Monday, April 18, 2011

Catch-up: April 10 (Cavalia)

Bill and I really looked forward to seeing Cavalia. Our "horse lover" passes meant that we not only had front row seats, but we were also permitted to visit the stables after the show.  We kept seeing signs on the back of Vancouver city buses with a quote from Jay Leno saying that it was the best show he had ever seen.  Surely, Jay Leno must have seen some amazing shows in his time, so that was quite an endorsement.  We also read a couple of newspaper articles, and all in all, we were anticipating an amazing show.

Outside the tent were many posters.  Since I knew I wouldn't be able to take pictures during the show, I took a few of the posters to record the moment.  This poster showed a mirror image ride that I would have found really beautiful, except for the fact that one of the horses frothed at the bit and seemed to fight the rider throughout the entire performance.  In my ideal world, these horses would be so in tune with their riders, it would be a partnership rather than a power struggle.  I know that my ideal world sometimes verges on fantasy, but still......  something did not sit right with me, and I have a certain trust in my instincts.
The poster below depicted my favourite act of the show.  Bill had found this article about Sylvia Zerbini, and the fact that she worked with eight to ten (I can't remember for sure, but think there were eight the day we attended) unbridled horses really impressed me.  I believe she held a lunge whip, but all of her control seemed to come from her voice.  There was a beautiful, mistily transparent hanging representing water and mountains, and the horses either raced behind that hanging (the audience could still see them), or stayed in front of it.  Their choice of route depended on her instructions, and it appeared she could change that route on "a dime" - it really was impressive.  I was most attracted to this poster because the horses look so free - the way, in my ideal world, they are meant to be, but my common-sense side knew that "freedom" came with many long hours of what I hope was satisfying work for both horse and trainer.
The next two photos were of curtain-hangings that greeted us once we were in our seats, and before the show started.  Just a "record the moment" photo, since it was difficult to get any sort of decent representation in the darkness.
Here is Bill at intermission.  That white thing in the center of his jacket is the "horse lover" pass that came with a nice lanyard.  Bill really enjoyed the thrilling action in the show.  A highlight for him was the beautiful woman standing on one horse, with the reins to four teams of horses in front of her.  They "raced" at what to me seemed death-defying speed around insanely (again, to me) tight corners.  It was exciting and incredibly impressive, but I admit to being mostly terrified for the horses, and less so for the rider.  (I figure she had a choice:)  It especially worried me when the riders did complete flips in the air, landing on the back of the horse, behind the point where a saddle would have been.  Surely, they were landing right on the horses' kidneys, and surely, there was a small shock each time they landed.  How many times had they practiced this move?  I didn't want to think.  Still, the thick, sandy footing appeared to be excellent.  It was not dry and dusty, but sort of heavy and clumpy, and as fast as the horses took the turns, I didn't see any near slips.  Riders facing backwards, hanging off the sides of the horses, their heads inches (it seemed to me) from the ground, yipped and cheered with not the slightest sign of fear on their faces.  Perhaps, it was all fine, and I was just a worrywart.    
My experience of horses is admittedly limited.  I only learned to ride at age 28, but became quite obsessed.  I spent one year working in stables, and finally bought/rescued Sam, a 14-year-old Thoroughbred that had been bought off the race track by an unscrupulous stable owner for whom I was working.  Sam already had quite a list of medical problems, but the only one I was aware of at that time was a horrible saddle sore that the stable owner would not allow to heal because Sam had to be used for lessons.  The only way I could think to manage a break for Sam was to buy him, and eventually, a bailiff seized him (too long a story to tell here), and he was moved to the first stable in my short experience where the horses' well-being came before profit.  Below, he is receiving a ribbon for a good ride in a hunter class, and that is "yours truly" standing proudly at his right (mid 1970's), but the important person in that photo is Raymond, at the far left.  He was the stable manager, and most of the lessons that I learned about horses that I choose to hold on to were through his gentle guidance.  People didn't use terms like "whisperer" in those days, but Raymond communicated in ways that mystified me.  He never learned to read or write, but he was one of the smartest people I knew.  By that time, I had figured out that stable work was not in my calling, and had returned to a teaching job, luckily, in a school practically next door to the stable.  I rode Sam every day, and also used to go most evenings, just to brush and take care of Sam, and hang out in the tack room.  Raymond's home was about 20 steps from the barn, and he also returned each evening, going about his 10-12 hour days with a smile on his face and in his heart.  Every horse in the barn loved him, and he knew each horse's small quirk and pleasure.  There was an atmosphere of contentment and happiness in the barn that was palpable.  Large, immaculate box stalls, with good quality hay, special diets designed for each horse's activity level, and gates to each stall that came up only half way.  The horses leaned out, nudging visitors when they arrived, and were always happy when one of them stopped for a visit.  Perhaps, that is not the safest way to do things, but in the eight years Sam and I "lived" at that stable, I cannot remember a questionable incident.  If there were two horses that weren't entirely comfortable with each other, Raymond made sure they weren't neighbours.  He found the perfect saddle for Sam, and even sewed fleece onto my stirrups so that my feet wouldn't freeze in the cold, Quebec winters. He taught me to respect the sensitivities of each horse, take special care of their spine and back and of course, of their legs and hooves.  Raymond died a few years ago, but I will never, ever forget him.   
I'm not so proud of the following photo.  If I had known at the time that Sam's leg problems were so serious, I would have ridden him on trails only.  It's a heady feeling, having an animal as powerful as a horse under you.  My experience in three poorly run stables had given me an inkling of the tricks horse-sellers can play (tranquilizers, pain-killers, to name a few), but Sam was always so eager to go out, and he never refused a jump.  My only challenge was to slow him down, whether on the trail, in the ring, or going over a course.  He seemed to love to move, a characteristic Raymond called "heart" and I loved this energy more than anything.    
Shortly after that picture was taken, we discovered some problems that had to have been old ones.  Raymond and I made the decision together not to jump Sam any more, and he did well for several more years, until those old injuries caught up with him, and he had to be euthanized.  It was mid-December, but Raymond took his tractor to the top of a hill behind the stable, dug out a space, and buried Sam close to the trails he had come to enjoy.    
Since then, I have slowly changed my views about human-animal relationships.  For one thing, I am not sure that we humans have the right to employ animals for our entertainment.  For sure, if we do, we had better give them the very best quality life we can possibly provide.  In my mind, we owe them big.  Secondly, I am not convinced that racing or jumping horses is ethical.  I've seen more leg injuries than I care to think about, and I wonder how many of us think about the horse's ratio of leg to body size.  Yes, they are designed to run, but at their own pace and only to escape danger, or to release energy.  Same for jumping.  A log, or creek or gate in the way, and they will jump, but a rider needs to practice, over and over, learning to understand the horse's stride and their own balance.  That "over and over" repetition that many riding instructors encourage is, I feel, deadly for horses.  And, the mentality I saw over and over again was to use the horse as long as it was able, and then sell it for a better one in the interest of winning ribbons.  Where do most of the "past their prime" horses end up?  I don't like to think about it.  Cavalia trainer, Sylvia Zerbini, said in her interview that she keeps several retired horses on her property.  That is a really good thing to hear, although I do wonder how much time she gets to spend there, and whether those horses, so bonded to her, pine for her company.  

