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Bertrand Ravoux: The evolution of horse-riding from the Middle Ages to the present day

Horse-riding is an ancient discipline, and its teaching is constantly evolving. Throughout history, the horse-riding learning process has witnessed major changes.

The objective here is to simply trace the major trends of this evolution, without examining each theory, doctrine or method in detail.

Our limited study begins in the Middle Ages (from the 5th century to the 15th century) for two reasons. Firstly, there are only a few horse-riding manuals from this period, even after the invention of the printing press. Not many people were literate. Secondly, it appears that instruction was not organised as it was from the Middle Ages on.

Hitherto, the horse-riding learning process essentially took place through tournaments. Jousts allowed the courage and bravery of knights to be measured and were the opportunity to prepare for war. It was also a very popular form of entertainment at the time.

During these events, the lords presented themselves to the public accompanied by their escort. The display was not merely a parade, but the opportunity to showcase their handling skills with a subtle use of aids. Indeed, it was the custom to ride as inconspicuously as possible, so opponents were unable to predict which manoeuvre would be taken and which attack would follow. This was of vital importance, as a knight’s life depended on it. If attacks were predictable, the opponent could parry then riposte, thus neutralising the attacker. Such discretion in using aids is already a form of “Légèreté”!

The presentations became increasingly longer and sophisticated, and included sequences of figures. These were the first carrousels. This activity inevitably required organisation and codification of the different figures, which justified a teaching process.

The practical exercises with the lance and sword during the tournaments included the quintain, during which “Moors’ heads” were speared.

(Photos in “Art of Riding” of Philippe Karl)

Unfortunately, this activity was also costly in terms of human lives. Many men were injured or even killed. The most famous casualties included Henry II of France and Henry of Bourbon, both killed in tournaments or from injuries sustained during jousts. These accidents would spell the end of such activities.

The Renaissance:

Cavalry is the name given to troops fighting on horseback. It originated from the knighthood, whose privileges it envied, and it long resisted the authority the king sought to impose upon it. Before becoming a uniform body, it was made up of groups belonging to proprietary captains. The regiments assembled occasionally according to the will of their captain only became an effective royal army following the elimination of the proprietary titles of the “companies” and by the “pacification” of the troop bodies dispersed due to warlike initiatives. Cavalry fighting in a disorderly manner could not be effective.

Combat discipline would only be achieved by building a hierarchy around the chiefs and by standardising the cavalry: the cavalryman and his horse were the subjects of detailed regulations to bring their horse-riding into line with war strategies and tactics. Without cavalrymen able to lead their horse in battle, cavalries could not take action. An equestrian doctrine was needed.

The 16th-century squires set out increasingly sophisticated precepts for horse-riding and ensuring the horse submitted to the rider’s will. The emerging equestrian theories advocated for moderation and discretion in the use of aids and spoke of equestrian art. Equestrian art is when the cavalryman strictly implements authority (military influence) over the animal. The art form is even finer, as there is no external visible manifestation. This practice is a quest for perfect execution, where the rider’s gestures are not visible, and the horse’s submission allows man to ride without using any force or gesticulating.

This moderate use of aids can be found in the writings of Pluvinel:

“Well-positioned in the saddle, the rider takes the lance from the hand of a squire or page, and holds, handles and swivels it in his hand with good grace and ease to show those watching that he is comfortable using this weapon (...). The rider then places the tip of the lance a little to one side of the horse’s left ear, always holding it in this way, whether stationary, pacing, trotting or galloping, without noticeably applying any coercion.”

“The figures in these dances depend on the address of the riders, who can circle with both hands, voltes and half-voltes using the bridle: but this must be done with little body movement, so the horse appears to perform all the movements itself. This is why they are dressed to feel the knees and the leg fat when pressed without having to use the heel or hand, with less use of the arm, and a part of the body.”

Members of the upper classes afforded the services of squires, who dressed and prepared the horses. The knight then mounted his horse and learned the art under the tutelage of the squire or instructor. Theory allowed common rules for controlling the horse to be established. Equestrian theories gave rise to a key development in terms of specific sites: academies.

In Europe, the organisation of princely courts was far less advanced than in Italy. The Italian influence was direct and deep in France due to the Italian expeditions undertaken by Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francois I. These monarchs marched at the head of the young nobility of the time. They were dazzled by progress in the arts that the academies provided for all young, wealthy Italians. Cities competed for the best teachers and academies. The first equestrian writings were published in Italy. Noblemen from across Europe flocked to these academies to learn horse-riding first and foremost, and word started to spread.

Royal horse-riding academies initially appeared in France in the late 16th century but were nothing more than simple schools with a riding arena and an instructor, the sole manager and trainer for the establishment. The local national authorities where the instructors set themselves played no role in the installation at the time. Only the “Grand Ecuyer”, the head of the king’s squires, could bestow the title of “Ecuyer du Roi” (i. e. king’s squire) on horse-riding trainers, which was required to teach in academies.

The first equestrian academies were established in central France (the Loire Valley), and this is believed to be the reason why the kings and their courts would take long holidays on the banks of the Loire in the 16th century. Academies were then established in Paris and throughout France, like in Italy, under royal patronage and with the senior management of the “Grand Ecuyer”. For two centuries, these institutions were sanctuaries of equestrian art, and all the young nobility stayed there or dreamed of going there if financial resources were lacking. Instructors were honorary members of the king’s royal stables.

