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Equestrian acrobats risk life and limb at the State Fair

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “It’s kind of like riding a bicycle,” Ermes Zamperla said. “It’s pretty much second nature at this point.”

Sure, say that about doing long division, hard boiling eggs or, obviously, riding a bike.

When Zamperla says it, he’s talking about doing a backflip while standing on the back of an 1,100-pound-plus horse that’s galloping around the rim of a 40-foot ring.

Zamperla, who performs topless and looks sort of like a blonde Khal Drogo, is a performer in the Ma’Ceo Circus by Cavallo acrobatic and equestrian show, now playing at the New Mexico State Fair.

Their gypsy-themed act features acrobatic feats and stunts done both on horseback and high in the air by six performers and eight horses.

The stunts are clearly dangerous; the bleachers are located close enough to the act that it’s visible when someone is losing their balance.

It was clear when Zamperla, performing a stunt during Saturday’s noon show in which he worms completely under a running horse and – if all goes smoothly – climbs up the other side, became stuck underneath the horse, its hooves just centimeters from his skull.

To the horse’s credit, it immediately sensed something wasn’t quite right and quickly stopped in its tracks.

Ma’Ceo founder Olissio Zoppe lands on the back of a horse after jumping over a ribbon during a performance at the New Mexico State Fair on Saturday afternoon. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

After taking a few seconds to recover, Zamperla remounted the horse and successfully performed the trick.

Phew.

After the show, Zamperla seemed unperturbed by the incident.

“Injuries happen between two people during partner acts,” he said. “My partner has four legs and doesn’t speak my language.”

But for the most part, the things the two species are able to accomplish together in Ma’Ceo are astounding.

Zamperla’s older brother Olissio Zoppe, 38, stands atop two horses, a foot centered on the back of each.

It’s called Roman riding.

He expertly balances as they not only run around the ring, but jump over obstacles.

Performer Carri Michillie poses with 7-year-old Havana Perez after a performance of Ma’Ceo Circus by Cavallo on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Later, three people mounted on two horses hold a fourth, a woman, up in a sort of cheerleading pose above their heads.

These are the sorts of things most of us can’t imagine doing on the ground, let alone on the backs of running horses.

It’s the show’s second year at the State Fair, but Zoppe said this year features a completely new act and cast, aside from himself.

Ma’Ceo was started by Zoppe more than 10 years ago.

Zoppe and Zamperla are first generation Americans and come from a long line of Italian performers.

Zoppe has been performing since he was 4; Zamperla said he did his first backflip on a horse at age 9.

Animal welfare activists have been hard on the act, though, said Zamperla, as they have with many animal-involved circus acts.

He stands by the fact that all the horses used in their show are well-treated and aren’t forced to work.

“I wake up and I feed them before I get a cup of coffee or eat,” he said. “They’re our life.”

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