Gravity-defying riders from the Caucasus Mountains put the "wild" in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
In the winter of 1891, Thomas Oliver arrived in Georgia, in the mountainous Caucasus, with a very specific mission: to find and recruit riders for William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show during its 1892 run in England. Oliver was curiously equipped for the job. Born into a family of circus performers and an acrobat himself, he had lived in Tbilisi as a young man and spoke Russian; by some accounts he had spent years traveling the Russian Empire with circuses and had thus become familiar with Georgians’ riding skills. He was told that the western region of Guria would be the best place to find what he was looking for. The intel proved to be true: Guria was loaded with expert riders, and soon, the first group of Georgians was recruited and on its way to London, where the riders joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West.
In 1893 the Georgians came to the United States and began performing as “Russian Cossacks” in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as well as other circuses and shows. To meet the American audience’s desire to see different kinds of performers, ever-clever businessman Cody engaged representatives of other nations — but he wasn’t above putting showmanship and marketing above accuracy. Sioux Indians became Cheyenne, Native Americans were chiefs, Asiatic women princesses, Army horsemen colonels — and Georgian peasants Cossacks and princes. Although the label Cossack was erroneous, the inaccuracy was lost on American audiences, who regardless thrilled to the foreign riders’ equestrian derring-do performed atop strange-looking wooden saddles in excitingly exotic long belted coats and fur hats.
The usual performance of the Georgians began with the riders, all dressed in the national outfit (chokha), riding into the arena carrying their weapons and singing. They would march around on their horses, then stop and dismount. Breaking into a new song, they would begin to perform a native Georgian dance, accompanying themselves with handclaps. Then came the stunt riding. Back on their mounts, the riders would run through a series of breathtaking maneuvers — headstands on their saddles, riding three horses simultaneously, jumping to the ground and then back up on their horses — in a trick-riding style called jiriti.
A review in The Philadelphia Inquirer from April 18, 1893, summed up the effect of the riders’ spectacular horsemanship: “The much discussed Cossacks were disappointing in an agreeable sense; much has been expected of them and they surpassed by far everything that had been expected. They are truly the greatest riders in the world. Their performances almost surpass belief. They seem to defy every law of gravitation and to be simply inseparable from their horses. They cling to them as a needle does to a magnet, no matter what position they may assume. Riding backwards, standing in their saddles and picking coins from the ground and similar feats are done while their horses are galloping about the race course and this is done with astounding ease, grace and dexterity. They were frequently cheered and made a most emphatic hit.”
They came by their fantastic riding naturally, as an interview with Frida Mgaloblishvili, the first Gurian woman rider to make it to America, told it. She arrived in the United States in 1893 and performed with the Adam Forepaugh circus for two years. On April 1, 1894, the New York Morning Journal (Joseph Pulitzer’s younger brother Albert’s short-lived paper, which William Randolph Hearst would acquire and morph into the Evening Journal) ran an interview with this “genuine lady,” who, the paper reported, had spent time in Paris and had a perfect command of French, German, Italian, and English. A cultured linguist, Frida was also a consummate horsewoman. According to press reports, she typically performed with one or four horses. Those who witnessed her memorable performance at Madison Square Garden could easily say that she was born a rough rider — like most of her countrymen. “Riding may almost be said to be born with us,” Frida told the reporter. “Far back as I can remember, the back of a horse was my chair, almost my cradle. I have never learned riding, never been taught it as most performers are. All the fancy riding I do I did as a child for pure fun in emulation and rivalry of others in my native land.”
Some individual Georgian riders would become famous for their feats. The Nashville American, on October 7, 1897, singled out Prince Luka (sometimes spelled “Lucca” at the time) for particular praise: “If the audience will watch Prince Lucca, the Cossack, with his sword, while standing on his saddle, they will be amazed, for so expert is he that as Remington, the famous artist, expressed it, ‘No Cossack could commit suicide unless on the ground.’ ”
If Luka Chkhartishvili attracted a lot of attention for his riding skill, so did the very strange saddles the Georgian riders employed: “Its chief peculiarity, seen from the sides, is two thin pads, fore and after, resembling loaves of bread. A closer examination shows there are four of these pads,” a newspaper of the day reported. “The Cossacks stand up in their stirrups with two or three pads on, before and behind his legs. They are stuffed with horsehair. ‘Why does the Cossack use this saddle?’ Prince Luka, a Georgian Cossack, could only shrug his shoulders when the question was asked him. All he could state positively was that style of saddle had been used in his native section of the Caucasus as long as human memory could extend.”
The spectacle of the Georgian riders would have a lasting impact in the States. According to noted historian Dee Brown, “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks’ stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo.”
For more than 30 years, at least 150 Georgian riders, including four women, visited the United States and exhibited their riding prowess. Most of them were poor peasants constantly in search of side jobs and had never been out of their home country before. Trick riding in popular American shows was a decent chance to improve their financial condition. But while it might have offered economic opportunity, America also presented many challenges. The Georgian riders didn’t speak English and found the States culturally alien. Although they would become the most spectacular part of the Wild West shows and count among their fans such luminaries as Queen Victoria, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, the Georgians struggled to cling to their roots.
World War I and Lenin’s Bolsheviks ended the Georgians’ voyages abroad. Some Georgian riders never returned to their homeland. Instead, they started families and melted into the American “pot.” A Georgian rider known as Sam Sergie, who performed from 1911 to 1914 after fleeing to the States on the heels of a train robbery in Georgia, died in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1965, at age 81.
Those who did wind up back in Georgia were in for hard times. The country was experiencing radical political and social change, and anyone who had been to the States was viewed with suspicion. Many of the Georgian “Cossacks” were imprisoned or exiled by the Bolsheviks on the grounds that they were American spies. Some committed suicide. Others destroyed all photographs and mementos from their trips abroad in order to survive. There were cases of riders being forced to sign a document in which they promised never to mention America again. Any precious gifts from their time in the United States that were found by the Bolsheviks were confiscated and supposedly destroyed, only to sometimes resurface in the homes of the staunch Communist party members who had prosecuted them.
The Georgian riders, so long misnamed, had only done their best to make a living and support their loved ones. Far from spying, they had conducted what might be called horseback diplomacy. Equestrian ambassadors to the Wild West from the western wilds of the Caucasus, these trick riders began one of the oldest known relationships between Georgia and the United States of America.
Learn more in the book Georgian Trick Riders in American Wild West Shows, 1890s – 1920s by Irakli Makharadze (McFarland, 2015).
From the August/September 2015 issue.