Cavalia Soars: Equestrian Theatrical Performance Mingles Traditional and Innovative Forms Onstage

By Kimberly Poppiti

Yemplado and Fasto
Templado and Fasto, two of Cavalia's Lusitano stallions, cavort with Pignon before a virtual background.

Photo by Frédéric Chéhu

Attending Cavalia at a sold-out matinee performance in Washington, DC was an inspirational experience. Having studied equestrian theatre for years and even writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic, I expected to enjoy the show. My interest in natural and non-invasive forms of horsemanship, essential components of Cavalia, piqued my curiosity even further. For these reasons, my expectations were high as I drove the 400 miles in six hours to see the show, with my husband and infant daughter in tow. From the moment the first horses ambled out onto the stage, without any human handlers, and completely free of tack or other restraints, I knew I would love Cavalia. Two and a half hours later, as I left the theatre tent, I was filled with awe at what horses and humans could accomplish together.


For those unfamiliar with it, Cavalia is a bona fide equestrian theatrical performance. One hundred and fifty years ago, this type of entertainment was immensely popular with theatrical audiences throughout Europe and North America, but today, such entertainments are few and far between. Cavalia’s creator, President and Artistic Director, Norman Latourelle (who also founded Cirque du Soleil), was inspired to develop an equestrian show after noting the great appeal of the onstage horse he featured (in a minor “walk on” role) in his Canadian spectacular Les Legendes Fantastiques. He knew horses onstage would make for a powerful and popular performance, however he harbored reservations, “I don’t enjoy seeing animals in chains,” he said, “The sight of circus animals makes me sad.” This seeming contradiction is at the heart of Cavalia’s appeal.

Cavalia includes many elements of a traditional equestrian show and circus, including: voltige (or vaulting), trick riding, haute ecole (high school riding), advanced dressage, carrousel, liberty horses, and roman riding. It also includes breathtakingly original displays of theatrical equestrianism featuring horses, riders, acrobats, dancers and bungee cords. The performances of Cavalia are diverse with dance-like movement by humans and horses which uplift the spirit and display artistic mastery of both the creators and the performers.


The Story
Cavalia includes reflective moments such as this one, in which Pignon communes with three of his equine charges onstage.

Photo by Frédéric Chéhu

The show’s two acts run about an hour each. The story line is loosely that of the ever-evolving relationship between human and equine. The on-stage relationship begins with a woman (Nadia Richer) and a horse (Lyrico). This is representative of the larger relationship between human and horse. According to mythology, a pre-historic man brought a horse home for dinner and, while butchering it, his wife found a live foal in the mare’s womb; the wife saved the foal, and the relationship between the horse and humans was born. Since this was the genesis of the connection between species, this is the beginning of the story of human/ equine connection in Cavalia.


The way the horses appear onstage and perform unrestrained conjures powerful archetypal associations that make us wonder, on a philosophical level, how deep the connection is between human and equine. On a practical level, the most intriguing question is, how has the trainer gotten the horse to give this performance?


The training method developed by Cavalia’s Equestrian Co-Directors (and husband and wife team) Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado, is “ethological dressage”. It builds upon “an intimate communication with the horse based on mutual love and understanding and, above all, freedom.” (Cavalia: A Dream of Freedom, 16-18) Pignon makes an essential clarification, “People think that freedom means abolishing all barriers. But it’s possible to be free within a certain framework. A meadow, for example, is a limited space. But within its limits, the horse can frolic and leap about as he pleases, especially because it offers him security.” (Cavalia, 133)

Pignon brings years of practical experience as a horseman and artist to Cavalia. He has a formal education in Fine Arts and has worked professionally as both an equestrian trainer and stuntman. He has worked with other equestrian shows, notably “Arabian Knights” in Florida, and Latourelle sought him out because of his reputation for excellent and humane training methods. He does not force the horses to do anything, and feels the ability to communicate with them in their own language. His methodology is based upon mutual respect and understanding of the horse.

Cavalia’s Director and Visual Designer, Erick Villeneuve explains, “The horse is pure and raw. On stage, he is authentic, true to himself, his impulses, moods, and passion. He can’t be forced to do what he doesn’t want to do. You have to respect him and let him be! This is precisely the spirit behind the show.” (Cavalia, 47) For these reasons, it is company policy that no horse will be forced to perform any act during Cavalia. To this end, equine understudies are trained and the show retains an element of improvisation in performance.


