The many souls of a genius

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Bartabas, the great French equestrian artist, founder of Zingaro, reflects back over his life and career in a beautiful book, recently published in France. A book in which he tells the stories of the many horses that have accompanied him over the years. A sort of ideal autobiography and, at the same time, a tribute to the companions of a lifetime, full of anecdotes and very interesting reflections on equestrian art


It is highly probable that, between thirty-two and thirty-six thousand years ago, the men who painted the silhouettes of prehistoric horses on the walls of the caves of Chauvet, in France, were experiencing the same mixture of fear and attraction that any child still feels today when approaching on a horse for the first time. The book that Bartabas, the great French equestrian artist, devoted to the horses of his life (D’un cheval, l’autre ed. Gallimard, 2020) starts exactly from this primordial emotion.

“The five-year-old boy that I was had to win his fear in front of this 1300 pounds monster called a horse. A fear that arose from the same fascination which that animal exerted on me and that, for reasons that I do not know, I told myself that I had to overcome. Going towards different beings as if they were my kind is the first lesson that that animal taught me.” (p. 12)

When, between the late seventies and early eighties, the genius of Bartabas made its appearance at the center of the circus ring under the ramshackle big top of the Cirqe Aligre, it was like the explosion of the first rocket which announces a fireworks display. From that experience, in 1984, a new and more nourished group of artists was born who, on the basis of an existential, as well as artistic, partnership, lived together in a sort of Gypsy village of another era. The company took the name of Zingaro and their first show, Cabaret équestre, revealed to the world something that was completely new and unexpected. Bartabas called it “equestrian theater”: a show which combined, in an original, ironic and overwhelming mix, the romantic, nineteenth-century tradition of the circus, academic horsemanship, the reckless elegance of the rejoneo (i.e. bullfighting on horseback) and avant-garde theater. A show full of gypsy influences, with the cultured bravado and the frantic rhythm of a futurist cabaret. But the most extraordinary fact for that time, already inexorably mechanized, was that horses were the real and absolute protagonists of that show, which was a sort of fascinating pagan ritual devoted to them. The success was overwhelming and since then Bartabas has created many exceptional shows: from the following Opera équestre, to Chimeres, Eclipse, up to the most recent, Calacas and Ex-Anima. All of these shows have, each time, moved the equestrian theater into a new territory, bringing horsemanship into dialogue with theater, dance, music and literature. The success of Zingaro was also fruitful and gave a decisive impulse for the revival of equestrian shows all over the world. In fact, the major portion of the companies, that all around the world explore the expressive potential of the horse in the artistic field, are inspired by the art of Bartabas.

The Cirque Aligre was
Bartabas’ first company

At this point in his life, Bartabas decided to look back and to remember the many horses that have accompanied him in his artistic career and in his human adventure. He tells their stories with a terse language, which is nevertheless capable of moments of strong fascination. The whole book gives the impression of having been the result of an intense work of introspection and concentration. The most emblematic, among the 143 horses whose names are listed at the end of the book, was Zingaro: the splendid Friesian stallion, with whom in Cabaret équestre he held a hilarious duet, a number at liberty in which irony, love, strength and elegance mingled in a real magic. Zingaro was Bartabas’ true alter ego. Only once, in Volterra, Italy, he dared to ride him, going with him into a wood, unbeknownst to the rest of the company.

“Nobody ever knew about this escape. I never got on him like on a vulgar horse again. Zingaro had to remain, the mythological beast, the free and untouchable stallion, who cope to Bartabas the Furious.” (p. 94)

Bartabas has never healed from the pain for the loss of this special animal, who was killed by colic during the Chimeres tour in the United States. In the caravan in which he lives, Bartabas keeps a braid of his hair and the urn with his ashes, waiting for the day in which they will meet again.

