A former horse-lover, I hesitated to see Cavalia, the horse and acrobat spectacular running through January in San Francisco. The last time I was close to a horse, I was carted away, strapped to a body board.
Before my horse accident, I fancied myself a horse whisperer. I took riding lessons and workshops in horse communication. Then I got thrown off. Maybe I was just too tall, had too high a center of gravity, I consoled myself. In reality, I just sucked as a rider.
Horses became unpredictable demons with wild eyes that could toss a rider and then step on them. My neck injury was so bad that we worried about me being a quadripelegic until my scans came back and I was unstrapped from the body board. I ended up with a bad concussion and chronic neck pain.
I got tickets to Cavalia hoping the magic and beauty of the show would be the antidote to my recent horse-hating ways. I also thought it would be a great Christmas outing to do with my daughter. We were not let down.
While we climbed up to our seats, toy horses illuminated by spotlights on the sandy clay stage greeted the audience. The show opened like any good act—holding back the good stuff until you really, really wanted it, taking us through an audience-participation Q&A about Cavalia horse facts. The next teaser was a film of a horse giving birth to a foal who hesitatingly stands and takes its first steps. We really wanted to see horses at that point.
The curtain finally came up to reveal an act with a live sheet of rain in the middle of the stage. Later, the sheet of rain would be used as a projection screen for images of white horses.
I can’t recall the exact order of the acts, but some struck me more than others.
In the Grande Liberté act, eight immaculately white and speckled horses were released onto the stage, one by one, riderless, with no trainer in sight. The act allowed the horses time to do what horses do—establish dominance by nipping, kicking, and rising up on hind legs. The in-fighting continued until their ethereally-dressed trainer stepped out, instantly imbuing the beasts with the mild temperament of caged bunnies. They gently approached her. Her commands and body language had the horses lining up, walking in an orderly single-file circle, and even cantering in opposite directions in two concentric circles. In the grand finale, she asked each horse to place its head on the back of the adjacent horse, and they all complied. Clearly, the horse whisperer is alive and well. It just ain’t me.
The Voltige en Ligne act stunned me (and made my neck hurt) with antics and acrobatics on galloping horses. Halfway across the stage, riders popped up onto the saddles of what appeared to be riderless horses, others stood atop elongated saddles, and still others hung off the backs of horses attached only by ankle straps.
The horse whisperer acrobats seemed to have a hold on us, too: the last rider to gallop across the stage waved a large “SF Giants World Champions” flag, sending the crowd into an uproar of applause and catcalls.
I was lulled into again believing that horses are gentle creatures who do nothing more than obey human commands, until my daughter and I got a tour of the stables, and realized that though these animals are twinkly and light-in-the-hooves on stage, they are still huge beasts. The Cavalia trainers bring out their elegance as few others can, reminding even the horse-shy of this poetic horse-human potential.