Rene Gasser is the seventh generation to work with horses, and not just any horses — Friesians — the Spanish Andalusians, Lipizzaners and Carthusians. Living part time in Australia and Switzerland, he has been touring for the last 10 years in Australia and abroad his productions, including Gala of the Royal Horses, Lipizzaner’s With the Stars and Equestra.
Born in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, near the banks of the River Rhein, Gasser’s family worked in the military with horses and then they went into showing. “Even modern dressage comes from the military,” he said. Gasser is passing on knowledge to his daughter Gigi, 17, the eighth generation; she has traveled round the world with him.
After traveling for a year around Florida and west of Colorado, his troupe of 14 horses and 25 people including 10 riders, musicians, dancers and office workers arrived in Amherst, MA to perform Gala of the Royal Horses at the Mullins Center Oct. 1.
“Each horse has its own rider, we all help each other,” said Gasser. Most of his horses are stallions. The pedigree, studbook and breeding of the horses is of royal concern. With Friesians, known for their sleek black coats and long flowing mane, “The Queen Mother of Holland does the books for them. If something goes wrong, have to go to her to sign,” said Gasser.
Prince Phillip of Spain is in charge of the Spanish horse, Andalusians, which originated in the Iberian Peninsula, a region of Andalusia in Southern Spain. Carthusians, considered the purest strain of Andalusian, have been bred by the Catholic church, overseen by monks, for the last 4,700 years in Spain. “Can’t just go buy these horses. The monks want to see what you do and how experienced you are. They are very particular with their breeding,” said Gasser.
Show preparation requires finesse in networking, scouting ahead for vets and farriers at each venue. The horses are fed “a nice grass mix,” supplemented with grain and vitamins. Trying to find the right diet for each horse is challenging.
“We work very hard with the horses to get them where we are. A good horse takes 10 years, to get them out there and get the reactions from the crowd. The horses love it too, they absolutely do,” said Gasser. As sensitivity is one of the inherent characteristics of these breeds, to enhance their ability to bond with their rider and perform expected maneuvers, the horses are very sensitive to the atmosphere in the audience.
Though most are “flash proof” and eager to hear an audience roaring with applause, some horses can’t handle it, like people getting stage fright. Some horses get used to it and some horses never get used to it.
“I start training my horses at three — a horse is a little like a child to start — bit by bit, by bit. Some people think horses can’t have applause. The exact opposite is true of our horses. They are listening back stage to see what kind of crowd we have, ready to go on,” said Gasser.
One rider, Christine Drentwett, met Gasser, called Sonny by friends through family. “I met Sonny and then I started working with the show before it came over here.” She rides her own horse, a 16.2 hand Andalusian named Quintero and others. Quintero’s brand, a capital H with a C inside it, signifies the bit he uses and the province of Spain that he is from. She performed an exquisite picador lance solo used by bullfighters.
Each show begins with an introduction of the stallions, their training, lineage and characteristics. Born dark, Lipizanners turn white at age 8 to 10 and owe their existence to General George S. Patten who executed a daring raid to rescue the last 200 in 1945.
On stage, one Friesian was asked to do the Spanish walk. All the movements that the horses performed had a purpose, to teach the horse to walk just a like a soldier would, lifting his front legs high while walking. “All we praise for is getting it right; if I were to punish him for getting it wrong, he wouldn’t know why,” said Gasser as he tapped the horse lightly on the shoulder to have him move first his left leg, then his right leg straight out as though marching.
Other military movements include trotting on the spot, which warms them, uses up energy, provides boredom relief for them and their rider during long hours of waiting in battle. The courbette, levade and cabriole — jumping straight up into the air with all four legs drawn back — also incorporate the natural movement of the Andalusians for use in war, majestic movements seen now as entertainment in peacetime.
The finale featured a flamenco dancer met by horse and rider who danced with her on a long moveable wooden dance floor with her, clicking their heels.
Audience member, Jaliyah Hall, 8, of Ludlow, MA sat entranced. “They’re really good. When they run, they’re amazing. They’re fabulous, and just ‘wow’. When they (the riders) were together, holding their hands, they had a connection, really special.”