Horses and the History of the Circus
The history of the modern circus is deeply rooted in horsemanship. The first modern circuses, which took place during the 18th century, were primarily demonstrations of tricks performed on a horse, first by former soldiers who learned such skills during military training, and later by talented men and women trained from a young age to accomplish acrobatics and other feats atop a horse. In order to teach horses to perform tricks for the circus amphitheater, horsemen relied upon instruction from mentors and in books such as Dr. Sutherland’s System of Educating the Horse, with Rules for Teaching the Horse Some Forty Different Tricks or Feats. . . This 1861 text by Dr. G. H. Sutherland claims to be the first ever published on “Educating the Horse” (view in book here).
Horse trainers in Great Britain were considered humane in their work, and as London trainer Charles Montague wrote in his 1881 book, Recollections of an Equestrian Manager (in Simon, 2014, pp. 29-10): “The horse must first be brought to feel that you are his master—his superior; not through fear of your power; but on the contrary, through his experience that though you have the power, it is always accompanied by kindness. . .never with cruelty.” In America, Dr. Sutherland represented those using humane animal training practices, and in his text he stated that he was “convinced, by observations as well as experience, that we can successfully tame, subdue, and control the most wild and vicious horse by kindness alone. . .” (view in book here), and he proposed a training system that vehemently avoided “the use of the whip, drugs, or fetters. . .” (view in book here).
Sutherland’s horse tricks are quite delightful, and include training the horse to remove the trainer’s “cap, coat and mittens” (view in book here). Other tricks include teaching the horse to stand up, lay down, knock on a door, say yes or no, fetch and retrieve objects, walk on hind legs, to unbuckle his own saddle and remove it, open and close doors, pump water, fire a pistol, tell his A, B, C’s, spell, read, and more amazing things! All of these tricks begin in the book here. When Philip Astley created the first modern circus in 1768 in London, he had his horse count, perform mind reading, and play dead. In addition, Astley, and later more performers he hired, would end up performing acrobatics on the horse.
The history of the circus goes back thousands of years, with early depictions of acrobats from Egypt from 1300 to 1200 BCE. The Museo Egizio in Turin has an Egyptian wall fragment from this period showing a female acrobat in a backbend, with long, wavy hair flowing to the ground, large, gold hoop earrings, and wearing only a short sarong. Mexican ceramic statuettes from 200 BCE to 500 BCE, and prior periods, show contortionists doing splits. The Mexican statuettes, like a Hellenic Greek statuette depicting an acrobat, have in common a sense of joy and play: the subjects are smiling and theatrical.
Of course most people might recognize the term, “circus,” or the idea of performances taking place in a circular venue when they think of ancient Rome and the gladiator contests and chariot races. Chariot races began the trend of highlighting the horse’s—and his master’s—prowess in a circular arena during a longer period of entertainment by other performers. These Roman gladiator and chariot contests included interludes with juggling, acrobatics, animal baiting, and sometimes people performing intricate religious rites.
Ancient China and Greece each had their own forms of traveling circuses, and medieval Europe had local fairs with performers, as well as hosting traveling performers who included fortune tellers, jesters, dancers, musicians, and tight-rope walkers. The medieval, and Renaissance, European Church denounced performers who walked over tight-ropes and hot coals, people who could drink boiling oil or swallow fire, strongmen, and others performing seemingly miraculous stunts, thinking the performers too arrogant, or unhappy that money which should go to the Church was being spent on frivolous entertainment; sometimes tight-ropes were strung between steeples and performers were banned from entertaining at religious festivals.
