The majestic, four-legged performers of 'Cavalia'

Jan 22, 2012

There’s a village of white tents that look like a castle rising from Redmond’s Marymoor Park. It's home to both arena and stables for dozens of horses, the stars of "Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Man And Horse," which has been billed as "equestrian ballet."

Created in part by one of the people behind Cirque du Soleil, the show is a spectacle featuring acrobats, aerialists, musicians and, of course, riders. But these are riders who do stunts like ride standing up (picture "watersking" on a pair of horses galloping in a circle) or riding while doing the splits.


What might be the most impressive performance is how some of the horses move through choreography with just verbal and visual cues. They'll kneel on one leg or both -- and they don't wear any reins.

It can take months or even up to 10 years to train the horses. The animals develop a close bond with their riders, says Gregory Molina, equestrian director.

"There's nothing like when a horse hears your voice and looks up to see if it's really you," Molina says in French.

He's who's been working with horses for the past 20 years.

He still remembers the first time he fell under the spell of a horse, as a young boy riding on a trail.

"And then a man gave me a small stick and said if I tapped him on the shoulder, he'd start to gallop, which is what happened. "And from that moment I knew, 'That's exactly what I want to do!.'"

Since it's debut in 2003, the Montreal-based "Cavalia" has toured Canada, Europe and the U.S. The show features more than 30 artists and some 50 horses from all over the world. A total of 11 breeds are represented, including Pure Spanish Breed, Quarter, Lusitano and Paint. 

The horses eat 17,500 bales of hay; 36,500 pounds of grain and 1,750 pounds of carrots. They travel in specially-designed trailers or, depending on the destination,by plane.

Every six weeks or so, the horses will get a break -- a chance to run around at a farm for several days.

But when they're back at work, the animals get pampered and eventually, well, they'll become divas.

"They know this is feeding time. This is time for my bath. And 'Why haven’t you picked my feet yet?' They’re very demanding. They’re very prissy little horses," says Katherine Logan, the stable manager.

Each horse has their own personality and their unique set of quirks. Like who likes what body part to get scratched. Who gets grumpy  when their neighbor gets taken out of their stall. Or who thinks radio equipment might be something to eat.

Katherine Cox performs trick riding, bareback riding and dressage. One of the horses she rides is named Miracle -- "Mimi" -- who clearly knows who she is.

"When we have the VIPs come into the stables, they’ll try and call the horses. They’ll just completely ignore everyone and I walk by and say 'Mimi!' and he comes right out."

Like in any good relationship, it’s all about communicating, whether it’s in English or in Cox’s case, in English and French. Miracle is bilingual.

"From the minute I walk into the barn to the minute I go on stage, even when I’m on stage I tell him, 'You can trust me. It's fine.'"

That kind of communication can keep a horse from feeling nervous. But mostly what happens, the riders say, is that the horses end up taking in the spotlight and acting like hams.

"Cavalia" plays through Feb. 12 in Redmond.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.