The History Of Circus Horses
The history of the modern circus is closely tied to the history of horses and trick riding, dating as far back as performances in the mid-1700s. In fact, one of the most iconic elements of the modern circus, the circus ring, is a direct descendant of this history. It was developed specifically for circus trick riding and “revolutionized the way equestrian acts were presented,” by creating a circular course, as opposed to a linear one. Early on, ringmasters discovered that a 42-foot ring diameter “created the optimal conditions to sustain the centrifugal and centripetal forces necessary to enable horses and their riders to perform increasingly daring tricks.” The 42-foot ring is still in use today, evidence of the depth of how “the actual physical presence and capacity of the horses, and the performance relationship between horses and riders, impacted directly on the development of the circus performance space.”
This research paper looks at the intertwined history of horses and horse-riding in the modern circus and how the popularity of circuses has declined as “the central position of horses in society was eroded with the introduction of new technologies.” The paper also outlines how concern for animals led to a trend in the 1970s and 1980s for circuses to move away from the use of animals and focus on human performers, such as Cirque Du Soleil. As a counterpoint to this, the paper also explores three “contemporary horse circuses” based in Quebec, Canada, all of which were founded after 1999. The paper claims that as modern attitudes toward horses have shifted, they now straddle categories of “wild animal, companion animal and livestock.” There is potential for these new types of horse performances to “begin to explore the changing complexities of the current relationship between humans and horses” and to “develop innovative performance that draws on some of the emerging thinking in animal studies.”
Many animal advocates would undoubtedly (and understandably) balk at the idea of a more “politically correct” circus, the paper offers an interesting take on what that may look like and how it could potentially include horses without abusing them.