Bethesda Magazine | March-April 2017

Off to the Opera

Animals from Potomac Horse Center are making it big in New York City

Last fall Nacho and Cordoba, who live at Potomac Horse Center, took the stage in Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Photo courtesy of Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Just after returning home in December from a stint at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Nacho was still wearing rubber-coated shoes that don’t make as much noise onstage. 

The 18-year-old quarter horse performed for five weeks last fall in the opera Aida—one of a handful of animals from the Potomac Horse Center that are celebrities in the Big Apple. Now that he’s settled in at home again, Nacho is wearing metal shoes and back to giving riding lessons.

It takes a certain kind of animal to make it in show business. “The most important thing is not so much the training, but the selection of the animal itself,” says Paul Novograd, who has operated the facility for 22 years. “You have to have an animal that is confident, very self-possessed and is not flighty.”

The ponies, donkeys, mules and horses are shuttled from North Potomac to Manhattan to perform in operas, ballets, movies and modeling gigs. Potomac Horse Center boards some private horses, but the barn owns the show horses.

One horse, Cordoba, was also in Aida and has appeared in a Ralph Lauren ad in Vanity Fair and a music video with singer Norah Jones. At Lincoln Center, Wrangler, a pony, has towed a cart of dancers in performances of La Fille mal gardée for the American Ballet Theatre. Sir Gabriel, a donkey, pulled a flower cart in the opera The Barber of Seville. “They are the darlings of the cast backstage,” Novograd says. Before leaving the Potomac Horse Center, the animals go through a “desensitization process” that exposes them to the sights and sounds of the city. Park Police bring in a car with lights, play a tape of traffic noises and cover the ground with a crunchy plastic tarp to see which animals are unflappable.  

“Some walk right in and just look around. Others you can’t get out of the barn,” says Renee Terselic, general manager of the facility.

The animals are then brought to Lincoln Center, with its cavernous stages and huge props. Animals already accustomed to the surroundings show newbies the ropes. “Horses are herd animals. They tend to take the lead from one another,” Novograd says. “When one animal walks into a situation that would otherwise be intimidating, the new guy kind of shrugs and says, ‘OK, if you say so.’ ” 

Once an animal is tapped for a role, the music for that opera or ballet is piped into its stall. At the first rehearsals, pom-poms are inserted into the animal’s ears and held in place with a bonnet to muffle the sound. Next, they practice with just a piano, and then the full orchestra. Then there’s opening night. 

“We’ve never had an incident,” Novograd says. “Our horses like regular work. One of the reasons our horses do so well onstage is that they are kept busy doing lessons.”

Novograd got started in the horse business in Manhattan, where animals are in demand for parades, photo shoots and shows. He now cares for animals in North Potomac and New York. 

At the Potomac Horse Center, Nacho, Sir Gabriel and the other show animals have developed their own fan base. “They are an unexpected hit,” Novograd says. The barn, open to the public every day, is a popular spot for birthday parties and young children. Barn managers say nervous riders seem to feel calmer knowing that they’re riding a horse that’s steady enough to be a performer.

Even when the show animals are in New York, their celebrity status is apparent. A photo of the animal performing is often posted over its empty stall, along with a sign that reads, “I’m away at the opera.”