At first glance, the riders in the performance show Cavalia don’t appear to have much in common with their counterparts in the show ring or out on the cross-country course. Colorful costumes, fancy trick riding and elaborate sets have more in common with the circus than horse showing.
But entertaining the audience is only one of the goals behind Cavalia. Behind the lavish interaction of acrobats, riders and horses set to tribal music and colorful multimedia is a celebration of horses: their beauty, nobility, agility and power. And like riders everywhere, the bond between horse and human is what keeps most of these performers returning night after night.
Cavalia riders’ daily routines don’t differ much from many other top-notch equestrian competitors with the exception that they rarely wake before 10 a.m. They move every three weeks, work under white top tents and perform inspiring athletic feats.
James Buchanan, 24, joined Cavalia’s 120-member staff 2½ years ago. He’s one of the 35 acrobats, dancers and riders from 10 countries, including France, Morocco and Portugal, who tour with Cavalia year-round. Originally from Alexandria, Va., Buchanan was thrilled to return to his hometown with the show this fall.
“It’s the first time I’ve had have a semi-normal life, where if I don’t have practice during the day I can go do stuff with friends and family,” he said. “It’s a little bit strange actually, for the first time my life before Cavalia and my life since Cavalia have mixed.”
Buchanan learned to ride with his aunt when he was just 2 years old. As a young teenager, Buchanan rode hunter/jumpers with trainer Tim Majeweski in Lorton, Va. When he turned 16, Buchanan moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and began riding western with the Dolly Parton’s dinner theatre, “Dixie Stampede.” It was there that Buchanan learned trick riding.
“When they had trick-riding practices during the day, I would go and watch. Eventually I asked if they minded if I got on and tried a few things,” he said.
Buchanan was surprisingly nonchalant about his tricks. He explained his first so-called simple one with a laugh. “It was a shoulder stand [when you] hang upside down. It’s something I first just wanted to learn because it looked like fun, and it got me a job.”
When Buchanan saw Cavalia in Seattle, Wash., he was so impressed that he joined the tour as a groom hoping to earn a spot performing in the show. After a discouraging year with no prospects in sight, he reluctantly headed home. But not long after, Buchanan attended Cavalia during his vacation in Las Vegas (Nev.), and while visiting with friends backstage he discovered the show was looking for a trick rider. Five days later, Buchanan walked onto the 160-foot stage and into the spotlight as a performer in Cavalia.
Now, Buchanan spends his days practicing and tweaking his acts. By late afternoon he’s preparing for the show—hair, makeup and costume, meetings with the directors to cover show changes and organizing his equipment.
Like most riders, Buchanan knows each of his six horses’ personalities and needs, and he puts a tremendous amount of trust in his horses.
“Especially with my trick-riding horse, if I don’t trust that he does what he’s supposed to, I could get very hurt,” he explained.
As he pushed off the ground with both feet, catapulting himself from one side of his galloping horse to the other, and later he jumped two horses at once, one wobbly leg standing on each, you understand what he meant.
Buchanan, along with the other performers and musicians, performs six to seven shows a week in each city. Although the performers enjoy a 10-day break between cities, life on the road can be stressful and exhausting. Often, they don’t speak the language or know anyone where they hang their circus hats.
Just as riders on the horse show circuit often bond with the competitors and barn staff they see each weekend, Cavalia performers tend to form a makeshift family Jesse Lee Cooper, another Cavalia trick rider, is content to rely on the cast for support.
“It’s challenging because I came from a large family, and I’m family oriented. I came out here completely by myself. We’re definitely an adopted family. We’re together all the time,” he said.
It’s About The Horsemanship
Cooper, one of the oldest performers at 31, hopes the show displays what Cavalia is founded upon and what attracted the equestrian performers—horsemanship.
“As much a we like to think we’re in control, we’re not. We’re here to allow the horses to make the right decisions, not by force, but by asking them the right questions,” he said. “Cavalia is about slowing down and taking a breath. It’s about taking it all in and celebrating the horse.”
Cooper came to Cavalia with an unusual equestrian background—he rode in the western pleasure show ring in Atlanta, Ga. He started riding, training and showing professionally and took students to Quarter Horse Congress when he was 20 years old. He also rode dressage and studied natural horsemanship with Jan Weisman.
“She taught me to understand horses’ body language and instincts. One of the most important things I learned was that by letting them run away, you allow them to come back,” said Cooper.
Training horses has similar meaning to Sylvia Zerbini, the star of Grande Liberte, a performance in which eight gray Andalusians and Polish Arabians freely gallop in circles, change directions and fall in and out of patterns by her subtle commands. They play and prance, and occasionally bite and kick, (there are two stallions in the group, after all), which is part of its allure.
“The horses enjoy doing what they’re doing; they perform only natural movements. Everything is developed with the horse in mind. That is what we want to accomplish,” said Zerbini.
She grew up with horses; her parents own and manage a barn in France, where she learned to train using voice commands without restraints, including halters, saddles and bridles. “When I have a problem with a horse, I start by correcting myself—my position, my tone. Horses are very sensitive,” said Zerbini.
Zerbini performed with many shows, but she was especially captivated with Cavalia, because it’s one of the only shows that celebrate horses’ natural beauty and their willingness to learn. “Horses have been our partners for centuries and Cavalia is about celebrating that relationship,” she said.
Cavalia is currently showing in Atlanta, Ga., through Dec. 6. The next stop on the tour is Miami, Fla. For more information about Cavalia, go to http://www.cavalia.net/.