After spending three years traveling Europe and the U.S. as a performer with Cavalia, the Cirque du Soleil-inspired ode to the bond between humans and horses, Atlanta native Jesse Lee Cooper is finally able to show off his jaw-dropping talents in his own hometown. Cavalia has taken up residence under the big top at Atlantic Station through Nov. 22.
What do you do in the show?
I am a horse trainer and performer. Im actually responsible for training the horses, as well as teaching them to go on the stage and do the acts that they do. And I work with the other acrobats and the other actors onstage.
What is the scariest thing youve ever seen happen during a show?
We have had a horse fall onstage in one of the acts that I do, which is always a terrible thing to have happen. We had riders with injuries as well. Luckily, weve never had a horse injured in the three years that Ive been here.
Whats the worst human injury youve ever seen?
When I was new, one of our trick riders was doing a backbend on her trick-riding horse. Something went wrong and her shoulder snapped, and she ended up having to have four pins in her arm. That actually happened during a training period, so it wasnt in the show. I think she was out for three months.
Are all of the horses male. Why?
I think about 20 of our horses are stallions, so if we were to bring a mare into the stables and if she were to go into heat while she was here, it would send a crazy amount of hormones through the stables. And these stallions are already aggressive. It would not be pretty. We have to put the stallions very close together on stage. To put them with a mare would not be a good thing.
Are the male horses easier to work with?
I actually prefer mares. We have geldings as well stallions they no longer have their testicles. I prefer riding mares because they have a bit more finesse and showiness to them. Geldings tend to be a bit more calm. The average person would prefer geldings to stallions theyre a bit more predictable.
Whats the secret to riding so fast?
For me, its just really trusting my horse to take care of me. Thats what I have to do. When the horse is riding, hes really free. I have no control over him. If I were to get hung up in the saddle and get into a wreck, I know that horse will carry me into the garage safely and stop where hes supposed to stop.
Are you ever scared when youre riding a horse like that?
Generally no. Im personally not scared for myself. But Im very aware of everyone else on stage. If my horse creates an issue, it could cause someone else to have an injury. Its not fear, but its being aware at all times of what everyone is doing and what every horse is doing at all times.
Do you feel connected to the horse?
You feel a bond. We all pretty much have our own horses, and no one else works with that animal. I think that animals are far more easy than people. Horses are so uncomplicated for me. Ive been working with them for 20 years. Its a part of my life to be inside the horses head, so I really understand what theyre thinking. I can predict pretty easily by how they hold their ears, how they hold their neck what is going to happen. A horse will never do anything without telling you. You just have to know how to read what theyre telling you.
Where have you traveled on the show?
Actually, I came to Cavalia right when they left to go to Europe Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal. After two years, we came back to the U.S. and Canada.
Whats the hardest part about traveling like that?
The hardest part is maintaining a relationship with a partner and my family. Being Southern, we are very family oriented. I am all about family so it was very hard for me and go off for three years without seeing them. I had to learn to deal with stuff on my own, whereas before I could call and be like Mom, Im freaking out, what do you think?
Being back here is a very huge experience for me. This is my hometown. This is probably the biggest deal, the biggest city for me. This is where Im from, and these are my people.
(Photo by Joeff Davis)
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