December 2016 - And Now For Something Completely Different

California eventer Steven Paulson stars in Odysseo by Cavalia.

by Patti Schofler

The Southern Californian had ridden horses seriously since high school when he gave up basketball for polo and to compete on the Texas and Wyoming circuits. He trained young horses destined for eventing with the guidance of international competitor Tamra Smith. Then, less than a year ago, opportunity came knocking for a completely new and exciting horse world – Odysseo by Cavalia.

Photo: Sean McCarty

If Steven Paulson could be so fortunate to become part of that amazing theatrical production, he would have found just the life he longed for. He loved travel. Yet even when on holiday, his horse would pull him home. With Odysseo, his life would be travel plus horses.

And then the unexpected happened – he was granted an audition with Odysseo.

Working at Smith’s Temecula eventing facility, he had befriended assistant trainer Rebecca Ratte, who joined the first and eponymous show of the company Cavalia when it was in Asia. Rebecca then became a rider and aerialist in Odysseo. “I constantly texted her about joining Odysseo. Thanks to her, I got the audition.”

The 6’1’, slim, experienced rider was a bit nervous with everyone watching him at the audition. He was assigned a young horse to ride and play with in the practice tent adjacent to the White Big Top where performances would take place before an audience of 2000. It began as a group ride with the equestrian coordinator and a few cast members. “It was fun, but I wanted so much to do well that it was like walking on egg shells!”

Then he was asked to jump with the Holsteiner Quetzal, and he was in his element. “He is a fantastic horse. We did a course together and played a lot. We really bonded that day. He was curious; I was curious. They liked what they saw and gave me the job that day.”

He was so excited about the offer that he couldn’t sleep.

Steven is now performing with Odysseo in Irvine at White Big Top at the junction of the I-405 & the SR-133 and running through the holidays.

Currently, the world’s largest touring show features 65 horses from 11 different breeds, and 48 riders, acrobats, aerialists, dancers and musicians in the $30 million production.

Double the size of the company’s first show Cavalia, Odysseo marries the equestrian arts, stage arts and high-tech theatrical effects where the moving interactions between human and horse are at the heart of the action. On an enormous stage, layers of mesmerizing decor are combined with live music, gravity-defying acrobatics, entrancing aerial stunts and inspiring HD projections.

A hill, built from 10,000 tons of rock, sand and dirt, covers part of the stage, which is the size of a hockey rink. Viewing trompe l’oeil at its finest, a troupe of magnificent horses and beautifully costumed riders appear to come over the top of the hill and file down in formation. Steven is among the riders who perform on the hill in the flowing demonstration of elegant horsemanship. 

Going From Awkward To Graceful

“At first, I felt awkward on stage. As competition riders, we’re so focused on the horse’s performance. As riders in Odysseo, we engage the audience. At first, that was hard for me. Like you’re trying to move your hips over to aid your horse or come down the hill half halting your horse so he doesn’t go on the forehand, but you’re still smiling and looking perfect.”

To the rescue came Resident Artistic Director and Choreographer Darren Charles, who draws from his vast experience in ballet, contemporary dance, ethnic movement and acrobatics, and whose choreographies have included pieces for the Spice Girls and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“He taught me how to place my hands, to open my shoulders and to give a flowing look to the ride while encouraging the horses to express themselves. When they do, they are relaxed and playful. Often I’ll take the horses out just with the necklace around the neck, with no bridle or saddle, and let them move however they want. It’s so cool to just play with them and have them do as they please.”

Working with horses at liberty was a new experience for the 25-year-old. In The Odyssey or liberty scene in which 28 horses are completely free, without tack, Steven, on the ground, is a team leader of four bays: Greco, Kart, Bud and Danes. He has formed a bond that allows him to lead them about the stage through the use of body language and soft voice commands.

In the line of four, the stallions (Greco and Danes) are on the outside. The geldings on the inside have a livelier energy than the stallions, pointing to the complexity of guiding four individuals about the stage without tack.
“You keep your ends forward and engaged with your energy and your hands, but keep yourself calm to the two in the middle. If you’re nervous, it feeds right to the horses. If your energy creates more energy in them, they’ll buck or play.

“To stop your team, you gently say ‘whoa,’ then walk to the side and touch the shoulder of the farthest one. Then you can walk off. If you stop, say ‘whoa,’ and walk straight forward, they will follow you in their exact group.

The technique is the same if you need to split two off to take them to the stable. You use the code word ‘off’ because if you walk two away, the other two will follow off your shoulder.

“Every horse is different with a different energy and personality. It’s so fun and exciting.”

The same is true about the horses he rides, among them his regulars Imperioso, Utah and Quetzal. “Instead of making them my ride, it’s fun to play with their styles and change my style to meet theirs. Every day I learn so much from these horses.”

A man who has loved animals always, “when I was a kid I would tell my parents I wanted to be a dog when I grew up. I thought my profession could be a dog,” he laughs. Instead, today, he is adding the tools he has learned at Odysseo to make himself a master horseman.

Article provided by Cavalia. Tickets for Odysseo by Cavalia in Irvine are on sale for performances running through Jan. 8, 2017.  For a memorable outing, the Rendez-Vous VIP package offers the best seats in the house, full meal buffet-dining before the show, open bar, desserts during intermission and an exclusive visit of the stables after the show. These and other tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 1-866-999-8111.