Marco de Pavari and the dominion of pleasantness

Anonimo italiano, Studio della testa di un cavallo, circa la metà del XVI sec.  © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York

Italian Anonymous, Head of a Horse, mid 16th century
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

[This is the text of my speech at the Resolution Day, organized by Francesco Vedani at the Spia d’Italia Riding Center in Lonato del Garda (Italy),on Sunday, December 3, 2014]  

This is the story of a mysterious horseman. We only know his name and a few pieces of information that we can deduce from a very rare book, which was published in Lyon (France) in 1581 and which bears his signature. Even though it is very interesting, this book it is still quite unknown. Our horseman was called Marco de Pavari and he was of Venetian origin. This does not necessarily mean that he was born and raised in the city of the gondolas. In fact, in the sixteenth century the Republic of Venice had a vast hinterland, which spread to the river Adda, not many miles from Milan.

We also know, because his publisher Jean de Tournes wrote it in the dedicatory letter of the book, that Marco lived in France and was the horseman of François de Mandelot, the governor of Lyon. At the time, Lyon was an even more important city than it is today. It was a flourishing center of trade. For this reason, many Italians lived there. Indeed, according to the Renaissance writer Matteo Bandello, between the European cities at that time, Lyon was the one in which there perhaps were more Italians that in any other place outside of Italy. And it is not surprising that an important person, such as the governor of such a rich city, had an Italian horseman in his service, because at that time, the majority of the horseman in the European courts were Italian. And even an Italian, Galeazzo Sanseverino, became Grand Squire of France, during the kingdom of Francis I (1494-1547).

Stefano Della Bella, Pesade, da Diverses exercices de cavalerie, circa 1642-1645 © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York

Stefano Della Bella, Pesade, from Diverses exercices de cavalerie, ca 1642-1645
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

The book, entitled Escuirie de M. de Pavari venitien, is a folio volume of about sixty pages in which the Italian and French texts are side by side in two columns. In addition to the text, the content of the book is enriched by fourteen full-page plates, which depict different models of bits. The fact that the dedicatory letter of the treatise is signed by the publisher, and not by the author, suggests that, most likely, the book was published after de Pavari had left Lyon, or perhaps even when he was already dead. The most interesting feature of the work is that it is largely dedicated to the rehabilitation of horses that became resistant or rebellious because of mistreatment. In fact, even if in those days the practice of horsemanship was much more widespread and important than today, the use of coercive and brutal methods was quite frequent. As just one example, consider that the first book dedicated to horse riding ever published in print, Ordini di cavalcare (Rules of riding, 1550) by Federico Grisone, ends with a gruesome collection of “secrets”, that is to say tricks of the trade, so brutal as to seem invented on purpose. It is then easy to imagine that many horses subjected to these abuses became very difficult to ride. What is most original in the book by De Pavari is that he suggests rehabilitating them with gentleness, shown in the following excerpt:

that gentleness earns more than desperation: which you too can learn to be true, that desperation leads them [the horses] to do all these bad wills and not gentleness, which does not do this, but mitigates them and draws them to itself [i.e. to gentleness] (DE PAVARI, 1581, [42] p. 31).

Il libro di de Pavari è ornato di tavole che rappresentano diversi modelli di imboccatura

de Pavari’s book is enriched by full-page plates, which depict different models of bits

De Pavari focuses on preventing traumas to the horse from the very early beginning, in order not to spoil his good disposition towards man. For this reason, for example, he recommends placing an experienced horse next to the colt in order to calm him in the first phase of the taming and to use only the cavesson at the beginning of the training, in order not to damage his mouth with the bit. (Actually, even the much-maligned Grisone recommended starting to use the bit only when the horse has already learned how to turn and stop). Along with these guidelines, he emphasizes the importance of caresses, to calm and to give a reward to the animal. He also points out, something that we all should keep in our minds, that we should not expect too much from a young and untrained horse, not to bother and ruin him by imposing on his generous nature.

Similarly, he then recommends to not attempt to cure a trauma with another trauma. For example, he says: when a horse has a tendency to escape and evade the action of the bit, usually this happens because it has suffered the abuse of an inexperienced and heavy hand. In that case then, instead of clinging to the reins, with strong, constant pressure:

you must give, that is to say to loosen the hand little by little and then to collect it in the same way, so that they [the horses] will lose that bad will and they will stop (DE PAVARI, 1581, [42] p. 31).

Anonimo, Uomo su un cavallo impennato, datazione incerta © The Trustees of the British Museum

Anonymous, Man on a rearing horse, uncertain date
© The Trustees of the British Museum

And if this expedient method does not work, rather than clinging to the reins, he says, it is enough to put the horse on a tight volte to stop his flight. He then suggests a funny trick: to distract the horse from his desire to escape, the rider can ride him carrying a branch of willow, full of leaves. While riding, he should offer the branch to the horse, letting him eat it, but without giving it completely, but holding it, in order to divert him from his intention.

The same applies to the horses which refuse to turn to one side, or which recoil instead of going forward. Rather than beat them (as suggested by Grisone), de Pavari prescribes to use a milder bit and the cavesson and to ride them without spurs, ensuring that the girth is not too tight.

To conclude, de Pavari writes:

And if you love this virtue, I urge you to proceed with gentleness, which dominates everything, that if you will do the opposite you will not acquire anything but the blame of the people who are worthy and expert (DE PAVARI, 1581, [60] p. 38).

