250 years of circus: Big top owner Nell Gifford on why more women should run circuses

Nell Gifford on life as an equestrienne and circus owner

Nell Gifford
Nell Gifford
© Gem Hall

I grew up with horses – I first rode as a child with my aunt Theresa Gibson in Northumberland, she taught me to ride and to enjoy horses. My sister Clover and my cousins would take the ponies out all day onto the fell and gallop about and pretend to be wild people in the mountains. For me, horses are still about this feeling of adventure, make-believe and self-invention.

I read English at University but the only thing I can actually do with any degree of skill is horses

I joined the circus in America when I was eighteen and fell in love with the way of life and the theatre of circus. Previous to this time I had spent many years in Pony Club and looking after ponies at home and so the work – the plaiting, the hoof oiling, the brushing, the watering, the feeding – was second nature. But it took me some time to understand that in terms of all the skills that contribute towards making a circus show, it was my background in horses that was my useful asset.

Circus was started in 1768 on the banks of the Thames in London by ex-cavalry officer Philip Astley. Horses are at the very roots of circus – they are the reason why the circus stage is round.

Having my own show has allowed me to use the skills I developed reading English at university and through my love of art – argument, writing and design – but in terms of the show, the only thing I can actually do with a high degree of skill is horses. Circus performers are often highly trained gymnasts, they can dance, balance and hold their own body weight easily, they often play musical instruments. I have none of these skills, but I can ride.

Nell Gifford
Nell Gifford
© Gem Hall

I am now 44 and I run my own circus. Giffords was started by my husband Toti and I in 2000, with the intention of creating a beautiful village green circus. Trained horses, live music, comedy and handmade costumes were the non-negotiable cornerstones of the show.

I still ride in the show and this year I'll present a group of Shetland ponies. I work alongside my old great friends Dany Cesar and Yasmine Smart, who have trained horses for circus all their life. I admire their dedication, their focus and their discipline. Practise is every morning and cannot be skipped and, of course, the horses come first.

Women have a sense of family and connection that works well when running a circus company

Yasmine is quiet and patient with the horses and they adore her. She is incredibly skilful with the training aids, which include long bendy whips. These guide and touch the horses and she can flick a flank from a distance with a touch lighter than a fly. In some ways, her skill is somewhat similar to people who drive teams of horses, the cues are all given remotely and so the voice is very important.

Running a circus is fun, but it is tiring and can be lonely. My mobile phone is constantly pinging and there is never really a break from the troubleshooting and problem-solving. But I enjoy it because I like being in charge and I like imagining something and then being able to create it – I feel very lucky.

It would be nice to see more women running circuses – and I think we will. It has always been an industry that has employed women in powerful roles. Women have a sense of family and connection that works well when running a circus company. It is nice when men and women, young and old and a multi-national team can come together to work respectfully alongside each other without ego and with a sense of humour. That is the aim.

The Giffords Circus 2018 show, My Beautiful Circus, tours from 4 May to 30 September.