“Horses Dancing in the Wind”
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SPAIN
“Who can watch your rhythmic steps, your pure, perfect clarity, your restraint, your sense of geometry, and feel no ecstasy?”—RAFAEL ALBERTI, SPANISH POET.
THE lights go off, and the music begins. At the rear of the arena, a rider appears on a white horse that dances in step with the music. The rider is then joined by a group of horsemen whose mounts wheel and turn in perfect harmony. The public holds its breath in amazement at seeing these handsome animals execute such graceful movements.
The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, has become world famous for its dancing horses. The show is really an equestrian ballet, featuring choreography based on the training exercises of classical dressage and doma vaquera, or “country dressage.”* The spectacle is further enhanced by traditional Spanish music and the riders’ 18th-century costumes.
The Purebred Spanish Horse
The horses used in the show are purebred Spanish, also known as Andalusian horses. The Spanish horse is an ancient breed that lived thousands of years ago in the mountains of the Iberian Peninsula. This breed was well-known to the Romans as a fine military horse.
The outstanding traits of the Andalusian horse are strength, agility, pride, and docility. Their value lies in their peculiar nature that is both fiery and tractable. Thanks to their strength and agility, these horses can perform very difficult steps and jumps. Nevertheless, to convert a noble beast into a graceful dancer is not an easy task.
Training the Noble Beast
The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art was founded by Álvaro Domecq in 1972. The school prepares horses by means of a careful gymnastic training that develops the animals’ muscles. Eventually, they will be able to execute difficult dressage exercises in perfect harmony. This type of dressage is practiced at two renowned centers: the Spanish Riding School of Vienna in Austria and the Royal School in Spain. In both centers the spectacle enthralls visitors and impresses even the most demanding horse trainer.
The rider as well as the horse needs considerable training in order to achieve such excellence. Typically, both rider and horse will train together five days a week for seven hours a day over a period of four years. Training begins with the basic dressage in which the rider teaches the horse to walk forward at his command. After perfecting this preliminary step, the horse has to learn to lean backward as it moves, displacing its center of gravity toward the rear. This exercise enables the horse to concentrate its strength in its rear quarters, a technique that is necessary to perform the more difficult moves.
The movements, or airs, that the horse learns belong to two groups: the natural and the artificial. The first ones require the horse to improve its natural movements—the walk, the trot, and the gallop. The artificial airs developed by the Royal School require a very close bond between horse and rider. These movements involve great precision and enormous physical strength.—See “The Basic Airs of an Equestrian Ballet.”
“To perform the difficult exercises of the Royal School, horse and rider have to have a very close relationship,” says José María Sánchez Cobos, director of the exhibition at the Royal School. “The Andalusian horse is considered one of the noblest of all the different races of horses, and some of these animals can truly become a close friend of the rider. Nevertheless, occasionally a certain horse and rider do not get along with each other, and a switch has to be made.”
When asked about the response of the horses to the music, José María explains: “The horses do not understand the music as we do, but evidently the music they hear in the exhibition does have an effect on them. They obviously react to the traditional music that forms an integral part of the show, and they seem to react to the applause of the public.”
The horses respond to the painstaking attention they receive at the school. They are carefully groomed for the exhibition, and they get showered every day after training to remove sweat and to refresh them. Since their skin is more sensitive than that of humans, it needs special attention.
“There is a Spanish saying,” adds José María, “that during the first 7 years, the horse is your friend’s to train; from 7 to 14 years, it is yours to enjoy; and after 14 years, it is only fit for your enemy. But this is not strictly true at our school. One of our horses, Zamorano, was still performing at the age of 22!”
The end result of all this meticulous care and training is the exhibition in which the horses go through their paces. Here the public can see for themselves how horse and rider become an excellent team and how these graceful yet powerful mounts perform steps in tune with traditional Spanish music. Little wonder that Alberti, in the closing line of his poem quoted earlier, described these graceful animals as “horses dancing in the wind.”
According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, “dressage” refers to “the guiding of a horse through a series of complex maneuvers by slight movements of the rider’s hands, legs, and weight.” Doma vaquera, or “country dressage,” refers to traditional equestrian exercises based largely on the work that horses have to perform on Spanish cattle ranches.
[Box/Pictures on page 17]
The Basic Airs of an Equestrian Ballet
The term “airs” refers to the different movements the horses perform. The following are some principal airs.
Piaffe: The horse stands in one spot while performing a cadence trot, almost as if it were running in place.
Passage: The horse executes a slow trot while raising its hooves high above the ground, thereby giving the impression of dancing.
Levade: The horse raises its front legs high off the ground and maintains its position at a 45-degree angle to the floor. This requires great muscle control and perfect balance.
Curvet: The horse performs a series of jumps on its hind legs without its forelegs touching the ground.
Capriole: The horse leaps into the air, drawing its forelegs under its chest when reaching the highest point, while kicking out its hind legs.
Horses in Harness
Another discipline included in the show is enganche, or couplings. The horses pull traditional carriages in perfectly synchronized movements. This also requires years of training. In their finest attire, the horses and riders constitute a spectacle that permits the audience to relive the time when horse and carriage was the principal mode of transport.
Piaffe, passage, and capriole: Fotografía cedida por la Real Escuela Andaluza; curvet, levade, and carriage: Fundación Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Fotografía cedida por la Real Escuela Andaluza