10 Facts About Circus Animals

Horses Are The Thing
Elephants are great and all, but horses have been holding the circus down for much longer. General Photographic Agency/Stringer

If you want to learn about circus animals, it's super important to understand just how critical the horse was in the development of the circus we know today. It may seem strange considering how fully tame lions and trained elephants capture our attention these days, but the circus actually all began with some amazing equestrian riders — and their equally impressive steeds.

In late 18th century Britain, equestrian riding schools began showing performances of horse trick riding, which included lots of standing on the back of galloping stallions and acrobatic-like contortionism performed during rides [source: Speaight]. These acts took place in a large circular ring, so crowds could see the action from start to finish. It was much harder to watch a performer on a half-mile straightaway, after all. This circular track provided the name for the clowning, juggling, acrobatics and various entertainments that filled the holes between horse acts — the Latin word "circus," meaning circle.

But there's actually a little more drama to the horse-and-circus story. Let's find out how circus animals were first part of a much grander theatre tradition.