The Horse Rider's Journal

The Circus is in town

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The Donnert family has left a lasting impression on horse lovers all over the world with their spectacular shows. Their skills in handling, training and riding horses goes back five generations.

Photography JETTE JØRS / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.8

The essential joy of working with horses is that it brings me in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty and spirit. It’s a tough job, but also a very spiritual journey every time you train a new young horse to do tricks in the ring,” says Hungarian horseman Richard Donnert.
We are sitting beneath the dimmed stage lights on the ringside in the enormous red and orange tent of Circus Benneweis, which today is pitched in the outskirts of the Danish village of Ringsted, some 100 kilometres from the capital Copenhagen. The modern-day circus dates back to the end of the 18th century when it was originally an exclusively equestrian spectacle; its trick riders were later joined in the ring by rope dancers, acrobats, clowns and jugglers. However, today amazing horses still form the centrepiece of great circus shows all over the world, and one of the specialists in this field is the Donnert family of Hungary. They have been performing in circuses with horses for five generations. Their repertoire consists of spectacular acrobatic stunts done on horseback and other tricks that display their expertise in handling horses.

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“We all started our careers almost from the moment we were born,” says Richard, the eldest of the five Donnert children. He is taking a quick break from training a couple of new young horses that may or may not end up in the show.
“We see close to a thousand horses every year to find the special ones that have the physical appearance and strength of mind to become a top athlete in the circus ring,” says the horse trainer and acrobat. “It’s not easy, you know. For generations we have only used white horses. Beyond that, the horse needs to have a strong back and a mind focused on performing in the circus ring under the spotlight in front of a live audience.”
The six horses that the Donnerts are working with this summer are a big Percheron draught horse, two big white mixed horses, an Arabian/Lipizzaner mix, a Hungarian draft horse and a beautiful, slim but strong brown mixed Hungarian horse (the colour exception that proves the rule).
“A few weeks ago, sadly, I had to let one of my best trick horses go,” says Richard. “He was beautiful, strong, good-hearted and extremely skilled. But he hated being in front of an audience. I hoped to be able to train him to accept the crowd, but in the end I could see that this was killing him a little bit inside every day. So we had to sell him.”

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The secret behind handling a circus horse is to treat it well, he says. “The horses are so very difficult to find, and it takes many years to train them to do what we want them to do in the ring. We want them to be strong and healthy for many years to come.”
He explains more about the family’s horsemanship principles. “We feed them hay and pellets that we produce ourselves, and train them carefully so that they don’t get overworked. And we don’t use force when training them. We want to make them do the tricks voluntarily. They have to want to perform not because they are scared, but because it is fun and they get rewarded.”
Richard’s dad Tino had a horse he worked with in the ring until it died at the age of 37. “Circus horses often live to a fine old age because they are taken so well care of,” says Richard. “They are not trained fiercely for many hours a day like, for instance, top sports horses, who rarely get to grow very old – they are worn down before that.”

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The circus life is a life on the road, setting up the tent in a new city every night. And for the Donnerts it also means travelling to a new circus, in a new country, many times a year.
“We specialise in certain tricks with and on horses, so the demand for our act is big and we travel from one circus to another all year through,” says Richard, who after the Donnerts’ three-month spell with Circus Benneweis in Denmark will travel on with his family to Germany to join Circus Krone. During their stay in Denmark they will also stage three impressive shows at the 2013 European Championships in jumping, dressage and para dressage in the MCH Arena and JYSK Arena in Herning as part of Circus Benneweis.
“The circus life is hard for us circus people, but the horses live a pretty good life,” he says. “They get to perform for one or two minutes a day. Perhaps we train some routines for 30 minutes, and for the rest of the day they are out on grass or sleep in their boxes.”

THEJOURNAL8_108-1155The Donnert history of horsemanship began in 1820 when Richard’s great-grandfather Adolf revolutionised the entertainment world by putting together a commercial horseshow starring over 40 horses and giving performances in Germany. Later on, Adolf turned this gigantic show into a version better suited to travelling circuses. The brothers’ grandfather Antal opened the first horse theatre in Hungary in the early 1900s, using his knowledge of horses to create a variety of horse acts. Antal passed on what he knew to his eight children, among them the brothers’ father, which allowed all of them to grow up to be horse trainers and performers.
“My brothers and I have been able to watch and learn from our dad and uncles from a very young age, and see how the acts work and how to handle and train horses,” says Richard. The Donnert family’s many horse acts include high school/dressage, liberty dressage, comedy, acrobatics on horses, bareback riding, juggling on horses, pas de deux and roman riding. The Donnert family is also known worldwide for their drunken horse act, a funny piece of theatrical horsemanship which presents a lesson everyone should learn: Why you should never drink and drive, or as they said in the old West, drink and ride. Dressed in red and white, the Donnert family also puts on a traditional jockey routine. As their horse circles the ring, the four men and one woman take turns to somersault beside it or make running leaps onto its rump, where they perform a series of daring tricks, even throwing in a back somersault onto another horse. They end up first standing on and then sitting astride the horse. It’s all the more impressive because the sand-filled ring gives them no added spring.

In addition to the Donnert family in Denmark – namely Richard’s brothers Adrian, Arnold, Toni, Toni’s wife Emila and their parents Toni and Elisabeth – a number of relatives work in different countries with other circuses. The brothers’ uncle Gaby has an act with white Arabian horses and is with a circus in Sweden. Another uncle works with horses and elephants in a circus in Russia. A cousin juggles on the back of a galloping horse and has been with the Ringling Brothers’ and Barnum and Bailey’s Living Carousel Show in the US for many years. A second cousin is with Circus Gross. And back home in Hungary their grandfather’s brother works with ponies.
“My father has taught me and my brothers everything we know. And he was taught by his father, and so on and so on. Many of the tricks we do were invented by my great-grandfather, and they still fascinate audiences today. Incredible, isn’t it?’
Richard’s specialities include performing a unique juggling act on horseback. Over the years, the brothers have performed for audiences at the most renowned circuses and galas all over the world. The highest honour comes when you get nominated by and invited to participate in the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, where the Oscars of the circus world are handed out. In February 2013 it was Richard Donnert and his brothers’ turn to be praised when they received a Bronze Clown for their horse performances. They also won two side awards, namely Prix Special Emilien Bouglione and Prix Specialgesellschaft Der Circusfreunde. These were presented to the Donnerts by none other than Princess Stephanie of Monaco, who happens to be a gifted rider herself with a stable near Monaco.
As for why horse acts still fascinate audiences, Richard observes: “A horse is the projection of people’s dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us an escape from our mundane existence.”

Richard and his brothers have to get back in the ring now to practice with some new horses. They venture into the circular arena, surrounded by the empty tiers of seats beneath the enormous Benneweis circus tent, and get to work, keeping the family’s horse-handling traditions alive. Whether these traditions will live on for generations to come remains to be seen: So far none of the brothers have any children. But when they come, they are pretty much destined to continue the horsemanship legacy of the Donnerts. In a few hours, they will be getting out of their training clothes and into their traditional stage gear. The will do a quick warm-up, say a short prayer, fetch the groomed horses, strap the special Donnert harness on to them and parade out into the spotlight to give yet another staggering performance. And tomorrow they will do it all over again in a different city.
“This is the life we love,” says Richard. “To perform, travel and live closely with our horses.” •

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