One of the strangest circus acts you can see involves a lion or other large exotic feline (or sometimes bears) to "ride" a horse. Circus posters show that these acts can be found in the late Victorian period where they were often described as "Equestrian Lions". But when you try and research this act further, you find that a lot of websites that show pictures of an act of this type do not provide any information about when or where the picture was taken. These sites generally treat the pictures as a humorous situation or curiosity. However, there is a serious side to this act--it demonstrates advanced training kills and also raises considerable animal welfare issues.
How Is it Done?
Other than a great deal of training for the cat and horse, the trick is accomplished by attaching a frame, platform or large pad to the back of the horse. This allows the cat to grip and balance without harming the mount. Both animals must be habituated to sensations that are unpleasant to them to cooperate with this spectacle. That cat to balancing on a small, moving platform--and even more remarkably the horse to not bolt or rear while carrying a large predator on its back.
Below are a few documented examples of circuses producing an act of this type, currently and historically. Examples are listed in reverse chronological order.
Hefei, China (2010)
Xiamen, China (2008-2009)
Pictures taken in Xiamen, China's Fujian province, show a male lion and tiger riding a horse. These particular pictures originate from a Daily Mail story that ran on February 7th, 2008. This rather angry article shows that while acts of this type used to be common in European and American circuses they are now widely considered unacceptably cruel in these markets, although a few exceptions can be found as shown below.
Shanghai Wild Animal Park, China (2007)
The Shanghai Wild Animal Park included a bear riding a horse in their show. An act covered in a typically judgmental but cursory manner, this time by The Sun.
Berlin, Germany (2005)
This site shows a picture of a tiger riding an admittedly very well padded horse.
Bertram W. Mills' Circus (1926-1927)
Miss Berti Hermann had a male lion that performed alongside a dog in an equestrian act.
The Sheffield Jungle (1913)
This circus featured an equestrian lion called D'Artagnan owned by a trainer going by the name of Miss Aurora (see below). The lion was a popular attraction mentioned frequently in local newspapers.
Because horses are prey animals, it is generally considered inhumane to subject them to carrying a large predator even with extensive habituation and training. However outside of the performance horses are domesticated animals well adapted to living in captivity. Lions and other large exotic animals, by comparison, are demanding to look after in captivity in a way that meets their unique health and welfare needs. This task is only made more difficult when you add the requirements of human contact, performing tricks, appearing for an audience and associated travel. It is for this reason that exotic animals acts in circuses are becoming increasingly unpopular.
Are large cat horse riding displays of this type inhumane?
If you have any question about these historic acts please ask in the comments below and I shall endeavor to discover the answers!