The Gala of the Royal Horses in Montrose October 1, 2017

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The bleachers were filled to capacity on Oct. 1 in Montrose, Colo., for the Gala of the Royal Horses. On display were Friesians, Lipizzaners, Arabians, Andalusians and several other breeds which performed dressage, battlefield, trick-riding and bullfighting moves.

Brought to the United States by world-renowned trainer and entertainer Rene Gasser, most were used to showcase the grace and style of European Baroque-style breeds.

Gasser flew 15 of the magnificent animals over from Europe for a United States tour. In the old days, horses traveled by ship but "we fly them now because it's faster and easier."

Born near the River Rhein in the town of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Gasser fell in love with horses as a boy. His "great-grandmother was an accomplished horse trainer and performer, and his great grandfather was a highly decorated military horseman."

Gasser trained with some of Europe's most skilled and knowledgeable riders, and shared some of his basic techniques with his audience. "Horses learn quickly if you make the experience interesting," he explained from the center of the arena. "We use the touch of a whip or a hand as a form of sign language. Anything forced is not beautiful. Training requires patience and trust."

His skill with horses was evident during the Montrose performance (which followed two in Grand Junction, Colo.) when a beautiful bay Arabian, performing freestyle, jumped over a rubber round pen boundary and briefly wandered around an enclosed section of the fairgrounds.

Patiently, Gasser stepped over the rubber boundary and called to the loose animal, which came to him immediately and nuzzled his hand.

"Aw, look, it's saying it's sorry," a few of the spectators murmured.

Gasser rubbed the Arabian's forehead and lead it back to the main opening. From there, the stallion resumed the demonstration, complete with direction changes and rearing, to a burst of enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Considering the wind, distant lightening, rain sprinkles and microphone problems that plagued the show, it was no surprise that several of the horses were feeling their oats. During her Roman riding act — which is the art of standing with one foot on the back of two side-by-side horses — Australian-born Katharina Gassai had to keep a firm hold on her high-stepping Friesians. A wind gust made one of them shy and go sideways, which stretched Gassai's legs horizontally.

With the help of a ring attendant, she quickly reined the powerful horses back into place. A professional at the tender age of 19, she's been with the gala for a decade. "I started trick riding first, then went to dressage before learning Roman riding," she said. "It's been in the family."

Italian-American Caleb Asch's trick-riding stunts went flawlessly, in part because performing is clearly in his blood, too. Along with his father, he once had a successful knife-throwing act before he started trick-riding 15 years ago. He joined the gala last July.

Agile as a cat, Asch alternately vaulted, stood, cleared a rope, juggled, and even jumped from one horse to another as he circled the ring.

But he had some trouble with his Spotted Draft gelding after the show. Restless from the weather, it kept trying to nip at the people who gathered for pictures. Most were simply curious to know about the breed, which looked like a seriously stocky, beefed-up Paint.

"The Spotted Draft horse is a new breed from America, like the Cream Draft," Asch explained. But its broad back and steady, ultra-smooth canter allowed Asch to show off his skills with barely a wobble.

The special traits of each horse were announced as the animals were paraded one at a time under halter. "The Friesian," the announcer explained to the crowd, "is the most gentle of giants. It was used by soldiers fighting Roman legions. The Lipizzaner is known for its proud carriage and intelligence. They are born black and turn white between the ages of 6 to 10. And the Andalusian, also known as the Spanish horse, has natural agility and sensitivity."

One of the most unique performances at the Gala of the Royal Horses was the Symphony of Black and White, which featured a mix of Friesians, Andalusians, and Lipizzaners, three black and three white. Perfectly synchronized, they did line formations, figure eights, circles and half-circles, and side-passes. The Lipizzaners also performed their trademark, ballet-like battle moves.

From their carriages and fluid movements, it was clear the horses enjoyed being put through their paces. It was just as clear that both Gasser and his riders were at ease on their mounts in addition to being very proud of them. Sharing the philosophy learned from the prestigious Spanish Riding School in Austria, Gasser said, "we believe the rider is an artist, the horse is the media, and together they create a beautiful work of art."

The Gala of the Royal Horse was certainly that: a beautiful work of art made specifically for all who love horses. ❖

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