Equestrian Circus

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Equestrian Circus is the name for a circus consisting of or containing a collection of Equestrian Acts (or Equestrian Gymnastics). A specialized form of this from the 19th century was the Hippodrama.


Both the concept of an Equestrian Act as part of a performance, and the Equestrian Circus as an entity, apparently have their origins in the (competitive or non-competitive) activity known as Equestrian Vaulting[1] today (also sometimes referred to as Equestrian Gymnastics or simply Vaulting). Often described as "gymnastics and dance on horseback", vaulting on horseback has a long history as an Equestrian Act used in circuses, hence it the terms Equestrian Circus and Equestrian Gymnastics are often used as descriptors for a set of such acts, and its origins stretch back at least two-thousand years, with its circus roots most probably lying in the ancient Roman games, where acrobats[2] usually displayed their skills on cantering horses.

According to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979), the Equestrian Circus thus "constitutes the oldest form of circus art, in which most of the acts involve performing horses and displays of horsemanship. The equestrian circus originated in horse festivals, equestrian competitions, and riding schools and was the main type of circus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The traditional circus ring, 13-14 m in diameter, came from the equestrian circus."[3]

Some international examples include The Royal Australian Equestrian Circus (185), Hughes' Great Mammoth Equestrian Circus,

A specialized form: The Hippodrama

A very specialized 19th century theatrical version of the Equestrian Circus is what is known as the Hippodrama, or "horse drama"; a genre of theatrical show evolved in England by Philip Astley at the beginning of the 19th century as a way to circumvent the restrictions of the the Licensing Act of 1737. In such dramas circus horsemanship displays are combined with popular melodrama theatre, using texts written specifically for the genre.[4] They were usually performed in specially constructed venues referred to as Hippodromes.

A number of these were done in South Africa over the years, inter alia by Astley's Circus, the Equestrian Gymnastics, **

The Equestrian Circus in South Africa

In the South African context, this activity first occurs, both as a descriptor for a set of performances in ***

In 1850 a French circus troupe visited Cape Town and featured equestrian acts and hippodramas as part of its repertoire, billed as Equestrian Gymnastics. (For details, see:Equestrian Gymnastics)

[TH, JH]




F.C.L. Bosman, 1928[5]: pp. 439-440.

Temple Hauptfleisch, 1997[6]: pp. 27-28.

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