Whilst the rest of the circus is still asleep several people are awake and stirring. It is 7.00 am and Yasmine Smart, the circus horse trainer, together with her grooms begin their day of caring for Omega, Rolex, Cartier and Bronze, four palomino Arabs, Buzz and Woody the two Falabella miniature horses and Diamond, an Andalusian stallion. Yasmine employs two full time grooms to ensure she has enough staff to meet the requirements of the horses. In addition, other members of the Circus staff play a role in the care of the horses especially during performances and when the circus moves. First job in the stables is an early morning drink and breakfast of fresh hay. Whilst the horses eat the grooms begins the ritual of “mucking out” the daily early morning cleaning familiar to any one who cares for horses whether it be in racing stables or a riding school. The circus has long since abandoned hiring skips for waste removal and travels its’ own ensuring prompt and hygienic removal of soiled bedding.
With the stables clean and the horses refreshed only then can grooms and Yasmine enjoy their own breakfast. Once the morning meal has been digested the horses are taken to a deserted and quiet Big Top devoid of all the usual colour and razzmatazz of the performance, for rehearsal. This is an important time for both trainer and horse as it is during the next couple of hours that their working relationship is cemented. The only sounds are Yasmine’s words of encouragement, the horses’ hoofs pounding in sawdust and a radio playing so that the animals are familiar and relaxed with the sound of music. After some gentle exercise the horses will practice and learn a new routine that will be presented in the circus next season. It is slow, patient work with any new development often unnoticed by an untrained eye but to Yasmine each rehearsal brings rewards as the new act takes shape and the animals grasp what is being asked of them. For the horses themselves the morning exercise stimulates them both physically and mentally.
Practice over the horses can relax and return to the stables or are turned out into paddocks for the rest of the morning. In the paddocks they can graze, run, associate as a herd and simply “be horses”. The horses are never left unattended, Yasmine or one of the grooms, are never far away and are always on hand to ensure the horses always have food or water if and when required. In addition to a constant supply of hay on demand (horses are browsing animals) the animals also receive a daily ration of “hard” feed – a special mix of concentrated horse food together with any vitamins or minerals they may require.
In the afternoon with hay nets filled the troupe is back in the stables. Each horse has an individual “loose-box” rather than being tethered in stalls. The boxes were designed by Zippos Circus in consultation with animal welfare groups, and allow the horse freedom of movement, whilst each animal can view and communicate with his companions.
The afternoon is spent grooming the horses ready for the circus performance. However, no amount of brushing will result in a glossy and shining coat if the individual animal is not on form within himself and content with his surroundings. The horses enjoy good health but the Circus does have a veterinary consultant who will attend the horses at the circus if required, whom it has employed for many years and knows the animals well. The circus horses are regularly inspected by independent experts, for example Council Animal Welfare Officers will make routine (often un-announced) inspections of the circus and as the circus appears in parks operated by many different Local Authorities throughout the circus season the animals may be inspected many times – far more than the average horse whether kept as a working animal or as a private pet. The condition of the circus horses has consistently won praise and widely acknowledged – it even earned them a place in the special equestrian spectacle that was staged to honour the Queen during her Jubilee.
Just as the morning practice confirms the relationship with their trainer, the afternoon grooming is an important way of the horses building trust and affection with the grooms. Both exercises are ways of teaching human and animal about each other - likes, dislikes, moods, temperament and little individual character traits.
The circus normally gives two performances a day, in the afternoon and evening. The horses’ acts last about fifteen minutes and the routines showing off the natural aptitudes of the animals remain a firm favourite with the thousands of families who visit Zippo’s each year. After the horses have worked, content they will settle down for the night. Hay nets are filled once again and fresh, clean straw will be laid down in the boxes as soft bedding for the animals’ comfort._Once the animals are bedded down, the horse carers can snatch a couple of hours relaxation for themselves, but before they sleep a final check on the animals is made before retiring to their own mobile homes parked next to stables - ever close to the animals that partner their everyday life.
P.S._Once a week the circus “pulls-down” and moves to a new venue. Although much of the horses’ daily routine remains unaltered small gestures are made throughout the day to ensure a smooth journey to the next circus site. As things are used and no longer required they are packed away, for example after morning exercise the paddocks are taken down and stored. The horse transporter will have been checked for the journey and during the morning of the move the grooms will ensure that hay nets are placed inside ready for the horses so the animals can eat during the short distance between venues.
A day or so before the circus actually departs from a venue the next site has already been “marked out” – this is the process whereby the tent master of the circus marks out the position of the show on the new venue. The tent master also marks out where the horse stables will be situated on site. During marking out a spare set of stakes (the metal pins that secure the tents to the ground) are hammered into place - this is a time saving exercise to ensure a speedy erection of the tents when the circus arrives on the new site. The circus has always positioned the horse acts early or midway during the actual circus performance thus whilst the horses are working in the last performance (usually an early evening one) their stables are already being dismantled. The horses leave the Big Top and are prepared for the journey, loaded and the final few items of the stables packed away.
It is a familiar routine worked out for speed, comfort and efficiency to ensure that journey times for the horses are kept short. The horses transport and grooms leave the site before the final circus performance is over. The transport for the horses is modern and conforms to all regulations, close circuit television enables the driver to check on the horses during the journey and a water tank is fitted so the vehicle has a water supply. (The circus ensures there is a mains supply of fresh water at each venue and employs a member of staff whose first task upon arrival is to connect the water to the circus by way of hosepipes - with the stables being first to have access).
As soon as the convoy arrives at the next site the stables are immediately erected, the loose boxes positioned and the horses unloaded thus ensuring time spent in transport is kept to a minimum. As the rest of the circus begins to arrive at the new location the horse stables are already in place, the animals themselves fed and watered and bedded down for the night.
As soon as the convoy arrives at the next site the stables are immediately erected, the loose boxes positioned and the horses unloaded, normally in under an hour, thus ensuring the time the horses spend in transport is kept to a minimum. As the rest of the circus begins to arrive at the new location the horse stables are already in place, the animals themselves fed and watered and bedded down for the night.