Feature Article Vol. I, No.8

Hoping to Meet a Need Being Met Nowhere Else

Most circus fans and circus audiences in general rate the animal acts as their favorite part of the show.  With circus schools burgeoning all over the world we can be certain of where the next generation of acrobatics, aerialists, jugglers and contortionists will be coming from and in that respect the circus’ future seems assured.  On the other hand you can search the world far and wide to find a circus school that provides instruction for those who wish to work with animals, and but for  a sole exception that I can think of, you will come up empty handed.  So where, one is moved to wonder, will the next generation of trainers and presenters come from?

The one exception that I am referring to is the Fratellini school just outside of Paris.  When I visited it almost ten years ago, they spoke of stables and instructors experienced in working with horses.  The number of students taking advantage of this program was very small to non-existent.  I’m not sure it still exists, except perhaps in limbo.

Whenever any Americans have spoken about creating circus schools there has never been any thought given to instruction in training animals.  Too expensive.  So much more in the way of facilities are needed.  It’s difficult enough finding funding to keep an acrobatic based program going.

Alexandre "Sasha" Nevidonski

So it is nothing short of a wonder to hear from Katherine Nevidonski and her husband Sasha (Paul Binder’s daughter and son-in-law) telling us that they have undertaken a school that is based on working with horses and the equestrian arts.    The location of the Equuleus Natural Horsemanship and Performing Arts school is just as startling.  It is located in Innsbrook, Missouri, about an hour west of St. Louis, where the couple have put down roots in conjunction thanks to their work the past half dozen years or so, he as a featured performer, she as company manager.  Innsbrook is a private resort community, located in a rural part of the state that offers member residents tennis, a swimming pool and most importantly, insofar as this discussion is concern, a stable.

The school, as it is being formed, is a joint venture with  Kim Michaelson who owns the previously noted stable that is home to ninety horses.   The Nevidonskis  and she became acquainted through a mutual friend who heads a foundation that is interested in fostering what it believes to be a more natural approach to the training of horses.  (Hence the title of the school.)  The fledgling school grew out of a circus performance that Sasha staged at the resort this past summer.  It featured a group of Cossack riders and Sasha’s act that combines his work on silks and a horse, which has been a feature of Circus Flora for several years.  From that came the idea of running a summer camp based in Innsbrook. The reception to the instruction offered there inspired the principals to create a school in which Sasha, who is a graduate of the Moscow Circus School and a gold medal winner in Paris as part of a Russian barre act which brought him to the Big Apple Circus, would teach vaulting, trick riding, and solo horses whose repertoire could include and bowing and rearing among other tricks.  These equestrian skills would be supplemented with instruction in tumbling, juggling and aerial work.

Although the school is obviously still quite new, it has gotten off to an encouraging start, attracting an initial group that numbers around fifteen. Of this group about half are mainly interested in learning the “natural” part of the school’s  training methods and the other half is geared to performing.  All the students are still at an elementary level for the present.  The vaulting classes have attracted mostly girls who had been dancers.  They are still so new to this kind of work, they have no idea how far they might be able to go, Katherine says.

It would be a good idea at this point in our discussion to clarify what is meant by this “natural” approach to training horses.   In Sasha’s act, for instance, his horse works with no bridal or saddle.  That is the beginning of the natural approach.  It then employs the principals of how horses communicate with one another.  Being herd animals, there is always a leader, the alpha male.  In this situation the human trainer takes on that role so that the horses follow his lead and do what he asks them.   As herd animals, Katherine points out, the horses respond to this kind of training, whether it is learning to enter a trailer without fear or working with a rider and in the case of Sasha’s act, dealing with unfamiliar and potentially frightening materials.  This is all in contrast to the way young riders are taught to approach horses which begins by kicking the horse to start and pulling on him to stop.

Although Sasha handles most of the performance instruction, he shares the horse training with the couple’s partner Kim Michaelson.  In addition to the large stable, the equestrian facilities include an indoor arena which can be used for classes and aerial work.  To maintain interest in the school the aim is to stage a series of shows and demonstrations throughout the year.  Money raised from these shows would be used to purchase a coverall building that would be dedicated for use by the school, and, of course, the shows themselves would work as a magnet to attract interested students.

The Nevidonskis are hoping to promote aerial work here as well.  The original not for profit organization is still in tact, with a board of directors, and the hope is that the new partners will be able to use its nonprofit status to raise funds for scholarships which will attract more students.

As the only such facility in this country to say nothing of the world, Equuleus Natural Horsemanship and Performing Arts should certainly prove attract to horselovers, which is a whole other world.  Hopefully some will be motivated to pursue working with horses as a performance art as a full-time career.  We shall have to wait and see how this worthy program develops.  In the meantime we wish the Nevidonskis the best of luck in this difficult field.