Cavalia presents best practices when dealing with animals in entertainment

Cavalia's Odysseo in Montreal, 2015.
Cavalia's Odysseo in Montreal, 2015. (Photo by Stephen Deligeorge)

Cavalia’s Odysseo in Montreal, 2015. (Photo by Stephen Deligeorge)

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.

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

9 Comments on "Cavalia presents best practices when dealing with animals in entertainment"

  1. Doris Potter | June 29, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Reply

    Sorry … animals should never be used in entertainment despite the rationalizations presented in this article. It’s also important to remember that these horses “made the cut” but what about those foals who could not be trained to perform up to the company’s standards? Where did they end up? Also, the horses are transported long distances in the quest for greater profits. How much time of the year are they allowed freedom in pastures?

    • kristine berey | June 30, 2015 at 10:52 am | Reply

      I do agree. Animals should never be used in entertainment and no animal should ever suffer.
      But until everyone feels this way, it’s really important to distinguish crueler practices from more humane ones and advocate for animals subject to cruelty.
      Also, training animals in itself (proper training/teaching, not fear-based obviously) is not a bad thing. In domestic animals, if they know their name, learn to respond to verbal and non verbal cues, it is stimulating and enhances the communication
      between human and animal. Consider seeing-eye and therapy dogs, horses used in therapy etc. “Training” wild animals however is always unacceptable.

  2. Anne Streeter | June 30, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Reply

    Absolutely beautiful creatures! My two major concerns are the amount of travelling time they rack up in a year and what becomes of them when they are no longer up to the job. Horses can live a long time so seldom stay with the same owner. As services animals they can go from pillar to post – generally downwards. An extra few dollars can be made from the slaughterhouse. Even a double crown winner was sold to Japan as stud & was traced to the horse slaughter house a year later.

    • kristine berey | June 30, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Reply

      I think Cavalia has an adoption program, but the point you bring up applies to all domestic animals.
      About traveling, I was told they choose horses that “travel well” because horses that are too stressed out can’t perform.

  3. Louise Slattery | June 30, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Reply

    Even if training were not cruel, the horses are confined for long hours as they travel from show to show. How often do they have access to pasture? How many are bred to find the best candidates for training and showing? What happens to the foals who don’t make the cut and the horses retired after years of service? Unless all horses bred for the company are humanely cared for until their natural death, it seems like exploitation to me.

  4. I saw the show and all of the performers hold whips to keep the horses in line.

    • I saw the show too and not all did. having ridden horses myself, its always used and mostly not in an aggressive manner. More just a tap to remind them that its time to work and focus.

    • whips are often used in horse training as a visual cue…they aren’t there to beat the horse with or punish.

      • I would think that for an object to work as a visual cue, it must be associated in the horses’s mind with an unpleasant (painful) past experience. This is still objectionable.

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