The 33rd anniversary tour of the Lipizzaner Stallions made its Billings stop Thursday to bring to the masses the power, grace and beauty of these unique horses and their extraordinary riders.
"It's an amazing tradition, children enjoy it on one level and adults on another," said Troy Tinker, master of ceremonies.
For some, the ghostly gray stallions may best be known from the 1963 Disney film "Miracle of the White Stallions," he said. The film depicts how the Lipizzaner breed was saved by Gen. George S. Patton from eradication in Word War II.
"I know when I was a kid and I saw that movie, I hounded my parents to take me when the Lipizzaners came to town," he said.
The stallions' performance is comparable to a dance, although aspects of it might better be understood as an equine martial art: The "Airs Above the Ground" segment of the show includes spectacular leaps and maneuvers once used to protect and defend riders on the battlefield.
The show concludes with the traditional Grand Quadrille, in which six to eight Lipizzaner Stallions perform an intricate, equine ballet - moves from dressage's highest level.
It takes ice-cold concentration for the riders to retain absolute control of themselves and their mounts.
After 13 years as the show's narrator and announcer, Tinker has learned new respect for both the horses and the riders.
"The horses are individuals, just like people are. The audience isn't just seeing horses and riders, but individuals across the board," he said.
What the audience may not see is the hard work that makes the display possible.
"The rider's comfort is secondary. They do without sleep and they'll do without meals, but the horses don't do without anything," Tinker said.
"We love them like our children," said Lipizzaner rider Amanda Rossiter.
For the riders, years of training and competition have won them the privilege of riding some of the best trained animals in the world.
"They're built for the job; (riding them) is just a pleasure. We have a horse on tour now that's 25 years old. He can't do everything, but if we leave him at home he gets depressed," Rossiter said.
Lipizzaner riders come from all over the world. Rossiter is from Boston, but other current riders come from Australia and Germany. Head rider Redha Gharsa is from Algeria.
Rossiter was 27 when she first rode in the Lipizzaner show and, although she's taken time off for school, she has found that this is her true love.
"I love the animals; I love the job," she said. "I've seen every single state. I've seen England, Ireland and Scotland. Twice. I think we're going to Australia next year."
Riding horses since she was 2 years old, Rossiter has risen now to the stature where she teaches other riders the incredibly complex rules of the art and helps make the show accessible for the audience.
"You might not know what (the horses are) doing, but it looks like they're dancing," she said.
The beauty of that dance is what has kept the show alive for the past 33 years.
The next stops for the Lipizzaner Stallions will be Great Fall on July 5, Bozeman on July 6 and Kalispell on July 8.