Arabians at the Big Apple Circus

Why Young Stallions Run Away to Join the circus

Arabians at the Big Apple Circus

Copyright 1993 by R.J.CADRANELL from Arabian Visions Sept/Oct 1993 Used by permission of RJCadranell  

        Katja Schumann cannot imagine a circus without four essentials: clowns, acrobats, elephants, and horses.

            ”Horses do anything you can ask them. They are like an empty canvas. Each has its own talents to develop to the fullest. Some will be great, others good.”

Katja Schumann, a fifth generation circus equestrienne, came to America from Europe more than ten years ago. She performs with the Big Apple Circus. Because of transportation, insurance, and labor costs, permanent circuses do not keep many horses. Katja has 12, including Saddlebreds, Arabians, a Palomino, and a Shetland pony. She says her horses need to be versatile and work hard.

        The Big Apple Circus performs in the northeastern corner of the United States: shows take place in New England, New York, Ohio, and Washington D.C. [and Chicago Ill. in 1997 and ’98]. The circus performs in one ring under one tent, accommodating an audience of 2,000 in summer and 1,500 in winter. It takes four to five hours to raise the tent, four hours to create the footing in the ring, a day and a half to prepare for a show, and eight hours to take everything down. There are horses and elephants, aerialists, clowns, jugglers, and acrobats. The program changes every year, and there are two shows a day.           The basic training of the horses Katja does on an individual basis. Each horse has a name and must respond to it. She uses the horse’s name to ask it to come to her, or to get its attention.

            ”And if they know their names, later you can get an individual’s attention when they are in a group,” Katja explains. “They must come when called, and respond to the long whip, which is an extension of your hand and arm.”

        Circus horses performing at liberty, however, do not rely on voice commands.

            ”The music is so loud the horses must respond to whip and body movements,” Katja says. “When the whip is behind, it means go forward. When in front, it means stop. But cues must be applied differently because all horses are individuals, and when communicating with one you cannot disturb the others. If I show the inside of my wrist one horse knows to speed up. There are other commands for a turn in place or a change of direction. To turn five to eight horses at once, they must all be on track. Later they learn to rear. That’s the basics.”

        Work is done with a longe line and halter,

    not jerking on the mouth,” Katja says. “Sometimes the horses are ridden after they learn the basics, and sometimes before.”

        Katja has a few geldings, but she prefers stallions for circus work because they show themselves better. She comments,

            ”The inexperienced grooms and people who don’t know what they’re doing get along better with geldings. The horses live outside my window so I can watch. The inexperienced grooms want to learn, but they make mistakes.”

        Katja prefers Arabians for circus performance, explaining that circuses have used Arabian and part-Arabian horses for centuries because of their looks, durability, and trainability.

            ”Arabians will do anything as long as they understand what you are asking,” Katja says. “That sounds simple, but from one day to the next the same aids may not work. Sometimes you need to ask one way, sometimes another. The Arab will respond to what he thinks you’re asking. Understand that principle. If you get on someone else’s horse, the key might be to raise your hands a little. Books don’t tell you that, but the horse responds.”

          Katja finds her horses though the grapevine, following hunches, and reading magazines. Her needs are specific as to color and age. Currently she is assembling a liberty act of eight grey stallions.

        When Katja came to America she had to leave her horses in Europe. She knew she wanted Arabians, but the prices in America were prohibitive in the early 80s.

            ”Some of those high-priced horses should have been donated to circuses.” Katja comments. “They were just not as good as the price might make you think.”

A friend suggested she consider Saddlebreds, but Katja had never seen any. She went to Kentucky and then bought some. She now has three Saddlebreds and likes them.

            ”They have been bred as show horses, and the slightest noise makes them jump. But you can use that to your advantage.”

        New horses cannot be younger than age three. For her team of eight, Katja needed white Arabian stallions with minimal handling:

            ”That way I can be sure no one has messed them up.”

The horses also had to be accustomed to living with other stallions. She found a source of such stallions at Craver Farms in Hillview, Illinois. The young Davenport stallions Angevin CF, Thespian CF, and Bohemian CF have all joined the circus, where they are known by their stage names Abiyad, Yussef, and Pasha. Two more Davenport stallions may follow shortly.

        The horses go back in all lines to the 1906 Davenport importation of Arabian horses from the Anazeh and Shammar tribes. Davenport blood is present in an estimated 90% of American Arabians. The Davenport horses have also been bred as a closed herd since 1906.

        Yugoslavia used to be a primary source of large groups of horses for the circuses of Europe. Purebred Arabians were available and also horses “of Arabian breed,” meaning Shagyas and warmbloods. The Bertram Mills circus in England used horses with Crabbet lines, known in the circus trade as “English Arabs.” They were known for being bigger, often more beautiful, and more pampered. Polish Arabians are popular today in European circuses because they are plentiful and tough.

            ”Many of the Polish Arabians performing in circuses wouldn’t make show horses, but they are very good circus horses

Katja says of them.           Katja sees herself carrying on her family tradition and trying to keep alive her inheritance. Her ancestors were circus proprietors who rode and trained and put together shows.

            ”One day the circus might be looked on like the Spanish Riding School or the American Ballet Theater. It’s something people need: to sit two feet from circus horses roaring past.”

        Commenting on the durability of the Arabian horse Katja says.

            ”If you spend five to ten years training a horse, you want to keep him around. A circus horse is not a product for resale.

Her horses are in many ways like the members of a dance troupe.

            ”They are our colleagues, not our pets. We and the horses depend on one another. I think the bedouins and cowboys did the same.”


The Big Apple Circus is a nonprofit performing arts organization.