The moment you enter the White Big Top, and the lights dim and the music begins, you can feel it. There’s magic in the air. As the performers take the stage, you are swept away into the world of Cavalia’s Odysseo, where you remain, rapt, until the final hoof fall. Afterward, you’re left in a dreamy reverie as you contemplate the beauty, the spectacle, the amazing partnership between the horses, riders and liberty handlers. So skilled is the team behind Odysseo, so otherworldly the experience, it can be easy to overlook the hard work and logistics that go into putting the show on city after city.
Canada’s Odysseo is the world’s largest touring production and it takes a small army of dedicated cast and crew to make the magic happen. At the centre of it all is Marc-Olivier (Marco) Leprohon, the show’s artistic and equestrian operations director.
Leprohon says the key to Odysseo’s success is its horses. They are the star attraction, and, as such, their comfort and well-being is his foremost concern. Currently, there are 65 horses, representing 13 different breeds, on tour with Odysseo. It is Leprohon’s job to ensure their every need is met – both on location and between cities.
Of the 135 people on tour, 20 are assigned to caring for the equine cast. This includes grooms, a stable director, stable hands and three vet techs. The dedicated group keeps a close eye on and get to know each horse individually, along with the 23 riders/handlers who also spend time playing, bonding and working with the horses on a daily basis.
A farrier travels with the show to ensure optimum hoof health, generally trimming every seven weeks and attending to the needs of any shod horses as required. There is also an osteopath who examines the horses every six months to assess their fitness and soundness, and provide gymnastic exercises and stretches as needed. “The horses are artists and athletes and receive the best care,” said Leprohon.
He said local vets are called in when needed to provide diagnostics, such as x-rays and ultrasounds, as well as annual vaccinations. “The vet techs are with the horses every day and know them so well,” he said. “They monitor their health and condition, and when we are going to a new city, we call ahead to the local vet to give them a heads up.”
Leprohon is also responsible for making sure the horses receive a healthy, balanced diet. He explained that all their hay comes from Quebec and is shipped to their performance locations in quantities to last approximately 20 days. “It is better for their digestion,” he explained, “to keep the hay type and quality consistent.”
He said one semi truck can carry about 800 bales, and they go through about 40 bales per day. A truckload of hay is shipped to their next destination before they arrive. The show stays in each city about six weeks, and new loads of hay are shipped approximately every 17 days. It isn’t shipped all at once to avoid risk of spoilage.
When a city run comes to an end, Leprohon must ensure that his charges make it safe and sound to the next location. This is no small task, and one that he prefers to oversee personally. Though Leprohon is based in Montreal, he joins the tour to check in and to deal with transporting the horses from show to show. “Transportation can be tricky,” he said. “I don’t want the horses stuck at the border. I want to be there to make sure everything is in order. I am like a mom going camping with their family. I’ve got all the stuff, and the lists.”
Depending on the distance between cities, the horses travel by truck or plane. Travelling by air can be particularly challenging, as many airports are not accustomed to receiving such delicate cargo. When travelling by truck, they drive about five hours and stop for two hours to feed and let the horses stretch their legs. “We prefer to be cautious and let them have a break,” said Leprohon.
One of the greatest challenges in caring for horses on the road is ensuring they have time to rest and relax between performances. Leprohon said, “In every city, we reserve space on our site for large paddocks, a walker with six spaces and a round pen. We build a flat base, lay out sand, and set up fencing. Every horse must spend time outside every day to rest relax.”
Between cities, while the crew transports equipment and sets up for the next show, and the human performers rest or return home for visits with friends and family, the equine cast also gets to enjoy a break away from the spotlight. Leprohon and a colleague search out and reserve vacation farms near each destination city. “They can be hard to find,” he said, “because we need 65 stalls and, ideally, 20 to 30 paddocks. Sometimes we have to split the team in two to accommodate.”
They also look for farms where there are no other horses around in order to avoid contracting illnesses and to prevent their 13 stallions from becoming distracted by the presence of mares.
“Mainly,” said Leprohon, “we want a place that is quiet and private, and we don’t disclose the exact location publicly because people want to come and visit the horses, but we want them to have free time to rest, and just be outside with their friends.”
While the stallions are turned out individually, there are several gelding pairs and a group of Arabian geldings that are turned out together. Leprohon said there are also some new horses that are turned out individually “because they can play rough and we don’t want them getting hurt over something silly.”
Typically, the horses spend about two weeks on vacation, attended by their team of 20 caregivers, which is split into day and night crews. “We want to give them as much time as possible, to help keep them in shape physically and mentally,” said Leprohon. “We don’t want them to do anything during this time. There is no training or exercising. Their only job is to walk from the stall to the paddock and eat.”
Leprohon said it’s fun to watch the horses’ personalities come out while they are on break. “They go and try to find the spot to get as dirty as possible,” he laughed. “They are like little kids at Christmas.
“During the show, we want the horses to feel comfortable so they can express themselves. Most of the time they are completely free on the vast performance area. We bring their natural behaviours – the ones we see when they are on vacation – to our stage. It’s like a huge playground for the horses. We don’t want them to think it’s work. You can see that playfulness in the show.”
Most recently, the horses of Odysseo stayed in Vancouver, British Columbia and Burlington, Ontario, leading up to their spring and summer performances. Odysseo is now playing under the White Big Top next to the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario. Visit cavalia.com to learn more about the show and find out where they will be next.