Summerhall back in the saddle – feature

Feb 18 2014 | By More

Horses return to the old Dick Vet

Horses returned to Summerhall, the one-time Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, with the arrival of Les Amis d’Onno’s Vintage Cabaret over the weekend of February 15.

Bethany Martin on Pluto. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Bethany Martin on Pluto. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Les Amis d’Onno, who spent two days at the venue, had never brought their horses to an indoor event before. But when they saw the space they were to use, Summerhall’s Demonstration Hall, they were so taken by it that they had to do so.

Of course in its past use, not all the animals displayed in the hall were alive. When Summerhall first took over the venue, there were hooks and pulley systems for lifting cadavers. But these have been removed and the steeply raked, curved seating where students once took notes on animal anatomy, combined with the easy access for large animals to make a perfect fit.

On Saturday afternoon, before the matinee show, the company got together with Summerhall resident photographer Peter Dibdin to take some shots for use by the venue.

Peter Dibdin in action photographing Sue Martin with Jake Martin on Noble. Photo © Thom Dibdin

Peter Dibdin in action photographing Sue Martin with Jake Martin on Noble. Photo © Thom Dibdin

The previous day they had done a photoshoot with press snappers, who  concentrated on the cabaret side of things. Peter needed shots of the horses and the company in the space itself. He was looking for pictures that could not have been taken anywhere else.

Professional photography is a long-winded business. Peter can spend a day getting an image of a cold beer bottle perfect. On Saturday he had just over an hour, with horses, dogs and people, to get the lights and setting just as he wanted them.

I helped as I could, moving lights and keeping out of shot mostly. And while Peter was busy getting horses and dogs to hold a pose, I took the chance to find out a bit about the company from the matriarch of the family, Sue Martin:

“We started over in France, by accident really, falling in with a group of people nearby who trained performing horses,” she says. “So when Bethany and Jacob were quite young we started working with them, helping them out, helping them train their horses, working back stage with equestrian theatre. and that’s really when we started. Jake is 25 now and he was 11 when he started performing.”

Jake Martin performs a still pose with Noble. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Jake Martin performs a still pose with Noble. Photo © Peter Dibdin

That’s Bethany and Jake Martin. Jake rides the dark-coated Noble, who my own daughter was pleased to note had glitter sprinkled across his rump. Noble was brilliant, patient in the flashing lights and hanging around without any problem. Jake was quick with the jokes and the backchat. A showman at heart, he stands astride Noble, or hangs from his side, patient while Pete gets his angles right.

Bethany rides the grey, Pluto. She seems confidently apart – when I passed her out back where she was grooming Pluto she didn’t say a word, just turned to smile. She works with dogs and horses, so you might imagine she speaks with her eyes. You might take it for an aloofness, but that seems to be in keeping with her side-saddle riding, rose-whip wielding persona.

The Martins have family in the Borders and had always visited. Once they were doing the equestrian theatre full time in France, they realised that there were more opportunities back in the UK – particularly with the film and stunt work. They brought eight horses with them and have added another six over the years – with some youngsters still in training, which they do themselves.

Bethany Martin with Pluto. Photo © Thom Dibdin

Bethany Martin with Pluto backstage. Photo © Thom Dibdin

“We go out all summer,” says Sue. “Jousting is massively popular, we do Western shows, trick riding shows, equestrian theatre – all over Scotland and down into England.

“Equestrian theatre is a performance-based show, but it all revolves around the horse and the horsemanship, of what the horse can do. It is not so much to with the actors or the words or what they are saying. You are portraying tableaux using horses, either ridden or at liberté. It is usually to music or with a narrator, because if you are riding and performing on a horse, you can’t actually really speak.

“Delivering lines from horseback is really difficult because some of the things we ask our horses to do, you have to concentrate 100% on the horse – so you can’t really deliver lines from horseback unless you are just sitting still making a narration.

“It is a form of music costume and performing horse. Usually there is a story, so each equestrian show we do usually has a story around it completely, or it can be like last year one of them was a series of pieces of poetry and prose being read and the horses were illustrating that.”

Bethany Martin with the troupe's dogs. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Bethany Martin with the troupe’s dogs. Photo © Peter Dibdin

The show in Summerhall is what Sue Martin calls Vintage Cabaret and is what the troupe do in the winter months when there isn’t an option to work outdoors.

The troupe are all skilled performers of various kinds – there is knife-throwing equipment lying around, and a deep water tank for daring escapes. The vintage cabaret was initially set up to keep them busy in winter, but has taken off in its own right and is now in its fifth year.

“We have never brought the horses in before,” says Sue. “We have wanted to and we have used films of the horses during the performance, but this is the first time we have had the facilities where we can actually bring the horses in to the theatre space, which is brilliant and we are really happy about it.”

It is a strange space to be using, though, with its history as an anatomy lecture theatre. Which is an issue that she is is happy to acknowledge.

“There has been a lot of feeling hanging over here,” she says. “The people who work at Summerhall are like: ‘that’s the Demonstration room, they had lots of dead animals in and it is a little bit scary’.

“But we walked in and looked at it as a space and thought that is built for having a horse come in be in front of the public, so it is perfect for us. The horses have been 100% relaxed ever since they came in here, it is really good because they have got a lovely space backstage where they can be, the access is perfect, the way the audience is is perfect, so it is just perfect, really.”

Les Amis d’Onno Website:
Peter Dibdin’s website:

Adam Sherwood, Pluto, Bear, Bethany Martin, Chris Allan, Cory Duffy, Jacob Martin, Sophie Robson, Noble, Sue Martin. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Les Amis d’Onno: Adam Sherwood, Pluto, Bear, Bethany Martin, Chris Allan, Cory Duffy, Jacob Martin, Sophie Robson, Noble, Sue Martin. Photo © Peter Dibdin


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