Conquered by beauty and grace

WHY cannot all instruments of war be turned into art objects? Guns, rockets, planes, all have symmetry but little else to express peaceful images. Bombs do not bear imagining in any interpretation. Through the centuries, then, only the horse has made the transition from war to art with dignity, beauty, and purity.

The warhorses we watch today when the Spanish Riding School of Vienna brings the Lipizzans to the United States may be today's best -- only -- example.

The usually white steeds are known more in show biz today than on fields of battle. The chargers bear on their broad backs not only the brown-clad troopers but also the fancies of children and grown-ups, an assortment of folks who love horses, and some of us who love what horses mean.

The horse is the creature that can carry us away to where we wish we were. Despite an occasional goatish image, the mythic unicorn is mostly horse. And to the Indian, the horse is a thing of the spirit, ``a being of extraordinary idealization . . . a spiritual being of vast power and beauty.''

I can't tell how many times I skipped seventh grade classes to see the movie ``Florian'' -- how often I read the Felix Salten book about the Lipizzan, how many times I dreamed that it was I who took the beautiful horse through the classic paces, amazing all my class-mates.

In 1964, the stallions of the Spanish Riding School came to the United States. I learned of the impending visit while they were still in New York and wrote for Washington tickets in my price range. Too late; they were long sold out.

On their next visit 18 years later, I was more fortunate, and more solvent. I asked for and got some of the best seats in the house. We had the equivalent of the emperor's royal box -- midway up, opposite the arena entry.

When the riders entered for an introductory march-past, tears came streaming. The wait from age 11 had been long and fraught with yearning. I could not see if I was alone in my gulping and mopping, but clearly no one was surprised, and no one sneered.

Besides the sheer joy of the performance, I had the fun of learning something about the American horsy sets. I found there are several.

Some came prepared to meet the Emperor Franz Josef himself. They wore evening togs: satins, tiaras, furs, and black-tied perfection. For this group the event was a social gathering. The horses were the guests of honor. Or perhaps this was a gallery opening for self-propelled works of art.

The more conventional horse-show set wore tweeds and ratcatcher shirts and carried on knowledgeable tack-room talk. They honored the interacting athletic prowess of horse and rider.

Then there was the blue-jeans, barrel-racing, apple-pie-and-Chevrolet set for whom horses were partners in work and play. They savored the passade, celebrated each courbette, every levade and capriole, with hearty slaps to their neighbor's thigh and jubilant cries of ``Hey! Aw-ri-ght!''

Not one of the three groups was self-conscious -- if, indeed, any one of them noted any differences among them. Each was ``correct,'' comfortably couth; they jostled chummily in devotion to the shining focus of the evening -- the gleaming, satiny horses.

Those of us who were borne into the arena on dreams alone had our right of place, as well. We floated, unscorned, on the fancies we had previously shared only with childhood chums, through books and hoarded collections of clipped-out pictures.

The horses themselves were everything I had always seen when mentally projecting those stolen afternoons at the Lyric. Their movements and head carriage reminded me at once of Salten's description of Florian's ``singing to himself'' as he moved through the elaborate paces.

Florian's descendants reached out to all of us, drawing us together for some magic moments.

The riders made their last slow salute with the brown bicorns and turned their shining mounts toward the gate. The audience stood as one person, clapping, cheering, weeping.

The eight chargers moved from sight. The people remained on their feet in salute. We honored a tradition of performance that no longer daunted the enemy with iron-shod hoof and ringing neigh. Now there was beauty and grace, which conquered our hearts and carried our dreams.

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