Pignon's smile expresses beautifully the spirit of his onstage liberty work.

Photo by Frédéric Chéhu

The idea of working freely does not extend only to horses. It is a guiding principle of the entire production and makes possible the realization of the innovative artistic visions of the other creative forces involved. Alain Gauthier, co-artistic director and choreographer, presents a practical example, “Frederic Pignon is a really open person. He can break boundaries and allow things to be done with horses.” This “openness” allowed Gauthier to stretch the boundaries of both human and equine performance with his choreography of Cavalia. The breaking down of accepted boundaries and stretching of the notion of what is possible onstage (for both human and horse) is one of the most exciting elements of Cavalia. It facilitates the show’s magic and leaves room for the artists involved to play. Pignon was open to ideas and willing to try whatever Gauthier conjured for him. Gauthier, whose innovative choreography includes air-riding and other distinctive acts that are created by mingling horses, riders, dancers and acrobats on straps, trampolines and bungee cords, recalls that when he suggested to Pignon the idea of having human acrobats literally fly at the horses from the ceiling, “He was open. He was like, ‘Sure, it might take 500 times, but we can try it.” This openness to new ideas and willingness to “try” the unexpected, and even the unheard of, facilitates the magic of Cavalia. (Quotes from personal interview with Gauthier)


Cavalia features nearly fifty horses. Many of these are breathtakingly beautiful Lusitanos that come from the Delgado family’s breeding farm in the south of France. The other breeds featured are: Appaloosa, Belgian, Percheron, Quarter Horse, Paint, Spanish horses, Canadian Horses (a registered breed), and a Warmblood. Clearly, each horse (like each human performer) has his specialty. The horses range in age from 2 – 20 years, and both stallions and geldings, but no mares, are included. The senior equine is Templado, a white Lusitano stallion, who has been with Pignon for 13 years and who performs at liberty in the show’s final scenes.

The horses live in roomy and well-bedded stalls within the spacious and meticulously-maintained stable area where they are cared for by a full-time crew of twenty. Not all of the horses perform at each show, and some of them have yet to perform at all. Some horses, like Templado, have been with the show since its inception, and others are new recruits in the process of acclimating to the routine before being introduced as performers. All appear healthy and are in good weight with gleaming coats, manes and tails. The stable is organized so that the horses who work together live nearest to each other, and all are turned out daily. The stage area is covered in 2,500 tons of mixed sand footing for equine safety and comfort. An indoor schooling ring abuts both the stabling area and the stage; a round pen and turn out paddock are just outside.

The Spanish stallion Aetes graces Pignon with a kiss.

Photo by Frédéric Chéhu

Proper care of the horses is clearly a priority for the Cavalia troupe. I visited the stable area, something audience members are permitted to do when they purchase a special ticket plan (strongly suggested), and found that the horses exude calm and contentment, munching hay and relaxing in their stalls while visitors stroll freely through the stable area at their own pace. It is impressed upon all visitors that the horses are not to be fed or touched by anyone other than their trainer or groom. This policy serves not only as good protection for the horses against both annoyance and danger, but also as an important component of the horses’ training, maintaining and reinforcing the strong bond with the trainers necessary in performance.


Cavalia is an entertaining show that offers the rare opportunity to see live equestrian theatrical performance. Every scene is outstanding in its own unique way, but from the perspective of natural horsemanship, there is nothing more powerful than the scenes in which the horses are left “free” to perform at true liberty. It is during those scenes, most notably the opening and final scenes, that the truly miraculous nature of this show and its unfettered equine performance becomes clear. In these scenes, largely the result of Pignon’s expertise and dedication, Cavalia truly soars. It is a show not to be missed!


About the author:
Kimberly Poppiti is an expert on equestrian theatrical performance. In 2003 she published "Pure Air and Fire: Horses and Dramatic Representations of the Horse on the American Theatrical Stage" and received her Ph.D. from New York University. She continues to study and write about equestrian theatrical performance and has published numerous articles on this and related topics.

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