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All things being equine

Special to The Times

KANSAS Carradine has been infatuated lately with a handsome brute who stands about 6 feet tall and has big brown eyes. That he’s 6 years old and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 950 pounds is not a problem.

The 23-year-old daughter of actor David Carradine can’t stop gushing about Bungee, the buckskin quarter horse, as they stand in his paddock a few yards from the Pacific Ocean. Stroking Bungee’s muzzle, Carradine muses, “It’s funny because when we first got together, he didn’t like to relate that much. He was kind of standoffish. Now you can see, if I take my hand away, Bungee’s like, ‘Come on, give me some more scratches!’ He really responds to it.”

For the next two weeks, Bungee and trick rider Carradine will flaunt their chemistry under the big top as performers in “Cavalia,” an equine spectacle featuring 37 steeds and 32 acrobats, dancers, trick riders and bungee jumpers.

Founded by Cirque du Soleil co-creator Normand Latourelle, the revue made its southern California premiere in April in Glendale. Its current run, which began Wednesday, continues through Nov. 26 at the Santa Monica Pier.

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Horses in “Cavalia” often perform “at liberty” -- without saddles or bridles -- and that prompted a deeply felt response from Carradine, whose mother, Linda Gilbert, is a Cree Indian. Her father is part Cherokee.

“Being an Indian, the first time I saw this show I couldn’t help but connect with my Native American spirituality,” she says. “The horses are so free you almost imagine some sort of past life when you’d get on horses before there were saddles and bridles. It really captures the spirit of the American West in that way.”

Before bonding with Bungee during the San Francisco run of “Cavalia” last month, Carradine enjoyed a brief fling with Popeye, a fleet America-bred quarter horse. She teamed up with him last summer to audition for Latourelle, equestrian co-director Magali Delgado and her husband, Frederic Pignon, who’s been dubbed the Horse Whisperer for his gently intuitive training approach.

But for Carradine, Bungee is the one. Before he came along, she’d been pining over the loss of her boon companion, a brown-and-white Appaloosa named Arapaho.

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“Arapaho and I just clicked,” she recalls. “I’d go jogging through orange groves and he’d run beside me, no bridle on. We built an amazing trust. He died two years ago.

“Before ‘Cavalia’ called, I [hadn’t] had a bond with a horse since Arapaho. I wondered, ‘Who will the next one be?’ As soon as I met Bungee for the first time, I knew,” she says. “It’s been really wonderful, learning each other’s idiosyncrasies and habits. I talk to him constantly and watch his ears. There’s also a lot of ESP going on.”

Establishing meaningful relationships with man’s second-best friend comes naturally to Carradine, who grew up in a freewheeling extended hippie family that included brother Free, sister Calista and cousins Ever, Sienna and Sorrell. As a youngster, she rode horses along Trancas Beach in Malibu and later frequented the horse trails in Runyon Canyon near her Hollywood home on Mulholland Drive.

At age 11, Carradine went to riding camp north of Los Angeles.

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“It was a total western, rural ranch,” she recalls. “The main skill they taught was trick riding and trick roping. Within two weeks I was hooked.”

Carradine returned to Los Angeles briefly and informed her father that she wanted to relocate. “I was about to start sixth grade and I was, like, ‘OK, Dad, I’m gonna move to this horse ranch and go pursue horses.’ I was supposed to be there for one semester and it turned into eight years.”

While her father worked on “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” in Canada, she performed with the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls troupe, specializing in “Roman Riding.” Translation? “That’s where you stand up on two horses and jump through a hoop of fire,” Carradine says matter-of-factly. “When I was 14, I took a lot of spills learning that act. You have to understand that you might take a little bit of a beating but that’s part of the journey, and you can work through it.”

Carradine’s been bruised many, many times, and bloodied once, when she broke her nose while bending over backward atop an unpredictable stallion. Remarkably, she’s never broken a major bone.

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Surviving those knocks earned Carradine considerable respect from her famous relatives. Her uncle, Keith Carradine, played Will Rogers on Broadway and starred as Wild Bill Hickok in HBO’s “Deadwood”; her father embodied spaghetti-western attitude as the title character in “Kill Bill.” They are not easily impressed, she says, but the “Cavalia” gig gained her instant cachet.

“When my Uncle Keith found out I was going to be in ‘Cavalia,’ he was just beside himself! They thought this was much more impressive than my dad booking a movie or whatever. They’re like, ‘You’re in “Cavalia” -- that’s real!’ ”

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‘Cavalia’: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man

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Where: The white big-top tent, Santa Monica Pier, 1550 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Except: 7 p.m. Nov. 24, 4 and 8 p.m. Nov. 26.

Ends: Nov. 26

Price: $54 to $84; students and seniors $49 to $74, children $34 to $69

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Info: (866) 999-8111 or www.cavalia.net


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