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Trick Riding and Acrobatics


Christine Zerbini performing on horseback

Trick Riding

Feel the pounding of the horses' hooves as trick riders perform daring acrobatic feats.

When Philip Astley developed the first modern circus on the banks of the Thames in London in 1768, he didn't have clowns or jugglers or acrobats in mind. Instead, he was enamored with horses and horsemanship, and he developed the circus ring and its curious dimensions (42 feet in diameter) with equine needs in mind. (A horse can get up a good gallop in a 42-foot ring, but can't go much faster). After the automobile eclipsed horse power as America's favorite mode of transportation, our fixation with everything equestrian diminished. Soon, circus rings were overrun with red-nosed clowns, sequined acrobats and jugglers. But our close bond with the horse is still breathtaking, and it's never on better display as it is in a circus ring when horse and performer are in perfect sync.

During the Play On! season, the Big Apple Circus features trick riders Christine Zerbini and Sultan Kumisbayev in a modern translation of ancient horsemanship maneuvers that feature the rider somersaulting from the ground to the saddle and back again, or hanging from the side or under the horse, all while the animal is galloping around the ring. "(Sultan) has a very special heritage. He comes from a long line of riders from Kazakhstan, descendents of Genghis Khan," explains Big Apple Circus Founder Paul Binder.

Originally, trick riders learned their craft on the battlefields of Central Asia and China in the early 1200s, when they would sneak up on their enemies by hanging from their horses as if they were injured or dead. Only when the riders got close enough to their targets would they rise up from their positions, surprising their enemies and attacking them. "(Christine) grew up in an American circus family, and they've both (Sultan and Christine) worked all their lives with horses, which is very important when working with these huge sentient beings," says Binder. During the Play On! season, the Zerbini/Kumisbayevs also performed a big-and-little act, which pairs a huge Clydesdale and a miniature horse in a series of tricks.

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