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The vin­tage cir­cus poster seems de­signed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of any­one who loves horses---as it did mine. It fea­tures a smartly dressed woman sit­ting sidesad­dle aboard a shiny white horse, both look­ing serene and con­fi­dent as they are lifted into the night sky by a golden hot-air bal­loon.

“Jupiter: The Bal­loon Horse” and his “as­cen­sion act” are billed as the “Lat­est and Great­est Thriller” from the Bar­num & Bai­ley Great­est Show on Earth, circa 1909. I couldn’t imag­ine such a thing. Was this a real act? I had to find out more.

The first decade of the 20th cen­tury was a time of tran­si­tion. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903, and by 1909 air­craft pi­o­neers were recording “firsts” all over the world---first at­tempt to cross the English Chan­nel, long­est en­durance flight (al­most two and a half hours!), the first air shows fea­tur­ing air­planes, zep­pelins and bal­loons.

The pub­lic fas­ci­na­tion with aero­nau­tics seemed in­sa­tiable. At the same time, cir­cuses and other forms of trav­el­ing en­ter­tain­ment were big business. In fact, ac­cord­ing to “The Business Side of the Cir­cus,” pub­lished in Everybody’s Mag­a­zine in July 1910, the two biggest shows---Bar­num & Bai­ley and the Rin­gling Brothers---trav­eled with 650 to 700 horses, in­clud­ing about 400 “bag­gage horses” and nearly 300 trained per­form­ers. That is in ad­di­tion to the rhi­nos, gi­raffes, elephants, lions, tigers and other an­i­mals that were part of the troupe. The big cir­cus pay­rolls cov­ered more than 400 per­form­ers plus 600 la­bor­ers and sup­port staff.

And, yes, Jupiter was real. Among the many dar­ing and ex­otic per­form­ers, it was a sin­gle white horse who was the head­line act in 1909. News­pa­pers across the coun­try an­nounced the ar­rival of the Bar­num & Bai­ley cir­cus in their towns, and many breath­lessly de­scribed what The Evening Chron­i­cle of Char­lotte, North Carolina, on Oc­to­ber 14, 1909, called the “Most As­tound­ing of All An­i­mal Acts," writ­ing: "One can hardly de­scribe the act of this horse and do it the jus­tice that it de­serves.... Jupiter, a beauti-ful white Ara­bian, is driven into the arena by a young and beauti-ful woman. There is a bal­loon to which, instead of a bas­ket, there is at­tached a plat­form that is de-void of rail­ings. Horse and rider take po­si­tion on this plat­form. Slowly the bal­loon as­cends to the dome of the arena.... Plea­sure gives way to surprise and then to fear as it is re­al­ized that should the horse be­come ner­vous there is noth­ing to pre­vent his taking a step [that] would pre­cip­i­tate him­self and his rider to the ground far be­low.

“With this re­al­iza­tion comes the very thing that would make the an­i­mal ner­vous---the ex­plo­sion of a se­ries of rock­ets at­tached to the plat­form. The shower of fire­works en­velopes [sic] horse and rider. In­vol­un­tar­ily comes an audi­ble gasp from the on-look­ers, which is re­lieved as the bal­loon reaches the ground and the beau­ti­ful an­i­mal and his fear­less rider are seen to be all right…. In Ger­many this act was ex­tolled as the best [arena] num­ber that the world had ever seen. The man who knows any­thing about horses will say the same thing.”

In re­al­ity, his­to­ri­ans agree, the bal­loon was win­dow-dress­ing: The plat­form was ac­tu­ally raised with wires and pul­leys. But one fact re­mains: Night af­ter night, Jupiter stood stock-still on a plat­form that car­ried him high into the air, re­main­ing calm de­spite all of the dis­trac­tions of the fire­works and the noisy crowd. Even to­day, those of us “who know any­thing about horses” have to be im­pressed.

A long-ago head­line act for “The Great­est Show on Earth” show­cased a feat that would still amaze many eques­tri­ans more than 100 years later. By Lau­rie Bon­ner

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