Only a generation or two ago it was the goal of every young schoolboy to sneak under the tent flap when the circus came to town. Times have changed but the spectacle in some ways possesses more allure than ever for the young at heart. The current edition of Ringling Bros. Circus came thru Texas recently and the sophistication of the many acts is something to behold. The aerialists perform in ways unheard of a generation ago. Have you ever seen a trampoline suspended 35 feet above the ground and used to spring from trapeze to trapeze? Or how about a giant swing loaded with 'flyers' who are launched one by one across the ring into a huge gossamer curtain as if shot from a cannon. The 'star' of the show is a remarkable gymnast turned clown named Belo who takes his turn doing everything from riding a motorcycle on a high wire to standing on his head on an elephants head who is on a revolving pedestal doing a two-legged balancing act. Yes, the talented performers are what rounds out the show, but for me it is the horses. Beautiful equines gaily festooned in spotless harness and working in perfect rhythm, will always be the centerpiece of my circus memories. It has always been the horses that have provided the backdrop and in times past the muscle power that not only hauled the circus from town to town but also was used to erect the big top.
Nowadays the circus plays in the relative comfort of such arenas as The Alamo Dome. This is where by invitation; I was allowed to spend a day with the head-trainer Sacha Houcke. While on the road with this years show, Sacha is putting together next years act. And what an act it will be.
Imagine if you will, six giant jet-black Friesian stallions marching in unison, sometimes in pairs side-by-side, sometimes three or six abreast moving round the confines of the 42 ft. circus ring only to be joined by six sparkling gray Arabian stallions sleek and shiny. With little more that a word and a gesture from Sacha the formation changes and a checkerboard pattern appears. Grays and blacks marching...ever marching in perfect synchronization. Another word and a gesture and the pattern changes again. Now it becomes like a chorus line from Radio City Music Hall. Twelve horses abreast it circles with the precision of the famous Rockettes dancers. With a nod of acknowledgement to the horses and with a simple nuance of a gesture the line changes and somehow as if guided by an unseen hand the Arabians split off and begin circling in the opposite direction. The Friesians pair-up and widen slightly to let the much smaller Arabians pass in between their steadily moving concentric circles.
Now in come the roustabouts with seven pedestals, six small ones are set in a circle for the Friesians and one larger for the center of the ring. In steps a gorgeous palomino and up onto his high perch as the Arabians circle inward to form a tight endless wall of revolving horses. The tiny ring seems to be awash with horse flesh and without warning in come eight zebras marching in a larger circle going the opposite direction. This IS circus.
How in the world anyone could maintain order when you are faced with 21 equines all at Liberty in one ring?? Ah, but remember, this is the magic of the circus.
Any true horseman who has ever seen such a spectacle would hold Sacha's talents as a trainer in high regard and likewise wonder, if only for a moment, what it would be like if his own horse could present itself to such advantage. It was my privilege to witness up close the techniques that are used to create the multi-horse spectacular.
Wonderment has always been the effect of witnessing a great Liberty act, but it is the gentle, guiding hand and the footwork of the many assistants at Sacha's disposal that creates the new routines. Like a conductor he orchestrates the movements by quietly calling out the changes to the assistants assigned to a particular horse. Each assistant walks the horses thru every step of the pattern, never letting the horse make even the slightest errors. To do so would only spoil their ability to memorize even the most complicated routines.
You see, a horse does possess prodigious mental faculties that usually go untapped by the uninitiated. Evolution has given the species the ability to memorize a trail leading to water or food if exposed to the terrain only one time. Like a genius with a photographic memory the horse can be relied upon to carry a lost rider home even in a blinding snowstorm. It is this same ability that the astute trainer uses when they teach a horse the right behaviors from the very beginning.
Horses also learn by observation. As each new horse was in the process of being broke to saddle, Sacha had the waiting horses lined up ringside facing inward where they could see their stablemates being mounted, some for their first times. There was no bucking or rodeo-like antics, only calmness and a very workmanlike attitude from each and every horse. The lessons were so quickly accomplished that the Friesians had time only to learn how easy and effortless it was to comply. I was quite impressed with the fact that Sacha was relying on the horses' memory of a 'good' event rather than the dull repetition of long drills.
When teaching the Arabians to rear up and walk on their back legs, he placed an assistant on each side holding a long rein attached to the headstall. On cue he raised his arms, as the assistants did likewise, the horse simply mimicked the action and made a rear. As Sacha backed up slightly he would reach out as if to touch the horse on the nose. Which caused the horse to 'target' the end of the guider whip and move forward. The assistants would follow a few steps to the side and slightly behind the horse's head. Two maybe three repetitions and it was time for another horse.
An interesting feature of the new act was an equine version of 'musical chairs'. The roustabouts placed four lightweight metal hoops equidistant inside the curb ring. The hoops were on short legs, which held them about one foot off the ground. While an unfamiliar yet haunting melody reminiscent of Celtic rock music played in the background, four gray Arabians circled. As soon as the music stopped they all in unison hopped into the nearest hoop. On cue from Sacha they either 'waltzed' in a tight circle inside the hoops or reared on their back legs.
Now came time to practice a solo act with a horse possessing real 'star power' A shimmering dark golden palomino was asked to make a dramatic entrance by jumping at Liberty thru what is called a paper balloon. This is a large hoop covered with tightly stretched paper. For the practice session the hoop had been prepared by using newspaper pages taped together in such a way as to leave an obvious 'doorway' thru which the horse could jump.. First the horse was asked simply to enter and gallop the length of the three rings. The curbs had been pulled aside to leave an open runway. After completing several breakneck entrances, the balloon was placed in the now familiar path and unhesitatingly the horse leapt thru. The palomino's exit was equally spectacular. This fella is a hind leg-walking specialist. He would rear up and quite rapidly walk the entire length of the arena. Two repetitions and he was done.
It was a bit difficult for me to have to sit quietly on the sidelines and simply watch when so many questions were going thru my mind. I knew what I was witnessing was the culmination of many lifetimes spent and 'secrets' passed from generation to generation in the close knit world of the European circus. However as time allowed after practice Sacha was open to all my questions and answered in a very forthright manner belying one who is at ease with his profession.
Now with every day that passes the effects of that session are evident in the schooling of my own horses. I have become a quieter handler. I do fewer repetitions. I carefully lead the horse thru each new step in-hand or if possible actually link them to an older more experienced horse with whom I can expect perfect obedience. You see, to me every day is a circus day because with a little imagination and a willing horse one does not have to run away to join the circus, you can have one in your own backyard.
You can contact Allen Pogue at 512-264-0442 or visit www.imagineahorse.com.
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