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Horseback riders from the Russian Empire came to America to perform in circuses and wild west shows

Ian Harvey

Coming all the way from Georgia in the Russian Empire, a humble group of extremely talented trick riders, singers, and dancers graced circus shows in America. For 30 years these horsemen performed in such shows as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”, and they quickly became a central attraction.

Initially, they were ten men from the ages of 18 to 25 who joined Buffalo Bill when he was in England.  They were Gurian riders and rode under the name of Russian Cossacks in the Wild West Show as well as for circuses and other shows. They took the name Cossacks because at the time Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, and the Russian Cossacks had a reputation for flair and color.

Georgian horsemen in the US.

Georgian horsemen in the US.

Their performance in the show started with singing and a march around the arena. They often dismounted and performed a native Georgian dance in the center of the ring before the stunt rides began. The trick riding style was called Dzhigitovka, meaning a skilled and courageous rider. The most popular stunt was a rider at full gallop standing on the horse’s back and shooting. As you can imagine, it was performed by a very skilled rider only.

Their trick riding influenced cowboys and helped create the trick riding we see today in circuses and rodeos. World War I meant an end to Georgians traveling abroad, and often in their own homeland, the Gurian riders were treated as American spies. Some stayed in America and broke their ties with their homeland; their belongings were confiscated by the Bolsheviks in their homeland, especially anything that had been sent from America. Those that returned were heavily persecuted.

Many of the riders gained fame in America due to their riding performances, such as Luka Chkhartishvilli and Alexis Gogokhia, also known as Alexis Georgian. It wasn’t just men who were trick riders, as there were also four well-known female riders – Kristine Tsintsadze, Barbara and Maro Zakareishvilli, and Frida Mgaloblishvilli.

They were recruited in Guria in 1892 by a circus performer named Thomas Oliver, who specifically went to Georgia to find able horse riders for the shows. These people were excellent horsemen but also poor peasants; the shows gave them an opportunity to improve their family’s lives.

Postage stamp, 2006.Postage stamp, 2006.

Postage stamp, 2006.Postage stamp, 2006.

They were paid the equivalent of 100 rubles a month – at that time a cow in Georgia was 3-5 rubles, so this wage was quite a significant amount of money. America was a huge challenge for many of them, not with just the language barrier but also the vastly different culture.

Read another story from us: Surprising ways the American Wild West was different from the way it has been portrayed

They garnered many fans, including Theodore Roosevelt and Queen Victoria. There are many films and books about them.