“A la brida” and “a la gineta.” Different riding techniques in the late Middle Ages 
and the Renaissance

Rider in the

Rider in the “a la gineta” style
(in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Defining, in his Book of the Courtier (1528), the ideal features of the Renaissance gentleman, Baldassare Castiglione wrote: “I would hope that our Courtier is a perfect horseman in every kind of saddle” (1, 21). That a gentleman had to be able to perfectly ride a horse is quite obvious. Since the Middle Ages, and for many centuries thereafter, the practice of knightly exercises represented one of the characteristic features of the identity of aristocracy. So much so that the term “knight” came to be identified with that of “noble” as a synonym. What is instead striking is the reference to the different types of saddles. This was a suggestion that the author did not explain, considering it clear to his contemporary readers, but which now seems far less apparent, giving us the opportunity for a quick overview of the main equestrian techniques practiced at the time.

Baldassare Castiglione portrayed by Raffaello (1514-15) Louvre Museum - Paris

Baldassare Castiglione portrayed by Raffaello (1514-15)
Louvre Museum – Paris

It is evident that, if it was only a matter of harness, Castiglione’s specification would have been superfluous. In fact, as we will see in more detail, the author of the Book of the Courtier refers to different riding techniques which characterized equitation in late medieval times and during the Renaissance. We find a clear testimony of these different techniques in the most ancient equestrian treatise of the post-classic age: the Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela. This is the work which Edward (Duarte), King of Portugal (1391-1438), wrote around 1434 and which was handed down to us in a manuscript, first published in Paris, dating back to 1842. The title can be translated into the Book of the art of riding with any type of saddle. We then find the same premise discussed in Castiglione, but in this work, the author gives us many more details.

In the

Tthe “a la brida” style consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the leg outstretched
and the feet forward
(in Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie Française et Italienne, Paris, 1620)

In his book, Dom Duarte distinguishes five different ways to ride a horse: 1) the one with the Bravante saddle, 2) the one in which the rider does not take support on the stirrups, 3) the one in which the rider stands firm on the stirrups, 4) the one in which the rider rides with short stirrups, 5) and finally, riding bareback, or with a pack-saddle without stirrups. The distinction, according to the type of the saddle and to the length of the stirrups, clearly refers to different ways in which the rider is seated and then to different riding techniques. Dom Duarte says that the habit of riding nearly without resting the rider’s feet on the stirrups was widespread in England and in some Italian regions, while riding without stirrups and no spurs was typical of Ireland. According to Carlos Henriques Pereira, who devoted detailed studies to Dom Duarte’s book, the first and the third way mentioned by Dom Duarte substantially coincide and correspond to the so-called “a la brida” style, which was frequently mentioned in later treatises. In fact, as we will see, these two ways of riding were very different and can be compared only by the fact that the rider rode keeping his legs straight. These ways of riding were opposed to the so-called “a la gineta” style, characterized by the fact that the rider rode with shorter stirrups and bent legs. Even though Dom Duarte’s classification demonstrates the coexistence of many different riding techniques in the late medieval period, equitation at the time and during the Renaissance was mainly characterized by the contrast between the a la brida and the a la gineta styles.

Paolo Uccello, detail of Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseating Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano (1435-1440) Florence, Uffizi Musuem

Paolo Uccello, detail of Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseating Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano (1435-1440), Florence, Uffizi Musuem

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry and was characterized by the use of long stirrups. As we have already seen, Dom Duarte distinguished two different methods:  the first one was done with a particular kind of saddle, called “Bravante saddle”, and consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the feet forward (III, 2); the second, in contrast, consisted of riding standing up in the stirrups, never sitting on the saddle (III, 4). To facilitate this second method, the stirrups were fastened to each other with a strap under the horse’s belly in order to prevent them from separating. According to Dom Duarte, the method of standing while riding was older and required the rider to keep his legs perfectly straight under him. Both of these techniques were used to facilitate the knight in handling the lance. Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the length and the weight of this weapon increased progressively. This required the rider, who was already awkward in his movements from heavy armor, to stand firm in the saddle in order to face the moment of collision with his opponent. For this purpose, special saddles with very high pommels and cantles were used in order to support the rider. According to Carlos Henriques Pereira, and to other historians, the “a la brida” style was typical of Northern Europe. But it is well documented that this way of riding was also widespread in southern countries such as Italy and also in Portugal. Indeed, according to Baldassare Castiglione, Italian knights stood out because of their ability in this technique and for their ability to master difficult horses.

