Wearing a gold bridle embellished with diamond-like studs, 9-year-old Habano stood on his hind legs, boxing the air with his front hooves. He then crisscrossed his feet, prancing sideways.
And that was just the warmup.
During three weekend shows at Hipico Santa Fe, an equestrian facility on the city’s far southwest side, Habano will perform dressage-like dance moves, showcasing the strength and agility he inherited from his cavalry horse ancestors of the 15th century.
Born in Spain, Habano is a purebred white Carthusian — a branch of the Andalusian breed from the Iberian Peninsula. He’s one of 10 horses with a European troupe called Gala of the Royal Horses that is appearing at Hipico as part of a U.S. tour.
“He’s such a super, naturally talented horse,” said Habano’s owner, seventh-generation riding master René Gasser. “… The first time I saw him move, I was stunned.”
The weekend event, organizers say, is an opportunity for audiences to witness a horse show that fuses beauty with history and is arguably “unlike anything they’ve seen before.”
While New Mexico is a hot spot for rodeo, dressage-style riding is harder to find. The royal horse style, Gasser said, is “the next level up from typical dressage” and is “one of the oldest art forms there is.”
During the shows, Marcus, an Arabian horse, will showcase a bullfighting movement called Art of Garrocha.
Armani and Gherrard, two robust black Friesians with manes that hang to their knees, will demonstrate Roman riding — galloping while Gasser’s daughter, Katharina “Gigi” Gasser, stands with one foot on each animal’s back.
And Jerano, a white Andalusian, will perform capriole — a vertical leap paired with a backward kick.
All of the horses, Gasser said, were bred overseas for royal families throughout Europe.
“We want to show off not just the beauty of the horses, but the work they do,” Gasser said.
Gigi Gasser, 20, said there is more to the animals than just their beauty.
“They’re our lives,” her father said in agreement. “They’re the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing we see before bed.”
The relationships the Gassers build with their horses are formed not only from training and riding, but spending every minute on the road.
The Gala of the Royal Horses has toured the U.S. for about seven to eight months annually for the last four years, traveling to more than 400 cities. During that time, they’ve also performed in more than 1,000 cities worldwide.
René Gasser was born in Switzerland and spent much of his life in Australia. He often traveled for horse shows, he said, adding the horses are accustomed to travel — even on airplanes that are designed for the animals.
After departing Santa Fe on Monday, the royal horse troupe — a group of 15 people, including six riders as well as grooms and caretakers — will head to Texas for two months, and make its way to Florida, where the tour will end just before Thanksgiving.
With every show, Gigi Gasser said, the most exciting part is how the crowd reacts.
“The louder, the better,” she said.
“We do it like show business,” her father added. “We want [people] to leave with big smiles on their faces.”
One thing that most onlookers are impressed by, the Gassers said, is the way they care for the horses. One common misconception among animal performance, Gigi Gasser said, is that the horses are treated poorly.
“A lot of people think that to make [the horses] do these moves, you have to torture them,” her father said. But “there are no whips, no chains. … They just do what comes naturally.”
For Western riders, equine fanatics and those who know little about horses, René Gasser said, the Gala of the Royal Horses show at Hipico is a must-see.
“If you’re interested, don’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a bit of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
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