At first glance, Ashley Vargas seems like a typical 20-something. She enjoys shopping, getting her nails done and spending time with friends.
But for this bubbly young woman, “going to work” means performing acrobatic tricks on the back of a galloping horse —or an elephant — and traveling 11 months out of the year.
That’s because Vargas is a trick rider, an animal presenter and the host of the preshow for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze.”
It features 110 performers from 17 different countries, along with 95 exotic and domestic animals.
During the past two years, Vargas and her high-flying, animal-training, acrobatic colleagues have visited more than 90 cities.
“We are living together and working together. We’re like one big, entertaining family,” Vargas said.
Each time the performers visit a new city, they practice and perform five days out of the week but still find time to explore their surroundings.
During a recent stop in Mexico City, for example, Vargas went horseback riding in the mountains with a few others from the circus, and the group explored the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan.
“One of the cool things about being on tour is immersing yourself in each city,” Vargas said. She looks forward to visiting New Orleans, for the first time in four years, and embracing the city’s culture. “The festive atmosphere is really fun for us, but I also love the live music.”
Vargas, who was born in Watertown, New York, and grew up in Tampa, Florida, has been traveling with the circus for nearly eight years. But her affinity for performing developed at an early age. As a young figure skater and a dancer, she aspired to become either an ice skater with Disney On Ice or a Rockette.
“I’ve always been a bit of a performer and have always been drawn to crowds,” she said. “I enjoy being under the lights and the music, and being amongst all the different people.”
But when Vargas visited performances of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey with her family, she became fascinated with the acrobats and the majestic animals.
During her late teens, she was introduced to horseback riding by an acrobat who performed equine dressage and trick riding for the circus.
Curious about his craft, Ashley embarked on an apprenticeship under his family and troupe members, the Zoppe Zamperla Riders, who are seventh- and eighth-generation circus performers.
“They were from a circus family, so I was able to be around tigers and elephants,” she recalled. “I fell in love with the animals, especially the horses. And that is what sparked my interest in the circus.”
Once Vargas decided to pursue a career as a trick rider, years of intense training ensued.
“First, I had to learn how to care for the animals and how be around them. I had to gain their trust and learn how to trust them, as well,” she said. “Because of the balance skills I had already acquired from being a dancer and a figure skater, I was able to start trick riding with horses.”
She noted that riding on the shoulders of a gigantic elephant, which has a slower gait than a horse, requires an alternative skill set. And, of course, a healthy dose of courage.
In addition to performing acrobatic stunts, Vargas will host the circus preshow, starting an hour before the show begins. Everyone in the audience is invited to come to the stage and step into the spotlight.
Youngsters will have the opportunity to try on dazzling costumes, meet the circus performers, learn a few tricks, see the animals up close and ultimately kick off the show.
Vargas loves interacting with the crowd.
“You get to ask them what they want to see, what they remember from years ago, and what they love the most about the circus,” she said. “I remember, growing up as a kid, I always wanted to be part of the show.
“This is an opportunity for people in the audience to run away with the circus.”