it is the special pride of the Italians to ride well a la brida, to school wild horses with consummate skill, and to play at tilting and jousting.” (Book of the Courtier, I, 21)

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry (in Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen, Ritterkunst, Franckfurt, 1616)

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry
(in Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen, Ritterkunst, Franckfurt, 1616)

In addition, this was the typical riding technique used in jousting, the knightly games in which two armed knights on horseback faced off at “the barrier,” if between the two contenders, there was a “tilt,” made of wood, or of canvas, or in the “open field.” These chivalrous events were widespread throughout Europe up until the seventeenth century and this explains also why “a la brida” was a common style.


The “a la brida” style was used in jousting, a type of chivalrous events
which were widespread throughout Europe
(in Anthoine de Pluvinel, L’instruction du roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval, Paris, 1625)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In contrast, the “a la gineta” style of riding with shorter stirrups, allowed the rider a more direct and precise contact of the “lower aids” with the horse’s sides. According to Dom Duarte, this style required the rider to sit “in the middle of the saddle”, not using the support of the pommel and the cantle, keeping the feet firmly resting on the stirrups, with the heels slightly down (III, 5). It was a technique typical of the Iberian Peninsula, clearly originating in North Africa. The term “gineta” or “ginetta” comes from the Spanish word “jinete” which, in turn, most likely derived from the Berber tribe of Zeneti, famous for it’s light cavalry. They would have been the ones to introduce this style of riding to the Iberian Peninsula. This origin is also clearly identified by the fact that in the “a la gineta” style,  a kind of bit was used which was identical to those still in use in North Africa. It was formed by two short shanks connected by a cannon, with a central shovel that rested flat on the horse’s tongue and on top of which a large metal ring was attached. This ring passed under the lower jaw of the animal and acted as a curb chain. Also, the saddle was clearly of Arabic origin and was quite similar to the “silla vaquera” still used in Spain.

In the

In the “a la gineta” style the use of short stirrups
allowed the rider a more direct and precise contact
of the “lower aids”
(in Galvão de Andrade, Arte da cavalaria de Gineta, Lisboa, 1678)

The “a la gineta” style was typical of the Iberian Peninsula, but rapidly spread into the domains of the Spanish Empire and particularly into southern Italy, where the horses of Spanish  origin were called “Ginnetti”. We find testimony of the widespread breeding of this kind of horse in the southern regions of Italy, in the frescoes of Palazzo Pandone in Venafro. Among these frescos is the portrait of the bay “ginecto” called Stella, portrayed at the age of four on the 23rd of May 1523, which was subsequently donated to the Neapolitan nobleman Annibale Caracciolo. Dom Duarte underlines that riding “a la gineta” was not practiced in Northern Europe and that the British and the French had little experience with this way of riding (III, 7).

The bay Stella, life-size portrayed in Castello Pandone in Venafro (XV century). The breeding of

The bay Stella, life-size portrayed in Castello Pandone in Venafro (XV century). The breeding of “Ginnetti” (jennets, i.e. horses of Iberian origin) was widespread in southern Italy

Riding “a la gineta” is also the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. The short stirrups allowed the rider to make fast stops and departures, as well as sudden changes of direction, which are essential in the fight with the bull. It is well known that this kind of fighting took place not only on the Iberian peninsula, but during the Renaissance, was used as well in Italy. Benedetto Croce recalls events in Siena and Florence, where, in 1584, in Piazza Santa Croce, there was a magnificent bullfight on the occasion of the visit of Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir to the throne of Mantua. Maria Bellonci chronicles the passion of the Borgias for bulls and mentions the bullfight with which the Duke Valentino, Cesare Borgia (the son of Pope Alexander VI), celebrated the New Year’s Eve 1502, no less than in Saint Peter’s square in Rome. The features of the “a la gineta” style were also further used in some types of chivalrous trials, such as the “game of the reeds” (juego de canhas) and the “carousel joust.” They both were equestrian games of Arabic origin, imported by the Spaniards in Italy, in which two teams of riders faced each other in a bloodless battle armed with reeds and Moorish shields, or hurling projectiles made of clay.

