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A slender man with a muted resemblance to Orlando Bloom in his Elven phase, Pignon romped around the arena, wavy brown locks flying, with a gait as light as his horse’s delicate trot. Both human and horse seemed to land and spring a few millimeters short of earth. Everything about the animal, from its lifted tail to its elegantly curved neck, said that in all the world there was nothing so fun, and certainly nothing so important, as learning to kneel and bow and stop in a second for the reward of his trainer’s understanding. Still, every now and again, the horse would get carried away and peel off from Pignon’s side in a rocking canter, as if overcome with some thrill. I was shocked to see that Pignon didn’t utter a sound, but simply bounded across the arena to meet the horse on the curve with a kiss on the muzzle and a pat on the neck. The next time around, the Arabian stallion followed him like a puppy.
"That horse is only a year and a half old," Latourelle said proudly. "Just a baby. And he’s only worked with Fred five times."
Pignon carries no whip, only a fine thread on a stick; it makes no noise and never hits the horse. "It’s just an extension of his arm," Latourelle explained as we watched Pignon apply it gently to the horse’s foreleg and the horse bent his leg to bow. "He doesn’t need more than that, because he doesn’t break his horses. He doesn’t climb up on the horse until the horse understands what he’s doing and tells him it’s all right."
Latourelle, who produced the significantly animal-free Cirque du Soleil from its evolution as a band of street performers until it hit the big time in 1990, told me this attitude toward horses was a big reason he tracked down the 37-year-old Pignon and his wife, Magali Delgado, also 37, whose father breeds Lusitano horses in Avignon, France (including 15 of Cavalia’s 37 stallions and geldings).
"I was convinced they could do a show without abusing the horses," Latourelle said.
Inside the temporary stables on the beach next to the pier, Pignon and Delgado, a tiny, dark woman in tight jeans and a black T-shirt with "Beverly Hills" written across in it rhinestones, stop by the stall of a horse named Fasto, a misty-white Lusitano who resides next to his brother, Templado, the 19-year-old star of Cavalia. Fasto doesn’t have the placid, vacant gaze of the horses I’m used to, but a sharp, mischievous look, as if he’s about to trick somebody.
"He’s a little clown," Pignon confirms, as the horse nips playfully at Pignon’s striped jeans and finally, after several calm corrections, rests his chin on Pignon’s shoulder. "You have to teach the basics. You have to be just. But I don’t force the horses to do anything, I invite them. When I ask Fasto to lie down, he won’t do it right away, but I know he will eventually, because he knows that when he lies down, I will scratch his back."
One row back is Mandarin, a Buckskin Lusitano that suffered from emotional problems early in life — related, says Delgado, to the horse’s lack of faith in human perceptiveness. "Sometimes horses don’t communicate with us," she says, "because they think we’re too stupid to understand them."
Pignon then demonstrates how he taught Mandarin to express himself. "I’d climb up a little bit onto his back like this, and he’d make this noise" — Pignon makes four little grunting sounds — "and so I’d get off. Then I’d do it again, and he’d make the noise, and I’d climb off." The horse learned that his little noises told this particular human to back off.
"One time," says Pignon, "Mandarin is sick and the vet says, ‘It’s colic.’ We say, ‘No, it’s his teeth. He told us.’ The vet says, ‘Colic.’ We say, ‘Teeth.’ Finally, when the colic treatment doesn’t work, the vet looks in Mandarin’s mouth and sees a bad tooth. And we say, ‘Right, it’s his tooth. That’s just what he said to us.’"