The ring looked small and lonely; its circle of empty benches seemed to stare intently at it, as though some sort of unseen performance were going on for the benefit of a ghostly audience. Now and again a guy rope creaked, or a loose end of canvas flapped like faint, unreal applause, as the silence shut down again, it did not need much imagination to people the ring with dead and gone circus riders performing for the benefit of shadowy spectators packed on those benches.
In the menagerie portion matters were different; here there was a free and easy air, the animals realising that for the present the eyes of the public were off them, and they could put in the afternoon as they chose.
The big African apes had dropped the “business” of showing their teeth, and pretending that they wanted to tear the spectators’ faces off. They were carefully and painstakingly trying to fix up a kind of rustic seat in the corner of their cage with a short piece of board, which they placed against the wall. This fell down every time they sat on it, and the whole adjustment had to be gone through again.
The camel had stretched himself full length on the tan, and was enjoying a luxurious snooze, oblivious of the fact that before long he would have to get up and assume that far-off ship-of-the-desert aspect. The remainder of the animals were, like actors, “resting” before their “turn” came on; even the elephant had ceased to sway about, while a small monkey, asleep on a sloping tent pole, had an attack of nightmare and would have fallen off his perch but for his big tail. It was a land of the Lotus-eater “In which it seemed always afternoon.”
These visions were dispelled by the entry of a person who said, “D’ye want to see Dan?” and soon Dan Fitzgerald, the man who knows all about the training of horses, came into the tent with Montgomery, the ringmaster, and between them they proceeded to expound the methods of training horseflesh.
“What sort of horse do we buy for circus work? Well, it depends what we want ’em for. There are three sorts of horses in use in a circus—ring horses, trick horses, and school horses; but it doesn’t matter what he is wanted for, a horse is all the better if he knows nothing. A horse that has been pulled about and partly trained has to unlearn a lot before he is any use to us. The less he knows, the better it is.”
“Then do you just try any sort of horse?”
“Any sort, so long as he is a good sort, but it depends on what he is wanted for. If we want a ring horse, he has to be a quiet sober-going animal, not too well-bred and fiery. A ring horse is one that just goes round the ring for the bareback riders and equestriennes to perform on. The human being is the “star”, and the horse in only a secondary performer, a sort of understudy; yes, that’s it, an understudy—he has to study how to keep under the man.”
“Are they hard to train?”
“Their work all depends on the men that ride them. In bareback riding there’s a knack in jumping on the horse. If a man lands awkwardly and jars the horse’s back, the horse will get out of step and flinch at each jump, and he isn’t nearly so good to perform on. A ring horse must not swerve or change his pace; if you’re up in the air, throwing a somersault, and the horse swerves from underneath you—where are you?”
“Some people think that horses take a lot of notice of the band—is that so?”
“Not that I know of. If there are any horses in the show with an ear for music, I haven’t heard of them. They take a lot of notice of the ringmaster.”
“Does it take them long to learn this work?”
“Not long; a couple of months will teach a ring horse; of course, some are better than others.”
“First of all we teach them to come up to you, with the whip, like horsebreakers do. Then we run them round the ring with a lunging rein for a long time; then, when they are steady to the ring, we let them run with the rein loose, and the trainer can catch hold of it if they go wrong. Then we put a roller on them—a broad surcingle that goes round the horse’s body—and the boys jump on them and canter round, holding on to the roller, or standing up, lying down, and doing tricks till the horse gets used to it.”
“Well, you give ’em a couple of hours of it, perhaps, and then dry them and feed them, and give them a spell, and then bring them out again. They soon get to know what you want; but you can’t break in horses on the move. The shifting and worry and noise and excitement put it all out of their heads. We have a fixed camp where we break them in. And a horse may know his work perfectly well when there is no one about, but bring him into the ring at night, and he is all abroad.”
“Do you have to give them much whip?”
“Not much. If a horse doesn’t know what you want him to do, it only ruins him to whip him. But once he does a thing a few times, and then won’t do it, then you must whip him.”
“What about trick horses?”
“A trick horse rolls a barrel, or lies down and goes to bed with the clown, or fires a pistol—does any trick like that. Some small circuses make the same horses do both trick and ring work, but it isn’t a good line. A horse is all the better to have only one line of business—same as a man.”
“How do you teach them tricks?”
“Oh, it takes a long time and a lot of hard work and great patience. Even to make a horse lie down when he’s ordered takes a couple of months sometimes. To make a horse lie down, you strap up one leg, and then pull his head round; after a while he gets so tired of the strained position that he lies down, after which he learns to do it at command. If you want him to pick up a handkerchief, you put a bit of carrot in it, and after a while they know that you want them to pick it up—but it takes a long time. Then a strange hand in the ring will flurry them, and if anything goes wrong, they get all abroad. A good active pony, with a bit of Arab blood in him, is the best for tricks.”
“What’s a school horse?”
“Ah, that’s a line of business that isn’t appreciated enough out here. On the Continent they think a lot of them. A school horse is one that is taught to do passaging, to change his feet at command, to move sideways and backwards; in fact, to drill. Out here no one thinks much of it. But in Germany, where everyone goes through military riding schools, they do. The Germans are the best horse-trainers in the world; and the big German circus-proprietors have men to do all their business for them, while they just attend to the horses.”
“How long does it take to turn out a school horse?”
“Well, Chiarini was the best trainer out here, and he used to take two years to get a horse to his satisfaction. For school horses, you must have thoroughbreds, because their appearance is half their success. We had a New Zealand thoroughbred that had raced, and was turning out a splendid school horse, and he got burnt after costing a year’s training. That’s the luck of the game, you know. You keep at it year after year, and sometimes they die, and sometimes they get crippled—it’s all in the luck of the game. You may give fifty pounds for a horse, and find that he can never get over his fear of the elephant, while you give ten pounds for another, and find him a ready-made performer almost.”
We passed out through the ghostly circus and the menagerie tent down to the stable tent. There, among a lot of others, a tranquil-looking animal was munching some feed, while in front of him hung a placard, “Tiger Horse”.
“That’s a new sort! What is he, ring, trick, or school horse?”
“Well, he’s a class by himself. I suppose you’d call him a ring horse. That’s the horse that the tiger rides on.”
“Did it take him long to learn that?”
“Well, it did not take this horse long; but we tried eleven others before we could get one to stand it. They’re just like men, all different. What one will stand another won’t look at. Well, good-bye.”
Just like men—no doubt; most men have to carry tigers of various sorts through life to get a living.