The equestrian is one of the three basic components a circus needs to be defined as a circus, as in: “The ring, the horse, and the clown.” An equestrian is a circus artist who performs a set of complex athletic and acrobatic feats involving excellent timing, balance, elegance, showmanship and lots of practice, on the back of a moving horse or horses in a ring. Comedy may also be involved. The equestrian may perform alone or in conjunction with a troupe. Equestrians may train their horses and/or “style” (show or display) horses trained by other people. There are different types of horse acts including high school, ménage and liberty. Philip Astley and John Bill Ricketts are the first two equestrians to perform in the U.S. Astley is also considered the Father of the American Circus. Ricketts and his trained performance horse, Cornplanter, awed crowds and brought the first circus to the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1793. Both men were accomplished riding masters; developing the art of equestrian riding in circus, and were instrumental the development of circus as we still know it today.
Dorothy Herbert - © 2005 by Dale A Riker. Can be ordered from Dale A. Riker, Po Box 361, Teloloevast, FL 34270-0361
Dorothy Herbert (1910- 1994) lived in Detroit as a young teenager with her mother. They joined Duffield’s performance horse troupe in AZ in 1925. Dorothy performed a “January Act” in a clown suit with a mule. In the act she was required to fall down and then the mule sat on her. She hated it. From this humble beginning, Dorothy Herbert became a circus superstar.
In her career Dorothy worked with a wide variety of trainers, circuses; and trained and styled many different animals and birds. Styling is how you display an animal and your routine before an audience. She mastered ménage, high-school riding, styling, and riding sidesaddle. Dorothy loved jumping. She learned basic trick riding, but was forbidden to trick ride because it was considered to be “unladylike” behavior at the time. She also styled a three-horse liberty act in the John Robinson Circus.
Dorothy became a circus superstar when she worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (RB-BB) Circus 1930-1937 and 1939. In 1931 she jumped with her then horse, Satan, without holding the reins over a hurdle of fire. This became a signature part of her act. In 1933 Dorothy learned to ride Roman style, with her right foot on one horse and her left on another horse. By 1939 she performed dangerous laybacks on rearing horses. She also rode in hippodrome races with ten-horse hitches; performed laybacks with one leg in the air, which became one of her signature acts; jumped “over a flaming five-foot-high barrier …while waving and smiling, …[stood] on a horse in the midst of a herd thundering around the track …drop down on the horse, go under and come up on another horse.”
On a local radio program with the RB-BB announcer, Danny De, Dorothy was a regular guest speaker. She was featured on eight circus posters, “the most ever issued on one performer,” and on circus program covers as well as ads for Camel cigarettes (1933) and Wheaties cereal (1935). In 1939 she was voted the publics' favorite outdoor performer. After RB-BB sent her to acting school, Dorothy had a supporting role in the 1940 movie “the Mysterious Dr. Satan,” in which she performed trick acts with her horse and her own stunts. She also starred in the west coast 1954 TV series “Dr. Satan.”
Dorothy performed in circus 1925-1955 except for 1926 when she worked at Dreamland amusement park in Newark, New Jersey, performing menage. Besides RB-RR, Dorothy worked for the Cole Bros. Circus, Lewis Bros. Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus and Shrine circuses. Between circuses she worked at fairs, trained horses and riders, and made radio and television appearances. Dorothy also performed in a disappearing act with a horse in Howard Thurston’s Magic Show in 1928.
In 1941 Dorothy created the first circus newspaper. She and other equestrian females compiled the Weekly News, which included headlines, ads and cartoons drawn by Emmett Kelly who was a cartoonist before he was a clown. The newspaper was a success with the circus, circus fans and Billboard.
Dorothy retired in 1972. Two Circus Fans Association of America (CFA) Tents (or organizations) were established in her honor; the first in Freeport, IL, in 1937; and the second in Clinton, MI, in 1976. In 1978 Dorothy was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame.
In her will Dorothy donated $25,000 to the Showfolks of Sarasota. With the partnership of the Community Foundation, the Dorothy Herbert Fund provides “shelter assistance for deserving showfolks in Sarasota and Manatee counties” [FL]. The purchase of her autobiography, Dorothy Herbert: Riding sensation of the age!, supports the fund. Her fund and dream led the “Migrant Ministries of the Catholic Church to establish the Circus and Traveling Shows Retirement Project Inc. (CATS).”
Esli K. Cocker
Esli K. Crocker (b. MI 1859-1928) grew up on his father’s farm in Reading Township, Hillsdale. As a boy he had a gift with animals and broke colts with firmness and kindness. He was respected as a quality horse breaker. His first horse trick was to drive without reins. His second trick was to teach a horse to pick up a handkerchief and drop it into Crocker’s hands.
Crocker first performed to acclaim with twelve horses in Hillsdale. The horses played at being in school, and held a mock court scene which “brought down the house.” “Professor Crocker” noted that it was “kindness … enabled him to do the things which he was able, and …patience and firmness was all that was necessary to make a horse obey.” In 1885 Crocker’s troupe of 30 trained horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules were advertised as being able to “Do everything but talk.” Crocker and his “Educated Horses and Mules” successfully toured major U.S. and Canadian cities. From 1887 until 1904 Crocker and 11 horses, the “Equirationals,” successfully toured England, Scotland, Wales, and Antwerp, Belgium. The troupe, expanded to 30 horses. They performed before royalty, including the then Prince of Wales, Edward, son of Queen Victoria. The performances lasted two hours and included a court scene, clown acts, battle, carousel, and rope skipping, among other tricks.
Crocker returned to Hillsdale in 1904. He lost a number of horses to fire and/or disease. In 1928 he again owned a small horse troupe as noted on a customs entry form dated May 17, 1928 for his horses arriving at Walkerville, Ontario, Canada, by ferry with show equipment. We do not know if he actually performed with these horses or not.
Crocker received two British patents, No. 13,958 in 1887 for his Crocker’s Patent Bit for riding and driving, and No. 23,307 in 1899 for “Improvements in and connected with bits for horses. He also wrote a number of articles about the training of horses and a book, The Education of the horse, illustrated.
It is highly likely he also wrote the music for his horses and mules for various instruments including: cornet, trombone, e-flat alto saxophone, bass, and violin. The music notes the barrel act, the handkerchief act, acts by various horses, and entry by mules.