During the 17th and particularly the 18th centuries, academies were progressively structured with a squire as director. The director was assisted by another squire then by two others, one “ordinary” and another called “cavalcadour”. The academies followed the model of the Ecuries royales (royal stables) of Versailles. In practice, the organisation of the provincial academies was often far simpler.

Some academy directors promoted their institution with language, literature, mathematics and dance instructors, somewhat like the academies in Italian cities. However, such projects would not stand the test of time. They came to focus solely on teaching horse-riding. Student numbers were low as only noblemen had the right to attend the academies. This privilege continued until the French Revolution.

In the 17th century, only small sections of the nobility, often greatly impoverished, were able to follow the squire’s teachings. The richest members of the nobility, of course, had private instructors.

It was not until the late 17th century and the early 18th century that the Court’s equestrian teachings spread throughout all the academies. The dissemination of the art was naturally closely linked to the dissemination of theoretical texts throughout the country. These texts, including Italian translations and particularly those written in France, allowed people to structure their instruction.

Besançon (French city) is another example of a horse-riding school that appeared around 1649. This academic school existed from 1655 until 1793.

The Besançon academy appears to have been attended mainly by Englishmen and Germans. There were up to thirty boarders. The academy’s 26 horses were promoted as being of highest quality.

The horse-riding practised there was taken from Salomon de la Broue and Pluvinel, both students of the Italian Pignatelli. Teaching consisted of lessons in horse-riding, dance, history, weapon-handling, vaulting and language.

The 18th century witnessed the development of equestrian theories initiated during the Renaissance by the Italian Grisone and the Frenchmen Salomon de la Broue and Antoine de Pluvinel. Scientific knowledge was also progressing. 18th-century horse-riding consequently became more sophisticated and rational. In this context, the Ecole de Cavalerie (cavalry school) by La Guérinière was published in 1733, a book that would be translated into several languages and is considered “the equestrian bible”.

It’s worth noting that cavalry was abandoned for siege warfare in the 18th century. In the 1740s, Maurice Count of Saxony invented the cavalry charge and the horse regained its place on the battlefield. This new horse-riding form was classified as military riding and peaked during the Napoleonic wars. Equestrian principles changed to adapt to this new use for horses. The “descente des aides” was no longer justified.

The 19th century was marked by the rivalry between two great trainers, the Count of Aure and François Baucher.

The count of Aure, a military man, advocated for “the use of the horse as nature intended.” He favoured speed and extension of the gaits, and spoke of putting the horse on hands. Baucher, a non-military trainer, recommended taking “full possession of the horse’s power.” Among other factors, the jaw and the poll must be released to lead the horse, so the horse releases the mouth softly and loyally accompanies the hand wherever it moves, the putting in hands of ancient horse-riding. This dispute split the worlds of horse-riding and art, and reached the highest echelons of the State, even dividing the royal family.

Support for François Baucher came from Lamartine, Delacroix, Théophile Gautier and the elder son of King Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orleans. When the latter was killed in a horse team accident in 1842, Baucher lost his main ally.

The Count of Aure was backed by Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Gustave Flaubert, as well as the second son of Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Nemours.

These two squires shared a student: General L’Hotte. He is known for the famous phrase “Calm, Forward and Straight.” He had a lasting impact on horse-riding through highly valuable contributions referenced in numerous publications. The best known is Questions Equestres (equestrian matters).

Late 19th century:

After General L’Hotte, there was a change of direction in Saumur. The focus was now on outdoor, sporting horse-riding. Showjumping competitions were born.

Dressage, show jumping and eventing disciplines were not represented in the Olympic Games until the early 20th century (Stockholm, 1912).

At that time, horse-riding was still a practice reserved for servicemen and well-off backgrounds.

The advent of the equestrian sport took place at the same time as horses lost their central role in the armed forces due to mechanisation with the arrival of motor vehicles.

To sustain breeding, the first equestrian societies were created to compensate for the reduced demand for horses.

The second half of the 20th century bore witness to democratisation in horse-riding. It became a leisure activity and a sport open to a far wider audience. This marked the birth of horse-riding centres, where students take part in group classes with horses, known as “school horses”. This group practice with its own teaching methodology is part of the educational legacy as practised by servicemen historically.

At the end of the 20th century and in the early 21st century, horse-riding enjoyed a sizeable expansion.

In recent years, its practice has diversified, and the number of disciplines has multiplied. Teaching must adapt to this new demand by specialising. It has also been noted that student riders are turning towards more individual practices. Indeed, they leave the horse-riding schools and their school horses to become owners of their own horses. Learning is increasingly done through private lessons, either via individual classes or training courses taught by freelance instructors.

Scientific research has also provided numerous insights into horses and horse-riding, allowing concerned riders to pay closer attention to their horses’ needs, and prepare and practice accordingly. In the high-speed, digital age, diversification of practices often seems somewhat haphazard and rather to meet the rider’s desires, sometimes at the expense of the horse.

We could end by making a wish. To see this information brought to the attention of the largest audience possible and to develop a more reasonable and reasoned practice of horse-riding.

In this sense, our school perfectly meets this direction.

Bertrand Ravoux.

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1 Comment

Very informative! As an American, I can see that the lack of knowledge concerning the history of horsemanship is a problem. America has no Versailles or royal écuries to see how ecuyers have been working out the details of equitation for centuries. This can tend to lead Americans to believe that the latest idea is just as good as the lasting techniques of past masters. Gaining a basic understanding of this history is the best way to be able to teach them otherwise.

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