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Ringling Brothers Circus Horses
 By Saferaphus   •   14th Apr 2017   •   574 views   •   0 comments


After over one hundred years in existence, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be giving its last performance this May. Circuses of this type originated about two hundred and fifty years ago. Wild animal acts were often the spotlight. But the horse had a huge influence on the circus. The word circus comes from the Latin word for circle. The creation of the first modern circus is attributed to a British cavalry officer named Philip Astley. And while he certainly wasn’t the first to perform tricks on horseback, his performance in a forty-two-foot circle, where the audience could easily see the whole performance was something new. And the shape and size of a circus ring were influenced by the space necessary for an acrobatic rider to stand on the back of a galloping horse.

This was also a convenient way to display other acts such as jugglers, clowns, fire eaters, wild animal acts, and magicians. Most of these types of acts traveled and performed on their own, or gathered at various fairs and festivals. Circus troupes organized and performed in existing buildings, or venues were built for the display of equestrian acrobats, wild animal acts, and other entertainments. In the late 1700s, a circus was begun in Philadelphia, and this too was held in a building and it wasn’t until the early 1800s that a promoter first held a circus inside of a huge tent. The idea caught on, both in Europe, Australia, and North America. These early circuses, held under a canvas ‘big top’ tent moved from place to place with their troupe, animals, and gear packed into horse-drawn wagons.

The excitement of a circus coming to town began with the arrival of these wagons. The circus parade of colorfully painted and elaborately carved wagons helped build excitement and provided a glimpse of the troupe and animals that would perform. Many of these wagons have been lost, but those still in existence are masterpieces, albeit often gaudy ones, of craftsmanship. Before railroads crisscrossed North America, teams of horses pulled these elaborate wagons and their cargo from town to town.



While the circus was performing, the draft horses that pulled the wagons would get a rest. Inside the circus rings, however, horses performed with acrobatic riders or exhibited tricks such as standing on barrels, mind read, count, fire guns, walk on their hind legs and retrieve items when asked. Women perched precariously on horseback as the horse galloped around the rings were popular acts as well. There is, of course, the image of the circus as somewhat seedy, and animal handlers were accused of cruel training practices. Ginger was put under horses’ tails so they would hold them prettily. Check reins held a horse’s head firmly in place. Gums were poked with large needles or nails to make the horse ‘smile’. Trip ropes, whips, and other gear was used to make horses appear to dance.

But, even in the 1800s, there were trick trainers that believed in humane training. Trainers like Rarey and his contemporary Dr. Sutherland promoted kind training practices and claimed to make the most difficult horse well mannered and happy to perform.

The traditional circus may be going by the wayside, but the circus horse still exists. Troupes like Cavalia still tour and perform in coliseums and under their own canvas tents. While they still may raise the ire of animal rights activists, the training methods and behaviors they performed are done with respect for the animal rather than coercion.
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