Posts Tagged ‘equestrian’

Medieval Dressage

Since I have my riding lesson tonight, I have decided that today’s 100 Days of A&S challenge is researching dressage.

The first thing I learned was that much of what we think of as dressage today is actually quite modern, but there are some elements that predate the Middle Ages, and others that appeared in the Renaissance. The best article I found on this was “A Brief Outline of the History of Dressage: Xenophon to Antoine de Pluvinel”, by Dr. Thomas Ritter (2009).[i]

The oldest written source that includes elements of classical dressage is a treatise by the Greek general Xenophon (430 – 354 BC). His On Horsemanship includes a few passages on the development of an animal for those riders wanting  “a showy, attractive animal, with a certain grandeur of bearing.” Xenophon insists that the rider has to win his horse’s friendship and willing cooperation. “For what the horse does under compulsion, as Simon (an earlier writer, whose work has been lost) also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign.” He describes simple equitation (“It is a good thing also for a rider to accustom himself to keep a quiet seat, especially when mounted on a spirited horse.”), but also more advanced concepts of schooling, including collection and passage:

“What we want is a horse with supple loins… That is the horse who will be able to plant his hand legs well under the forearm. If while he is so planting his hindquarters, he is pulled up with the bit, he lowers his hind legs upon his hocks and raises the forepart of his body, so that any one in front of him will see the whole length of the belly to the sheath. At the moment the horse does this, the rider should give him the rein, so that he may display the noblest feats which a horse can perform of his own free will, to the satisfaction of the spectators.”[ii]

He gives instructions on seat, with legs quite straight and using the thighs to grip (riders did not use a saddle). The upper body above the hips should be as supple as possible. He then gives instructions on starting at the walk, then moving into a relaxed trot, the timing for giving a cue to canter on the left lead, and exercises such as the Volte (circles) to build suppleness in both sides of the horse. Riders are reminded that the horse must be collected (ie working from their hind ends) at the turns because it is safer and easier on the horse. The rider’s posture and even reins are noted as being key to having the horse steady, so neither horse nor rider fall. I get feedback on virtually all of these things at every lesson.

Xenophon’s approach to riding and training seems to have been largely forgotten until he was rediscovered in the Renaissance. On Horsemanship was published in Florence by the mid-16th century. The earliest known English edition was translated by John Astley and published by Henrie Denham in London in 1584.[iii]

The next book on horsemanship was written by King Dom Duarte I (1391 – 1438) of Portugal. His little known book “Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela” – The Instruction of the Art of Riding in Every Saddle – was published posthumously in 1438. Sadly, Dom Duarte wrote only seven out of sixteen planned “recommendations” for riders before he died of the plague.

More than a century passed after Dom Duarte’s death before the tradition of classical equitation was resumed. The economic, political, cultural and artistic center of Europe had moved to Italy during the 15th century. Aristocrats from all over Europe sent their sons to the academies in Naples, Rome, Ferrara, Florence, and Bologna that were set up to teach dance, fencing, and classical literature, as well as riding. Perhaps the most famous riding master of the time was Federigo Grisone who taught at the academy in Naples. His book “Gli ordini di Cavalcare (The Rules of Riding)” was published in 1550 and translated into most European languages. It was the first manual on manège riding, the ancestor of modern dressage. Grisone’s treatise and the riding masters trained at his riding academy in Naples, Italy, spread the practice of the art of manège riding to courts throughout Europe. [iv] Grisone’s book was translated into English by Thomas Blundeville in 1560; it was the first riding manual in English.[v] Clear cues, keeping straight, and using circles, all show up in the translation of a few sections that I was able to find.[vi]

Grisone, widely considered to be the founding father of classical equitation after the Middle Ages, already recognized the importance of the trot work for the training of the horse. The goal of the trot work, according to Grisone, is to make the horse straight and light, with a soft mouth and a good rein contact, which is the basis of his entire method. He wanted the rider to carry the rein hand low, and he emphasized the importance of connecting the base of the horse’s neck to his shoulders. This allows the rider to align the horse’s hips and shoulders. Grisone followed Xenophon in his emphasis of the importance of the horse’s correct posture and the rider’s correct and effective seat. Similarly to Xenophon, Grisone recommends training with gentleness and patience, but unlike the former, he condones excessively harsh punitive methods when the horse resists. He used harsh methods to subdue the horse, using severe spurring and harsh bits (of some of which he was the inventor). Other examples of his cruel methods include placing live hedgehogs under the animal’s tail, punishing a horse by placing a cat strapped to a pole under its belly, and forcing the horse’s head under water to the point of near-drowning if it showed any fear of crossing water.[vii]

