"Airs" Above The Ground
"Airs above the ground" are a series of higher level dressage maneuvers where the horse leaps and actually leaves the ground. With names like the capriole, courbette, the mezair, the croupade and the levade, these dramatic feats are not generally performed in modern dressage. However, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna as well as several other riding academies, do train their well-muscled and powerfully hindquartered Lipizzan, Andalusian and Lusitano horses to perform these difficult movements; and they are a sight to behold.
There is a popular conception that these moves were originally taught to horses for military purposes, and indeed both the Spanish Riding School and the Cadre Noir are military foundations. However, while agility was necessary on the battlefield, most of the airs as performed today would have actually exposed horses' vulnerable underbellies to the weapons of foot soldiers. It is therefore more likely that the airs were exercises to develop the military horse and rider, rather than to be employed in combat.
Horses are usually taught each air on the long rein without a rider, which is less strenuous for the animal. However, each movement is meant to eventually be performed under a rider.
The pesade and levade are the first airs taught to the High School horse, and it is from these that all other airs are taught. In the pesade, the horse raises its forehand off the ground and tucks the forelegs evenly, carrying all weight on the hindquarters, to form a 45 degree angle with the ground. The levadewas first taught at the beginning of the 20th century, asking the horse to hold a position approximately 30-35 degrees from the ground. Unlike the pesade, which is more of a test of balance, the decreased angle makes the levade an extremely strenuous position to hold, and requires a greater effort from the horse. Therefore, many horses are not capable of a good-quality levade. The levade is also a transition movement between work on the ground and the airs above the ground. Neither of these movements are equivalent to rearing, as they require precise control, excellent balance, and a great deal of strength, and are the product of correct training, rather than resistance from the horse.
The horse is asked to enter the pesade or levade from the piaffe, which asks the horse to increasingly engage its hindquarters, lowering them toward the ground and bringing the hind legs more toward its center of gravity. This gives the viewer the impression that the horse appears to sink down in back and rise in front. The position is held for a number of seconds, and then the horse quietly puts the forelegs back on the ground and proceeds at the walk, or stands at the halt. The levade is considered to be pinnacle of collection, as the horse carries all weight on the back legs, and has an extreme tucking of the hindquarters and coiling of the loins.
In the capriole (meaning leap of a goat), the horse jumps from a raised position of the forehand straight up into the air, kicks out with the hind legs, and lands more or less on all four legs at the same time. It requires an enormously powerful horse to perform correctly, and is considered the most difficult of all the airs above the ground. It is first introduced with the croupade, in which the horse does not kick out at the height of elevation, but keeps the hind legs tucked tightly under, and remains parallel to the ground. The horse is then taught the ballotade. In this movement, the horse's hind hooves are positioned so one can see its shoes if watching from behind, but the horse is not asked to kick out. When the horse demonstrates proficiency in the ballotade, the capriole is introduced.
In the courbette, the horse raises its forehand off the ground, tucks up forelegs evenly, and then jumps forward, never allowing the forelegs to touch down, in a series of "hops". Extremely strong and talented horses can perform five or more leaps forward before having to touch down with the forelegs, although it is more usual to see a series of three or four leaps. The courbette, like the capriole, is first introduced through the easier croupade.
In the mezair, the horse rears up and strikes out with its forelegs. It is similar to a series of levades with a forward motion (not in place), with the horse gradually bringing its legs further under himself in each successive movement and lightly touching the ground with the front legs before pushing up again. The mezair was originally called the courbette by the old dressage masters, and it is no longer practiced at the Spanish Riding School.