John Herriott

As I headed south toward John’s ranch, I reviewed the plan for the year ahead; maintain rigorous practice with both animal acts prior to the circus festival, compete for the first time in front of the leaders of this industry, and when complete, spend the entire winter season of January, February and March at River Ranch, the luxury RV Resort. After the winter season, I resume practice with the animals to prepare for a five-week circus tour in Canada in the spring. When the tour was complete, return to Michigan where the horse and mule spend the summer on a farm while I paint for the Elliott Amusement company. I would also attend the Blue Bird rallies I had been invited to.

I drove day and night into progressively warmer weather. My thoughts reviewed the immense privilege of working with an admirable series of animal trainers; Bob Grubb, Evy Karoly, Vi Hopkins and Chuck Grant. Now, I get to work with one of the circus greats, John Herriott.

John was born into a traveling circus family, the son of Milt Herriott, an all-around animal trainer. Milt taught his son how to train and handle elephants, horses, camels, llamas, zebras, mules, ponies and other exotic critters. John’s specialty became multiple-horse liberty acts. The Herriott’s performed on both railroad and overland touring shows such as Cole Bros. Circus, Barnes and Caruthers Olympia Circus, the Circus World Museum, Hoxie Brothers Circus, Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus and a few more. The Herriott’s became renowned in circusdom.  John became effective in the circus ring presenting liberty horse acts and elephants along with other exotic lead stock. His marriage to a tall blonde from Sharon, Pennsylvania produced four daughters.

Years ago, as a teenage drummer on my first big top show, I sat in the cookhouse tent and listened to the fantastic tales that abounded. I heard one story about a family on the Hoxie Bros. Circus. They produced a beautiful display for the show that included every member of the family on a horse. All six members of the Herriott family presented talented circus horses and their display filled all three rings. They wore exquisite wardrobe and performed in unison. The concept of a family that worked in harmony with each other was foreign to me because I came from a dysfunctional family. Although I never worked on the same show with the Herriott family, years later I became acquainted with all of them at an assortment of wintertime functions in Sarasota, where many circus folks live during the off season.

The long, slow trip south allowed plenty of time to review this fascinating livelihood I had found. I came from a contemporary urban culture. As an enthusiastic teenager, I found a completely different society on the circus. Rich with tradition, I was eager to learn and assimilate all I could. My curiosity, dedication and regard opened doors into this interesting way to live one’s life. Certain unwritten rules of the circus actually interfered with being completely accepted into their society. I would always be regarded as an outsider. Regardless, I became attracted to the specialties of the highest regarded of the performers; the riders of the high school horses.

Weary of the long drive and eager to get there, late at night, the last fifty miles took me through the foggy, ghost-like, dimly lit, palm tree-lined interstate highway that threaded past Tampa. The muggy weather was in contrast to the blustery winter weather experienced at the start of this trip. A glowing luminescence on the horizon hinted at the coming dawn as I moved closer to my destination. In the early morning light, my rig found its way down familiar two-lane roads.

Upon arrival at the Herriott home the livestock was unloaded after I pulled down their long driveway. The horse and mule were happy to get out of the trailer. They had stood inside for three days. They couldn’t contain their enthusiasm as I led them through a gate to enjoy freedom and the green grass of the pasture. They kicked up their heels and frolicked at first but soon found the distraction of nourishing green grass.

I arrived at John’s home the first of December. I had plenty of time to receive coaching and rehearse the acts prior to the circus festival.

One morning, the year before, Mary Ruth asked me to go on a trip with her to ride a horse. She was considering a big saddlebred as a gift for her husband. When we got to the farm and found him banging his foot against the stall door, I had some concerns about the horse. Although I rode the horse and did just fine, Mary Ruth didn’t ask me what I thought. She made the decision to get that horse. A year had passed.

 By now, John had trained his big horse to do an admirable march and passage. Our daily routine became working and training our horses together. We both prepared for the International Circus Festival competition which would commence shortly after the holidays.

The result of our intense training would be that these animals would work well.

Standard procedure for living with circus animals is: the animals come first. First on the agenda, while they were out on pasture, was to rig up two tie-stalls underneath the lean-to on the outside of John’s barn. John took me to the building supply salvage yard. I bought three sheets of used plywood – gray from the weather – and three fence posts. At one end of the lean-to, in an assigned area, I planted the posts in the ground and secured the plywood between the barn wall and the posts. I now had two tie-stalls. Rings were also installed to hang water, feed buckets and hay bags. I parked the trailer in the lineup of other equipment, hooked up my water and lights, settled into my living quarters and got some rest. Later in the day, the livestock were introduced to their new stalls, fed, and bedded down.

The activities began on the Herriott ranch early every morning. John had an eight-horse liberty act in training, a big Clydesdale and a little pony that did a big and little act, Henry, the miniature donkey and the big saddlebred he named American Jubilee.

Soon, my daily routine harmonized with all the activity at the ranch. This let me maximize on the opportunity to learn as I watched all the training taking place. When my turn came to use the ring, I rehearsed my acts in the round pen, the same size as a circus ring.  I choreographed my horses’ movements into a sequence that would become the routine I use at the circus festival. I also ran Betty the mule through her routine.

             After the morning feed and muck-out detail and the training sessions were complete, we had fun. John and I both had a saddlebred horse to ride. We saddled up our handsome sorrels and rode them up and down the driveway. We asked our horses for various movements and gave them exercise in the warm Florida sunshine.

When it came to the march, his horse A. J. had an amazing reach I envied. We worked on achieving finesse with our cues and encouraged each other with our progress.

The routine with Betty the mule became a comedy act with me acting like an old prospector. This act was an expanded January act, a routine that appeared as if the animal was outsmarting the trainer with a liberty routine combined. I had been composing patter to support the premise of my mule appearing to defy all my requests. I kept having ideas for more comedy to include and in this environment with John, opportunities for additional inspiration were rich.

One day I asked John, “how would a guy go about putting a hind-leg walk on that little mule?”

John thought for a moment and replied, “I think I would check her down good and tight. Then slap her on the side of the neck and see what happens.”

When I did exactly as he suggested, my mule stood on her hindlegs as upright as a candlestick.

Now that Betty had the idea, I began to develop her hind-leg walk.

As John’s season loomed, he had an idea that would benefit me. He referred me to the idea of meeting Dorita Konyot, a local retired performer and horse trainer whose family brought Dressage to this country. He knew I would receive the advanced riding instruction I sought from her.

The weeks passed. Each day was productive. The bond between us grew. I was able to share tidbits accumulated from experiences with trainers in Michigan and John shared aspects he learned from his father. We enjoyed mutual improvement with our high school horses and our time together.

With each day, a heightened anticipation grew among his family members due to the upcoming holidays. His daughters, now mature circus performers, had husbands and kids of their own. They came from all over to visit to John and Mary Ruth. Soon his family activities included decor and treat preparation as the ladies transformed their home into a fantasyland of holiday happiness and joy.

My dad loved Christmas. Growing up in Ohio, I was familiar with the standard holiday tradition of colored lights on the house, a layer of white snow outside, carolers singing on the front doorstep, special cookies, hot chocolate and the excitement of Santa bringing gifts. The family Christmas morning of my youth was a magical time with plenty of gifts and excitement, now just a memory. In adulthood, Christmas became just another day. Here at the Herriott household I was about to experience a special holiday.

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