Riding “a la gineta” was the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. During the Reinassance, this kind of fighting were widespread  also outside the Iberian peninsula (Antonio Tempesta, Caccia al toro, 1598)

Riding “a la gineta” was the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. During the Reinassance, this kind of fighting were widespread also outside the Iberian peninsula
(Antonio Tempesta, Caccia al toro, 1598)

However, both Dom Duarte and, about a century after him, Baldassare Castiglione were convinced of one thing: the perfect knight must master each of these techniques and be able to adapt to any type of saddle, since each one is useful for specific needs. “A man will never be a good rider if he is not able to choose the most appropriate way to ride on each type of saddle” (Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, III, 14).

The “a la gineta” bit was of a clear Arabic origin and was identical to those still in use in North Africa (in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)

The “a la gineta” bit was of a clear Arabic origin and was identical to those still in use in North Africa
(in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)


BELLONCI, Maria, Lucrezia Borgia, Milano, Mondadori 1939.

CASTIGLIONE, Baldassare, Il Cortigiano, a cura di A. Quondam, Milano, Mondadori, 2002.

CROCE, Benedetto, La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza, 2a ed. riveduta, Bari, Laterza, 1922.

D’ANDRADE, Fernando Sommer,  La tauromachie équestre au Portugal, Paris, Michel Chandeigne, 1991.

Dom DUARTE, The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting and Knightly Combat, translatetd by A. F. and L. Preto, edited by Steven Muhlberger, Highland Viallge, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005.

PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Etude du premier traité d’équitation portugais. Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.

PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Naissance et renaissance de l’equitation portugaise, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2010.

Horseback riding in the Middle Ages – Jordanus Rufus of Calabria

Miniature of an armed knight of Prato on horseback, attribution to Pacino di Buonaguida, from Convenevole da Prato, Regia Carmina, Italy, Central (Tuscany),
c. 1335-c. 1340

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Although the importance of the horse in the medieval European civilization is known and recognized, given it’s central function in the definition of the identity of the dominant classes and the prominent role that the cavalry held in the military until at least the fourteenth century, we unfortunately know little about the equestrian practices in the period from the classical era to the Renaissance. The so-called chivalric literature and chronicles handed down to us by memory, are often cloaked in the misty aura of myth, of innumerable deeds accomplished on horseback, but telling us little or nothing about how medieval knights rode their steeds and how they were tamed, trained and cared for. Yet, as noted by the French historian Nicolas Thouroude (Thouroude, 2007), at least with regard to the late medieval age documents, there is evidence of the existence of a ludic equitation which provided a refined training of the horse. This type of riding found it’s expression in tournaments and jousts which were to celebrate various events involving court rituals and real shows, in addition to combat, in which horses always had a leading role. The equestrian education of the young nobles was indeed considered essential. Ramon Llull in his Livre de l’ordre de chevalerie (1274-1276) recommended that gentlemen insist on instruction for their children on how to ride horses in their very early years, and that during their education, they should also be taught how to care for the animal.

Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, from Grandes Chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 782), c. 1274

In medieval times, we do not find texts which deal specifically with riding techniques. The theme of the care and breeding of the horse is often discussed in encyclopedic works, such as Geopónica (overall work about agronomy, compiled in Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in the tenth century), or in the Liber de animalibus by Albert the Great (1206-1280), De rerum proprietatibus by Bartholomew de Glanville, called the English (XIII c.), or the Ruralium Commodorum libri XII (1304) by Pietro de’ Crescenzi (COCO – Gualdo, 2008).

