Aside World Magazine
Spring 2021 Issue
Ecuyeres of the Circus
Article and photos provided by Pat Blaire.
From it’s very beginning, horses were the original animal acts in the circus and equestrians its biggest stars. The circus started in the 19th century as an exhibition of men’s horsemanship. To expand and diversify the shows, the wives and daughters of the performers were added, exhibiting the same strength and daring on horses as the men. Known as Amazones or Ecuyeres, they were adored by the fans for both their talent and beauty .
Throughout the 1800s, ladies riding aside, performing the advanced components of dressage known as The Art of Haute Ecole became the highlight of every show. The Spanish Walk and Airs Above Ground combined with music and elaborate costumes were developed into acts that drew huge crowds and made both the ladies and horses world famous. For most women in the circus there was the social stigma of a low class woman of easy virtue, but the women doing Haute Ecole in their elegant (even though skin tight) riding habits managed to exude an air of aristocracy and refinement. This resulted in many of their fans being men of title and means and if a lovely ecuyere could elicit a proposal of marriage from a duke or a baron, her future would be secured.
While some young women from a variety of backgrounds became performers by marrying men already in the circus, most of the female equestrians were born into circus families and trained in the equestrian arts by relatives and other circus professionals. Those few women without family in the business had a more difficult time as they did not have male relatives to protect them from their more impulsive admirers.
The job of ecuyere required not only a talented rider but also talented and trained horses. The lady needed a minimum of three horses for her acts, two trained in dressage and one trained in jumping. She was responsible for the purchase, maintenance and training of all of her mounts and would need to replace any that were injured or no longer able to perform. If she also performed acrobatics on horseback she needed another set of draft type horses that were trained for vaulting.
The ecuyeres who became stars were in demand all over the world and traveled all over America and Europe throughout their careers. Along with the 19th century difficulties of traveling with animals and show equipment, the exhaustion, poor food and unsanitary lodgings played havoc with the performers health. Typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis were common in the big cities where the circuses performed and it wasn’t unheard of for entire circus families to be decimated within just a few years. Injury was another occupational hazard of the ecuyere. Riding high spirited stallions doing jumps and airs in a 13 meter circus arena frequently led to the rider losing control of a frightened horse.
One of the most loved of the Amazones was Emilie Loisset of France, a talented young beauty with a bold and daring flare in her performances. Born to a circus family she was an accomplished equestrian and had been performing in the circus since childhood. While practicing for opening day at the Paris circus, she attempted a jump into the arena on a new horse. The horse refused, spun and bolted for the stable. The exit door had been closed and the horse, unable to stop, reared and fell over backwards onto Emilie. She was impaled on the horns of her side saddle and died two days later. Newspapers covered the tragedy in every country and the whole world mourned. For years to come the tragic tale was retold and was used by proponents of abolishing side saddles as an example of their danger.
Side saddles and circus costumes were not designed for safety and it was common for the ladies riding to be injured during practice and performances. Fanny Ghyga, another young Parisian of exceptional talent in Haute Ecole, was taking her bows when her horse spooked out from under her. Her foot caught in the stirrup and she was dragged around the arena until unconscious. When her horse was finally caught and the foot freed, her leg was broken. Still dressed in her riding costume of fur and jewels, she died of gangrene a few days later.
Yet in spite of the many accidents, the Amazones continued to add more daring and dangerous elements to their acts. Jumping their horses over tables covered in lighted candelabras, rearing their horses and hanging from the horns of the saddle to pick up a scarf on the ground were just some of the extravagant tricks they devised to get applause and top billing.
One of the most talented ecuyeres of the 1890s was Jenny de Rahden. Along with her expertise in Haute Ecole, she was famous for rearing her horse, then lying flat on her back so that her long hair hung to the ground with the horse’s tail. Using her side saddle, she had only the strength of her legs on the horns to keep her from falling.
By the last half of the 19th century the circus was adding exotic animal acts, bicycles and automobiles in the shows making it harder for horsewomen to wow the crowds with dressage alone. So the dressage moves were incorporated into tricks and stunts to keep the ladies in the spotlight. Theresa Renz was famous for “dancing” and jumping rope on horseback.
Blanche Allarty is still famous today for a 1909 photo of her dressed in full Edwardian splendor riding side saddle as her horse flies through the air.
Allarty would start her performance by entering the ring at a gallop, do a pirouette followed by a display of difficult dressage exercises, then rear her horse to full height and walk him around the arena on his hind legs.
Allarty was also a trained gymnast and acrobat. In 1891 she added a trapeze routine with horses to her act, doing death defying routines to keep her fans enthralled and ensure her place as a headliner.
By the turn of the century Blanche had trained camels to do many of the dressage exercises that she had trained her horses for. She was a star both in Europe and America for her amazing performances.
As the Victorian era drew to a close, side saddles were being disdained as dangerous and old fashioned. Ladies donning the new style of split skirts and riding astride were deemed “The New Woman on Horseback”. This lent novelty to the ecuyeres normal circus routines and gave the Haute Ecole a new look.
But as the world moved from a love of horses to a fascination with automobiles, the public’s appreciation of the elegant dressage acts waned. By the end of the 1920s most of the great side saddle equestrians had been forgotten or retired. But one performer that started in 1925 continued the tradition of side saddle Haute Ecole along with trick riding and acrobatics. Dorothy Herbert reintroduced Jenny de Rahden’s signature rearing horse trick, making it her own.
Dorothy became such a top star in the circus that she was featured on eight circus posters, in Camel Cigarette and Wheaties cereal ads and had roles in Hollywood movies and a TV series. She continued to ride in the circus until she retired in 1974.
Today, there are women using sidesaddles in various equestrian entertainments, but the ecuyere riding classic Haute Ecole has been forgotten. Many are just a nameless image in a vintage photograph or circus poster. Some are mentioned in old newspapers but the pictures of them are lost. A few, like Selika Lazevski, are unsolved mysteries. Just a picture in the riding habit of the ecuyere, no horse, no circus poster, no history to be found.
Thank you Pat!
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