“Look!” Kate squeaked out. “I can see something happening down there. Here they come!”
Suddenly, there was a blinding glare as spotlights cast perfect circles on the sawdust
floor of the arena below. Then the silence was broken by the clack-clackclack of castanets, and the strumming of flamenco guitars over the loudspeakers. The twelve spotlights were circling now like searchlights. The guitars were getting louder. The spotlights froze on the entrance to the arena and out came two rows of perfect white horses. Their manes, which were so long they hung down well below their necks, flowed like silk. Their tails trailed behind them like a bride’s wedding train, snowy white and almost touching the ground.
The twelve horses moved gracefully in pairs down the centre of the ring, trotting in perfect time to the clack-clacking of the castanets. Then they fanned out and moved to the side of the arena, each of them drawing to a halt, illuminated by their own spotlight. In the full beam of the lights the horses were so white that they glowed like marble statues.
Issie admired the high arch of their necks, and the classical shape of their head. These horses were Lipizzaners – the famed white horses used in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, bred from the ancient bloodlines of six great sires. The horses held themselves so proudly, they reminded Issie of those paintings of horses on the sides of Roman urns. Their riders, too, were dressed in classical military uniforms. On their heads the men wore curved black and gold hats with a bright red feather plume which stuck out the top.
The first rider took off his plumed hat now and bent his head to bow. As he did so, his horse dropped to one knee beneath him and bowed too. The girls clapped with glee as, all the way along both sides of the arena, each horse and rider bowed in turn until all twelve horses were down on one knee. Then, with a flourish of their hats, the riders pulled their horses up to a perfect square halt, wheeled them about on their hocks, and began to canter in formation around the ring.
“Oh! I like that one!” Stella whispered to Issie pointing to the horses.
“Which one?” Mrs Brown laughed. “Stella, how can you even tell them apart? They all look the same to me.”
“No, they don’t!” Stella insisted. “The one on the end over there has a pretty face and the best mane.”
“Are they girls or boys?” Mrs Brown asked.
“Mum, they’re stallions. It says so in the programme,” Issie groaned. Her mum knew nothing about horses.
Issie read aloud from the El Caballo Danza Magnif ico programme on her lap. “The dancing stallions have all been trained in the classical art of haute école dressage. Haute-Ecole is an ancient form of horsemanship that was once used to train horses for battle. The horses of El Caballo Danza Magnifico have spent many years perfecting the Airs above Ground – movements that were used in warfare. They include the Courbette, the Levade and the Capriole…”
The horses in the ring fanned out once again and came to a halt in two precise rows down either side of the arena. The spotlights dimmed and then a single light was trained on the centre of the ring, where a horse now emerged riderless, accompanied by a trainer on the ground with a long whip. Unlike the other horses, which were pure icy white, this stallion was a dapple grey, with a long thick grey mane, dark points on his legs, and dark smudgy circles around his eyes and his nose.
He looks a bit like Mystic, Issie thought to herself, The music changed now from the brisk clacking of Spanish castanets to the dramatic strains of a classical orchestra. The horses on either side of the arena who had been standing perfectly still all this time suddenly wheeled on their hindquarters and cantered out of the arena leaving just the grey stallion and his handler standing there alone.
“This stallion you see before you is the purebred Lipizzaner Marius, with his trainer Wolfgang Herzog,” the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. Wolfgang bowed low to the audience, and Marius let out a long, low snort as if he knew the announcer was talking about him.
“Marius and Wolfgang will now attempt the Courbette, the most difficult of all the High School Airs above Ground,” the announcer continued. “The Courbette was used in warfare to protect the rider as the horse moved through enemy infantry. The horse must stand up and hop on his hind legs to protect his rider.”
With that, Wolfgang spoke a single word to his horse and gripped the reins f irmly as the stallion began to trot on the spot. The trainer spoke again now: short, sharp words in a foreign language that Issie didn’t understand. But his horse clearly understood him. He snorted and gathered himself, moving forward across the ring in a series of elegant bunny hops, before rising up on his hind legs. Still rearing, he leapt forward now on his hind legs, springing across the arena like a bunny rabbit, his long grey tail thrashing the ground behind him as he leapt.
Issie, Stella and Kate clapped and cheered. The trainer took a low bow and then turned his horse once more to face the crowd. “And now – the Capriole!” the announcer’s voice had a dramatic boom. “This movement takes many years to perfect. Once again it was used in battle. The horse must leap in the air and kick out its hind legs to attack any enemies who might be approaching from behind.”
Wolfgang steadied the stallion and spoke once more to him. Then he urged the grey horse forward on the long reins, halting him again suddenly and touching his hindquarters at the same time with the long whip. Marius jumped into the air like a ballerina and flung his hind legs out behind him. Issie gasped. It was as if the stallion was flying! He was suspended in mid-air for a moment and Issie held her breath. Then the stallion landed down with a snort and turned to face the audience once more as Wolfgang took a long, low bow. Issie, Stella and Kate whooped with delight.
“That was amazing!” Stella said as Marius and Wolfgang left the arena and the spotlights dimmed for a moment. Issie opened her programme again.
“The Dance of the Seven Veils is next,” she told the others. “It says here that the riders perform the dance on Anglo-Arab mares…”
Snake charmer music started up and six spotlights shone on the arena as the dancing horses entered down the centre of the ring, following each other nose to tail and then pivoting on their hind legs and facing the audience. The riders were women this time, all dressed like belly dancers in Arabian Nights costumes made out of flowing chiffon. The girls wore harem pants instead of jodhpurs and veils covered their faces. Each of them wore a different colour and their throats and wrists sparkled with jewels that matched the colours of their outf its – emeralds, rubies, sapphires, aquamarines, gold and silver. While the riders all looked different, their six horses matched so exactly you could have sworn they were clones of each other. They were all the same height, around fourteen-two, with deep liver chestnut coats, white socks and flaxen manes and tails. Their legs were as finely turned as ballet dancers, and their delicate Arab blood showed through in their arched necks and dished noses.
“Ohmygod!” Issie gasped. She stared at the horses, too shocked to speak. Then she turned to Stella. “Is it just me or do you see it too?” Stella nodded, “Totally!” “Issie,” Kate said, “those horses… they all look just like Blaze!”