Words Rebecca Simpson / Edited Genevieve Lilley / Photography Julie Samerski
It’s not often that you would stumble across an animal in a theatrical work, let alone a well-behaved live horse… But this is exactly what Michelle St Anne had in mind when she was making She Only Barks at Night, a production inspired by taxidermy and female hysteria from the 19th century. As creative director of The Living Room Theatre (LRT), she has been able to achieve this with the guidance of equine trainer and collaborator, Kate Fenner, of Kandoo Equine.
Kate’s collaboration with LRT began in 2014 through a mutual contact, Professor Paul McGreevy from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. Kate and her equine counterpart, Harry, a stunning paint gelding, appeared together in the performance She Only Barks at Night in 2015. But if one asked Kate if she could perform solo, without her horse, she says she’d feel “hopeless”.
Kate has a lifetime of experience around horses, competing and training around the world. As a small child in Crookwell in country NSW, Kate began riding and later took her horse (an off-track thoroughbred) to school with her in Armidale. She then spent more than 18 years training and competing in dressage, show jumping, eventing and polo around the world from Hong Kong, UK, Singapore, Malaysia to the USA. She completed her Bachelor of Equine Science in 2013 and a research honours project in 2015. She is a qualified Equestrian Australia Coach, has British Horse Society coaching qualifications, and has extensive competing and judging experience in Australia, Asia, Europe and the USA, amongst her other achievements.
With the performance arena a new direction for Kate, she has noticed that an important difference between dressage and theatrical works is that her engagement with the horse is very different – Kate finds the performance space much more rewarding. “Dressage tends to be about pushing the horse, both physically and mentally, while remaining within the confines of the discipline. Whereas in the artwork, it’s about working as one with the horse and being aware of what the horse is comfortable with and capable of doing, within a much broader and possibly more challenging environment” Kate said.
Kate’s Honours project focused on the emotional level in training and engaging the horse before a lesson in order to optimise learning outcomes. Various measurements were employed in the study including rein tension, heart rate and heart rate variability, eye temperature and behaviour.
She describes it as the ‘engagement zone’ – a place where the horse is attentive, listening and engaging in what the trainer is doing. The horse’s emotional level goes up by about 15% when engaged according to Kate’s research.
“If I don’t have him [the horse] relaxed, he won’t come out of the dressing room. I have to use the emotional level to make the animal feel confident and at one with me, almost like we are in a bubble together.”
Training involves raising and lowering the emotional level according to Kate even for a horse that is ‘flighty’. “By raising the emotional level, just a small amount, you can engage the horse with learning and make it interesting and fun.”
Kate and her very smart Iberian stallion (half Lusitano and half Andalusian) Jazz, will appear in Michelle’s upcoming work I Love Todd Sampson at 107 Projects, and possibly a third project with Friesian stallion Romeo (who’s taken a likening to Michelle, which is a rare occurrence for this breed of horse, according to Kate). In fact, Michelle, who is terrified of horses, says it was love at first sight. “He was incredibly snuggly”.
Away from The Living Room Theatre, you can find Kate teaching and training horses in Goulburn at Kandoo Equine. Follow Jazz’s journey on Facebook.