Illustration from the Roman de Tristan
(Musée Condé MS 648, fol. 199r), 1440-1460

In this framework, there is a particular importance given to the treatise by Jordanus Rufus of Calabria, miles in marestalla (that is to say an officer of the second order in the imperial stud farm) in the court of Frederick II. Born around 1200, in Gerace or Monteleone di Calabria, he wrote a work transmitted through a manuscript tradition under various titles Mariscalcia equorumLiber de curis equorumCyrurgia equorum (Ruffo, 1999 e 2002). The text was certainly written in Latin, although there are different versions in the various languages: Tuscan, Sicilian, Catalan, Provençal, French and also in German. A Hebrew version has also been identified, which testifies to it’s widespread diffusion. The work is divided into six parts. The first four books are about breeding, feeding, reproduction, hygiene, taming and training, bits and shoeing, and the physical structure of the horse. The last two are devoted to describing diseases, which are divided into natural (Book V), and accidental (Book VI). It is to the latter that the bulk of the text is devoted: fifty-nine chapters, covering various diseases and their treatment. The chapters devoted to taming and training are quite basic, but they give an idea of the equestrian practices of the time and contain precepts that will be found again in later works (some of which are still in use today).

Henry I battles his enemies, Grandes chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 783, fol. 177v), 14th-15th century

Rufus recommends to keep the horse tethered in the stable, in order to prevent him from hurting his limbs, and to prepare for the night, a straw litter up to his knees. There are also dietetic prescriptions to keep the horse neither too thin, nor too fat. It is also suggested to water him with turbid water, because it is considered more “nutritious” («ideoque efficientur equorum corporibus nutribiliores refectiores ad plenum»). The author advises against riding in the evening because, in the cooler hours of the night, it is more difficult for the sweat dry completely before the animal is brought back to the stable. Similarly, he warns against riding in the hottest months of summer, or in the coldest of winter. Shoeing must be done with light steel horseshoes, but he recommends not to shoe the horse when he is too young, in order to avoid damaging his hooves.

Tournament of the Chastel of Brut,
from Romance of the Round Table
(BNF Fr. 112(1), fol. 181v), c. 1470

At the beginning of the training, Rufus recommends to use the lightest bit possible («frenum debile et levius»), making sure to smear it with honey or some other sweet syrup, to make it more pleasant to the horse. Once harnessed, the horse must be led by hand by a groom until he has learned to follow him obediently. Only then he can be mounted, without saddle or spurs, and accustomed to turn to the left and to the right. After about a month he can be mounted with the saddle and trained gradually to trot on plowed soil, so that he learns to raise his feet well. It is also recommended to train him to turn especially to the right because, it is said, horses naturally tend to turn more easily to the left («quod equus est naturaliter pronior a sinistris»). Once trained to trot, the horse can be ridden at the canter, but keeping a collected gait  («in minore et breviore saltu») and only for short distances, to avoid tiring him. He also recommends, both at the trot and at the canter, to keep contact with the bit, and to bend progressively the horse’s neck, in order to control him better and to let him see where he places his hooves. To accustom him to noise and to crowds, Rufus suggests to often ride the horse inside the city, especially in noisy places (for example, near the forges of the blacksmiths), taking care not to punish him if he is initially scared and unwilling, rather gently encouraging him («blandendo ducatur»), in order to prevent that he will later associate noise and movement with punishment,.

Frontispiece of the French edition of Lorenzo Rusio’s Hippiatria sive Marescalia (Parigi, Christianum Wechelum, 1532). This later work was significantly influenced by Jordanus Rufus’s treatise

