The Circus Festival

We pulled into the Sarasota Fairgrounds just in time to participate at the International Circus Festival. This was a contest venue and all kinds of acts were here to perform in front of judges for awards and to impress the talent scouts in attendance. Since my livestock didn’t have a complete act yet, this was an opportunity to crowd break, or expose them to the chaos of large masses of people. My animals had never been away from the farm.

I pulled onto the grassy fairgrounds amidst several big tops in the air. Flags flew, elephants swayed and the rhythmic roar of lions could be heard in the distance. The purpose of being here was to get the livestock exposed to the strange sights, sounds and smells of the circus, and for me to get the horse and mule to do everything they learned back at the barn.

There is a joke among animal trainers, “it’s easy to get them to do it at the barn,” (and quite another feat to get them to do it in front of an audience)

I parked my horse trailer, with all the comforts of home in the small living quarters, amongst the myriad rigs that brought apparatus and accouterments for various flying acts, tumbling troupes, jugglers, thrill acts, bareback riders, clowns, musicians, and of course every kind of trained animal act under the sun. I set up my canvas awning/stall arrangement on the side of the trailer for the horse and mule. Hurricane made a comfortable bed for himself with several bales of hay.

The livestock had never seen such a collection of strange sights and smells like this before and were quite reluctant. It took time for them to settle but being tired after that long trip soon promoted sleep.

Although competition among the performers took place during the many shows that were underway throughout the week, I was here to practice. A spare circus ring had been set up at the front of the festivities area for this purpose. The first morning here, I saddled up my horse and attempted to ride him around the grounds and up to the practice area.

Due to the long, tedious training processes that had taken place back in Michigan, I discovered willingness as one of the strongest attributes of my equine partner. I had never known him to refuse or to be extremely fearful. In this environment, he experienced terror. Regardless, he did have to go to work and had to learn this lesson now.

Once mounted in the saddle, I coaxed him forward. Due to the level of fright in my horse, he refused. I did not dare allow him to learn he could refuse. To fortify my request for him to move forward, I used aggression. I would not be satisfied with any response except what I asked. He moved forward.

On the way to the practice area, my horse attempted childish behavior. I insisted he go forward. He didn’t want to. Suddenly, he reared up. His awkward rear was so aggressive that he went up, up and up and then over backwards. He busted one of the reins in the process.

                Thank goodness, my first horse was a lay-down and sit-up horse with the ability to rear. I developed a reflex as the result. As Souveran went up, I threw my leg out and stepped off the horse.

While he laid there with me standing over him, I commanded him to get up. He was shaken. Once up, I sternly told him to stand there. While he stood there, I rapidly tied knots in the busted leather and re-mounted. I commanded him to move forward while he was still in a daze. As he responded with a few steps forward, I relaxed and comforted him with encouragement and affection on his neck. While still stunned he became somewhat compliant. We progressed to the practice area. I guess he learned something that day. He never tried that dangerous stunt again.

As we approached the ring in that isolated, grassy area adjacent to the midway, Souveran noticed everything. Concession trailers, ticket boxes, inflatable playgrounds, elephant rides and the old-time automatic music machines shared the area with big tops, thrill show rigging and a multitude of animals on display.

Reluctantly, he approached the first set of ring curb he had ever seen in his life and passed through the entrance gap of the circle. I recalled our earliest training criteria and made it simple for him to comply by just asking him to walk. As soon as we quietly made a few revolutions of the ring, a few of the curious attendees of the festival saw a man on a horse and gathered around to watch.

Souveran had only seen a large gathering of people one time in his life. During a training workshop at Vi Hopkin’s place, a guest instructor had a gathering of students in the class. Prior to that day, Souveran walked alone down the corridor between the stalls at a leisurely pace and went through the doorway into an empty riding arena. But on that particular day, a semi-circle of people was eager to see the guest instructor work with a horse. Vi asked me to go get mine.

                Souveran casually walked down the aisle as usual but upon turning the corner he saw a frightening sight – a multitude of people. He was startled. He snorted his surprise. This episode happened again. The memory of that experience came back.  I attempted to get him to move forward in the middle of another scary scene.

Soon the circus ring was surrounded by people standing three deep. They commented, waved, talked and gestured. As I rode my frightened, snorting horse in this scary situation, a gentleman cowboy, who I did not know, came to our rescue.

“As you can clearly see,” a soothing voice began, “this is a young horse who is in the early stages of the training process of becoming a performing horse with the circus.”

The man in the cowboy hat continued his talk to the crowd in a confident, reassuring and gentle manner.

“Part of the training procedure,” he continued, “includes getting the animal used to the sights and sounds that are unfamiliar to a horse who just came from living on the farm.”

I tried to disguise my frustration with the horse’s seeming unwillingness to cooperate. Souveran was scared to death in front of this audience. As I tried to coax him to walk forward a little, my new friend continued.

“Watch as the trainer gently reminds the horse of his earlier training and encourages him forward. When he feels the time is right, he will ask for another desired response.”

By this time, all I could manage was to get Souveran to walk around the ring and reverse direction through the center. My self-appointed announcer kept up his soothing explanation. When Souveran calmed down a little, I felt this might be the time to try to get him to bow, something he had taken to nicely at Chuck Grant’s. I coaxed him into the center of the ring and, being in no hurry, gently asked him to relax and then bow.

When he finally began to allow his posture to relax and began to lift his foreleg to give me what I asked, the crowd noticed this new behavior and abruptly began to applaud, startling him back into an upright position. He snorted displeasure. Thanks to the non-stop patter that came from my volunteer announcer, the crowd appreciated the efforts being made. This was Souveran’s first experience with applause.        

