LAKE GEORGE ♦ Horsing around at the circus has its perks.
Advanced students of the Riding Right Farm and Equestrian Center of South Cambridge recently were treated to a rare look at animal trainer Jennie Vidbel and her behind-the-scenes work with the horses that have been starring in the Big Apple Circus at the Charles R. Wood Park.
Riding Right owner Hollie McNeil surprised the riders in her summer camp program with a field trip that gave them a glimpse of a career in the horse world they might not have considered before.
“One of my students was saying she wanted to do something with horses, but she’s thinking of horse nutrition. You see there are so many different places you could work in the industry. We might throw the word circus trainer out, and you might say it doesn’t exist. Well, it exists, and it’s a unique job — and you can see how cool it is,” McNeil said.
The girls watched intently as the petite Vidbel held court in the air-conditioned arena, putting six Arabians and six ponies through a morning rehearsal, using nothing more than voice command and an occasional light flick of a whip she held in each hand.
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The stunning animals didn’t fail to impress as they bowed, weaved in between each other, pranced in pairs and sixes and reared up on hind legs.
“When I first get a horse, I don’t just throw him in a ring. I’m hanging in the stall with him, really getting to know their personality. And then I’ll add another horse and see how it’s going to be,” Vidbel explained to the riding students. “I have to figure out who the leader is — and they’ll tell me. I had six geldings and a stallion once and was sure he was going to be the lead — he had all the drive — and it wasn’t the case at all. That’s really important because that lead horse is leading 11 others.”
Vidbel said it takes about a year to put a horse act together. She exercises and trains with the horses in the arena for four hours in the morning, working on next year’s performance, and puts on two productions in the afternoon. She said the horses manage quite well to keep the morning rehearsal and afternoon performances straight in their minds.
Vidbel emphasized horses can’t be pressured to perform. Distractions like lights and music can frighten them. When she is in the ring, she has to expect the unexpected.
“If you have the personality where you want everything perfect, it’s not going to work. In the ring, I have my bag of treats, but no matter what’s happening, no matter how many horses are breaking down, freaking out, you have to remain calm and always be their friend,” she said.
Vidbel grew up in the business — her grandfather and mother did animal training — and she still lives on her family’s 100-year-old farm in Wyndham, south of Albany. She owns several retired animals and said she is a “sucker” for rescue cases.
Vidbel’s twin sister got involved with doing aerial “stuff,” but Vidbel has her dream job spending her days with the horses. Her work schedule averages between 35 to 45 weeks a year on the road with breaks throughout, and she said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s about going in in the morning and loving where you’re at and loving the animals that you’re with and never losing that joy. It’s our passion,” she said.
Riding student Kira Ela, 12, thought the demonstration reinforced how important the basics are in working with animals.
“If you don’t have a good foundation, you won’t have a very good riding experience, especially with a green horse that isn’t rideable yet,” she said.
Eleven-year-old Cassidy Albert didn’t think she necessarily learned anything new because her mother, a horse and dog trainer, already has taught her the basic foundation, but she liked that Vidbel used positive reinforcement with the animals.
Victoria Houser enjoyed Vidbel’s seemingly effortless command of the horses, getting them to weave between each other. The 16-year-old said her own horse has a lot of “attitude” and wouldn’t tolerate such an exercise.
“We’ve worked with him for four years, and we’ve gotten minute success. I love him to death, but he’s such a brat,” Houser said laughing.