in time. The four horses in this number sidestepped side by side, stallions stunning with showgirl-style choreography.
The famous moves were broken down into acts. There was a saddled tribute to the American mustang, horses that share the Lippizans’ Spanish bloodline, complete with leather and feather costuming. There were military maneuvers, performed with mounted red-jacketed riders; the stallions demonstrated the same steps that so impressed General George S. Patton, who arranged for the Hermanns’s Lippizans to become American prisoners of war when Vienna was under attack during World War II. That animal rescue is the basis for the Disney film The Miracle of the White Stallions.
Heavily branded, most prominently with a crown and a capital H on their haunches denoting the royal Austrian house of Hapsburg, the stallions ranged in age and training expertise, but the riders were uniformly women. Why? Some 95 per cent of the applicants for apprentice riders are women.
The Hermann family still runs the show, and they don’t try to hide the tricks of training. The horses are rewarded for their stunning rearing and hopping on two legs with sugar cubes during the show. In training, said head of the family Gabriella Hermann, the rewards are apples and carrots. But the hardworking horses work up a froth at the mouth, and carrots make it appear their mouths are bleeding, hence the special sweet treats during shows.
For the hundreds of spectators crowding the bleachers this weekend, the show itself was the treat.
— Lauren Martin