From its origins under Phillip Astley, the circus has featured performing horses and champion riders, performing acrobatic and gymnastic feats on the bare backs of horses. Because equestrian acts are highly dynamic and ever-changing it is impossible to classify all styles of equestrian act, however a few definitive styles have emerged.
Voltige, a French word for mounted gymnastics. In a voltige act, the rider vaults off the horse’s back and runs alongside it, holding onto a handgrip attached to the harness. Turning cartwheels and somersaults, the rider might spring back up to assume a rear-facing position, before he scissors around to the front. According to the late British circus historian Antony Hippisley Coxe, there are many variations: “voltige à la Richard, where the horse is unbridled and unsaddled (Davis Richard, an American in 1860, performed this act), “voltige à la cowboy,” (where a lariat is used), or “tcherkesse” or “Cossack” riding, involves lying across the horse’s back with the ankle in a loop attached to the surcingle, the band passed around the horse’s midsection. (Antony D. Hippisley Coxe, A Seat At the Circus (London: Evans Bros, 1952) 43. While virtually upside down, the Cossack rider can in this manner retrieve handkerchiefs and other objects from the sawdust floor, while the horse gallops around the ring.
Bareback or Jockey. These acts are similar to voltige acts. While on the horse’s back, the performer stands on one leg, kneels, jumps to a standing position and then somersaults from the back of one horse to the back of another horse that is following behind. Doing tricks on bareback requires a coating of rosin applied to the horse to provide a reliable non-slippery surface.
Pantomimes. These theatrical vignettes on horseback have been displayed since Astley introduced the “Tailor’s Ride to Brentford.” Andrew Ducrow’s “Courier of Saint Petersburg” was one of the most famous pantomimes. It gained renowned in London on May 7th 1827 at Astley’s Amphitheatre. Ducrow entered the ring standing astride two horses, which he eased apart enough to allow more horses to pas forward between his legs. Each new horse carried a flag representing a country the courier had to ride through to reach St. Petersburg from London.