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Texts written by Pascal Jacob

Rosine Lagier collections

Introduced and standardized by an English cavalry officer in the second half of the 18th century, the circus was originally for men only, influenced by its military origins. A quintessential equestrian show and accurate reflection of a changing society, it soon offered women a means to display both their strength and their femininity. From the beginning of the 19th century, equestriennes established a different style of riding, divided into two main disciplines: the “panneau” (exercises performed while standing on horseback), inspired by ballet movements, and Haute-Ecole, derived from academic riding and developed from 1835.

the “panneau”

The dancer Marie Taglioni was the first person to wear a tutu in the ring in 1832. Within a few months, circus equestriennes had all taken to wearing this classical attire when performing on horseback and later began using a wide, flat, wooden saddle covered in leather, designed by the horseman James Morton and popularized from 1849: the “panneau”. In the 1830s the equestrienne Antoinette Lejars, seen in the statue by James Pradier on the pediment of the Cirque d’Hiver, was nicknamed "The Tagliono of the circus”, as much for her outfit as for her perfectly replicated poses.   This combination of ballet and riding gave rise to the “écuyère romantique”, but above all, the analogy with classical ballerinas demonstrates how easily the circus can be adapted to other arts. Over and above the technical skills needed to perform jumps, acrobatics with riding crops and hoops, the equestriennes were above all dancers, taking inspiration from Spanish, Sicilian or Polish traditions, depending on the literary fashions or political events at that time. Little by little “panneau” equestriennes freed themselves from the constraints of the limited scenarios of the ballets performed, and invented their own figures. One of these, jumping over ribbons, invented by Emilie and Catherine Franconi, the wives of Henri and Laurent Franconi (the sons of Antonio Franconi, the founder of the French circus) quickly became part of the equestriennes' repertoires and was used by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec as a unique accolade in many of his drawings and paintings as well as by Georges Seurat in his ultimate piece, “Le Cirque” (The Circus). Alfred de Dreux also painted the proud features of Caroline Loyo, which was reproduced as a picture from the end of the 19th century, an elegant predecessor of our modern-day "spin-off merchandising”, but above all one which bears witness to the equestriennes' popularity. Performing the “saut des ballons” (jumping through paper-covered hoops), the “saut de baguette” (jumping over riding crops) as well as various ballet steps enabled the equestriennes to implicitly combine the grace of a ballerina with the skill of an acrobat. 

In the 19th and 20th century several equestriennes flourished, such as Virginie Kenebel, Antoinette Lejars, Elisa Adrian, Camille Leroux, Hélène Gontard, Ilonka Karoli, Susanna Svensson, Martine Grüss, Marie-Pierre Bénac, etc. 

Haute-Ecole equestriennes

Rosine Lagier collections

In contrast to the delicate “panneau” equestriennes, the Haute-Ecole equestriennes developed a different set of skills, combining passion and strength whilst retaining their elegance.     

The golden age of equestriennes was around 1840, during which time they outnumbered the “écuyers”(their male counterparts). Caroline Loyo was the first woman to show a horse trained in Haute-Ecole in a circus ring in 1833. Trained by Pellier and then François Baucher, she revolutionised their teaching and marked the advent of the equestrienne as an emblematic figure of a fundamentally equestrian and acrobatic circus.         

As such, academic dressage became more and more established in the ring and many equestriennes favoured a more austere attire for riding sidesaddle and elegantly performing steps and gaits. 

dynamic shapes and movements

On the fringes of these two symbolic categories, a new repertoire of dynamic shapes and movements was born, with more emphasis placed on using the body.   Vaulting on horseback involved equestriennes such as May Wirth performing acrobatics and a series of dangerous jumps to music on horseback or, even more difficult, from one horse to another, the whole range of “Pas de deux” (involving two horses) and “Pas de trios” (involving three horses) and pyramids on horseback and finally, the Hungarian Post, mastered by only a handful of artists since its creation in 1827, where the performer balances atop two galloping horses, with one foot on each back, holding them far enough apart to allow other horses to pass under this improvised bridge whilst catching hold of a meticulously wound rein which unravels and is used to form a harnessed team of five, six or even nine, eleven or fifteen horses.

Texts written by Pascal Jacob, a major circus arts collector and enthusiast and the author of many works dedicated to the history of the circus and its disciplines.