Feature Article Vol. VII, No. 2

Sylvia Zerbini Has Always Done it Her Way

For many circus performers once they reach a certain level of technical expertise and professional success, their act becomes, as it were, set in stone and it neither develops nor changes for as long as the performer is able to physically meet the demands of his or her work.  One exception to this common practice is Sylvia Zerbini, who in almost all ways is unlike most circus artists.  “I have moved on with the times,” she says of her current work with horses.

Photo by Maike Schulz

Zerbini’s evolution is entirely in character for her.  She recalls even as a kid being something of a contrarian.  “I have always been the kind of person who questions everything.  I want to know why you’re supposed to do something in a particular way.  I was stubborn.  I would listen, but I always thought my way was better.”

Today, after a career in which she spent nine years with Ringling, starring in Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, the big show, and the Gold Unit,  and later a lengthy stint with Cavalia, the horse opera out of Canada, she rarely does circus anymore.  One of those rare occasions was with the most recent production of Circus Sarasota, where we caught up with her.  Since leaving Cavalia, two years prior to the end of a six year contract, her horses have evolved as well. They are now show horses rather than circus horses.

They are not used to working on a rubber floor and in the confines of a circus ring.  They are used to doing liberty in a much bigger space, usually a space as large as a 200’ X 300’ horse show arena and on a dirt floor.  Nowadays she often appears at big, horse show competitions as a half-time guest artist.

Although the horses have been trained to perform in much bigger spaces, she is amazed at how adaptable the horses can be when forced to work in a smaller, tighter space. “ They are all stallions and one gelding,” she points out, “so they are adaptable, and I am very proud that I don’t present them in a traditional liberty act.  I try to do something that touches the audience.  It’s not so much about what tricks you do anymore; it’s about having happy animals.  So I don’t do tricks.  I don’t have them walk on their hind legs, because people don’t want to see that.  People are happy just seeing them do a nice rear.  I have horses that can walk on their hind legs, but it isn’t necessary.  I’ll have a horse go up on his hind legs on his own free will.  I want to create an atmosphere for the audience in which they can feel good and not question how everything was trained.”

When working in the circus, she is constantly changing the routines to keep the horses alert and attentive to her, which is the hardest thing in a liberty act, getting and keeping their attention.  Working in a smaller ring they tend to get routined a little bit more than usual, so the horses can actually get bored. In her act with Circus Sarasota she opened with what is usually a closing trick, the waltz by three.

“Now that they are working in a more routine way, they are getting to the point where they think they know what’s coming next and they are not looking at me to say what we are doing next,” she explains.  “So I mix it up to keep them alert and not be bored.”  She has to keep some routines in the act so that the production people know what to do and when according to what she is doing.  “So I try to mix it up in between the cues that are set with other people like the ringmaster, the lighting people or the music department.”

How does she know they get bored?  “Just by their body expressions.  It’s like ‘Here we go again.’   They come into the ring, and they are not as feisty and frisky because of the floor. On a dirt floor, the difference in their behavior is like night and day.  “They come out energetic and playing and kicking.  Here not so much.   I read it from their body language.”

She left Cavalia, she says, before the end of her contract, because an intense sense of monotony had begun to set in.  There were months at a time of the same routine of work and travel.  “So after four years I asked to be released from my contract.  I still had two years to go. I was getting tired; my horses were getting tired.  I wasn’t having fun anymore, and I don’t want to get to be the kind of artist who phones it in.”  It’s not so much the mental or physical part of working with horses that is wearing it is having to project a sense of being emotionally connected to the work and the audience.  “You have to project emotions that suggest you’re having an amazing time and enjoying yourself.  So when I stopped enjoying myself I decided it was time for a break.”

As it turned out she didn’t get much of a break after Cavalia, which she left in September, 2008.  Almost immediately she was asked to do the Equine Affair in Springfield, MA that November.  “I asked for a ridiculous amount of money, and they went for it.  So I was forced to do it.”  The weekend long event was held in the  Big E arena. , and was part of the horse show circuit.  It was the beginning of a new phase of her career.

