Beyond the Big Top

Quebec farm provides a retirement haven to the horses of Cavalia after they leave the limelight.

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By: Susan Stafford-Pooley |

Anyone who has witnessed the spectacular performances of Odysseo and its predecessor, Cavalia, is captivated by the talented equine stars. But what becomes of them once their show careers wind down?

Dominique Day is the co-founder and executive vice-president of Cavalia Inc., with headquarters in Montreal, QC. Day and Normand Latourelle started Cavalia in 2002, creating an innovative touring show combining equestrian and theatrical arts. Day is also in charge of Ferme Sutton, the company’s 72-acre farm south of Bromont where the show’s horses are sent to enjoy their retirement years. “Once our show horses are ready for retirement, there are two options: we have an adoption program where the horses are adopted directly from the tour, or they come to Sutton,” Day explained.

“We’ve had the farm for many, many years; in the beginning we bought it because we needed a place to import horses to. Odysseo didn’t exist at that time, but we wanted to import horses from Europe and we needed a place for the horses to come and settle. Some were imported before they were two years old, so of course we wouldn’t start working with such young horses. We’d let them have their ‘teenage years’ at the farm and start training them a little bit before they would be sent on tour for more formal training.

“As the years passed, some of the horses from the first show were getting ready to be retired, so we started sending the horses to the farm. We have between 40 and 60 retired horses, more or less, all the time. It’s a big financial responsibility. When we say that we try very hard to give our horses the best conditions when they are in the show, travelling, and also after work, these are not empty words.”

Out to Pasture

Day explained what life is like for the new retirees. “When they come to the farm it’s a new life for them. If they are a stallion, we may consider gelding them, but I always have my vet look at the horses and we’ll decide together. Being alone in a paddock for the next 15 years is not the best perspective for a horse. If there are not risks associated with it, I do geld them so they can be in a group. I have put stallions together, but it’s an exception. Some of them are really not hot, so when you can put two stallions together and they are good friends, they’re very playful – they’re very vocal! – and it is quite beautiful to look at.”

Horses are also turned out according to individual preference. “In Quebec we have quite harsh winters, so they spend the whole nice season from mid-May to Hallowe’en outside with shelters. During the summer, some horses are on the night shift; they go out around four or five p.m. and they come back in at nine a.m. so they are not out when it is really hot and there are lots of bugs. Some horses are okay being out 24/7, and then we have a few that cannot be left out overnight. Either it’s a stallion and I don’t want to leave him alone in a paddock, or they have some physical issues.” In the winter, nights are spent in comfy stalls, with plenty of turnout during the day. About half the retirees are still ridden either in the spacious arena or on trails in the adjacent rolling hills.

The retired horses represent a number of breeds including Arabs, paints, Quarter Horses, draft horses, and Iberian horses such as Andalusians and Lusitanos, with “lots of personalities!” according to Day.

The oldest resident on the farm is a 30-year-old Quarter Horse named Choice – the first horse ever purchased by Day and Latourelle. “He’s in great shape; he still goes out every day.”

Retirement age varies a lot, and depends on the discipline. “I notice with the dressage horses, a lot of them are retired later,” said Day. “The dressage riders put a lot of emphasis on good balance, so these horses will come to the barn in Sutton in their late teens or early twenties. For the draft horses that used to do the vaulting [in Cavalia], we would automatically retire them after three years. We didn’t want them to have the same physical issues that all the horses in that discipline tend to have.” She notes the show was careful to diminish the risk of these overuse injuries by working them on both sides, among other precautions.

The private farm is staffed by two teams: the Retirement Centre team comprises roughly 15 people, and the Training Centre (which used to be located in the south of France) employs about eight people to look after the 15 horses currently in training.

Second Careers

For many of the horses, the farm is just a pleasant stopover on the way to a quieter career. “If you retire a horse early enough, it is super easy to find them a good home,” noted Day. “They can still be ridden; they may not be able to do seven shows a week, but are perfectly okay being ridden a couple of times a week.” Not surprisingly, a lot of adoption or purchase requests come from the region in which the show is currently performing.

Not all the horses are elderly veterans, either; some are under the age of 10. “There are different reasons why they may be at the farm,” explained Day. “Some of them may have not done a lot of the show because they just weren’t meant for that job. Some of them don’t have the predisposition to be in the show. You need a certain type of horse that is really calm, that can travel – what’s the use of forcing a horse to be in all these conditions if he’s not happy?” Thanks to the team at Ferme Sutton, horses who don’t have the personality or physical conformation for show business can still live long and productive lives with their “forever” families.

Odysseo opens under the white big top next to the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, starting June 21st. For ticket info, or to explore adoption possibilities, visit cavalia.com.