Normand Latourelle was hard to distinguish from his workers laboring in the hot dust nearby to erect the world's largest touring tent.

In his black golf shirt and jeans, he did not look the part of mega-show impresario.

And when he spoke, it wasn't so much about the whiz-bang elements of "Cavalia," a multimedia extravaganza combining circus acrobatics and equestrian artistry that opens Wednesday in Minnesota for the first time. It required nearly 100 semitrailer trucks to transport the show to a field near Interstate 394 and Hwy. 100, where the 100-foot-high tent has taken shape.

Instead, the Canada-bred showman waxed poetic about the intertwined histories of horses and humans.

"For all its art and poetry, for all the spectacular feats, this show is a tribute to the 5,000-year relationship we've had with horses," he said. "Horses have been there for us as muscle and workforce, as weapons of war and as technology.

"Now the horse is mostly replaced by machines, but they're still there," he said. "We pay tribute to them whenever we say 'horsepower.'"

With that, Latourelle was off, galloping through a historical tour that touched on horse images drawn on French cave walls, Roman chariots and horses in imperial China. He spoke of horses in Spain and Portugal, Germany and North America, as symbols of projected power, as instruments of conquest.

"Horses are like dogs, in that they were bred for different purposes by people," he said. "Some could leap over things. Others pulled heavy loads. For the show, we picked the Lusitano for symbol because it is the most elegant, but we have many kinds in the show and we love them all."

Free horses

There are human performers in "Cavalia" -- more than three dozen dancers, acrobats and riders who go through a battery of tricks and presentations. But the stars of the show are the roughly 50 horses that stable near the 2,000-seat tent, which has a 160-foot stage on which the horses can gallop at full speed. The show has been seen by nearly 3 million people in North America and Europe since it premiered in 2003 in Quebec.

In "Cavalia," which is playing on a 16-acre site at the West End, the animals are all unbridled. They have been trained to do tricks, certainly, but they do it of their own choosing, Latourelle said.

"They have a mind of their own, and you can't make them do something they don't want to do," he said. "If you try to force them to do something, they'll bite and kick and generally be stubborn. The mistake is not theirs, but ours."

Circus background

Personable and charismatic, Latourelle has no airs. The self-described city boy was one of three co-founders of Cirque du Soleil, the global juggernaut that has redefined the circus. He split from the troupe in the mid-1980s to raise a family and do his own shows.

He came to his appreciation of horses by serendipity.

"At Cirque, we pioneered a show without animals," he said. "Since I have that history with [Cirque], I wanted to do something different" when he struck out on his own.

By the early 1990s, he and his new company were putting on an outdoor summer show in Quebec called "Legends Fantastiques." The production had 100 people and a horse that just made an entrance.

"Every time it was on, it stole attention from the regular circus performers," Latourelle remembered. "I said, 'Hmm.'"

Latourelle decided to roll with the flow of the show. He started researching and buying horses for a farm about an hour outside of Montreal, where he lives with his wife.

A jack of all entertainment trades who has designed rock concerts, Latourelle, 55, has been in the entertainment industry since he was a teenager. He has worked as a roadie and editor, and also as a stage designer for rock concerts. He said that he developed "Cavalia" over a decade, all the while building his horse farm, which now has 150 horses of 15 breeds.

"We are predators and they are prey, so they're keen animals," he said. "They can read situations, size things up, so quickly."

For all that horses have done for people over the millenniums, it's important to give them something back, said Latourelle.

"Horses have been there for us, in war and struggle, in exploration and adventure, as muscle and food," he said. "Now it's time for them to have a little freedom, too, and a chance to play."