With a piece of hay dangling from his sleepy lips, a horse named Nezma dozes in the corner of his stall. It’s a warm October morning in a tented stable set high on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. Nezma’s ears swivel and his head pops up when Uriel Chartrand-Ardail, 17, enters the stall. Uriel pats Nezma on his dappled gray rump. The horse shakes his black mane and reaches his pink nose out to nudge his rider, as if to say, “Good morning to you, too.”
It’s time for the pair’s first lesson after two weeks off. Uriel and Nezma (along with the other 62 horses and 46 performers) arrived in the Washington area this month to perform in “Odysseo.” The show, staged by a Canadian company named Cavalia, is a live performance under a white tent that’s as tall as a 12-story building and longer than a football field.
Uriel grew up performing in a circus in Las Vegas. “I love working with horses,” he says. “Nezma is a real smart guy. He’s super curious, and he’s awfully nice.”
Aboard Nezma (or Garuda or Pom-Pon, the other horses he works with) Uriel performs high-speed, backward and sideways vaults. On his own two feet, Uriel bounces, somersaults and flies in aerial acrobatics.
Working as an acrobat and a performance rider means hours of early-morning training with the horses and shows that run late into the night. (He was home-schooled but has now finished high school.) In between, he lifts weights and does push-ups to increase his strength, polishes his boots and cleans his tack (or equipment), including his saddle and bridle, the horse’s buckled leather headgear.
“I’ve been an acrobat all my life,” Uriel says. “Working with horses has opened me up to a whole different world. I love the friendship; that’s my favorite part.”
Emy Ferrell says nothing else in the world gives you the feeling that horses do. “A horse is your friend,” the ninth-grader from Berryville, Virginia, says. “My pony, Pippi Longstocking, kind of reads my mind.”
Emy, who started riding at 2 years old, and Pippi are the same age: 14. They ride trails, take lessons and compete at horse shows. Emy’s favorite thing to do with Pippi in the fall is fox hunting. Fox hunting is a traditional equestrian sport (that’s a sport with horses) that involves hours of galloping over the countryside. (The fox usually gets away.) As October heads into November, “swirls of leaves come down while we’re riding,” Emy says. “And in the winter there’s snow on the ground, and you have to put five layers of clothes on.”
The night before a fox hunt, Emy bathes Pippi, cleans her tack, sweeps out the trailer that her parents use to get Pippi to and from the event, then prepares the jacket, shirt and tie she will wear. On the day of the hunt, she gets up at a “ridiculously early hour.” On other days, Emy helps her dad, who is the master (or leader) of the Blue Ridge Hunt, to clear the trails of overgrown brush and fallen logs.