The moment the white stallion named Aetes leans over and gives his trainer a big French kiss always brings down the house, but the horse is a bit more decorous during introductions before a recent performance of "Cavalia."
This day, the Friesian stallion only arches his neck contentedly while trainer Frederic Pignon stands in his stall, scratching his mane.
"This, he likes," says Pignon, murmuring in French, nuzzling Aetes' muzzle with his own nose.
Pignon, 37, a native of the Loire region of France, has a mane of black hair himself. When he was little, he trained the animals on the family farm -- chickens, sheep -- to follow him like dogs, and now he and wife Magali do the same with enormous stallions like Aetes, the stars of the "equestrian spectacle" that's playing in a white-turreted tent near Pentagon City through Sunday.
The show was dreamt up by a guy who founded Cirque du Soleil -- it's been called "Cirque-on-hooves" -- and although it has similar acrobats and moody theme music, the real stars of this show are the horses, some 47 Lusitanian stallions, appaloosas, quarter horses and Percheron draft horses.
At the center of it all is Pignon, who sets the tone for the show, quietly cavorting with a single unbridled buckskin in the 160-foot arena as if it were a grassy field.
It's an intriguing display of the way Pignon relates to his horses, a style of training called "ethological dressage." That's a fancy term for studying horses in their natural habitat and teaching them through play. The French word for it is much more charming: liberte.
Pignon and his wife spend hours playing with their horses during training, gently -- and slowly -- coaxing them to bow, rear on their hind legs and make other moves. They don't put a saddle on their animals until they are four years old. They don't ride them until they are five. The result is horses so calm that they trot directly from the stage to their stalls -- without lead ropes, without the assistance of grooms.
Forget the horse whisperer thing, although Pignon is often called that. (It's so Robert Redford, so cowboy, so 1998.) Pignon prefers the term "horse listener." It's a gentle evolutionary turn in the dance between Man and Beast.
"It's how you can understand a horse to create the connection with him," Pignon says. "It's about the psychology of the horse. . . . You have to understand him and work with him. The basis of my work is the play. I first try to make him trust me and be very confident and calm with him. The horse starts to relax and wants to play. . . . Then I can ask him to do something."
His wife, Magali Delgado, also 37, the daughter of horse breeders, stands nearby, wearing a pink flowered "fun" fur and purple jeans and nodding her head vigorously as her husband speaks.
"The horses are part of the family, like our children," says Delgado, who has been riding since age 2. "We've known them since they were babies." She gestures to two horses nearby, a white stallion named Hades and a buckskin named Nacarado, who are nuzzling each other over the top of their stalls. "Look how they are playing. They are so happy."
Pignon at times uses a thin whip or riding crop while working with the horses to direct rather than punish them.
"The whip is the extension of my finger," Pignon says. "I never use my whip hard or they will run away and never stay with me and never want to kiss me."
The couple occasionally give clinics for riders at their farm near Avignon, but it seems some of Pignon's talent for horses was born in him and can't be taught.
"Frederic can read the mind of the horse," the show's creator and artistic director, Normand Latourelle, says in a phone interview. "Sometimes he'll say, 'This horse can't perform today. He has a problem with his back leg.' I'll look at him and say, 'I don't see it. How do you know that?' He'll say, 'I saw the way he moves his ears.' "
Latourelle co-founded Cirque du Soleil in 1985 and worked with the new-agey circus until 1990, when he left to produce his own shows. Though he's never ridden a horse ("I like to share time with them, but I don't think I should go on their backs," he says), he began writing a script for a horse-themed show called "Dream for Freedom" about 10 years ago. He says he wanted to explore the theme of how man met, then tamed, then yoked horses through the centuries, ultimately denying the creatures their innate freedom. "Cavalia," he says, is about giving that freedom back.
When he saw a tape of Pignon and Delgado working together -- the two were then giving exhibition performances at horse shows around Europe -- he became intrigued. He decided to partner with the couple after visiting them at their farm in 1999.
"I was expecting him to go to a ring with a whip, but he brought the stallions to the field and started to run with them and play with them," Latourelle recalls. "I almost thought he was the horse himself."
The show took years to develop, with arts grants and other financial assistance from the Canadian government. It debuted in August 2003 and has toured the United States and Canada since.
In the finale, Latourelle re-creates the scene he saw in the pasture that day. Pignon appears alone, followed by three horses, including Aetes. He runs the horses through their paces quietly, grinning at them and swatting their noses gently when they try to bite each other. Throughout, Aetes is the clown, tolerating Pignon when he jumps on his back to take a bow.
Finally, the moment arrives: Pignon leans in. Aetes offers his gray muzzle and gives the trainer a big, slurpy, wet kiss. On the lips.
Wild applause follows, mixed with a healthy dose of "Ewwwwwwww."
The kiss is surely a crowd-pleasing moment, but it suggests some questions: Is a horse kiss the same as a human kiss? Does it come with love attached?
Apparently so, at least in Pignon's way of thinking.
"If you explain to a horse you can understand them, he will speak to you," says Pignon. "When I say speak, it's not with words, it's with eyes and movement. . . . Most trainers want submission, they want to be chief. But I think you have to be like a father with little children."