Under the big top, Paints are among the stars of Cavalia Odysseo’s breathtaking performance.
Article and Photography by Jessica Hein
Walk into the massive white tent that serves as Cavalia Odysseo’s mobile theater and you’re transported into a forest—trees flank the stage, and a semi-transparent curtain of saplings make you feel like you’re in a wooded glen. The curtain pulls back at times to reveal a mountainous bank, over which horses flow like river currents. A carousel descends from the ceiling, around which baroque horses perform in the midst of talented acrobats. Toward the end of the show, the arena floods, creating a lake through which horses piaffe, Spanish walk and, of course, gallop with abandon.
“I use the screen and 3D images that reproduce some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Nature gave us all of this, and I like to bring it alive on stage. That’s why I like to bring a lake, a mountain—this is all real,” Director Normand Latourelle said. “I’ve also traveled a lot with my first show, Cavalia. When I created Odysseo, I wanted to tell people where we’ve been with a show that travels throughout the world.”
The horses, however, are the true stars of the show: more than 60 horses representing 11 breeds—all geldings or stallions—comprise the Odysseo equine staff. Baroque horses like Lusitanos and P.R.E.s, make up the majority of the show’s horses, along with about 12 Arabians. Stock horses are favorites for the Cossack and trick-riding acts, too, including a handful of Paints that add a bit of chrome to the show.
The cast members are almost as unique as the horses—11 different nationalities comprise the artisans, and their talents nearly steal the show at times.
“We don’t choose people based on their nationality; we choose them because of the quality of the artist. We don’t mind the color of the skin, where they’re from, or what language they speak,” the director said. “When you see a horse, the horse doesn’t know if you’re black or white or another nationality. The horse represents peace. It’s a strong symbol. On stage, we’re all about the horses and we’re all trying to give our best.” Four-Footed Stars
When it comes to Cavalia Odysseo, the horses are truly the stars of the show. Though their duties and performance schedules vary, each horse gets star treatment daily in the form of top-notch care, nutrition and exercise. To find the perfect horses to join the show, Odysseo directors utilize contacts throughout the United States and Europe.
“We have to pick very strong horses to maintain their physical abilities every day, and we want them to look as attractive as they possibly can. But we don’t go for horses because of his look alone—it’s his personality too,” Resident director and choreographer Darren Charles said. “If he can do jumping or dressage, it’s a bonus. We don’t usually take horses that can only do one thing because it’s not beneficial for us, but if he does one thing exceptionally well, of course we’ll take him.”
Once a horse is selected, it usually takes about four months of training to prepare him for a show debut, Darren says. Most animals first perform as part of the liberty routines.
“They learn the liberty acts first to give them mutual respect for the riders and trainers first—it enables them to have a relationship that they build with that particular rider. From there, we assess what his best forte is,” he said.
With their horses’ well-being at the forefront, Odysseo rotates the horses throughout the show, as well as giving each animal daily turnout and exercise time. A horse might be used for a jumping act one day, and then be used in liberty the next or given a day off, depending on his needs.
“We rotate the disciplines,” Darren said. “The riders come in at 9 a.m. and they do all the gymnastic training of the horses during the day, making sure they’re fit and healthy for the show. We also have rotation in the horses; we don’t use all the horses all the time because we don’t want to give them repetitive strain. I do the same for the artists, too.”
A handful of Paint Horses are among Odysseo’s 62 performers—they include Aico Diamond, a 2007 black tobiano gelding, and a 2009 bay overo gelding named “Mikko.” The breed’s versatility and natural good looks make them worry-free additions to the show—you might catch them performing in the liberty, Cossack or trick-riding routines, to name a few.
“The Paint Horses are very charismatic. They’re the least of our worries—they’re not so naughty as the other horses. They look beautiful on stage with our lights. We try to bring nature to the stage; when you see a Paint Horse, you know it’s a natural horse; it’s a fine example of a horse. The beautiful patterns paint the picture of a fine horse,” Darren said. Natural Beauty
At the heart of Odysseo is a display of horsemanship at its core: a focus on the relationship between horse and rider. From intricate dressage moves to liberty acts, the deep bond between horse and handler are evident.
“Some of the horses do multiple numbers, but we all have the same horses we ride,” said Spencer Rose, one of the show’s performers. “At Odysseo, we really try to work on the bond with their horses.”
One example is the liberty act coordinated by Elise Verdoncq, an Odysseo rider and trainer from France.
“That number is different every single night,” Spencer said. “She just goes with it. The horses are really playful animals, and she lets them play.”
Designed to showcase natural beauty through both the horses and the surrounding scenery, Darren hopes the audience appreciates the details that go into each show as well as the overarching appreciation for the equine.
“I want the audience to see the beauty of the relationship we’re showing. The riders and the relationship is the most important thing. We want them to feel like they’re involved in the natural beauty of the horse, not a circus horse,” Darren said. “This is all about what horses love to do naturally. This is their playground. The horses are free and they have a big stage to play with.”