Behind the Scenes of Cavalia, Part II: “Our Horses are Royalty”

The equine stars of the largest traveling horse circus in the world don’t just live plush lives; they live happy lives, and that is the creators’ number one priority. Check out some of the crazy facts and beautiful photos!

We’re bringing you the next chapter in our exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Cavalia’s Odysseo: a horse-based circus show that has been wowing cities around the country for the past five years. Horse Nation was granted exclusive backstage access, and we got to see just how happy these horses really are. ICYMI: Part 1: Raising the World’s Largest Tent

I thought perhaps when Cavalia’s public relations team said there would be a “red carpet arrival” for the horses shipping in last week, it was some kind of general insider lingo for a photo-op. But no, an actual red carpet had been rolled out from the loading ramp of a luxury shipping trailer to the big white tent the horses call home for much of the year.

(All photos by Lorraine Jackson.)

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When the horses are shipped, they arrive about 8-10 at a time with staggered shipping times so that there are ready hands for every horse immediately, and no horse has to sit on the trailer waiting to be unloaded. The horses never travel further than 12 hours at a time; if two show locations are further apart than that, the horses are flown instead.

There are 65 horses and 40 human performers in Odysseo, and each horse is specifically assigned to a rider who will spend hours upon hours with the horse every day of the year, except when the horses are on vacation turnout between shows (a minimum of 10 days). In addition to the 65 horses in the show, there are also horses along for the ride who are in training, but not ready to perform.



Majolie Nadeau invites her longtime partner in the show out of his stall for a visit.

While it is a lot of atmosphere to adjust to, the life is very good. Each horse gets extensive opportunities throughout the day for training, playing, group turnout (available both indoors and outdoors) and various other forms of exercise. The feeding schedule is optimized for digestive health (multiple small feedings a day), and the horses have grooms, veterinarians, and farriers present or available from 7am to 11pm.

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I talked to multiple directors and performers with the show, and all emphasized in their own way that the horses’ needs are first and foremost, and there is zero tolerance for harsh hands, long hours, or questionable methods when it comes to the horses. That includes banning aids used by performance riders such as spurs, whips, and many bit styles.

“It’s a very peaceful show,”  Normand Latourelle told me. “When you start to bring horses to the stage, you have two choices. I’ve seen a lot of horse events where the people are not delicate with the horses. You can abuse the horse pretty easily. We have made the choice to be soft with the horse and that pays off a lot: you’re going to see happy horses on our stage.”

One of the performers also took me on a private tour of the tack room, which houses about 2 dozen dressage saddles, several trick saddles, roman riding pads (extremely durable, soft bareback pads that allow the riders to stand on the horse without stressing the horse’s backs) and a wall packed to the gills with bridles for every horse. I looked at every bridle on the wall, and at least half were double-jointed fat snaffles, with the rest being some variation on that theme, plus a few bitless bridles. There wasn’t a questionable bit among them.

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The performers also gave us a quick sneak peak of one segment of the show, which involves the horses working at liberty with a trainer giving them vocal and physical cues. The horses were playful, interactive, and imperfect. These were reactive, sentient horses, not zombies following instructions. I’ve seen a lot of horses performing “tricks”, but that is not the emphasis here. The show is really about the horse in their natural state, and the performers, choreographers, and artistic directors have worked hard to maintain that.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about the array of horses in the show – which range from Quarter Horses to Arabians to Pure Spanish imports – is that almost half of them are stallions, and the remaining horses are geldings. Because of the absence of mares, the boys are able to perform cordially with each other, even at liberty. Really, you’re getting to see a side of horse behavior that even the savviest and longstanding horseman don’t often see in a long career: stallions and geldings moving, performing, and interacting as a group with all that those dynamics entail.

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Utah is a small market, and the creator admits one of the smallest markets that they’ve ever put on the show. Many locals had a bit of sticker shock at the price of the event in comparison to other circus shows, but when you put it into perspective that the difference you’re paying for is 24/7 care, pampering, and quality of life for the animal performers, the difference seems to be worth it.

“You can see the different personalities of the horses come out in this act as well, because they’re horses, and they’re allowed to be free. That’s what we really love here.”

Stay tuned to our inside sneak peak at Cavalia, as next week we’ll be introducing you to some of the incredible human performers, and tell you how they came to be the other stars in the biggest horse circus in the world!

Lorraine will be taking over Horse Nation’s Instagram at @go_riding TODAY, April 20, starting around 11:00 AM eastern to bring us live behind-the-scenes images from Cavalia! Give us a follow and don’t miss a single photo!

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