For those who missed the chance to experience Cavalia’s Odysseo – Cirque de Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle’s vision of an equine circus – the extravaganza is on its way back to Canada, opening April 8th in Toronto and June 17th in Montreal. Horse Sport caught up with the Cavalia show in its 2015 debut in Frisco, Texas, near Dallas. The performance, directed by Wayne Fowkes with equestrian direction by Benjamin Aillaud, has remained essentially unchanged since the last time Odysseo passed through Toronto and Montreal three years ago. There is a new wave of younger talent, making the average age of performers between 19-25 among the cast of 46. Approximately 15 new horses have joined the show, replacing ones that have retired. There are still no mares in the cast of 63 horses, 13 of which are stallions.

Typical of Cavalia shows, the audience participation was infectious, as the sell-out crowd clapped along with the music and applauded every feat performed by the various riders, acrobats, and aerialists. The 38-metre high big top was filled with voices as the audience sang along to “O Walu Guere Moufan,” a phrase meaning “No More War On Earth” in the Susu language native to most of the acrobats, who hail from the West African country of Guinea. The final scene, featuring a 300,000-litre lake in which horses and performers get to frolic, had the audience on their feet.

Behind the Scenes of Cavalia

A tour of the stables after the show confirmed that the horses are healthy and happy, with an obvious bond with their grooms and stage partners. The stable team is made up of two veterinary technicians, a farrier, an equestrian stage manager, a stable director, and 15 grooms who work a morning and night shift. Each groom is responsible for five to seven horses and handle turnout, bathing, brushing, braiding, hoof care, and show prep, as well as stable clean up.

The vet techs are responsible for the overall well-being of the horses and manage their vaccination schedules and any other minor medical conditions or injuries that may arise. There is also a vet tech present during each show in case of emergency. The vet techs coordinate continuously with local veterinary clinics in each city and the US Dept. of Agriculture or Canadian Food Inspection Agency (depending on the country) to ensure continuous care and compliance with new regulations. Riders are responsible for the conditioning and training of a group of horses and will also help the grooms with the post-show care.

The vet techs are also responsible for feeding the horses, which receive hay five times a day and grain three times a day. Every horse has their own diet plan which is created based on their metabolism, their daily activity level, and any special requirements they might have. All diets are made up of a timothy hay mix, various grains, plus vitamin supplements, electrolytes, fish oil, and other natural additives if needed.

Of the 63 horses in the stables, only 50 are used in the show at one time. A rotation plan for every scene in the show allows the horses to perform a variety of acts which keeps them interested, agile, and constantly learning new things. Over 80 percent of the horses in the stable can perform multiple disciplines, which allows for a lot of flexibility.

Depending on the age and discipline of the horse when it arrives, it can take from three months to three years to train for the show. For horses that require longer training, an ongoing program is created with the equestrian director and the horse is slowly incorporated into the show.

What about turnout or downtime for the horses? In between each tour city, the horses are transported to a farm often located at a mid-point between. This becomes their 10-day vacation spot where they are free to frolic and enjoy pasture time. While on tour, outdoor paddocks are created so that the horses can be turned out every day and enjoy some time in the sun. As well, each horse has its own exercise plan and participates in daily warm-ups and training. When space is available, an outdoor arena is set up in which to ride, to allow a change of scene.

Twenty-four-year-old Odysseo performer Amanda Orlowski of Toronto, ON, started working with the original Cavalia as a groom and after two-and-a-half years on the road with the show, Normand sent her off to train with Benjamin at his International Horse Academy, an ‘equestrian arts university’ in Tarbes, France. There she learned roman riding, trick riding, horse training, dressage, and liberty. New horses were also scouted from all over Europe and brought to the school to train for the show.

What Amanda particularly enjoys about what Odysseo brings to the general public is “the ability to show people what we can do with horses. If it were not for horses, man would not be where they are today.”

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