Once the practice session was over and the horse was back under the awning, I had a chance to meet the man who came to our rescue. Hub Hubbell was a rodeo announcer who saw an opportunity to lend his talents to help make the best of an awkward situation.

Part of the reason Hurricane rode with me here from Michigan was so he could go see his shrimp boat. Now here at the fairgrounds, he didn’t seem to be making any plans to do anything. We went to the local AA club for meetings and as the reality of his situation settled in, I began to ask him about the quality of his sobriety. This was a new concept for him. He thought that being sober was enough.

 I invited him to consider the qualities of peace, joy and freedom from our self-inflicted suffering has different levels achieved through our honesty, willingness and working the steps with the help of another. I attempted to describe my experience. His condition was complex, amplified by untreated alcoholism and remaining grief for his dead wife. After a few days, he contacted an old friend nearby who came and got him. I wished him well. We vowed to get back together during the upcoming summer, back in Jackson.

The festival culminated a few days later with a parade on Sunday morning. The gathering marching bands, floats, wagons, vehicles and animals added to the frenzy of this already hectic situation. Souveran was dripping with an anxious sweat and pranced with a rebellious attitude while we waited in the line-up.

He was nervous, and as the result, could not stand still. When I asked him to move towards the mix of parade features that slowly left in single file, he refused and went backwards. When the parade floats we were to follow began to move into position, rather than to hold up the already slow pace of a parade, I turned the horse around 180 degrees and made him walk backwards to stay in the flow.

I chose a group of cowboys and cowgirls on horses to accompany through the parade route. I thought the herd instinct would provide him with some comfort. He was too flustered to notice the other horses. I had my hands full that day.

Once en-route, the parade features spread out in a single file line between the sparse crowds on either side of the blocked off streets that led downtown. The start of the parade allowed things to quiet down for my horse. The cowboys in the group gave me plenty of room. They let me take the lead with my hot, excited horse.

My first circus boss was a fan of old-time cowboy movies. Melvin Timberlake was on horseback too. Mel confided to me after the parade that he did not think I was going to make it all the way through the parade route on my horse. There were times when Souveran walked forward for a while but each time he refused to continue forward, I simply wheeled him around on the spot with my legs and had him walk backwards up the parade route. My horse probably walked backwards seventy percent of the parade.

The environment changed as the procession entered downtown. Tall buildings on either side of the parade route reflected noise. The crowd was packed onto both sides of the street up to the curb. My horse saw the most terrifying element of the route thus far – hawkers with shopping carts laden with tall bouquets of bags of cotton candy, blow up toys, balloons and confections. They walked between us in the parade pushing those monstrosities up to the people at the curb and, often times, this stuff brushed against the parade participants.

I had the thought, ‘this is surely the point of no return.’

There was no plan B if my horse went ballistic. I had no escape route – and no option except continue. Souveran walked backwards through most of that area, too. We did make it.

Of the myriad things to be fearful of, we somehow made it through to the very end. The parade route was four miles long. When complete, we walked that distance back to the fairgrounds. All the participants had to walk back.

During the return trip, Souveran was tired. Among the participants headed for the fairgrounds was an elephant that belonged to a friend of mine. I rode my horse close to this elephant. Souveran, at that point, was so worn out that he quietly walked alongside the large gray animal on a similar trek back to our digs where he could get some rest.

Once the stock was bedded down and fed for the night, I had a chance to go to the Show Folks Club of Sarasota to fraternize and celebrate our accomplishments with many of my circus performer peers. Especially memorable that evening was an opportunity to jitterbug on the dance floor with my favorite circus friend Joanne Wilson.

With the festivities over, I moved my rig and livestock over to the farm of John Herriott, who had a training facility and a background of schooling everything from horses, ponies, elephants and camels. His specialty was Liberty horses. During the next few weeks, I resumed the training of my horse and mule at his farm while he trained a liberty act of eight horses.

Soon, in addition to the bow and the camel stretch, Souveran mounted a pedestal and did a 360 degree turn on the forehand, the three-step and march, plus the double-backwards three-step.

Many times, while accumulating knowledge of the training processes of performing animals, I found trainers zealously guard their secret techniques. John was helpful with my aspiration to learn. With his help, I received additional pieces of the puzzle, even though he was first to claim being a liberty horse man, not high school (as it is called in show business) or an Haute E’cole horseman.

Mid-winter he had to go north to work some Shrine dates. I moved my stuff over to the farm of Russ and Doris who had a barn with stalls and a circus ring.

While I perfected my riding skills, training Betty the mule also continued. She was a novelty at most of the barns we frequented. A bright student, her growing repertoire became quite admirable. She now had a handle on liberty work, ran around the ring, reversed direction, halted at the back, mounted the ring-curb with her front feet, walk the curb, bow, laydown, sit-up, and what became her greatest attribute of all, the waltz.

Betty the mule, whom I’d had for two years, had quite a repertoire. I would use this routine on the upcoming circus tour. Gail thought securing a contract to perform prior to the acts being ready qualified as some kind of crazy plan. She didn’t know that this sort of insanity was standard procedure for show business. With a looming contract for an upcoming tour, I had a goal with a deadline.

                Training both animals progressed. In an effort to develop a themed act, I started to experiment with mouth tricks. One popular trick I had seen others use utilized a blanket. I took a towel and painted ‘mule for sale’ on it to use.  Once laid across her back, Betty would crane her neck to reach it and pulled it off for a funny effect.

Soon, the choreography and deftness in the ring with my two animals became apparent. There were other responsibilities to take care of. One was earning money. There was plenty of sign work to do in the area. One opportunity lead to a project that opened up a whole new world to me.

While painting for the local showmen, I met a lady with a frozen custard and fruit cup concession who wanted a spectacular front. That project rocketed my career into a significant chapter of my life, but only after a mishap.

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