Bartabas and Zingaro
(Photo by Robert Van der Hilst – Getty Images)

Among the many horses in the life of Bartabas, who have enchanted the public all over the world for their elegance and perfect training, many were, in reality, specimens purchased for a cheap price, from merchants with brisk ways. Sometimes this saved them from the slaughterhouse, as it was for Chaparro, a small Spanish horse on which an acrobat performed dizzy vaulting in Cabaret équestre. Those exercises, performed by that horse, who cantered wearing small bells on his pasterns,

“had an air of samba. He had the communicative enthusiasm of those who have touched death and are grateful to life.” (p. 30)

In the same show, Bartabas rode Dolaci, a Lusitano cruzado, who “had been at the good school of the rejoneo, where balance and impulsion are a necessity and not a pretext for rhetoric” (p. 36). He is grateful to him as to a master: “I owe him the discovery of the right sensations, the unforgettable ones, those that have been a guide to me throughout my whole equestrian life” (pp. 36-37). However, that extremely elegant horse retained a traumatic memory of his past in the bullfighting arenas. One day, while Bartabas was taking care of him before a show, the horse started to tremble and sweat, as soon as the radio begun to broadcast the first notes of Carmen’s overture. The same overture which is invariably played during the paseo that precedes the bullfights, in the south of France. Nonetheless, making pirouettes with him around a makeshift garrocha, Bartabas renewed every evening a ballet which was made of control, balance and impulsion, which made him feel like he was Nureyev.

“With you, I understood that to train a horse it is not enough to understand its locomotion and resolve its physical resistances. You must also probe his soul.” (p. 38)

Bartabas in Golgota

One of Bartabas’ most famous horses was Quixote, a Lusitano stallion with the prestigious brand of the Ortigão Costa stud farm on his thigh. He was purchased from a Portuguese cavalheiro after a bullfight in Arles’ amphitheater, when it decided that the horse was no longer suited for the arena. No one that day imagined that the horse would become a legend. At that time, Bartabas meditated on the teachings of the great masters of equestrian art: from La Guérinière to Steinbrecht, from Pluvinel to Decarpentry, to Diogo de Bragança and Oliveira. But it was above all “Baucher, the acrobat”, with his “second manner”, that spoke more directly to his sensitivity. Bartabas was particularly obsessed by one image: the famous picture of James Fillis cantering backwards on Germinal, in 1890. However, in horsemanship, meditation must then be translated into action:

“Once these experiences are anchored in the head, it is a question of letting them pass through the seat, the legs and the hands. It is necessary to educate the body and regulate reflexes. It is an austere research that cannot be shared.” (p. 68)

Finally, thanks to Quixote, he felt that he could take on the challenge and with him

“he will perform the purest canter backwards and, so that there are no possible disputes, he will do it on a wooden platform. So that from wherever he will be seen, everybody will hear the melody of the four bits of the canter suspended in the air.” (p. 69)

James Fillis and Germinal
Canter backwards – 1890

The story of the first time he succeeds in performing this sublime exercise is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting moments in the book:

“Light on the hand, his head is fixed in his balance and his ears are pointed towards the future. I hear his bit playing an air and at the exact point where I request stopping and going backwards, I reinforce the action of my pelvis; continuing to keep the time, I move backwards and slightly bring my torso forward, like the pointer of a scale. I reverse the movement and close my fingers in cadence. Tongue clicks. Quixote points his ears and, without altering the swing of his canter, he performs two small strides backward … I open my fingers, I give my hands, I cover him with caresses, I put my foot on the ground, untie the girth and take off the saddle. We return to the stables. Still trembling, I speak to him and congratulate him. He looks at me calmly, swallowing the carrots that I offer him. I know he shares my joy; we are united.” (p. 75)


Bartabas and Quixote in Cabaret équestre


Anyone who has experience with horses knows that one of the virtues of these animals is that they become a faithful mirror in which their rider can look at himself, provided that he approaches them with the sensitivity necessary to transform, what some consider only a sport, into a deep existential experience. Bartabas finds himself in the soul of Vinaigre, a gray Lusitano, with the typical Roman nose. Both in Chimeres and in Eclypse he performs with him unbelievable exercises, with the reins simply tied to his belt. He defines him as

“a warrior who was subdued by means of constraint; he always aspires to rebellion. […] Under the saddle he is wise, but messy. He gives everything, but wanting to take it back. He gets immediately nervous and proceeds with an almost aggressive energy. His arias, performed as a demonstration of strength, actually hide a forced submission; the way his training was started shows its limitations in this. We need to make him unlearn a lot in order to find calmness and serenity and, with his agreement, patiently re-tune him.” (p. 97)

In the apparently violent nature of this horse, Bartabas, who has a reputation for being a man with a grumpy and difficult character, recognizes the same apparent aggressiveness that hides his shyness.