Cesare Fiaschi, a contemporary of Federigo Grisone, founded a riding academy in Ferrara in 1534. His book “Trattato dell’imbrigliare, maneggiare e ferrare cavalli” (Treatise on bridling, training and shoeing horses) appeared in 1556. Fiaschi was the first author who mentioned the importance of a steady rhythm and tempo: “without tempo and rhythm nothing good can be accomplished”. [viii]Fiaschi wrote that “it seemed necessary that the good rider recognize the nature of the horses he wants to train” and that the rider “should always proceed with reason and with a good temperament in everything he does”, a point of view that is reminiscent of Xenophon’s philosophy. Fiaschi was also an authority on farriery and his book on the subject remained in use until the 19th century.[ix]

The next important authority who greatly influenced the course of dressage was Giambattista Pignatelli (c. 1525 – c. 1600). The Portuguese author Carlos Manoel de Andrade (1790) credits him with discovering the gymnastic value of riding circles on a single track. The work on circles of various sizes is the centerpiece of bending the horse in motion, which helps to unlock the horse’s abdominal muscles. It also plays an important role in developing straightness, as well as equal suppleness in both directions, and the engagement of the inside hind leg underneath the body mass. [x]

One of Pignatelli’s most famous students was the French écuyer ordinaire de la Grande Écurie du roi, Salomon de la Broue (c. 1530 – c. 1610). De la Broue was concerned about protecting the horse’s mouth and started the training of his horses with a snaffle bit. He is the first author who mentions flexions of the neck and poll. De la Broue believed that the lightness of the horse’s mouth has to come from the overall posture and steady rein contact with a vertical head position.  The right level of even contact in the mouth allows the horse to balance evenly on all four legs and keep straight.

The last, and possibly greatest, of the Renaissance horsemen was Antoine de Pluvinel (1555 – 1620). Pluvinel studied under Pignatelli from the age of 10 until he was about 16. In 1594, Pluvinel founded the Académie d’équitation, which was located close to the French royal stables. His treatise on riding was published in 1623 under the title “Le Maneige royal”. A second version, with an improved text, entitled “L’Instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval” appeared in 1625. Today, Pluvinel is probably most famous and admired for his emphasis of treating the horse as an intelligent being and teaching it with kindness and gentleness. The following quotes illustrate his philosophy: “But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of how to begin it, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his brain, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his gentleness: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns.”

“I concentrate mainly on exercising his mind and his memory, in such a way that I achieve what I want: so that it is the horse’s mind which I work the most: the mind of the rider must work perpetually as well, in order to detect all kinds of opportunities to arrive at my goal, without letting any movement pass unnoticed, nor any opportunity unused.”

“If possible, one must be sparing with punishment and lavish with caresses, as I have already said, and I will say it again, in order to make the horse obey and go out of pleasure rather than discomfort.”[xi]

Beside his rather modern sounding training philosophy, Pluvinel also advanced the technical, gymnastic side of training over his predecessors. In order to supple the horse more effectively, he worked on two tracks, rode voltes, as well as turns on the forehand in motion and passades around a single pillar. He is also said to have invented the work between two pillars, which is a highly effective tool for suppling the hips laterally, flexing the haunches longitudinally, and for developing the piaffe as well as the levade. These are all moves that have me looking at YouTube instructional videos, as this is a level of dressage I will never achieve on my little horse. That leaves aside the even more complex moves that came later, and are largely seen only at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna today.

Here I am on my girl Fancy at the end of the lesson. Tonight we worked on exercises to ensure a steady contact with her bit, collection, and clear commands so that she would respond eagerly and consistently. Xenophon would have been proud.


Facsimiles and other Sources:

https://archive.org/details/artofhorsemanshi00xeno (full text of the 1893 edition with notes by Morris H. Morgan)

http://www.alvarenga.net/lealconselheiro.pdf (excerpts in modern Portuguese and a facsimile copy in older Portuguese of the full text copied from a manuscript and published in 1843).



[i] http://www.artisticdressage.com/articles/history1_p.html

[ii] http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/xenophon-forefather-dressage

[iii] http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/xenophon-forefather-dressage

[iv] https://networks.h-net.org/node/28086/pdf

[v] https://alchetron.com/Federico-Grisone-2582712-W

[vi] http://www.artisticdressage.com/blundeville-quotes.html

[vii] https://alchetron.com/Federico-Grisone-2582712-W

[viii] http://www.artisticdressage.com/articles/history1_p.html

[ix] http://www.artisticdressage.com/articles/history1_p.html

[x] http://www.artisticdressage.com/articles/history1_p.html

[xi] http://www.artisticdressage.com/articles/history1_p.html

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