Circus Time

An eight-week tour of Kentucky performing on the Shrine Circus materialized for the spring of 1993. By this time in his career, Souveran was performing consistently everywhere I took him. This circus tour went to small armories, gymnasiums and large coliseums all over Kentucky to raise money for the Shriners.

The spring of the year is an especially wonderful time to be in the Kentucky mountains. The extensive tour took this circus troupe all over this beautiful state. The rolling countryside, board fences and burley barns provided contrast to urban sprawl. I enjoyed the picturesque kaleidoscope of landscape features as I drove between engagements. A few openings in the tour occurred with which to visit Kentucky Horse Park, the Red Mile race track, and the big sale barn called Tattersall’s.

A friend in Williamsburg, Kentucky has a lifelong relationship with Saddlebred horses and an aspiration to perform. He visited often during the tour to watch me. Backstage he told many stories involving numerous horses. Phil Perkins also has the distinction of not missing a Kentucky Derby in forty-two years. Seeking adventure, when he goes to the most exciting two minutes in sports, he never has a plan. Sometimes he goes and pays the scalper’s price for a ticket. Other times, a happenstance meeting led to being invited to a skybox where an elegant party overlooked the racetrack at Churchill Downs.

His son Clay is a highly regarded cutting-horse and cow-horse trainer in his own right. With two days off near his ranch, Clay offered me two stalls so my stock could get some rest. In the cavernous indoor arena, I watched as he put cutting horses through their paces.

Seeing my interest, a conversation started about the differences and similarities between the High School and Cutting horses. We then realized they actually share much of the same prowess. We compared the signals between rider and horse. Although the results were similar we concluded the way we got them were quite different.

As we enlightened each other with this information, he finally asked, “have you ever been on a cow horse?”

The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a western saddle on a spotted quarter horse, and my host told me where the buttons were for getting this horse to work. I leaned forward to exaggerate my seat to signal the horse to move forward. This is the opposite of how I communicate with a dressage horse. I had to learn new signals. Soon I had the cow horse going, halting and spinning.

Excited with my progress, I blurted, “Bring in some cows!”

Soon I sat on the horse while my host provided me the criteria for cutting a calf from the herd.

“There is absolutely nothing at all unmanly about holding onto the horn of the saddle,” he suggested, “As a matter of fact, I strongly recommend that you do.”

Soon, I walked the horse on a loose rein and guided him with legs only. We headed toward the herd. As we stepped closer to the cows, they moved cautiously as a group, away from us. Then, true to his word, one of them volunteered, or turned in a different direction from the rest. As we walked between him and the group the horse went into auto-pilot. As the calf attempted to find a route back to the herd, the horse took a stance that, would not only block the way, but would also allow him to launch in either direction the calf might take.

From this low stance, the calf finally did start running down the rail and the horse stayed right on his tail. Suddenly, the calf did a one-eighty and turned to run back. As the horse stayed in the advantageous position he was trained for alongside the renegade calf, I began to relate to a cartoon of Wiley Coyote I remembered. During his self-launching attempts to catch the Roadrunner, when, as the rocket device launched his body, his head, with a quizzical expression, would stay behind for just a moment, until, it too, became launched as a projectile. I was glad to be holding on to the saddle horn.

Later, over dinner, my friend Phil reported that while the group was watching my display that afternoon, Clay exclaimed, “That man can ride a horse!” 

I cherish the memories of riding a working cow horse that day. The next morning, I loaded up Sir and Betty and headed for my next town.

The conclusion of the tour led to a series of circus performances at Rupp Arena in Lexington. When the tour was over, I took the livestock north to Roz in South Haven, Michigan and resumed chasing motorhomes. Week in and week out, the mural painting tour took me just as many places as the circus and the whole time I kept dreaming about the future with performing horses and the opportunity to do it again.


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