“With him I discover, through practice, that it is the body that tunes up with the soul’s movement. He then seems to me as a mirror, and I understand him as a brother, because I know well that you can feed through violence when you lack confidence. Am I not also proceeding by detours on the paths of life? Brutal and sometimes violent, my Artaban boasts, my Bar-tabac moods are the kicks of a shy person who does not resolve to take his place among his congeners.” (p. 98)

Bartabas with Vinaigre in Eclipse
(Photo Boris Horvat, Getty Images)

Bartabas suffers from insomnia and often spends most of the night in the stables. He listens, trying to be unnoticed by the horses. He watches them as they eat and sleep.

“At no other time horses are more human than when they sleep, because they dream and, like us, when they dream, they come out of themselves. Do they dream of being men?” (p. 80)

During these vigils, he discovers that Chaparro passes the straw, with his mouth, through the bars of his box to his neighbor. This is a young a dapple-grey Percheron, named Guignolet, put on the shavings because after eating his ration of hay, he used to completely devour the straw bedding and this caused him to colic. Faced with this gesture of solidarity, Bartabas cannot help but wonder:

“How can I access this intimate comprehension of the other, and understand this dialogue without words, which seems to be saying what is essential? Can two beings provided with compassion and yet belonging to different species be connected? If so, I would open the Pandora’s box, the one that hides the abyss of creation, the natural communion that connects us living beings, animals, plants and humans, to the universe” (p. 81-82)

Bartabas on Horizonte,
with Andrés Marín,
in Golgota

A life spent in this silent dialogue, in search of the mystery that governs the relationship between different, but extraordinarily compatible beings, such as man and horse, led him on the path of a very personal mysticism.

“I have sometimes seen, in the gaze of a horse, the inhuman beauty of the world before the passage of man.” (p. 13)

In recent years, he began to perform in almost secret places, at sunrise, with Le Caravage, the splendid stallion “with the nonchalant elegance of the English, the roundness of the Iberian and the intensity of the Arab” (p. 209). With him, in absolute silence, in front of an audience that has gathered at first light, he engages in a solitary dialogue that is both a personal prayer and a collective rite.

“All these hours spent to know each other and to recognize each other, to unite and reunite, only to feel the divine mystery cross our backs, in the space of an instant. Is this a life on horseback, a few seconds of shared happiness?” (p. 293)

Bartabas e Le Caravage at sunrise
Île d’Aix en Charente Maritime
Photo Xavier Léoty

Over the years he has built a special intimacy with Le Caravage, which goes far beyond the notion of training, but it is something that looks much more like an inexhaustible existential search. He compares high school training with the construction of a complex building, which can only be accomplished if the rider works in parallel on his mount and on himself: “there will never be a noble construction if the architect is ignoble”.

“Training a horse to high school is like building a cathedral. To go from the foundations to the tip of the spire at the crossroads of the transept, many years of listening and perseverance are needed. Like the master cutter who shapes each stone, groups them according to spatial restrictions and marks them with a sign, I must know each of his muscles, each tendon, each joint and their implications in the gears of his moving structure. By means of daily gymnastics, I will make his rigidity disappear to try to give his harmony to the whole.” (p. 210)

Le Caravage

But technique and competence are only the premise of a deeper, personal, I would say poetic, work that is never fully accomplished, but renewed every time.

“Training a horse is an everyday job. A search for the absolute that rejects the abstract and draws its matter in the beauty of the gesture.  But to create what does not exist, one must live in permanent dissatisfaction. We must remain barbaric.” (p. 213)

His creations, the many surprising inventions that fascinated and continue to amaze and bring joy to the public all over the world, testify to this unappeasable research. However, in this book there is an even more intimate note, to which an artist like him could only give voice by questioning the horses/companions in which, over the years, the many faces of his soul were reflected as in the mirrors of a kaleidoscope.

Bartabas, D’un cheval, l’Autre
Ed. Gallimard, 2020, € 20

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Gerd Altenhöferreply
28/04/2020 at 14:14

Really great book written by an extraordinary ‘maitre d’equitation’ .
Not to forget the eminent poetic character of the presentation !!

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