You would be hard-pressed to find a horse woman who, at some point in her life, didn’t dream of running away with the circus. With movies like The Greatest Showman, Dumbo, and Water for Elephants, entertainment lovers can get their fill of circus life on the big screen, if not under the Big Top. Though Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have shuttered their doors, the circus isn’t something of the past—it has simply shifted platforms.
By Sarah E. Coleman, Kentucky Equestrian Directory 2021 Issue
For horse lovers, this deviation can be great news—now, instead of the horses being just one piece of a larger show, they ARE the show! If you’re a horse lover who hasn’t heard of Cavalia (Cavalia.com), it’s worth a quick search to see videos and images of one of the most amazing equestrian displays in the world. Similar to Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia has a variety of shows with one main goal: to highlight the bond between horse and human.
One of the equine entertainment world’s preeminent stars is Sylvia Zerbini. Born in Sarasota, Florida, Sylvia was literally born for this role: She’s the ninth generation of a circus family. Sylvia’s mom was an aerialist and her dad trained both wild animals and horses— setting Sylvia up for success at a very young age. Growing up, she took ballet and gymnastics, as well as studied aerial trapeze work.
“Animals have always been an important part of our family,” Sylvia explains. “We were always taught to listen to the language of each animal—that was our job.” If you’ve ever seen Sylvia perform, it’s clear that she does more than just listen to her horses—she converses with them.
“When I was young, puppies and horses were always my thing,” she says. “But I began performing at 5 or 6 with an elephant.” Though her empathy and understanding of animals made her a success with any act in which she tried her hand, interacting with the horses is where she truly shined.
Learning the Language of Horses
“When I was little and wanted to go play, I would go into the pastures with the horses,” Sylvia explained. “I would stick horses out together in different groups to see how they would interact with each other.” While not an opportunity most horse-crazy kids have, that’s where Sylvia learned the language of the horse. Sylvia took what she observed and applied it to her own interactions with horses. “For example, I learned that there are always three warnings before a horse attacks another,” she explains, “and that horses can recognize one another by how they walk—which is always in a straight line.”
Sylvia was able to connect with horses outside the United States as well. Her grandparents lived in France, and she was able to stay with them on their farm. “There I really witnessed how the horses communicated with one another,” she said. “It’s amazing how sensitive [the horses] are.” To this day, Sylvia trains her horses in French.
Sylvia’s parents owned their own show, but when she turned 16, Sylvia began traveling with other circuses, including Ringling Bros., with whom she toured for 10 years. With them, Sylvia showcased her unique combination of aerial art and equestrianism, “before that, it was always one act or the other,” she explains. A pioneer in this new art form, Sylvia would do her trapeze work and then one of her horses would bring her a cape, and together they would do an aerial equine ballet. This type of equine work differed incredibly from traditional circus horse work, which typically featured multiple horses in patent leather harnesses wearing plumes on their heads, traveling around the perimeter of the ring.
Sylvia was able to accomplish this feat, and many others, because she learned the language of the horse. “This allowed me to create my own art and made my training so much easier,” she explained. But don’t be fooled—Sylvia didn’t get the “easy” horses, or ones that were exactly tractable. “I am known for working with the horses that are stubborn or hot-headed,” she explains. She works well with them because she listens to what they’re trying to tell her: “I find that many people just don’t listen to what the horse is saying,” she says.
A Change of Direction
No matter if Sylvia is working with the circus, Cavalia, or a clinic, the work she does looks like magic. During her time with Cavalia, she would have up to 14 horses performing with her at once. Her breed of choice for liberty work is the Arabian. “They are just so intelligent and playful,” she says, “and they’re a bit smaller, which is helpful in the confines of the ring.” For her part of the show, Sylvia would bring in a live herd of 10 to 12 horses and work with them all at once. People called it “equine ballet.”
Sylvia had planned to go with Cavalia to Las Vegas, where the show was set to perform in 2020 and beyond. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. With no immediate plans to resurrect Cavalia, Sylvia had her husband, Richie, bring the horses home from Canada to her Grande Liberté Farm in Williston, Florida, with his transport company, Grande Liberté Farm SZ Equine Transportation.
Though completely blindsided by the pandemic, Sylvia isn’t one to dwell on the negative; similar to her horses, she’s focused on today. Sylvia travels around the country teaching clinics, and now offers private liberty lessons and trapeze aerial training at her farm.
“I teach people how to move the horses without whips,” she explains. “People will find me to help with their horses (they are having issues with),” she says. “It is honest work. Horses are honest - they’re not testing you; if something is going wrong, we have to correct ourselves and look at it from a different angle. The horse isn’t intentionally being bad.”
Sylvia is admittedly a very private person. Though this can seem at odds with her larger-than-life profession, this introspection and quietness is what has allowed her such success in her work with horses—success that will continue no matter where the horses lead her. For now, this equine ballerina will continue to live every horse girl’s dream, helping hundreds of horses, and their owners, in the process.
Learn more about Sylvia at her Facebook page: Facebook.com/Sylviazerbini
Published in the KENTUCKY EQUESTRIAN DIRECTORY - 2021 ISSUE
About the writer - Based in Lexington, Kentucky, Sarah Coleman has a soft spot for chestnuts with chrome, including her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Chisholm, whom she adopted from New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program.