Nevertheless, there are also suggestions that today make us shudder. According to Rufus, when the horse has attained his full adult dentition, his four canine teeth (scaglioni) must be pulled out, because they are considered adverse to the mouthpiece («a pluribus nuncupantur freni morsui continui adversantes»). According to the author, this operation would also have the advantage of keeping the horse from getting too fat and, if he is wild, to appease his ardent character. The bit to be used with the colt is the one that, in later periods, will be called “cannon”, consisting of two transversal bars and one in width «ad duas barras extransverso et una per longum composita est»). The author then mentions other stronger bits, with twisted or grooved mouthpieces, or with a shovel that acts on the palate, but he advises not to use them because he considers them too strong and, for this reason, he does not give much attention to them. He stresses that, once the right mouthpiece for the sensibility of the animal is found, it must not be changed with others of different shape, so as to not ruin the horse’s mouth. The horse must be trained to stop and to respect the bit before working him at a faster pace. The canter must be practiced progressively for longer distances, without abuse, to prevent the horse from getting too tired and becoming resistant. Similarly, he must be urged forward frequently to avoid that he becomes lazy.

Horse’s anathomy, from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo infermità et suoi rimedii, in Bologna, presso gli heredi di Gio. Rossi, 1598

Rufus’s text had a wide diffusion and has had considerable influence on the chapters devoted to the cure of the horse by Pietro de’ Crescenzi and on the subsequent treatises about the art of farriery1 by Lorenzo Rusio (about 1340) and by the Florentine Dino Dini (1352-1359), up to the Anatomia del cavallo infermita et suoi rimedii ((Anatomy of the horse his infirmity et remedies, 1598), the work of the Renaissance precursor of veterinary medicine Carlo Ruini. 1 It’s important to notice that, at the time, the farrier was not only the horseshoer, but also the veterinarian.


AA.VV. 2011  Cavalli e cavalieri. Guerra, gioco, finzione, edited by F. Cardini and L. Mantelli, Ospedaletto-Pisa.

COCO, Alessandra – GUALDO, Riccardo 2008 Cortesia e cavalleria, la tradizione ippiatrica in volgare nelle corti italiane tra Trecento e Quattrocento, in I saperi nelle corti. Knowledge at the courts, Firenze, Sismel-Edizioni del Galluzzo, (Micrologus XVI), pp. 125-152.

GUALDO, Riccardo 2005  Ippiatria in Enciclopedia Federiciana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, Vol.  II, pp. 81-86.

LULLO,Raimondo 1994  Libro dell’Ordine della Cavalleria. Italian edition with Catalan parallel text, edited by G. Allegra, Carmagnola, Arktos Edizioni.

RUFFO, Giordano 1999  Nelle scuderie di Federico II imperatore, ovvero L’arte di curare il cavallo, edited by M.A. Causati Vanni, Editrice Vela, Velletri. 2002

Libro della mascalcia, edited by P.Crupi, Soveria Mannelli, Rubettino Editore.

THOUROUDE, Nicolas 2007  Les prémices d’une equitation ludique à l’aube de l’epoque modern (XIVe -XVe siècle), in AA.VV., À cheval! Ècuyers, amazones & cavaliers du XIVe au XXIe siècle, edited by D. Roche and D. Reytier, Paris, Association pour l’académie équestre de Versailles, pp. 33- 47.

You may find a remarkable collection of links to pictures about the Medieval and Reinassance material culture on Larsdatter.com

The Spanish Walk: classic exercise or circus trick?

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
At the Circus: The Spanish Walk
Graphite, black and colored pastel, and charcoal
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

There has been much discussion in the past, and horse lovers still are debating, if the so-called “Spanish walk” should be considered an exercise of the classical High School, or rather an air of fantasy, as defined by General Decarpentry (DECARPENTRY, 1949, p. 18). Those who argue that it should not be included as a High School exercise consider it an artificial movement and disdain it as a spectacular trick to snatch the applause of an audience easy to satisfy. In support of their point of view, they emphasize that the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) excludes it from the exercises of academic equitation and dressage competitions. In fact this argument is not very relevant when you consider that the same Federation does not accept in competitions the so called “airs above the ground”, such as levade, and school-jumps (courbette, cabriole), even if those exercises are undoubtedly “classical” as they are codified in all the equestrian treatises since the Renaissance and are still practiced by the European schools of Vienna, Saumur, Jerez de la Frontera and Lisbon, that keep alive the traditions of High School.