The modern version of the circus which we know today has its roots in 18th-century Great Britain. Philip Astley (1742-1814), the son of a veneer cutter and cabinetmaker, decided he wanted to be a horseman, since men on horseback were revered at the time as strong and brave, often prior solders. Astley joined the Dragoons cavalry regiment, became a distinguished soldier during the Seven Years War, and left the military in 1766 as sergeant-major. At six feet tall, Astley looked impressive atop a horse and easily started earning a living as a horseman with his white steed, performing trick riding and swordsmanship he had learned in the military. After a few years of traveling to fairs to perform with his horse, he opened a riding school in 1768 close to Westminster Bridge, London, where he trained aristocratic young men and women. After his morning trainings, he entertained to an audience in the school’s amphitheater. He stood and performed acrobatics on his horse, adding ever more balancing tricks, a second horse, and a female equestrienne, Patty, who became his wife; their son John joined the act, as well. He added clowns, magicians, tumblers, and rope dancers. Astley gained competitors, but his was the first “modern” circus, and though the focus was mainly on the horses, he made the other acts integral to the entire spectacle.
Circuses developed in Europe and America between the 18th and 19thcenturies, with more and more death-defying feats, skimpier outfits on female horse riders and acrobats, and larger-scale performances of plays or poems recreated as stories acted out by performers and horses (and sometimes, elephants). The circus, after Astley’s time, was considered by some critics to be less of an aristocratic affair and more of a degraded mixing of high and low classes in order to see licentious performances. However, people of all social ranks were dazzled by the spectacles and continued to attend the circus. People especially loved women who performed feats on horseback, viewing these women as dominant and yet feminine at the same time, able to control the mighty beast and look dainty while doing so.
The circus had come to represent a close-knit community that offered performers a chance to travel the world, and be praised for their physical feats and appearance. Many children and adults dreamt of “running off to join the circus,” a 19th-century idea that stayed in the public’s imagination through the late 20th-century. (Did you know that when she was a little girl in the 1940s, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis wore a crown when she rode her horse and said she would grow up to be “Queen of the Circus”?)
Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (1810-1891) was a man of many trades before he became a legendary circus entrepreneur. He had a successful traveling circus, and purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841 and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum. It housed sensational curiosities like the fake “Fiji Mermaid”, wax historical figures, relics from the American Revolution, taxidermy specimens, live performers, animals (including hippos, monkeys, snakes, a kangaroo, giraffes, and tigers), and an aquarium with whales. A horrific fire broke out in 1865, tragically killing most of the animals, and destroying most of the objects and exhibitions. Barnum re-opened the Museum at a different location but it burned down once again in 1868, again killing animals and destroying relics, although human performers were saved by firefighters.
After the second American Museum fire, Barnum focused on traveling with his circus, engaging in several partnerships—the most famous, perhaps, with the owner of the very successful Great London Circus, James Anthony Bailey. Bailey was an excellent circus director, and Barnum continued to be in the spotlight as he promoted the circus. By 1889, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was comprised of 1,200 people, and hundreds of horses and animals, and traveled on tour in Europe. When the Circus returned to America in 1903, Barnum & Bailey had serious competitors in the form of the Ringling Brothers. When Barnum died, he left the Circus to Bailey, whose widow, when Bailey died, sold it to the Ringling Brothers. Thus the creation of the “Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus,” which still operates today.
While the grand days of the circus died down by the 1950s due to new forms of entertainment, such as Disneyland, there are still active circuses to this day. The circus has always been fraught with the tension of death-defying feats, and the idea of whether it was a moral or immoral concept of entertainment. However, people continue to be dazzled by the magic of spectacle which the circus provides, and has provided, in its many iterations over the years.Read more at blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2015/09/horses-and-history-of-circus.html.
- The evolution of the horse: part4 - Modern horses - Equus
- The evolution of the horse: part 3 - The forest-suited form was Kalobatippus whose second and fourth front toes were long, well-suited travel [...]
- The evolution of the horse: part 2 - Eocene and Oligocene: early equids - Eohippus, Orohippus, Epihippus, Mesohippus and Miohippus
- The evolution of the horse, a mammal of the family Equidae, occurred over a geologic time scale of 50 million years, transforming the small [...]
- Equine coronavirus is NOT the same as the strain of coronavirus referred to as COVID-19, and cannot be transmitted to humans.
- Hippodrama, horse drama, or equestrian drama is a genre of theatrical show blending circus horsemanship display with popular [...]
- Since it's Valentine's Day we thought we'd share the love with five fun (and interesting) Valentine's Day related facts about your horse [...]
