Horses work to tell the story of their own domestication in Cavalia

The horses nuzzle their trainers affectionately, they object when you stop scratching them, they roll around on the ground like giant dogs – it sure seems like the stars of Cavalia are having a great time.

But we never know, do we? We can only guess. It’s no stretch to imagine that these well-hung stallions might prefer running free with their mares on some grassy savannah instead of performing tricks under the big top. The pay is the same. But are horses working for our entertainment any different than when they help us herd cattle or pull covered wagons? Depends who you ask.

You won’t find many discouraging words about Cavalia – a sort of Cirque du Equestria earning rave reviews wherever it goes. The finest in equine-human entertainment money and training can buy opens Tuesday, Sept. 11 under the huge tents at the North End of the City Centre Airport.

Cavalia performer Katie Cox demonstrates ‘Roman Riding’

The recent media preview – where they brought in 48 handsome and high-spirited horses from a 10-day vacation in Leduc (having previously been on the road for two days from San Diego) – took great pains to show how well the animals are treated. As trainer-performer Katie Cox explained to the scrum, all the Cavalia horses are males, stallions or geldings, because if there was even a scent of a mare around, “no work would get done at all.” They travel next to horse “friends,” the stalls are air-conditioned and under constant video surveillance, and they get a break every four hours. Moreover, the horses are never forced to do any trick they wouldn’t do under relatively normal conditions – no high-flying equine acrobats in this show – or at all if they’re not feeling up to it on a certain night. Yes, the horses have understudies.

Standing beside her mount Orion, trainer Jennifer Lecuyer (top photo) – a dancer and acrobat in the show – says, “If we can see throughout the week that he has a little less energy, he’s more curious about other things than what I’m asking him to do, the next two days he doesn’t do it. We have a different horse doing that number to make sure that when they’re on, they’re fresh and excited to do it. We try to pay as much attention to that as possible. It’s more fun for them and easier for us.”

How exactly does she know Orion enjoys the show?

Lecuyer hugs her horse and replies, “I’ve been working with this guy for two years now. I know him pretty well. I know when he’s excited to do the number, he’ll give little butt kicks because he’s excited to run … horses walk for so many hours a day in the wild. And they’re working animals. We domesticated them. They don’t like to be not moving and in their stall. And when you take them out, it’s pretty easy to see how excited they are, they run fast, they’re excited to show off.”

It’s funny that Cavalia’s creator Normand Latourelle was one of the men behind the success of Cirque du Soleil – the ultimate animal-free circus that has since taken over the world, and here we have a Cirqueish show with animals. The theme of Cavalia deals with the historical relationship between humans and horses, and so real horses are put to work to tell the story of their own domestication.

Let’s not get all PETA here. Cavalia is not the old-style Shrine Circus, where wild animals are “tamed” and made to do tricks for the public’s amusement, then caged and shipped to the next stop on the tour to do it all over again. You’ll find few who’d disagree it’s a wretched life for wild animal. The vast majority of horses, though, live entirely in the human world, couldn’t and wouldn’t be here without us. So it’s nice to imagine that the Cavalia steeds love what they do as much their human co-stars. It makes for a better show, after all.

“It’s hard to know,” Lecuyer says, scratching Orion’s head, “but at the same time they’re so expressive, so you can guess.”

Dr. Milton Ness, veterinarian at the Valley Zoo, has worked with horses directly for many years. He says that aside from being able to form strong bonds with loving owners, these animals display a whole spectrum of behaviours that humans have found useful – and entertaining – over the centuries. “They love to run,” he says. “They’ll race each other in the wild. But get humans involved, put them on a racetrack and train them, it will ruin it for the horse.”

How well they do as entertainers depends on the animal, Ness adds.

“They’re as individual as humans,” he says. As for whether horses actually derive pleasure from it, he’s not so sure. “I think that there are horses that at the very least are not bothered by the circumstances. Can I say they love it? I can’t say that.”

Cavalia runs through Oct. 14.