After a near-fatal fall from a cliff ten years ago you might think Fairland Ferguson would play it safe; instead she is now a trick rider in Cavalia, the spectacular show celebrating the bond between horse and human, created by Normand Latourelle, one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil.
Fairland Ferguson was being a bit of a daredevil when on August 3, 2003 she tried to jump from the top of a 21-metre rocky cliff into the water below.
“There’s a big lake called Smith Mountain Lake about an hour and a half from my hometown of Staunton, Virginia and you can hike up the cliffs and jump out to water,” says the American horse rider.
“You can jump out at 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet. Well I was like, ‘if I’m jumping I’m going all the way to the top.’ It’s about 70 feet high.’ You really have to jump out to clear the rocks at the bottom so it wasn’t the smartest jump to begin with.”
Realising she didn’t have the momentum to clear the rocks she tried to stop but slipped and fell, breaking 46 bones.
Her left leg was so badly crushed, doctors told her she might never walk again, and that if she did she would need a walking stick. They also feared she might lose the sight in her left eye.
Ten years later, you wouldn’t know it apart from a tiny scar on the bridge of her nose, some marks on her arms and some serious scarring on her leg.
You might think that after a near-fatal accident she’d play things safe. Instead, Ferguson is still being a daredevil as one of the fearless trick riders in Cavalia. One of her tricks is galloping across the stage at breakneck speed blindfolded. And she really can’t see.
She did it for fun one day during rehearsals and next thing it was in the show. “It’s the scarf we use in the show and the funny thing is I honestly can’t see a thing,” she says. “You would think that now it’s a permanent part of the show that I would switch to some fabric I could see a little bit through. Everyday I think, ‘I’ve got to remember to do that’ and everyday I forget.”
She is also the star of the Roman riding routine, in which she controls six horses while standing astride two of them.
“A lot of people get injured and think, ‘Oh, I need to take it easy,’” she says. “I think the exact opposite. Yes, there is a time you need to heal but I think later there is a time you need to push through the pain and getting involved in working professionally with horses really helped me. Even now I wake up and my ankle can be really stiff and painful but having an active job really helps me keep everything going.”
After the accident, Ferguson spent six months in hospital where she had 13 surgeries. But throughout it all she remained defiantly optimistic.
“I just didn’t take no for an answer,” she says. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would get back to where I was before the accident. I don’t know why but it was just the way my brain processed the whole situation.”
Ferguson grew up riding horses. When her accident put paid to a promising basketball career, she joined a horse-riding dinner theatre where she learned to do trick riding and Roman riding. In 2009, she auditioned successfully for Cavalia with her partner Chad Dyson who is also in the show.
Cavalia features more than 30 beautiful horses from a stable of 47 as well as acrobats and musicians. Ferguson rides and cares for three of the equine stars: Criollo and Amaretto in the Roman riding and Henry, her trick horse, who likes nothing better than to gallop as fast as he can.
When Ferguson leaves Cavalia, she says she will be done with performing.
“Because of everything, I feel super comfortable in a hospital so I want to go back and be an emergency room nurse,” she says.
“I just remember how I felt very, very clearly like it was yesterday. I remember what maybe I’d wished I’d had in hospital or what I wish somebody had said to me. So I think I’m in a good position now to be that person for somebody else.
“It’s not that the nurses did anything wrong but I felt like I was just a routine. They were the only interaction you had sometimes and I remember thinking I wish they would be more chatty and even softer when they touch you. One would be rough when she gave me a shot (injection) or roll you over.
“On top of that I’m a very strong Christian so I think for myself if somebody had been there to say, ‘this is all part of God’s plan’, even if the person isn’t a Christian (it helps) to share their positivity. I sometimes felt that I was the only one being positive.”
Cavalia plays in the White Big Top, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney until June 16 then premieres at The Docklands, Melbourne on August 7.
An edited version of this story ran in the Daily Telegraph on May 30.