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During the 19th century, circuses played an important role in entertainment. Most of what we take for granted — be it movies, video games, television and radio — were far into the future. Entertainment opportunities were simple and homespun. More than 90 percent of the country lived on farms or small towns. Theaters or concerts, if they existed, were put on by local schools or churches.
Circuses, which traveled from town to town setting up shows under “big-top” tents, were without a doubt the apex of entertainment for most of the country.
During the winter, they hunkered down in winter quarters preparing for the next season. Small “colleges” sprung up, where instruction in the circus arts continued during the off-season.
One such place was James Cook’s Equestrian College in Baxterville, Newtown Township — today a section of Jackson Heights. In 1872, Cook and his wife, who were well-known “four-horse barebacked riders” from a famous British circus family, purchased an 8-acre farm where they built a riding school and home where pupils could board during the period of instruction. Some of the leading circus horse acts of that time got their start at his school.
In the center of a small, 50-foot ring, he set up a derrick that consisted of an upright beam and horizontal arm that extended out at a right angle. At the end of the arm was a thick rope strong enough to lift a person. A snap hook on the rope attached to the pupils’ belts at their waists. The other end was held by the trainer, who could raise or lower the rope at will.
The students were then mounted on a pad or a flat saddle on the horse’s back. Then the animal trotted around the ring where the student could try summersaults or practice balancing. The teacher’s eyes were focused on the students who, should they tumble, were instantly pulled up by their jerk of the rope and harmlessly allowed to swing in the air until they regained their footing unharmed.
The school also trained horses for circus acts. While some steeds took to the business easily, others were more vicious and unruly. When a reporter asked Cook on the length of time needed to train a horse, Cooke replied that, as no two were alike, it took anywhere from 18 to 24 months. The most important trait he had to drill into them was keeping a steady gait. Without the cadence of a steady trot, a performer found it nearly impossible to confidently time a tumble or jump on the horse’s back.
Horseback riding acts were among the marquee circus acts of that time. Performers could travel from show to show expecting to find mounts not only ready, but with only a short time for practice, able to establish a rapport with the rider and understand a series of commands.
Modern riding “stars” had as many as eight or 10 mounts that traveled with them, trained for special tricks. The horses were valuable, being full-blooded mounts from England or France. They were also pampered for they were prone to colds and other respiratory ailments after breaking into a sweat during a ring performance.
For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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