Odysseo's horseplay is a two-way street
We may be about to usher in the Year of the Horse for Chinese New Year on January 31, but every year is exactly that for Montreal-based entertainment company Cavalia.
On a tour of the stables at Cavalia’s White Big Top at the Olympic Village, artistic and equestrian operations director Marc-Olivier Leprohon talks to the Georgia Straight about the extensive, year-round effort that goes into caring for the four-legged stars of Cavalia’s second human-and-equine production, Odysseo.
Six Arabians recently boosted the ranks to a whopping total of 73 horses and 11 breeds (with 20 stallions in the mix). The horses, which each perform for 12 minutes per show, are involved in a range of entertaining feats, from synchronized galloping and lateral stepping to jumps and trick riding. A stable team looks after the animals from 6 a.m. to midnight every day. There are 20 riders, 20 grooms (on both morning and night teams), a farrier (hoof-care specialist), three veterinary technicians, and an osteopath who visits every two or three months (not to mention staff that live on-site).
In addition to the impressive numbers, detailed attention is given to numerous facets of training and care.
Leprohon says that after buying a horse, Cavalia’s trainers evaluate how well the horse is suited to performing.
“We always see how the horse reacts to everything, so how it reacts to that rider, how it reacts on-stage, how it reacts in the warm-up,” he says. He explains that after being purchased, a horse could be retired from the show anywhere from within a few months to over a decade after starting, depending on much the horse enjoys being on-stage.
The training is also tailored to each horse, according to numerous variables.
“It depends how the horse is going to react, where we are at in the process of training, [and] where we are at in the city as well, because we are doing seven shows a week,” Leprohon says. “We have to be careful, so at the end of a run the training is different than at the beginning, when they’re full of power and energy and just coming off from 10 days out in the field, running around and eating grass and being fat. We adjust every training for every horse every day. So it’s a huge task.”
As riders train with their horses, each of which has its own personality, Leprohon says they learn to interpret individual equine body language and behaviour.
“They know their horses. They know how they’re going to react to everything.” He explains that while one horse might extend its neck to stretch its back, another might lower its nose, in response to soreness.
“They will each move in a different way, so you have to understand, like, ‘Okay, he’s moving like that. His leg doesn’t touch properly because of this. That means his lower back…[or] whatever part of the body is having trouble.’ ”
The empathic connection between horse and rider, Leprohon explains, is a two-way street: a horse mirrors the emotional state of its rider.
“One thing that’s really important is when you train with a horse, a horse understands feelings and stuff. If you have an argument with someone before you get on your horse, you need to clear out your head before you get there because he will feel your bad mood and bad energy and he will stress out…”
But the depth of the bond between rider and steed is often revealed when the two must part ways.
“It’s really hard for riders when I tell them, for example, if we retire the horse,” he says. “I have to prepare them in advance. Like, ‘Guys, look, that horse might go away at one point. He’s been with us for seven years, blah blah.’ So it’s really difficult for them sometimes because it’s their buddy. They’re working every day with them.”
Cavalia’s Odysseo has been held over until February 2 at the White Big Top in South False Creek near the Cambie Bridge.