NORTH SWANZEY — The Horsing Around Show, new at the Cheshire Fair this year, does not share the mysteries of a magician’s act.
Tracy Davis is quick to reveal her secrets, and she explains to the audience at Friday’s 2 p.m. showing the purpose of the thin dressage whip she’s holding, which is between 3 and 4 feet long.
“We use these to communicate with the horses,” she said. “… We use the whip or crop as an extension of our arm and we just gently touch them with it — we don’t hit them — and that is their signal to perform a different trick.”
With the end of the whip, she gently tickles the nose of Silver Flash, a saddle-bred white horse, and encourages him to smile at the crowd by tickling his nose.
Later during her performance, she “hypnotizes” Little Joe, and the 9-year-old Shetland pony lies down as if asleep. After the crowd wakes him up, though, Davis divulges that Little Joe was never under a spell — he’s simply smart enough to repose when tapped a certain way with the whip.
“All the tricks that the horses do are things they would do naturally,” Davis told The Sentinel after the show.
When a horse bows, for instance, it’s the same movement it would make when trying to reach grass under a fence. She compared it to dog training: You teach a dog to sit, which is a normal movement, and you reward that, she said.
Plus, she added, “we also pick animals that enjoy traveling to fairs.”
Based in Washington, Vt., the Horsing Around Show is visiting about six fairs this year, but Davis said she doesn’t force an animal to go if it’ll be unhappy. She once trained a horse for two years, but when he finally went to a fair he hated the travel and the environment.
“It was very disappointing to me because I had invested all that time training him, but he was nervous, and we don’t use animals that are nervous at fairs,” she said.
Adjacent to the Horsing Around Show is a large tent offering a reprieve from the unrelenting heat, and a chance to feed an emu.
Pine Meadows Children’s Zoo is another new feature at the fair this year. The shady tent is home to several pens, many of which have goats and sheep. But there are also alpacas, tortoises, macaws, a wallaby, a baby coatimundi (which is in the raccoon family) and a yak.
The zoo is based in Mattapoisett, Mass., and travels to about 10 fairs a year, according to the owner, Jeff Paine. He said many of the animals were rescued; some of the goats were intended for slaughter or were given away by owners who couldn’t keep them.
Paine said the zoo also inherits some young exotic animals that need to be bottle-fed every couple of hours — such as the coatimundi — and not everyone is willing or able to handle their care.
Some of the animals in Horsing Around were rescued, too.
Davis told the crowd during her show that, before she took Little Joe, an older woman owned him and was concerned for people’s safety around the horse because he reared his front legs and kicked in the back.
“We were able to use his natural wanting to rear and kick to make it into a trick,” Davis told the audience after Little Joe pretended to be a bucking bull in a rodeo.
Despite the name, horses aren’t the only animals in the troupe. Louie the miniature donkey was rescued after a family in Davis’ hometown couldn’t afford to care for him anymore, and he and Little Joe became instant best friends.
Though Louie doesn’t have many tricks up his sleeve, Davis said he enjoys the fair environment, the audience loves him and he keeps Little Joe company.
“I would just take him out, talk about donkeys, educate people,” she said.
Davis’ 6-year-old daughter, Eva, works with a miniature horse named Stryker in the last leg of the show. Eva had difficulty finishing the final trick when her finger was pinched in Stryker’s harness, and Davis, while talking with a reporter, used the opportunity as a teaching moment.
“We know what it’s like when it’s perfect and the horses do all the perfect tricks at the perfect time, and maybe they do it even to the beat of the music, and it’s just magical,” she said.
Then she turned to Eva.
“And then there’s times when it’s not going right, and your finger gets pinched or your toe gets stepped on or its really hot,” Davis said. “At those times you just have to try to keep on going and do the best you can. ... But it’s not about being perfect.”
Eva, clinging to her mother’s leg, shot back: “Of course it is.”
Davis, laughing, explained that Eva is a fourth-generation trick performer on her father’s side.
“I’m more about let’s just have fun and enjoy and not worry about perfection.”