When we entered the Cavalia stables, we found everything to be absolutely pristine.  

We were told that it was okay to take pictures, but we couldn't touch the horses, or even talk to them, as it was essential for them to maintain their close bond to their rider.  

These two horses were having a disagreement that seemed to continue for the time that we were there.

Most horses (actually all of them) ignored the visitors.  They chomped on their hay, or 

stood in a corner, their head hanging down.  This one was lying down.  You can see that the stalls were very large, and very clean.

It seemed to me that the horses were really well looked after, but the bustle of positive energy that I had always loved in Raymond's stable was completely missing.  The most action..

we saw was from these two unhappy neighbours.

This was the typical expression we saw.  Were the horses bored?  They do the same show, day after day, and city after city.  Or, were they simply tired after the performance?

Although Cavalia brings a large stable crew with them, they also hire local horse people in each city.  These people were very friendly, and had no problem with my taking their picture.  Behind them, you can see the immaculate condition of the stable.

This was supposed to be a short post, but I realize I have a lot of pent-up feelings that seem to be emerging.  I would be open to any horse lovers' opinions, whether agreeing with my ideas or not.  I fully admit to having lots to learn about the horse world.  Food for Founder and Mountain Music (linked at the side) blogs attest to the kind of life for horses that I see as ideal.  But, perhaps, even they are shaking their heads at my words.  Again, all opinions welcomed!  Thanks so much for reading. 


  1. You raise some interesting philosophical questions with no easy answers, Carol. Animals like people tend to adapt to their environments and circumstances. I suppose an animal trained for a particular purpose can become despondent should that purpose be removed. The ideal of being in the wild is not possible in many cases. So having a purpose, being connected to a human friend and/or living in close proximity to another of its kind seems a tolerable world. I believe animals communicate though small gestures often unnoticed by humans. I’m hoping the nose nuzzling pair get to enjoy each other’s company without the bars and, at some point, get to holiday on grassy fields. By the sounds of it, the performances were spectacular! Your old friend Sam also looked in fine form during your equestrian days. :)

  2. Carol, yesterday morning I wrote a long and thoughtful response to this post...But Blogger ATE IT! (I hate that!) I will try to recreate it at some point, but it's been another crazy week, so I don't have the time or energy this morning.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Penelope and EvenSong!

    And, EvenSong, I too really hate when Blogger eats a comment that has taken time to formulate. Hope your day will be a good one. I'm thinking of you as I laze about this morning, but will be back at work next Tuesday, so reality is to set in soon:)