The Spanish Riding School Of Vienna, Wembley Arena, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

When I mentioned the Spanish Riding School of Vienna to my mother, she said, "You must go, I loved them when I was a pony-mad little girl. When the horses jump, they do amazing things mid-air - like Baryshnikov, but with four legs." Who could resist?

At Wembley Arena, the audience ranged from the new generation of pony-mad little girls to Her Majesty the Queen, and the Lipizzaner stallions danced with appropriately courtly grace.

The Spanish Riding School, founded in the 16th century, has been admired by plenty of monarchs, and supported by archdukes and emperors. The Congress of Vienna, meeting to decide the fate of Europe after the Napoleonic wars, was entertained by the School's performances. And there's still something Napoleonic about the uniforms worn by the riders: high boots, double-breasted tailcoats (they keep the sugar lumps in the coat-tails) and bicorne black hats.

The snowy Lipizzaners are also carefully dressed, their manes and tails crimped. Chandeliers hang overhead, looking out of place in a modern arena.

The showmanship is in the precision, rather than the flourish. The big horses move through their paces as if dancing on the head of a pin. In my favourite step, the front legs skip while the back legs canter along - two rhythms in the same body. In another, the horse makes dainty circles with its forelegs, the hoof lifted and flicked to the side.

The paces, set to music, are followed by more elaborate displays. The steps "above the ground" are the most spectacular. The rearing poses look constrained - they're low and precise, not high. Just as I thought that, one of those rearing horses started to hop, skipping lightly along on its hind legs. Another turns a pose into a jump, rising into position before kicking out behind. Astonishing.

These exercises demonstrate the full range of the horses' training. The emphasis is on precision, but for the first-time spectator, the hardest steps to execute aren't always the most exciting to watch. But the show is fascinating: the horses are so handsome, so grandly assured.

The final quadrille is marvellous. With choreography that's more than 200 years old, it really is ballet.

Tours to NEC Birmingham, Thursday to 26 November

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