Moving Moments Watching and Learning With Sylvia Zerbini

Thursday, March 30, 2017
Posted by Mary Phelps


Sylvia Zerbini

After a full winter season of training and competing my combined driving ponies, there is some downtime from the conditioning work, giving the opportunity to grow in new dimensions.

I had heard of Sylvia Zerbini, at first via friends, serious horse people who discovered her and her weekly performances at her Grand Liberte Farm near Williston, Florida.

From a seventh generation circus family, Zerbini is a long respected equestrian performer first in the Ringling Brothers’ Circus and then Cavalia.

This winter in cooperation with Cavalia producers Zerbini, her horses and her troupe performed at the Equestrian Aid Foundation Fundraiser in Wellington, Florida, where I first experienced and photographed her magic.

Performing to a sold out crowd, of a mostly seasoned equestrian audience, Sylvia and her horses captivated the crowd with the beauty and magic of her communication .

Sylvia Zerbini

In part of her performance, she rode on her stallion, with 12 horses all free circling her  and responding to her gaze with intricate movements and choreography.

A post on Facebook of a fellow driver who attended her farm for a clinic motivated me to beg for an appointment before we left Florida, and before she went on the road.

It was one of the most intimate and moving experiences I have had in all the years I have been involved with covering equestrian sport.

Sylvia Zerbini

As a child, the petite Zerbini had the job of turning out her father’s circus horses, mostly stallions on their farm in France.  She would stay with them and observe their communication with each other quickly picking up on movement, eye contact and horse language. From this fascination grew her talent and instinct, and the result is love and magic.

So moving to watch, I kept wiping tears from my face.

For almost 2 hours we sat in awe as she not only performed but explained to us what she was doing, introducing her horses, one who joined the group who is “retired but wanted to come today”.

Sylvia Zerbini

I kept watching her, and focussed on her rather than try to get at one time all 13 horses in the frame; her constant intense gaze, and body language.

But it is was the love and respect communicated with her horses, from her and to her that appeared to be the key.

I could barely wait for Tuesday when she would meet my ponies to see what would happen.

We took the hour drive from our winter headquarters at The Grand Oaks Resort (where Sylvia will be performing next season) with all three ponies. My Classic American Shetlands, Al Capony, Bugsy Maloney and my mare Kimba have been on a little holiday since Live Oak International where we successfully completed the FEI Advanced Division in the toughest Combined Driving Event in the country, earning our qualification score to be considered to represent the US at the Pony Driving World Championships in Germany this summer.

Sylvia Zerbini

The ponies were fascinated with Sylvia, and woulkd not take their eyes off of her.

They had a blast romping in the arena as Sylvia chatted with us, telling us her story and watching the ponies as they romped and rolled. “I hope they will have some energy by the time we start to work,” she commented. “Not to worry about that,” I replied.

She explained some of the basics of what she does, her voice commands, body movements, tones and the way she angles her body. As she began to work with them, we sat in awe as they circled her, changed direction, stopped, and walked towards her. They rarely took their eyes off of her, and were just as fascinated as we were.

She then took each pony individually and did the same. Towards the end of the two hours, we were on information overload, as we tried to observe and absorb all we were listening to. Then I came in the arena with her, and just worked with Bugsy (who she said was the most confident - who knew?) as he walked beside me, and turned with my hand movements, which were meant to communicate “like a horse’s neck”.

Mary Phelps

Now it was my turn and Bugsy stayed right with me whether I walked slow or fast.

“Humans rarely walk in a straight line.” Sylvia has mentioned, “but horses do.” She kept correcting me for not keeping myself straight. Then low and behold, there was Bugsy, at my side, turning right, turning left, speeding up when I walked fast, slowing down when I walked slower, and then just standing there when we halted.

I came away with a deeper connection to my ponies than when I arrived, and also knowing we have just barely scratched the surface.

In sharing the experience with my trainer USE Combined Driving coach, Thorston Zaremowitz, he added how we all need to grow in our training in learning from people like Sylvia who not only have this talent to communicate with horses, but then to teach that communication to us.

Hopefully this is the beginning of an added dimension to the the amazing journey we have been on together achieving heights I never imagined possible.

Sylvia Zerbini has two more performances at her farm before heading to California on tour. April 1 and April 8. Then they are headed to California for  performances begining at Del Mar.

For our California friends, I urge you to take advantage of her presence on the west coast. She is available the weekend May 20-21, and the following weekend May 27-28. For anyone interested in arranging a clinic contact

View another image gallery of Sylvia Zerbini and her amazing horses in our article on the Equestrian Aid Foundation Fundraiser