Montecito Equestrienne Under the Big Top

When Montecito residents Steve and Deanna McHugh recently celebrated the graduation of their daughter, Brenna, from UCLA, they never dreamed that her first job would be performing under the Big Top. Or more precisely, under the 110-foot-tall tent that houses Cavalia, best described as an equestrian version of Cirque du Soleil.

“You put them through college, then they up and join the circus,” jokes Deanna, who couldn’t be happier that her daughter is earning a paycheck for doing what she loves best – riding horses.

Brenna was an English major at UCLA, and completed her pre-med requirements – all in three and a half years. But she shares her mother’s love of horses, and started riding at the age of 10 when the family was living in England. When they returned to Santa Barbara, Brenna started learning dressage from Carpinteria trainer Suzanne Galsterer, and then went on to train for six years with Olympic gold medalist Hilda Gurney. When Cavalia was looking for an experienced rider a few months ago, Gurney recommended Brenna, who was flown to Montreal, Canada for a three-day mutual trial period. All the parties liked each other, so Brenna agreed to join the show, which was then appearing in Las Vegas.

The brainchild of Normand Latourelle, a pioneer of the groundbreaking Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia is a multimedia equestrian spectacle. It’s an entirely new concept of entertainment, combining expert horsemanship with live music, innovative sets and lighting, dance and acrobatics.

Cavalia is performed under North America’s largest touring big top, which stands the height of a 10-story building. Seats are arranged theatre-style, facing a sod-covered “stage” that is 160 feet wide, backed by a 210-foot-wide screen on which changing “set images” are projected. On tour, Cavalia employs 120 cast and crew members, not counting the 54 horses representing 11 breeds. Half of the horses are stallions.

Frédéric Pignon and his wife, Magali Delgado, serve as equestrian co-directors. Pignon is known as the “horse whisperer” of Europe, and Delgado grew up on her family’s Lusitano breeding farm in the South of France. Brenna currently appears in two Cavalia segments, the Finale and “Carousel,” an exciting number in which six riders on matching Lusitano stallions perform intricate dressage movements. She also warms up the horses used in the trick riding numbers, an important job since many of them gallop at top speeds and cannot miss a beat. She can also be seen jumping in the background during the trick riding.

Cavalia is currently playing in Irvine, in a run that has already been extended through Sunday, January 28.

“I know it won’t be extended beyond then,” says Deanna, “because of quarantine requirements for the horses.”

After the Irvine appearance, Cavalia is transferring to Europe, where they will be performing in Brussels for a month, before moving to Amsterdam for another four weeks. Brenna’s contract runs for two years, during which she expects to be performing in many European countries.

To see Cavalia while it is still in Southern California, visit for the performance schedule and to purchase tickets.

Trail Update

First District County Parks Commissioner Suzanne Perkins reports that joint meetings with the County Parks Commission, City Parks and Recreation Commission, and the U.S. Forest Service are finally moving forward. Perkins particularly credits interim County Parks Director Jason Stillwell for pushing for some action, which should ostensibly lead to trail safety reforms. The issue was sparked by an accident on the Cold Spring Trail over a year ago, when a family riding horse, Rocket, was spooked by mountain bikers on a narrow section of trail and fell to its death in the canyon below.

In a surprising shift, the U.S. Forest Service refused to participate in any joint meetings, or abide by any agreement resulting from any committee or task force comprised of other trail user groups. It would only agree to participate if the other participants were limited to the City and County Parks commissions, and their respective staffs.

This is a complete turnaround from the Forest Service’s past actions, when it supported volunteer input from various trail user groups, without the participation of City or County Park commissioners. County Parks Commissioners voted to go along with the Forest Service demand, citing a desire to jump-start a process that has already taken too long.

Public participation is still welcome at two meetings that have been set, the first on Wednesday, January 24 and a workshop on Saturday, February 3.

Mark Your Calendar

Saturday, January 20

Bus trip to Los Angeles

Join the Wildling Art Museum for a day trip to the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West to see the exhibition “Yosemite: Art of an American Icon.” For information on the show, visit Participants will enjoy a special tour led by the exhibition’s curator, Amy Scott. In the afternoon, you may visit the museum’s permanent collections, or watch a screening of David Vassar’s award-winning film “Discover Hetch-Hetchy,” which will be followed by a panel discussion on future options for what is known as “Yosemite’s twin valley.” Bring your lunch or buy one at the museum café. The bus will depart Los Olivos at 8 am, but there will be a pick-up at La Cumbre Plaza. Fee is $50 for Wildling Museum members, $70 for non-members. For reservations call 688-1082.

Wednesday, January 24

Joint agency meeting on

Front Country Trails

4 pm, City Council Chambers

Santa Barbara City Hall

735 Anacapa Street