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Friday, July 6, 2012

A Different Kind of Equestrian Royalty

When dressage enthusiasts wish to disparage a horse and rider for performing movements as "tricks" instead of from a foundation of correct basics, they call it "circus riding."

You might not want to use that phrase around Tina Konyot.

Konyot, 50, of Palm City, FL, is the second-ranked member of the 2012 US Olympic dressage squad with her Calecto V. She also happens to descend from an illustrious and celebrated circus family.

Tina Konyot and Calecto V on their way to a career high score and the 2012 USEF National Grand Prix reserve championship (and a berth on the Olympic team). Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

I don't know whether things are different today, but at one time, equestrian circus performers were bona fide elite riders and trainers. Sure, their horses could rear on command and do other "tricks"; but they could also execute FEI-level movements and probably also do some pretty outstanding haute ├ęcole work.

The Konyot family, of Hungarian origin, is legendary in circus lore. Tina Konyot's great-grandfather Leopold Konyot joined the circus in 1870 as a teen and later married the daughter of a circus owner. Their twelve children--among them Tina's grandfather Arthur Konyot--became circus equestrians and acrobats, especially well known for their bareback riding.

In 1909, the Konyot family immigrated to the US to perform in John Ringling's Barnum & Bailey Circus. They returned to Europe a few years later and founded their own circus, whose success was interrupted by the death of Leopold's wife, Henrietta.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Arthur Konyot married Manya, a Russian ballerina. Their son, Alex (Tina's late father), was born during wartime; and their daughter, Dorita, was born post-war, while the family was performing in circuses in France.

Arthur Konyot was a renowned animal trainer, and his children became outstanding equestrians. Around the time of World War II, Arthur, Manya, Alex, and Dorita Konyot pursued their circus fortunes in America, with much of the family eventually settling in Florida. (The Sarasota area, known as the "home of the American circus," is the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.)

Tina and her brother Randy are the children of Alex Konyot and his wife, Josephine Berosini, a Czech-born high-wire circus star.

The Konyot family and Josephine Berosini have been inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame.

"More Comfortable in the Saddle Than on a Sofa"

That's how Tina Konyot describes herself, and now that you know her history, it should come as no surprise. She grew up goofing off on horseback, jumping bareback and bridleless, galloping ponies--everything you'd expect from the horse-loving kid of a horse-loving, acrobatic circus family. She enjoys riding her Olympic mount, the fourteen-year-old Danish Warmblood stallion Calecto V, bareback and in a hackamore during their afternoon walks. She thrilled audiences at the 2012 USEF Dressage Festival of Champions when she unleashed Calecto in a full gallop and a "look, Ma, no hands" pose during the victory lap, then calmly pulled him up and walked sedately out of the Brown Arena. Now that's training.

Konyot and Calecto's first major international appearance was two years ago, at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The horse has improved since the WEG--at Gladstone, they earned a career high score of 80.149 percent in the Grand Prix, besting eventual champions Steffen Peters and Legolas--and he shows a freshness and an enjoyment of his work.

"He is my pet," Konyot says of her horse. "He's my boy. He knows he can play"--and, of course, he also knows when it's time to buckle down and work.

Konyot is especially proud that "I've developed him. No one else has contributed. No one else has sat on him. It's all my own training"--that is, "the Alex Konyot school of training," his daughter says. "Little ways of making weaknesses stronger."

She purchased Calecto at auction in Denmark as an eight-year-old, at that time schooling Prix St. Georges-level work. Other bidders were uninspired by the horse, who would "swing badly in the changes," Konyot says. But she liked his walk and his canter, and "You only buy what you can afford."

A Unique Path

Tina Konyot has charted her own course from her family's legacy to the Olympic stage. Her skill and showmanship are proof that you may be able to take the girl out of the circus, but you can't take the circus out of the girl. She's giving "circus riding" a whole new meaning.

(Source for the Konyot family history: articles on Tina Konyot's website, including the Circus Ring of Fame induction speech.)

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