Turning the stables
Moving a 50-horse acrobatic show around the world requires military planning and execution.
It involves packing up and shifting thousands of bales of hay, the white big top tent, a 50 metre-wide stage, a human crew of more than a 100, and 50 adult stallions and geldings.
Every action must be performed in a specific order, including loading the horses on to aircraft and ensuring they are next to their friends, so everything is ready to be unpacked and set up at the next destination in the shortest possible time.
Cavalia’s public relations director Eric Pacquette, who recently landed in Abu Dhabi for the Qasr Al Hosn Festival, describes it as a “logistical nightmare”.
The Cavalia team, based in Montreal, Canada, arrived in the final week of January and is busy putting the finishing touches to the show, which will run from February 22 until March 1.
Before to coming to the UAE, the Cavalia team toured Australia for almost 12 months.
Much of the planning to move the production from city to city, and then on to Abu Dhabi, was the responsibility of Donna Morton, the stable director.
Originally from Queensland, Autralia, she worked as an assistant to the horse master and trained riders for the opening ceremony at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. She joined Cavalia just over a year ago.
As stable director, she is responsible for the transport, feeding and care of the horses.
“It is important that anything involving the horses is properly planned and carried out,” Ms Morton says. “When the shows finish the first thing to depart is the horses. Before that we start to pack everything up so it’s all ready to go as soon as the horses leave.”
The stables at the Qasr Al Hosn site were made in Dubai after Ms Morton gave the company the go-ahead.
Each horse has their own enclosure with feeding buckets of water, grain and hay.
The bottom halves of the steel-framed walls, screwed together with large bolts, are made from Puckboard, the material used to border ice hockey rinks, so they can withstand kicks from the stallions and geldings.
The layout of the temporary stables is the same at every location to make it as familiar as possible for the animals.
On the ceiling of the large stable tent, which is split in two so that one half can be used as a practice ring, are wide, clear tubes hooked up to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature at about 23°C or 24°C.
Cavalia’s founder, Normand Latourelle, is no stranger to large-scale and elaborate shows, having set up the original Cirque du Soleil in the 1980s.
His son, Mathieu Latourelle, has now taken the reins as tour director of the Cavalia production.
“When my father left Cirque du Soleil he had a show in Montreal,” says Mr Latourelle. “At one point there were 100 performers on stage and one horse. He realised the whole audience was captivated by the horse and forgot all about the performers.
“As a show producer he thought there was a natural interest so he created this company in 2003.”
Mr Latourelle, 33, is used to life on the road, having spent parts of his childhood touring with his father.
“Every time we had a vacation I would go and join my father at Cirque,” he says. “I have great memories.
“When I was six or seven and he had no childcare, I was on a little stool doing the popcorn for everyone and I remember the performers bringing me on stage.”
It has cost about US$500,000 (Dh1.8m) to transport everything from the last stop in Australia to Abu Dhabi. This included 25 shipping containers sent ahead of the crew and animals in December.
On a longer stint lasting more than a few weeks the number of containers can reach 80, Mr Latourelle says. The big top, stage, training tent and stable tent are usually sent in these containers.
When the horses travel, their manes are braided and wrapped to keep them neat and to stop them catching on anything in transit. They are also given a booster meal of vitamins to keep them healthy en route, and a last once-over by the vets.
For Mr Latourelle, the movement of the horses is not a worry.
“The only things that can worry me are the things out of our control,” he says. “We can’t control rain, we can’t control wind, we can’t control Mother Nature.
“If there are very strong winds, it will wake me up in the middle of the night. And we don’t want the stables to flood. We’ve had times when there has been 15 guys outside pumping water.
“If it’s not in our control, it is a worry. Everything else is good.”
Fortunately, everything related to the care of the horses is under Ms Morton’s control and she always has their best interests in mind.
Wherever possible, she obtains the same hay the horses were fed at their previous destination. If she cannot, she finds the closest alternative and blends it into their diet little by little.
To prepare for the animals’ arrival in the UAE she sent 24 tonnes of hay and 85 tonnes of grain in one of the 40-foot shipping containers.
Ms Morton knows exactly how much each horse needs each day, and makes sure there is also a backup supply.
“We feed the horses 24 bales a day,” she says. “Times that by 50 and the number of days, that’s thousands of bales of hay. It’s all worked out to be exact.”
Ms Morton does not work alone. She has a team of 20 to help care for the horses.
There are grooms, a farrier to look after the horses’ hooves, and two veterinary technicians (or vet nurses, as they are also known).
The benefit of having them on site all the time rather than relying on different local vets is that they can build special relationships with the animals.
“It’s important to us to keep the same people because they just know the horses,” she says. “They can walk into the stable and immediately see if something is wrong. We are so pedantic, checking the horses daily, so it is important that they know everything.”
As well as daily vet checks, during show times the horses also get daily showers and massages.
At the side of the shower area sit soapy bottles. They include regular Pantene shampoo bottles, intended for humans but apparently they also work brilliantly for most horses, and Canter Silk Mane and Tail Conditioner Spray.
There is also a special bar of oatmeal soap found by Ms Morton after scouring the malls in Abu Dhabi. It is reserved for one of the horses that “loves that product”, the grooms say.
The grey and white horses are shampooed with an intense purple-coloured wash, which helps to bring out the white in their hair.
There are also specific washes to help remove the yellow stain from manure so they look as good as possible for the show, in which each animal performs for about eight minutes.
The group includes breeds from all around the world – seven Arabians, 20 pure Spanish, two Criollo and one miniature named Troubador, who is 8 hands tall (one hand is about four inches). The tallesthorse, Merlin, is an 18 hands-tall Percheron.
All of the horses are male.
“Mares can be really moody,” Ms Morton says. “A lot of trainers say that they prefer to train male horses. Stallions have expression and exuberance in their training. Females are temperamental.”
When the crew are between cities they try to give the horses as much of a break as the schedule will allow. Where possible, Ms Morton will scout for appropriate stables where the 50-strong herd can get some much-needed R and R.
When it comes to needing the odd break, the same applies to the crew.
The Cavalia staff spend much of their time on the road, away from friends and family.
“We are very, very lucky, we have amazing people,” says Mr Latourelle. “When you go on tour you take the decision from the get go that you will be away from your family.
“Some people try it and realise quite quickly that’s it not for them. You get homesick really fast and if you learn to live with that, you’re good for touring.
“In 10 years I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly but day in, day out, it’s the good that’s there.”
Updated: February 16, 2014 04:00 AM