Using animals in entertainment often has negative connotations and evokes strong criticism from those concerned with animal welfare.
Each year, at the Calgary Stampede, or closer to home, the Festival du Cochon in St. Perpétue, Quebec, domestic animals are subject to activities they fear and in resisting suffer avoidable injuries so severe they need to be euthanized.
Elephants, infant chimps and other wild animals fare no better. Trained in circuses through fear-based methods using whips and prods, or languishing in zoos, they often spend their lives in an environment that is completely alien to them.
In such forms of entertainment, and even in horse and dog racing, the fundamental message is that of man subjugating an animal by force.
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But Cavalia’s Odysseo, wrapping up its North American tour in Montreal until July 19, has something different to say. The show prides itself on its raison d’être, the historical bond between horses and human beings, eloquently demonstrated by a team of 45 riders, dancers and acrobats and about 70 horses of various breeds.
“If the animals hail from a domesticated species (used historically for helping humans work or in animal agriculture), most mainstream animal welfare organizations are not opposed to the practice –– assuming, of course, that the training standards comply with welfare-friendly training techniques,” says Miami veterinarian Patricia Khuly, who writes about animal welfare issues in several US publications. “In general, shows like Cavalia are considered an excellent alternative to the morally-fraught use of wild animals in circuses.”
The training of Cavalia horses is never coercive, says Dorian Escalon, rider and trainer with Odysseo since the show’s conception.
“Everything starts with trust, exactly as a with a person.
“Since the beginning, you spend hours and hours with him. Do you ride him or walk with him, or pat him for 30 minutes because he is stressed? Spending time in the stable will give you something on the stage—you only add technique to make it work.”
The show is visually and acoustically spectacular, with the lighting, sets and projected images perpetually creating diverse magical worlds, including a lake with real water and a descending giant carousel. The grace of the acrobats in a stunning aerial performance and the stamina and physical skill of a group of dancers from Guinea add to the emotional power of the show, but also contain much that would spook an ordinary horse.
It is because they know and trust their trainer, that they feel safe, Elise Verdoncq told the Boston Globe. In Le Sédentaire, she is alone on stage with 11 Arabian stallions or geldings and invisibly cues them with only gesture and voice, creating one of the most memorable moments in the show. “The horse has to trust me. I’m taking him to some place that might be scary for him with the music the lights, the audience the water—everything is not natural for him. He knows if I’m asking him to do it, it’s safe.”
Both performers are keenly mindful of their horses’ moods, and say no two performances are the same. The animals are given freedom of movement on stage, and horse and rider must often improvise at any given moment. Cues for the lights are always given manually, making sure all the animals are ready. Both performers say they are continually learning and communicating. For Escalon, discovering what his horse is feeling is the best part of his job. “The person who thinks he knows everything about horses will never be a real rider,” he says.
Odysseo is playing until July 19. For info visit cavalia.net