COLUMBIA — The sound of neighing and nickering comes from behind the red-and-white striped plastic curtains with blue and white stars standing in the middle of the Boone County Fair Ground arena.
Clouds of dust rise from the sides of the tent and movement ruffles the otherwise calm plastic edges.
The crowd sitting in metal bleachers around the arena starts to get anxious, and children tug on their parents’ shirts, asking when it will start.
Finally, at 6:30 p.m., the curtain draws back to reveal a woman in business attire and a curly wig, leading a large, white-grey draft horse, a Percheron named Derby.
The crowd laughs as the horse enters the circular ring, for behind the horse comes a man in a black, furry gorilla suit.
He waves and hoots at the audience, swinging his furry arms back and forth. The gorilla then climbs over the arena railing and wanders through the audience giving hugs, high-fives and grabbing audience members’ sunglasses and water bottles.
A little girl in a blue and orange leotard with rhinestones stands just outside the ring, her dark auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail. She holds the microphone to her lips and demands the gorilla return to the horse.
The young girl shouts out commands at the gorilla. He obeys them, and riding atop Derby, he puts on costume after costume.
The young girl orders the gorilla to dismount. He jumps off gracefully to the dirt below. The gorilla mask is removed, and the head of a smiling man with wavy brown hair appears.
The woman removes her wig and costume to reveal a blue and orange leotard with rhinestones similar to the little girl's. She calls to a small child in a velvety black leotard who has been hiding behind the curtain during the act.
The family of four steps out into the middle of the ring.
“Welcome to the Loyal Vaulting Equestrian Show,” the man shouts. “I am Timi* Loyal, and this is my wife Elizabeth and our two lovely daughters Aurora and Suri.”
The family smiles, waves to the audience and exits through the curtain.
The Loyals' show is in its second year and travels both alone and as part of large circuses across the United States.
Timi Loyal, 54, a 10th generation circus performer, has been riding and performing since he was young. He began training with his father in vaulting, a kind of acrobatics with horses, when he was a teenager. The activity is also an Olympic event with athletes performing gymnastic routines on horses.
His professional career includes more than 30 years of traveling across the U.S., Mexico and Europe with a multitude of large and famous circuses such as The Big Apple Circus and Circus Knie.
Elizabeth Loyal, 31, also began riding when she was young, but her performing career started with Arabian Nights Dinner Theatre, a Florida-based equestrian entertainment show. She originally worked for the trainer of Arabian Nights, but, because of her skill and grace, she became a performer.
The Loyals perform, train and care for seven horses and one donkey. Elizabeth creates the family’s new costumes. The couple homeschool Aurora, 10, and Suri, 3.
Suri and Aurora both have been riding since they were 2 years old and they love carrying on their father’s family tradition.
“It’s a lot of traveling and a lot of work, but they love it,” Elizabeth Loyal said of her girls.
“Aurora used to ask me when are we leaving over and over again when she was just starting. She couldn’t wait to keep traveling and performing.”
Aurora and Suri now enter the ring leading a miniature, grey donkey named Trouble.
His long, fluffy ears twitch back and forth as he listens to the girls. The girls soon have the crowd laughing as they get the tiny donkey to bow, jump and lay down.
Suri laughs as her tiny hands caress Trouble’s furry side. “Trouble is my favorite part,” Suri said of the act.
The girls take one last bow with Trouble and go back through the curtain.
The parents replace the girls, dancing out riding two, shiny black Arabians named Aries and Athena.
The couple makes simultaneous circles, half-passes and turns, seemingly connected by an invisible thread. Trotting around the ring, the Loyals come to the middle together and stop. Timi Loyal kisses his wife’s hand and smiles at the crowd.
The crowd cheers as the couple's horses start moving again. Elizabeth Loyal makes Athena rear, causing the crowd to gasp and clap ecstatically.
The dancing act ends and is replaced by a chestnut Belgian, named Queenie, and the white Percheron, Derby. Both horses wear large leather straps holding surcingles — thick, burgundy pads with handles attached.
Each Loyal performs flips, jumps, twists, kicks and poses, and as each trick ends with a delicate landing on the horses’ backs, the crowd claps and cheers.
The balance required to perform the act runs parallel to the balance required by the Loyals in their performing lifestyle.
“We normally do the acts as part of a larger show, but now it’s all of us back-to-back, so it’s harder,” Timi Loyal said.
“For the show alone it takes us at least an hour to get ready,” Elizabeth Loyal said. “And when you include having to bathe, groom and tack up each of the seven horses and the donkey daily, it takes almost three more hours.”
Each Loyal member must pull his or her load to keep the show running.
Before Suri’s birth, the Loyals worked an easier schedule performing in the Florida-based dinner show Arabian Nights. Yet, when the economy began to falter, the Loyals and other performers with the show were let go and had to find other ways to make money.
The Loyals returned to Clermont, Fla., to open a vaulting school. Timi and Elizabeth Loyal taught lessons and camps, and the entire family also continued to perform.
When traveling as part of a large show or circus, the Loyals had travel plans and schedules set up far in advance. But now as a lone act, the Loyals are constantly planning, scheduling, traveling, moving, setting up and tearing down their show on a weekly basis by themselves.
“It’s hard to get bookings late in the summer,” Elizabeth Loyal said of their hectic schedule. She says to avoid this next year, she is already making bookings.
Timi Loyal had to purchase a new truck, and when things break, he fixes them.
It's a demanding life, but watching the family's show reveals none of the hardships.
Timi Loyal and Aurora perform a final circle of riding and Tim Loyal takes a bow with his daughter before they exit together.
Aurora quickly returns through the curtain smiling, a long black whip in her hand. It is time for her favorite act, the final piece of the show.
Timi Loyal returns atop Derby as his wife holds a long pole, bursting with flames in the air and in his path.
He and Derby approach the flames and fearlessly duck under it.
Elizabeth Loyal raises the fire higher. Derby’s ears swivel forward, focusing on the licking flames in front of him.
Timi Loyal smiles as the fire draws near, crouches and jumps over the flaming pole to land standing and waving atop Derby’s back.
The crowd goes wild as Timi Loyal dismounts and gathers his family around him.
The show is over. The family bows, smiles and then exits as the crowd’s applause sounds behind them.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.