ON A SUNNY, breezy day in western Anne Arundel County, the quiet beauty of the Equilibrium Horse Center alone is worthy of visitors who want to relax and admire the horses who frolic behind a seemingly endless expanse of white fence.
But on this particular afternoon, it's not the serene atmosphere that has attracted the attention of the 40 or so people who stand patiently along the perimeter of a grassy field. The news has spread of an informal performance by some of their favorite celebrities -- the famous acrobats of the horse world, the Lipizzaner Stallions.
The 10 stallions, stars of "The Wonderful World of Horses," will be featured tonight at the Baltimore Arena.
"This is the ultimate in horsemanship. This is the highest form of muscular skeletal development of a horse. It's like making a horse into an Olympic gymnast," says Kathleen Harjess, director of the Gambrills Center that is boarding the horses. Show officials contacted Harjess after learning of the center and asked her if she had the facilities to board the horses during their stay in Maryland.
"I was absolutely thrilled," she says.
The crowd is also pleased. The horses, trained entertainers who seem quite aware of their audience, demonstrate various movements ranging from the dainty pas de deux, where two horses side-by-side move with mirror-image perfection, to the dramatic Capriole -- a leap in the air where the horse draws his forelegs to his chest and kicks out violently with his hind legs.
"They're just magnificent animals," says Debbie Tipton, a long-time rider who stood watching the white stallions during their performance. "The way they move in unison -- it's really amazing what these animals can do."
"They're gorgeous," agrees Barbara Cavas, who was with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Sarah. "And it was fun seeing them in their stalls. It's wonderful to see that there is an American troupe doing this."
Lipizzaners, first bred in Austria during the 16th century, were exclusively the property of nobility and the military aristocracy. The stallions were trained for battle -- their dramatic leaps and kicks could break down the lines of foot soldiers who opposed them.
For more than 400 years, the six bloodlines of the Lipizzan breed have been carefully maintained. Though perhaps best known as the famed performers of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the popularity of the Lipizzaners in the United States has warranted their continual breeding here, and training by instructors who are European-trained in classical dressage.
This American troupe was formed more than 20 years ago to give horse fanciers in this country an opportunity to see the animals in their traditional presentation. There are 40 horses, says David King, the show's host and spokesman, 10 on the road and 10 that perform in Las Vegas. Many of the remaining horses are still in training, a process that takes at least 10 years, he says.
The Lipizzaners' specialty, dressage, is "a type of training and riding whereby cues from the rider to the horse are extremely subtle," says King. Through the cues, the horse executes maneuvers involving change of gait and pace, he says. "The training helps the horse become light and responsive. It's the minimum cue for the maximum response."
The horses receive no formal training for the first four years of their lives, King explains, and are left alone to play and grow, giving their muscles and bones ample time to reach full strength and maturity.
Because the muscular coordination required for various movements is so demanding, each horse has certain specialties. Often, horses are watched when they're young to see if they have a natural gift for one particular movement,
"If the horse doesn't have the aptitude . . . you'll be wasting your time," he says.
The horses and their riders develop close relationships, though King admits that the pressure of constant traveling often means changing riders every three to five years.
"It's the rigors of the road," he says. "I honestly think the horses handle traveling a lot better than we do."
Because traveling and performing make up so much of the animals' lives, they're not always prepared for the boredom of retirement, King says. One horse in particular, he remembers, became depressed and lost his appetite when he was retired from the show at the age of 25.
"He looked sad, like a hound dog," King says. "So we put him back in the show part-time and he pepped up . . . He really came back to life."
Tickets are still available for tonight's 8 o'clock performance ($11.50, $13.50 and a limited number for $17.50). To charge tickets by phone, call 481-6000, or stop by the Arena box office.