To say that Cavalia is a horse show is to miss the point entirely. Neither is it a circus, minus the wild animals, though it does feature the most gifted acrobats and trick riders. Nor is it an exhibition of dressage riding, although the Delgado sisters Magali and Estelle do a smashing mirror image pas de deux and six well-matched dressage horses perform a carousel of such grace and cohesion it equally enthralls an audience of experienced riders and many who’ve seen few horses outside Western movies.
To be frank, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see another horse exhibit. After 25 years of training and riding show jumpers, I’d given up all that to pursue a career in journalism.
In the new show at Santa Monica Pier, I noticed little things that were different from traditional exhibitions of dressage and vaulting. For one thing, the dressage riders carried no long whips and their flowing costumes masked the leg cues often distracting in Olympic competition. Horses perform without the tail switching and ear pinning and look positively comfortable. The vaulting horses, two enormous Belgians, maintain a smooth canter while the acrobats perform incredibly high flips.
There’s no trainer standing in the center of the ring with a whip to make sure the horses don’t slow down or speed up. I had to find out how they do it.
Head trainers Frederic Pignon and his wife Magali Delgado agreed to meet me at the stable tent one afternoon. The Lusitano stallions were raised and trained on her father’s farm outside Avignon. Delgado’s schooling was traditional French haute ecole. Pignon brings to the partnership a more natural approach to training adapted to each horse’s talent and personality. It’s based not on domination but on trust, he says, which takes a long time to develop.
The vaulting horses are started in the traditional way with the trainer in the center of the ring maintaining the rhythm of the canter with the flick of a driving whip, he explains. Gradually, this is transferred to vocal cues from the vaulters. Whips are never used to startle the horse or inflict pain, Pignon says. They are only cues and so at some point can be exchanged for a very short whip or the wave of an arm.
Pignon introduces me to Templado, at 18 a senior member of the troupe, and star of the show’s finale, a liberty act of three white stallions, including his kid brother Fasto and Aerte, a 13-year-old Spanish Frison.
Aerte was originally acquired to teach children vaulting, but he didn’t like that so much, Pignon says. He showed a marked preference for liberty work, running and playing. In the show, Aerte puts his front feet on the flat railing, standing tall for minutes while Pignon crawls under him. Talk about trust. Magali says Aerte loves to stand up on a box in his stall so he can see everything going on outside.
In the act, Fasto refuses to join the other two, turning his back to Pignon and walking away. I asked if this was part of the script or an improvisation on Fasto’s part. Pignon says Fasto sometimes doesn’t want to go with Templado because Templado bites him. So they worked it into the act.
“In Europe, the act was more tightly choreographed than it is here,” Pignon says. “But it can be freer here because the guitar music follows what I do. I’m just an actor with them, a lot is improvisation. It’s different every night.”
A few years ago, Templado had a tumor surgically removed from his right haunch. The vet said his career would be over, so he was turned out to pasture at the farm at Avignon. But Templado was miserable away from his human friends, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t play, so Pignon put him back in the liberty act.
“For a long time he hated everything,” Pignon says. “Then he learned to play and to run with me. Now he is happy.”
It’s this playfulness that attracted Cavalia producer Normand Latourelle to Pignon when he saw him perform in Europe. Latourelle, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, had the idea for Cavalia but knew nothing about horses. He spent the better part of 10 years researching, writing a script that would follow man’s association with the horse over centuries of domestication, eventually returning freedom to the horse. He knew what he wanted visually and the theme: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man. “When I saw Frederic playing with the three white stallions free in the field at Avignon, I knew I had the final act of my show.”
Latourelle says he explored a lot of crazy ideas. Everyone told him he couldn’t have people flying over the horses. But Mandarin, a buckskin Lusitano stallion then two years old, was loose in the field. Pignon put a ladder there, climbed up and waited. Pretty soon Mandarin was attracted to him and figured out a man could be higher than him without him getting afraid. If one understands a horse’s natural fear of predators attacking from above, and takes time to overcome that, well, many things are possible.
Latourelle understands all this and gives Pignon whatever time he needs.
I can’t wait to see what time brings as Cavalia evolves in the coming years.