That got started by doing a clinic at a dressage facility in Georgia.  Besides teaching the ABCs of liberty, the organizers also asked her to do a Saturday night presentation.  “I did an hour demonstration show with twelve liberty horses.  I used music and created  choreography where I had horses coming in and out at liberty.  It was a way of showing the end result of what I had been teaching.”

Back when she started working horses for a circus the animals were taught wearing harnesses and martingales to keep their heads from bobbing around.  It was all a matter of creating patterns for them to follow.  They would be taught how to turn, how to come.  “After all,” She reminds us, “horses are creatures of habit by nature.  I remember learning all that stuff the circus way.  That was the circus way of training liberty horses. It felt so intense.  My way was not the supposedly correct way, but I didn’t want my horses to be little soldiers.  I want my horses to have fun and enjoy touring.  So I had to do something different.  I didn’t use harnesses, lunge lines, ropes, or whips.  I would teach a horse to come to me using none of those things.

“I ended up learning my methods from observing horses in the pastures together, how they related to one another, how they made each other move by their own moves.  Horses are always looking at each other.  People say don’t look at your horses, it’s too much tension.  But they communicate through energy and eye contact.  That’s how I started figuring this all out.  I was doing my own thing by paying attention to the way horses behave.    For instance horses are sensitive to tone of voice.  They communicate through energy or motion.  I realized I had something very positive to teach  for both the horses and the humans.  They do have a silent language, and we need to pay attention that. ”  As a result of her observations, her teaching methods and philosophy are unlike anyone else’s.

As word of her methods and renown have spread Sylvia is now invited all over the country and as far away as Australia to give as many as eighteen to twenty clinics a year.  She has titled these sessions  “Beyond the Stick.”  Participants are told to bring no whips or other training devices.  Instead they learn how to move horses by their energy and body language.  “That’s what I teach,” Sylvia declares.  “I can get wild horses to follow me around within the first fifteen minutes I work with them.”

Does that make her a horse whisperer? “Around Cavalia I was known as the horse listener,” she says.  “Being around them all the time you learn a lot about them and their habits.  I’m now heading in a direction where I am finding and training horses for Cavalia.”

In addition to her teaching Sylvia also likes to do benefit shows for good causes and for people who have risked their lives testifying against animal abuse and are forced into what amounts to witness protection programs.  It is a problem akin to human trafficking, and it is a big problem in the United States, she says. “I did one in Nappa and would like to do more for people less fortunate and those who help rescue horses because some of mine are rescue animals.  It makes me feel good to do these events.”

Despite the decline of interest in equestrian displays in most circuses, Sylvia points out that there is a ton of people who have horses and don’t want, for one reason or another, to ride anymore,  but still want to have something to do with horses.  At her clinics these people can learn how to communicate with their horses and have a real relationship with them by using her unique technique.

As if all this does not keep her busy enough, she has built a beautiful theatre on her farm in Williston, Florida.  It features a 100’ x 100’ arena.  It has a professional lighting system, a theatrical curtain, and facilities for music production.  Here she stages fully produced presentations with guest artists and up to twenty horses at liberty on stage at one time, all of it staged to music.  The seating capacity is 300, which she says is just right number to create an intimate atmosphere. After the performance audiences get a tour of her barn.   (Learn more at Sylviazerbini.com.)

“Lots of people follow me and know my horses and are interested in them.   I like doing special events, and I like having to do less traveling.”    She no longer owns an RV.

She accepted the Circus Sarasota gig as a way of “going back to my roots.”  As for the horses, they are used to working less and so the work never gets stale for them.

Looking back over an active career, she says, “I have traveled everywhere, seen everything.  I would like to write a book and then make a movie of it, with all my life’s experiences.”

photo by Richard Czina