December 2018 - Sylvia Zerbini Clinic
Written by by Linda Holst
Thursday, 29 November 2018 23:44


Cavalia Odysseo star shares liberty work strategies with everyday horse owners.

by Linda Holst

There is a distinct romance that is displayed by Cavalia’s Odysseo star Sylvia Zerbini and her “equine guys” (16 striking Arabian stallions and geldings), during their Grand Liberte performances throughout North America, Europe and Australia. Each horse performs their part of the synchronized dance in proper sequence at liberty, coordinating their movements with the other horses under Sylvia’s ballet like direction. Everyone who sees her is mesmerized as she moves with the posture of a dancer and years of finely tuned skills that have been mastered to create this beautiful equine orchestra.

Recently, Sylvia Zerbini generously shared her knowledge with clinic participants and a large class of auditors at Horse Spirit Ranch in Bonsall on Nov. 3 - 4. This time traveling to California after Cavalia finished its last show in Montreal, Canada for the 2018 season and just before her own Grand Liberte Show opened at her Williston, FL farm the next week. As a seasoned professional, she fully devotes her time and energy to the horses and people attending each clinic to make sure the “principles” she is teaching are being absorbed. Lynne Hayes, owner of Horse Spirit Farm, presented an outstanding decorated arena environment with a catered lunch, set in the hillside tranquility.

Sylvia directing the author's Mangalarga Marchador Kiger colt. Photos: Lori Brown Smith

Sylvia directing the author's Mangalarga Marchador Kiger colt. Photos: Lori Brown Smith

So what makes her amazing communication and partnering up so special and how can we do the same type of liberty with our horse and multiple horses? Like an orchestra conductor, she “engages” her horses by applying “energy” expressed through eye contact with each individual horse and provides verbal cues using vocal words with different tones, along with body language. During a performance her stare can even stop a stallion from biting another horse.

After sharing her philosophy that sticks and whips aren’t necessary to make a horse move in the desired direction, she taught us the music-like tones associated with energy and how to express the intensity of energy levels through our body in a manner that resonates with each horse. Whether the horse is cooperative or stubborn, inexperienced or trained in a discipline, young or old, the “secret sauce” in her communication is carried through the use of constant eye contact, which she calls “silent language.” As she explained, she observed at a very young age that horses in pasture were always communicating through eye contact and warning cues. Likewise, she offers the horse in training two warnings before taking direct action that makes the horse move. Just as quickly, she takes the pressure off when the horse responds. Her advice is to keep eye contact allowing the horse to relax with reduced pressure and vocal commands. The reward is a gentle stroke on the shoulder with a good horse tone or word.

OK, this sounds simple but to get your body to move without cutting off the horse’s forward motion as you stand in the center of the arena is not easy. Often, Sylvia removes the horse from the arena to work with the student with role-play and her physical direction until the person’s mind meets body language.

As a participant in last year’s clinic, she made me move my body down to coordinating shoulders, verbal cues and hand gestures. Done correctly, my super smart gelding Louis Vuitton, (a unique Spanish cross of Mangalarga Marchador with pure Kiger Mustang), responded beautifully within 15 minutes of her direction. This year, while observing the lessons of others I picked up more tips on reinforcement and the mistakes we commonly make; most notably, to mix up the routine so it doesn’t become a habitual pattern and to pre-anticipate a horse stopping or slowing down in an arena corner and using energy to push it along. The most common error was waiting too long to draw in the horse towards the center and being able to partner while walking with energy coming to a complete stop together. Tricky! The goal is to make all of the gait transitions on the correct lead using these skills. To sum up, if you lose your eye contact, you lose your horse’s attention, which leads to frustration.

For more information on Sylvia Zerbini, visit her Facebook page or website at