Given that I find this dispute quite tedious and irrelevant, I think that it could be of some use to report the fact which is also neglected by many experts, that the Spanish walk is mentioned in the first treatises about horsemanship and can therefore be considered a common practice of so-called classical riding. Few, indeed, have noticed that in the first printed treatise, Gli ordini di cavalcare by  Federico Grisone (1550), not only are described the exercises (“maneggi”) required for use in war, but also briefly discussed are some “airs” to be performed in the exhibition of a horse in the presence of the king or a prince. During this presentation, the horse had to demonstrate it’s strength and elegance, executing jumps as croupade (“tirar calci”, kicking), courbette and cabriole (“corvette e capriole”), but also his obedience and dexterity in doing the “ciambetta”.

Paulo Sergio Perdigão and his lusitano stallion Ulysses. Performing Spanish walk, Spanish trot, Piaffer and Jambette. Morgado Lusitano – Portugal – 2012

The description that Grisone gives of this exercise is rather obscure and ambiguous, to the point that it has put many modern interpreters on a false track. The author does not dwell on the subject, considering it well known to his readers, but stresses that this movement, «is of great use to give him [to the horse] ornament when he is ridden» (GRISONE, 1550, 108r). To teach it to the animal, he suggests to bring him in a ditch and to train him to execute tight vaults, using the same aids generally used to correct a horse that tends to turn with his haunches before his shoulders. Doing this it would be necessary to turn to the right and to the left several times, so that «at the end of the vault he would not be able to cross the arm [ie the foreleg] except  with great difficulty and he will fear to hit his arm with the arm opposite to the direction of the vault [ie outside forelg] so that to avoid it, with a hard arch and hard neck and with his head still, he will raise it high, performing the ciambetta». (GRISONE, 1550, p. 108r ).

The meaning of these words is rather doubtful, so much that some have interpreted this passage as a description of an exercise similar to the canter pirouette, ie. a movement in which «the horse rises upon his hindquarters with his forelegs elevated  and, leading with one foreleg, navigates around a tight circle, crossing one leg over the other» (TOBEY, 2011, p. 152). Others consider the word “ciambetta” a variant of “ciambella”, an Italia term which designated (to tell the truth in a following period) what we now call “piaffer” (BASCETTA, 1978, p. 384). In my opinion, the characteristic feature of Grisone’s description, however, is the emphasis on the elevation of the foreleg.

Paulo Sergio and Filipa Jacome performing the pas de deux
Lisbon – Lusitano Festival 2012
© Andrea Kjellberg

The quotation of that term by Claudio Corte, in his subsequent treatise entitled Il cavallarizzo (1562), does not clarify the meaning of  the “ciambetta”. Speaking of the so-called “raddoppio” (“doubling”, ie the vault on two tracks which we now call pirouette), Corte recommends to train the horse on a field with some reliefs, in order to make the horse lift the forelegs in the vaults. Equally, he adds: «the same mounds are needed to teach the so-called ciambetta, that is to say to bend and lift properly the arms [ie the forelegs] in the vaults» (Corte, 1562, p. 105r). Even in this case it is clear that the author does not dwell on the description of this movement, considering it well known to his readers.

It is, instead, Pasquale Caracciolo that clarifies the actual meaning of the term, in his book La gloria del Cavallo (1566). It is worth quoting at length his description of the gesture and of the method to teach it:

