Horses leap into touring spotlight

'Apassionata' tackles road tour logistics

Showbiz can be hard on a horse — just ask the producers of “Luck,” the HBO skein that recently halted production in the wake of three equine deaths. A new U.S. road tour of equestrian showcase “Apassionata” is working overtime to make sure its four-legged stars are well cared for, launching a pricey undertaking producers hope will attract horse lovers around the country to the live show.

The U.S. incarnation of the 45-horse arena tour, kicking off April 27 in Louisville, Ky., comes Stateside with a model to build on: the nine-year-old, annually updated Euro version of the show. It also follows in the footsteps of “Cavalia,” the Montreal-based cirque-with-horses that began perfs seven years ago (and recently launched a new show, Odysseo, to tour simultaneously).

Both “Apassionata” and “Cavalia” have managed to carve out long lives without publicity-grabbing horse mishaps. But it’s not easy. “It’s an enormous logistical undertaking,” says Tanya Grubich, the American producing partner of the German creator and producer of “Apassionata,” Peter Massine.

“Apassionata” makes use of a hub of eight stables — some of which were built solely for the show — scattered across the country as a rotating series of home bases for its four-legged cast members. The horses spend six to eight weeks in a hub, traveling no more than 500 miles by trailer to surrounding markets. At each arena venue, horses perform four times per week over a three-day weekend period.

Each week the show goes through some 100 tons of sand, according to “Apassionata” production coordinator Nadja Tschersig, as well as two tons of bedding straw and 150 bales of wood shavings. Sixty people travel with the show, with additional local help adding up to more than 100 human cast and crew members per stop.

A lot of the show’s hefty production cost — Grubich wouldn’t give an exact amount, but acknowledged it was a major chunk of change — comes from ensuring the health and comfort of its equine stars.

“We hire the horse and rider as a team,” Grubich says. “And riders take care of their own horses. They live with their horses the same way they would at home.”

Creatures of habit, horses are housed in exactly the same stable arrangement, with the same stablemates, no matter where they’re staying. They’re fed exactly the same diet (much of which is brought along with the show), adding up to 150 bales of hay and two tons of muesli a week.

It’s not dissimilar to the model for “Cavalia” and “Odysseo,” although some of the logistics are different. According to Jean-David Pelletier, a rep for “Cavalia” and “Odysseo,” horses perform seven times a week but only five minutes per show, and they get a monthlong holiday about every six weeks.

All those preparations lay the groundwork for keeping the horses happy and healthy for the production. “Apassionata” aims to differentiate itself from the more cirque-flavored “Cavalia” by focusing on dressage and stunt riding. While the Euro incarnation has a loose narrative, Grubich says the U.S. version doesn’t so much revolve around story as it does the theme of the relationship between horse and rider.

A total of 13 breeds appear in the U.S. version, including Shetland and Icelandic ponies, Arabians, Welsh-Arab Crosses, Bretons, Friesians, Lusitanos and donkeys.

Although the overall outlay for the tour has been enormous, Grubich is counting on attracting the same crowds that have been drawn to “Apassionata” in Europe, where the show’s various incarnations have sold more than 5 million tickets. While the production also aims to appeal to traditional legit auds — with most marketing efforts mirroring those for most live events — it’s the broad swath of equine enthusiasts that are the foundation of the fanbase.

Which is why producers want to make sure the stars of the show are well-cared for.

“The core audience (for this show) are those horse lovers,” Grubich says.

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