- For centuries, humans have shared a special bond with horses, so it makes sense that there is no shortage of books about them.
- Barns and stables, filled with highly flammable hay, bedding, and feed, are a big fire risk. Add the presence of panicked animals and you have [...]
- Compared to other horses, ponies often exhibit thicker manes, tails and overall coat, as well as proportionally shorter [...]
- The history of the modern circus is deeply rooted in horsemanship. The first modern circuses, which took place during the 18th century [...]
- Arabian horses are the topic of many myths and legends. One origin story tells how Muhammad chose his foundation mares by a test of their [...]
- If our horses could share their New Year's Resolutions, we bet they'd go something like this [...]
- The trick to winning the race, advises a wise Paddy Payne to daughter Michelle, is to go a steady pace until finding [...]
- A pantomime horse is a theatrical representation of a horse or other quadruped by two actors in a single costume who cooperate and [...]
- Orbaks are the space horses in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" directed by J.J. Abrams
- The Nokk is a character in Disney’s 2019 animated feature Frozen II. It is the horse-shaped elemental spirit of [...]
- New Year's Day is an American Thoroughbred racehorse. Racing only as a two-year-old he won two of his three races including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
- Thanksgiving is a time of reflection. While your horse can't speak, we'll bet that he's thankful for a whole lot this Thanksgiving.
- The wild horse (Equus ferus) is a species of the genus Equus, which includes as subspecies the modern domesticated horse [...]
- Virtual horse games sound like something for small children, but plenty of adults play them. Sometimes they are horse lovers [...]
- The Banker horse is a breed of feral horse (Equus ferus caballus) living on barrier islands in North Carolina's Outer Banks.
- Classical dressage evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield, and has since developed into the competitive dressage seen today.
- White horses are born white and stay white throughout their lives. White horses may have brown, blue, or hazel eyes.
- Young Albert enlists to serve in World War I after his beloved horse is sold to the cavalry. Albert's hopeful journey takes him out of England and [...]
- White horses have a special significance in the mythologies of cultures around the world. They are often associated with the sun chariot [...]
- In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. traveled to England, visiting Epsom in Surrey where The Derby had been running annually since 1780.
- Pegasus is a mythical winged divine horse, and one of the most recognized creatures in Greek mythology.
- The current Olympic equestrian disciplines are Dressage, Eventing, and Jumping. In each discipline, both individual and team medals are awarded.
- When you are looking to buy or sell property you are sure to have certain things in mind. This is a possibility especially if you have a specific need for it.
- If you are thinking of buying or selling horse property, register with a leading website that focuses on equine properties for sale.
- Unlike buying a home or a property, when it comes to buying an equestrian property to raise horses, the whole concept is something entirely different.
- You can sell equestrian real estate without much difficulty because there are unique websites that cater to buyers & sellers from around the world.
- There are several equestrian properties for sale but it is necessary to consider some basic points before you invest in a property.
- When you are planning your horse property for listing, do it through a popular and reliable website for equine real estate.
- Perhaps the most famous warhorse remains disputed; nonetheless, according to legend The TROJAN HORSE
- Horse racing in the United States dates back to 1665, which saw the establishment of the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York.
- The American Quarter Horse, the official State Horse of Texas, is an American breed of horse that excels at sprinting short distances.
- Horse racing is a sport that translates well to board games. These are our picks for the best horse-racing board games.
- Between adhering to building codes and choosing the best equipment, there are many details to bear in mind when planning your dream stall barn.
- A movie ranch is a ranch that is at least partially dedicated for the creation and production of motion pictures and television productions.
- Everyone adores horses, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are tons of movies starring these beautiful creatures.
- Horses have captured the imagination and emotion of mankind for centuries – perhaps, in a way that no other species of animal ever has.
- Horse farms are often considered one of the most “green” businesses in agriculture. We don’t spread undue amounts of chemical fertilizer.
- Do you dream of owning your own stable, or perhaps just owning a place where you can keep your horses in the backyard?
- Anne Kusian, Arabian horse breeder and riding instructor are giving you a flavor of what are the advantages of owning a horse ranch.