…Why the long face? If horses could do more than whinny, might they say they love the applause of the audience? Might they actually be smiling, but us humans just can’t tell? Might they confess they get a deep satisfaction of what I suspect would be grueling hours of training and traveling? It was too late to stay up and ask these questions of the knowledgeable trainer who stuck around after the Cavalia show last night. After all, 11:00 was getting late for an eight year-old.
Even though my date for the night, Ava, enjoyed the show from the edge of her seat, she was left wondering why the horses looked so sad. I shot back: how do you know when a horse is happy? Do they have a lot of expression? These are things I just don’t know. I think they might be sort of neutral on the whole thing, really. They seemed to like their trainers and they’d nicker (sound a horse makes when they see a human who gives them food) quite a bit when the athletic, bedazzled performers came around. If they were feeding them for reward, I didn’t notice.
Normand Latourelle, the founder and artistic director of Cavalia, says he’s not a horse guy, but talked with trainers who persuaded him to use a gentle approach to training the horses called ethology. Meaning: they ask the horse to do what they would do in nature. “We don’t abuse or punish them. We don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. We don’t ride them like they are only machines.” I call this out because I know there are differing views, but want to offer that the horses, like humans, are challenged to the limit. And until I can talk to a horse, or see something that proves they’re miserable or being treated unjustly, I’ll take the stance that the horse show is on the up and up.
The show in review: The opening had a series of questions and answers displayed in text on the screen. They listed three possible answers to each and asked the audience to give a show of hands for the right answer. I won’t give them away, but say that learning the information about the Cavalia team of horses in this way was inventive and much more inviting than reading it in a show program. Clever. Most insightful – - now if you go you’ll be sure to get these right – - there are 42 horses, 11 breeds and no mares on team Cavalia. They’ve performed in over 20 cities and work on a one night on one night off schedule.
Everyone is so concerned about the horses – maybe we should be worrying about the performers too. Some of the stunts are performed on the horses at top-speed without much room for inaccuracies. Good thing they were perfectionists - even in the dirt and sand stage (actually very curious about the actual materials in that mix – we got up close, but I did not want to touch).
One of my favorite acts was Le Miroir, where the horses and riders mimic each other in perfect synchronization, as if looking in a mirror. Truth be told, I was relived not to be on the edge of my seat worried about a performer being stomped by a horse. Similarly dreamy and relaxing was La Vida where two horses and their riders circled, catching and releasing the fair maidens who swirled above them via wires. In contrast Poste Hongroise transported me to Medieval times. Fairland Ferguson exuded such a confidence in reigning six horses at top speed, in pairs of two, a foot on either of the last pair. Then just add a small three foot jump. Wow, what a ride! A gasp from Ava.
There was spring, fall and winter; desert, leaves, rain and snow; all before it ended and power and grace throughout. We compared it to Ovo, which we saw in June. Ava preferred Ovo, mostly due to the fact that she just couldn’t get a read on the horses’ happiness in Cavalia. Ovo was more silly with outrageous costumes as well. And me, ever the indecisive, diplomatic one, said that I liked them both equally for different reasons. I will say that Cavalia is definitely worth a visit! And if you do make a trip to see the equestrian ballet, let us know if you’re able to discern the contentedness of horse with the long face.