They were bred for battle centuries ago, but now the stunning white Lipizzaner stallions perform in an equine ballet.
"People know them as the flying white stallions," says Gary Lashinsky, owners of White Stallion Productions, the Florida company that raises and trains the horses and produces their touring shows.
The Lipizzaners will perform in two shows Saturday at the Fairgrounds in Hamburg.
Horse fanciers will recognize the horses' delicate, precise steps from the Olympic sport of dressage, in which a horse is trained to perfect its natural walking, trotting and cantering movements in response to subtle cues from a rider.
Lashinsky has been producing Lipizzaner shows since 1970, but that's a moment in time compared with the history of the breed and its training.
"The first principles of dressage were written down some 2,500 year ago in Greece by Xenophon, a Greek historian and military leader," says Lashinsky of the general whose book, "The Art of Horsemanship," recommended gentle training.
Descended from Spanish breeds, the strong, showy Lipizzaners were bred for royalty starting in the late 1500s in Lipizza, near Trieste.
The horses first performed at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which took its name from the original Spanish heritage of the Lipizzaners.
While White Stallion Productions is not affiliated with the Spanish Riding School, it does use similar training, "based on confidence, positive reinforcement and constant repeating for perfection of the exercise," Lashinsky says.
Bred for affable temperaments and athletic ability, the Lipizzaners also developed an interesting coloration -- born dark, they gradually lighten until they are white, with dark eyes, lips and hooves.
Lashinsky says the traditional training of Lipizzans doesn't begin until the horses are 4. "You've got thoroughbreds running [on racetracks] at ages 2 and 3; Lipizzans at those ages are still roaming in the pastures." At age 9 or 10, Lipizzans enter the show at what he calls "the intermediate level," doing maneuvers on the ground.
Those pieces include a Pas de Deux opening in which two horses perform mirror-image steps, a precision drill set to music that challenges horses and riders. To classical and contemporary music, three and then four horses appear in intricately choreographed pieces. During the Grande Quadrille, six to eight stallions and their riders fill the ring.
The highlight of the show is the "Airs Above the Ground." In this section, the most athletic horses demonstrate the traditional leaps and jumps that have been taught for centuries. They are the levade, in which the horse stands on his hind legs at a precise 45-degree angle; the mezair, in which he moves forward from the levade by placing his forefeet on the ground before rising up on his haunches again; and the courbette, in which he balances on his hind legs and then jumps, keeping his forelegs raised and together. But the most impressive move is the capriole, in which the stallion jumps into the air, tucking his forelegs to his chest, and kicks out with both hind legs. This maneuver, originally developed as a battleground tactic, takes years to learn. Lashinsky says seeing the Airs Above the Ground is "like stepping back hundreds of years to see a living form of equestrian art."
Each show also contains a salute to Gen. George F. Patton, whose 2nd Cavalry rescued the horses from peril during World War II and made them wards of the U.S. Army until they could be returned to their home in Vienna.
"Many people recall the Lipizzaners because of the 1963 Disney film, 'Miracle of the White Stallions,' " says Lashinsky. "They took a few liberties with the story, but that's Hollywood. It's a great story, and it's a true story."
Lashinsky says that while people -- "not just equestrians; this is a show for families, too" -- will enjoy what they see, he thinks the horses enjoy the shows, too.
"They know the applause, they know the spotlight, they definitely know the music, because they dance in cadence to the music itself," he says. "They listen to the applause and they do appreciate the attention."
The Lipizzaner Stallions will perform at 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 3 in the Agri-Center at the Fairgrounds in Hamburg. Tickets are $22.50 for adults, $20.50 for children 12 and younger and seniors over 60. A limited number of gold circle seats are available at $24.50. Tickets are available at the Agri-Center box office, Tops markets and all tickets.com outlets, or by calling 648-9733 or (800) 882-8258.