One man, his horse, his birds -and the spirit of freedom

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Moving crowds to tears is all in a day’s work for Jonathan Marshall, the horseback falconer starring at the new Spring Countryside Show.

Talking to Jonathan Marshall is unexpected. From a look at his website, my impression was of the ultimate showman persona; shinily clichéd, with a confidence bordering just on this side of arrogance.
I did not expect a quiet, unassuming northerner on the phone – with an irrepressible sense of humour, the deepest love for his horses and falcons threading through every word, and entirely dismissive of his own importance:
“the fella in the middle of the arena telling the story is irrelevant”

An accidental career
Jonathan Marshall’s love affair with horses began in early childhood – at 78, his mother still has horses, one of whom is 38 years old. At the age of eight, Jonathan discovered falconry and the birds soon took over his attention. Eventually he realised that he could combine his two passions – falconry was traditionally a horseback method of hunting.
“I never set out to be a horseback falconer – I mean, who does? – but in ’86 I made it my professional career. Though I quickly realised if I was going to make it a show, I needed the right horses. It’s not quite so spectacular if I’m on a donkey!”
So Jonathan chose to work with the most beautiful – Andalusian, Lusitano, Friesian and Arabs.
“We work on dressage lines – high school moves such as Piaffe, Passage, Passo Espanol, Reverencia and Levade. But I’m well aware I’m not a dressage rider, I’m a showman.
“We carefully rehearse every second of the shows – the falcons are trained to the lure, flying through the horses legs. It’s all timed to music, and the horses and the birds know exactly what they’re doing. It’s taken a long time to get the show to where it is now – our first season was a steep learning curve, and it was … well, let’s say it wasn’t the most polished performance at first!
“And it’s evolved over time – it’s such a natural pairing between the horses and the birds, and it always
resonates at an instinctive level with the audience. I’ve noticed it especially since we came back from the lockdowns – last year’s shows were far more emotive.
“I think it has to do with our collective lived experience over the pandemic. At the end of each performance I allow the horses and birds to run and fly, entirely uncontrolled and unrestrained, and I simply run with them – it’s the ultimate expression of freedom, and for the first time I found audiences were crying, reacting on a deeply emotional level. It’s spontaneous, the only part of the show that’s not carefully scripted; it’s not a stunt… and I think there’s a part of everyone who longs to be as free as those animals in that moment.”

Jonathan breeds peregrine lanners – or ‘perilanner’ , a hybrid between a peregrine falcon and a lanner falcon. It is larger and faster than a lanner, but does not fly as far as a peregrine.

Books too
During lockdown Jonathan began writing “I’m in my 50s now. I’ve got to think forwards – I’m not so young anymore, and it hurts when I fall off!”.
His first book ‘Spirit, the fastest bird in the world’ is a story about acceptance, and that no one is more
important than anyone else. His second book, ‘A Falcon’s Love’ which he has illustrated himself, is out shortly.

Jonathan will be appearing at the Spring Countryside Show with his 2022 ‘A’ team:

Amadeus
In 2018 Jonathan got a call about an unbroken 10-year old Friesian stallion. Kept purely for breeding, when his owner died no one knew what to do with him; his sheer size was intimidating.
Within a week of bringing him home, however, Jonathan was riding Amadeus on Bude beach.
“He was a bit of a bully, and was used to simply getting his own way. The first time I approached him in the stable, he started to push himself forwards at me, but instead of retreating I kicked the stable door loudly,
and he backed off. He came at me again, so I kicked the door again, and in a gesture I’ve come to know and love, he lifted one hoof gently – it was like a sorry, an ‘OK, I’ll be a good lad’. He is honestly the kindest, gentlest, most beautiful horse I’ve ever worked with. Everyone loves him. And he still lifts his hoof to ask permission or apologise, even now.”

The Falcons
Jonathan will be bringing Duchess, Sonnet and Aria, his peregrine lanners, to the Spring Countryside Show – the trio are full sisters, though hatched in different years, and bred by Jonathan himself.
“I’ve had falcons since I was eight, and these birds are the best I’ve ever had. Anyone who breeds any animal knows that sometimes you get a pairing that just produces magic. The parents are good birds, but
their offspring are something else. They have the speed and agility you’d expect, of course, but they’ll spin as they dive, just for fun, they twist like nothing else … they’re amazing birds, spectacular to watch.”

interview by Laura Hitchcock

4 COMMENTS

  1. […] classes all needed watching. There were other acts to see such as the falconry display and Jonathan Marshall’s Spirit of Freedom show (regular readers will remember him from the Countryside Spring Show). There was dog agility and […]

  2. Thank you Laura for a lovely article. I am very flattered and honoured by your comments.
    Sending love to you
    Jonathan and Free Spirits x

  3. What a beautifully written and very acurate article. Having met Jonathan, Amadeus a d the amazing falcons, I can honestly say, I get very emotional when I watch this show.

  4. I’ve know Jonathan for over 30 years and have watched him and his show develop and blossom into what it is now. I can truly say, he’s never changed. His positive outlook on life is unwavering. 😀

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