In this 50-minute, large-format film now showing at the Pacific Science Center's Boeing Theatre, we follow the evolution of the horse from its beginnings as the tiny Eohippus in the Eocene epoch to its modern incarnation as a large work animal and riding companion. "Majestic White Horses: The Spanish Riding School of Vienna" then turns its attention to the beautiful white Lippizaners from Austria, one of the most prized of contemporary horses.
This is an ancient breed with an international past. Its Arabian forebears came to Spain in the eighth century with the invading Moors. There, years of interbreeding with the native Andalusian horses brought about a highly intelligent strain of animal that incorporated the best traits of both breeds.
Centuries later, these remarkable creatures so captured the attention of the Hapsburg nobility, that they were brought to Eastern Europe as playthings for the nobility. Controlled breeding resulted in the pure white horses we see today.
The Hapsburgs founded the Spanish Riding School of Vienna in 1572, and its standards of horsemanship have remained unchanged for more than 400 years. Here, classic dressage is practiced in its purest form. Classical dressage is a work of art in which man and animal unite to create a counterpoint of motion as teams of 12 or 13 riders and horses perform balletic movements and create intricately woven and ever-changing patterns in the riding ring.
The film follows the process of training the Lippizaners from infancy to fully prepared performers, starting with the birth of a colt. Born brown or black in contrast to its white mother, the foal won't gain its own light coloration until it is five to eight years old.
We watch as the wobbly newborn makes its first hesitant efforts to stand. Then we see him as a more steady creature following closely beside his mother in the paddocks. Later, as a yearling, he frolics in the mountain pastures with his age mates.
We view the slow and gentle process of acquainting him with the bridle and saddle, of making him ready to accept the weight of a rider. We follow the arduous, but humane, process of training and choreographing a star performer.
The opulent Baroque palaces, stables and riding arenas that the Hapsburgs built in Vienna centuries ago provide a stunning background against which to display the horses and horsemanship, as does the mountainous countryside in which the younger horses frolic.
The filmmakers have cleverly paced and shot their story to provide the visual excitement that is a trademark of the IMAX format. Panoramic footage, taken from helicopters, of bands of young horses galloping across mountain ridges gives the viewer a sense of being part of the movement. Close-ups of performing horses cause audience members to sit a little further back in their seats.
The viewer experiences the dressage performances from two different levels with two different impacts. From the ground, the size of the animals is overwhelming. From above, the intricate movements and patterns of the dressage team resemble the classic 1930s movie musicals by Busby Berkeley. Only here, instead of chorus lines of pretty girls, we have horse and rider performing as a single unit in synchronization with other horse/rider performers.
Centuries of breeding and a tradition of training were almost lost during World War II when clashing armies were about to meet in Eastern Europe. In a remarkable cooperative effort between the losing German army and the advancing Americans, the horses were spirited away to safe havens in a mission General Patton called "Operation Cowboy."
This is a film that will delight horse lovers and history buffs alike.