As most horse owners, lovers and enthusiast have come to know, Cavalia is a magical encounter between humans and horse. Cavalia started in 2003, as the dream of co-founder of Cirque Du Soleil, Normand Latourelle. After leaving Cirque Du Soliel, Latourelle created Québéc’s historical pageant titled Les Légendes Fantastiques.
When Latourelle realized that people were watching the show’s single horse instead of the performer, he knew he was on to something. So knowing nothing about horses, he began to teach himself about horses, through self learning and by working with very notable trainers in the industry. Now, nine years, 2000 performances and 3.5 million show attendees later, Cavalia has grown into one of the largest North American touring big tops.
The performance and training of the 50 horses in Cavalia is impressive, so I sat down with Fairland Ferguson, a trainer and performer in the show to discuss the training methodology of the Cavalia geldings and stallions.
Macala Wright: What are the principles of Cavalia’s training methodology?
Fairland Ferguson: You must remember, what people are seeing in the show is the finished product; if you go down the pyramid, we have foundational techniques at the heart of all we do. Cavalia has six principles of training:
1. To foster an equal relationship with the horse based on trust and respect; something that each of you must learn from one another.
2. Never to adopt “standard” or inflexible methods of training and communication; you must recognize that each horse develops in his or her own way.
3. As a trainer, you are their partner. It is your job to reduce stress, as well as to become a safe, trusted “haven” for the horse.
4. Always to be patient with horses. You never want to push too fast or too insistently. By varying the horses’ routine, you prevent them from getting bored or becoming unresponsive.
5. Never to use force or become angry, horses aren’t meant to be dominated or broken.
6. Work hard to establish more “natural” forms of communication; if you listen, your horse will tell you how to speak with him in subtle, almost invisible ways.
MW: In your training principles, you stated that you’ve learned to connect with horses through non-verbal and invisible cues, what did it take to teach yourself to interpret what they were saying? How did you have to teach them to communicate with you so that you could understand them?
FF: I’ve always had an innate understanding of horses. When I was younger, I’d see people around them and ask myself, “why can’t you see what he’s telling you?” I always have been able to read them so it naturally translates into my training abilities.
My ability to work with horses is something that has evolved over time. When it comes to teaching them to communicate with me, it’s actually the other way around; I learn to communicate with them. Every horse and situation is different. As a trainer, you can’t take your ideas of what you think they should do into the start of that relationship. You need watch them and make yourself open to seeing what they’re trying to tell you, because they’re telling you something – if not everything.
MW: In your opinion, why do you feel that horse people feel that horses still need to be “broke” through dominance instead submission, rather than creating a bond through intuitive connection as clearly demonstrated with these horses?
FF: In my opinion, this is a matter of choice. It’s hard for many trainers to let go of time-old tradition. Mentally, it’s hard to get yourself to do something different. But it’s important to acknowledge and realize that there are other ways of training that are more productive and good mentally – for you and the horse. The good news is that I see these methods as becoming more normal. Remember, it takes time to bring change, especially with time-old traditions found in the equestrian industry.
MW: What happens when a horse needs and wants to disconnect from you or the performance he gives during the show?
FF: We give him the space and time he needs. We never force anything on a horse in our care.
MW: What about the horse’s physical health? How do you maintain a performance animal such as these?
FF: The horses annually consume 17,500 bales of hay, 36,500 pounds of grain and 1,750 pounds of carrots. When it comes to nutrition, all of our horses have foundational things in their diet. They all receive mineral supplements, joint supplements and digestive aids – digestive being the #1 thing. The rest is customized by their physical needs and temperament.
MW: Once a horse has finished his time in Cavalia, where does he retire? Does he go onto a second life?
FF: There are three things that happen. They either go back to the Cavalia in Sutton, Quebec, they go to Riata Ranch in California which is run by a former Cavalia performer or many of our horses trainers take horses they love for themselves.
MW: How has Cavalia evolved –specifically– the equestrian industry globally through the inspiration and aspiration it may instill in those who view it?
FF: Cavalia makes people want to push their own limits with their horses. People are often limited to what they know. When they see something different, they start to think about what could be possible. It provides them with a broader, wider perspective about what their horses could do. With most riders, what they’ve done with their horse is limited. And when they change the routine, what they find is that they can reengage and reconnect with their horses in new ways.
Cavalia is now showing in San Diego through January 6th, 2013. They’re then visiting Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Their new show Odysseo is currently showing in Scottsdale, Arizona and later on in 2013 in Burbank, California. For ticket information, visit the website http://www.cavalia.net/en.
About The Author: Macala Wright is a Los Angeles-based digital strategist and business writer. When not writing, she can be found on the back of a Warmblood. She blogs at MacalaWright.com or you can follow her on twitter @Macala.