«You can then teach to the horse the Ciambetta, which is very nice and useful to the courbette and to other exercises, especially the Repolone, to which is very much necessary and it is beautiful to see, because with the arm raised, the horse proves to be very attentive to the slightest hint of the rider. If you want to teach the horse this other doctrine, you can go in the barn on the right side of the Manger to which the horse is tied up and then beat him with a stick in his right arm, first in one place then in another, now slightly and now strongly, and so beating him this way you will incite him with the sound of  the tongue to lift that arm. When he does raise it, you will stay quiet and, without beating him, keeping the stick on the arm, often threatening him not to lower it; but every time he will put it down on the ground, with your voice and with blows, you will return to make him lift that arm up and keeping him like that for a quarter of an hour, or a little less, you will scratch his withers, to make him more willing to keep it up. In another moment, with equal orders, you will make him do the Ciambetta with his left arm: then when he will be able to raise well each arm to your liking, you will beat his right arm with the stick, while another person will sting him with a small stick in the place of the girth, making the ordinary sound of the tongue, so that he will lift his right arm: afterwards to make him raise also the other, beating his left arm, you will sting him on the right side, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes (depending on the need) strongly. So that, trained in this way, every time he will feel to be stung with the spur on one side by the rider mounted in the saddle, hearing at the same time the usual signal of the tongue, he will get used to lifting the opposite arm, without a stick, which you cannot always have, nor it is always convenient to carry. Indeed in this way he will become so trained that when you draw near to him on one side he shall raise his arm on the other and he will keep it lifted as long as you continue to urge him». (CARACCIOLO, 1566, pp. 427-428).

© Andrea Kjellberg

The passage goes on with an explanation of how to continue from the saddle the training started in the barn. The horse should be solicited by an aide which will stimulate him with the stick from the ground, touching now one, now the other frontleg, while the rider touches him with his spurs, using diagonal aids (ie touching the side opposite to that of the frontleg he has to lift). And so, alternating rewards and punishments, according to Caracciolo he will be reduced «to the comprehension of your will» (CARACCIOLO, 1566, p. 428). Caracciolo then suggests to train the horse to perform the “ciambetta” in the vaults using a ditch, as told by Grisone, to induce him to lift the frontlegs.

The progression of  the training illustrated by Caracciolo, the first lessons from the ground in the barn, up to those in the saddle, in my opinion, clarify unequivocally that the exercise called “ciambetta” is the same as what we now call “Spanish walk”. It was performed in the vaults as a “presentation air” after a straight canter (the so-called “repolone”).

With regards to the “classicism” of this movement, we can then conclude that there are no doubts that it was already practiced hundreds of years ago and it was considered an exercise with highly aesthetic purposes. So that it rightfully belongs to that nucleus of artistic equitation that develops from the sixteenth century and is refined in the following centuries up to finding its canonical systematization in the École de cavalerie by François Robichon de la Guérinière (1733). Perhaps the fact that the great French master excluded it from the school exercises listed in his treatise, has contributed to the oblivion of its original diffusion in the Renaissance equitation. Given the deep influence of the Italian Renaissance technical terminology on the equestrian vocabulary still in use, it is then possible that the French term “jambette”, with which we refer to the elevation and extension of the foreleg of the horse in the first phase of the execution of the Spanish walk, may come from the Italian “ciambetta”.

Rodrigo Matos teaching Spanish walk
Morgado Lusitano – Alverça do Ribatejo – Portugal

It is clear that this simple historical clarification does not pretend to exhaust the dispute between supporters and detractors of this particular movement. But it will reach it’s goal if it will at least show how often history is manipulated in order to support someone’s personal preferences. T o determine whether an exercise is, or is not classical, is rather arbitrary and, in the end, not very relevant. It is much more relevant if a given gesture is performed without violence, or damage to the horse, and if it adds aesthetically to the brillance of the performance of the horse and rider. Personally, when it is carried out correctly and in the appropriate context, the Spanish walk seems to me to be a demonstration of elegance and of the perfect understanding between horse and rider. To me, this seems to be more than enough.


BASCETTA, Carlo, Sport e giuochi: trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo, Volume 2, Milano, Il Polifilo, 1978.

CARACCIOLO, Pasquale, Gloria del cavallo, Venezia, Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1566.

CORTE, Claudio, Il Cavallarizzo, Venezia, Giordano Zilletti, 1562

DECARPENTRY, Albert, Equitation académique, Paris, Editions Henri Neveu, 1949 (n.e. Paris, Lavauzelle, 1991)

GRISONE, Federico, Gli ordini del cavalcare, Napoli, stampato da Giovan Paolo Suganappo, 1550.

TOBEY, Elizabeth, The Legacy of Federico Grisone, in AA. VV., The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, Leiden, Koninklijke Brill, 2011, pp. 143-171.