Stefano della Bella, Cavaliere conduce la sua cavalcatura ad abbeverarsi in un fiume, XVII sec. © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York

Stefano della Bella, A horseman descends a riverbank, ca. 1644-1647
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

In conclusion, I would like to add a final, personal observation to this story. The difficulty of rehabilitating a horse that has become rebellious because he suffered abuses by man, highlights the complexity of our relationship with these wonderful animals, which are extraordinarily compatible with us, but at the same time are very different. This diversity, which has some even enigmatic traits (if you only consider how difficult it is for us to understand the sudden terrors that sometimes trouble these behemoths weighing one thousand pounds), makes it extremely difficult to communicate with them and to turn them into our companions. This is especially true since each of them has completely different characteristics and sensitivity. Already in the sixteenth century, another author of a wonderful book, Claudio Corte who published his Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman) in 1562, emphasized how the art of training horses should be considered more difficult than others, because contrarily to what the teacher does with his students, the horseman cannot instruct his mount through spoken words.

Only a positive experience, together with a great love and a continuous reflection, allows us to improve the communication between man and animal. And this explains why any horse visibly changes if it is handled by an experienced rider, or by a less experienced, or even by a novice. After thirty five years of horseback riding, I am deeply convinced that you cannot gain competence only through an assiduous practice (which is also essential), but you must enrich your experience through study and theoretical reflection.

Disegno di Stefano Marchi

Design by Stefano Marchi

Studying the history of horsemanship is not just a pastime for intellectuals, but it is a way to share the knowledge of generations of riders who came before us. This heritage is there: in the books that form the tradition of the equestrian art. It is up to us to rediscover their inestimable value, in order to nourish our passion and enhance our experience of this wonderful way of life that is the practice of riding.


DE PAVARI, Marco, Escuirie de M. de Pavari venitien (en ital. Et en franç.) Jean de Tournes, Lyon, avec fig, 1581 [citiamo dall’edizione moderna Escuirie de M. de Pavari venitien, a cura di P. Arquint e M. Gennero, Collegno, Roberto Chiaramonte Editore, 2008].

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

Da sinistra: Giovanni Battista Tomassini, Francesco Vedani e Massimo Da Re al Resolution Day

From left: Giovanni Battista Tomassini, Francesco Vedani e Massimo Da Re
during the Resolution Day
© Massimo Mandato

Riding as a way to cultivate the soul. Dom Duarte and the remedies against fear

Giorgio Vasari, Studies of horses heads, Sixteenth century, Parigi, Musée du Louvre

Giorgio Vasari, Studies of horse heads, Sixteenth century, Parigi, Musée du Louvre

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the nature of the horse there is a duplicity that, for better or worse, has a deep impact on the relationship of this animal with man. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Claudio Corte had already described exactly this ambivalence. The horse – Corte wrote in his book Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman) – incorporates both “the nature of a domestic and gentle animal and that of a wild beast” (CORTE, 1562, p. 11v). There is indeed something primordial and savage in the powerful instincts that dominate the emotional reactions of the horse and that clash with his docile and gregarious nature. His seemingly incomprehensible fears are bewildering, in contrast to deeds of unprecedented courage. The violence of his sexual instinct is surprising and make him – again in the words of Corte – an “animal very fit for coitus and very inclined to love” (CORTE, 1562, p. 18r). His size and strength inspire fear, though a competent and sensitive hand can direct his generous impulses.

There is something primordial and savage in the powerful instincts that dominate the horse. Antonio Tempesta, Stallion who attacks a mare, 1590

There is something primordial and savage in the powerful instincts that dominate the horse. Antonio Tempesta, Stallion who attacks a mare, 1590

As far as we might be passionate and experienced, due to this ambivalence, the horse attracts and, at the same time, frightens us. Recalling the original emotion that unconsciously legitimized his choice of a life dedicated to horses and to equestrian spectacle, the great French horseman-artist, Bartabas, recently wrote:

For my part, it all started with a fascination. That is to say, from an admiration and at the same time from a fear. From my fear as a child in front of these “monsters” of 1500 pounds called horses, a fear which, vaguely and for reasons unknown to me, I told myself that I had to overcome. (BARTABAS, 2012, p. 10)

Even the genial French horseman-artist Bartabas recognizes that the origin of his equestrian vocation is a primitive instinct of fear of the horse.  Bartabas and Jean Claude Drouet in the show

Even the genial French horseman-artist Bartabas recognizes that the source of his equestrian vocation is a primitive instinct of fear of the horse.
Bartabas and Jean Claude Drouet in the show “Chimere” in 1994

The relationship between man and horse is modeled by this complexity. The conflict between fascination and fear lurks in the unconscious of every rider: it feeds his passion, points him toward new goals to reach, but it also multiplies his inhibitions and it is the cause of the most common technical and management mistakes. “Fear – writes Michel Henriquet, after a life dedicated to the practice and the teaching the equestrian art – is the most common problem of those who practice horse riding” (HENRIQUET, 2006, p. 46). According to the French master, this paralyzing feeling grips the vast majority of practitioners (six or seven out of ten, in his own experience as a instructor). And we might add, that it does not matter if they are beginners or experienced riders. Of course, the familiarity with the animals attenuates the fright, but very often it is easy to guess the influence of an unconscious fear even in the attitudes of many professionals. Given these considerations it is therefore not surprising that a large part of the Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela (The Book of Riding with Every Kind of Saddle) – one of the first equestrian treatises, written in the mid-fifteenth century by King Edward I of Portugal, known as Dom Duarte – is dedicated just to the management of the fear that the horse inspires in his rider. A special feature that makes this book – in the beautiful definition given by the Portuguese scholar Carlos Henriques Pereira – “the first page in history of psychology applied to equestrian sports and probably of sport’s pedagogy in general” (PEREIRA, 2009, p. 141 ).

Théodore Gericault, Riderless Horse Races, 1817, Paris Musée du Louvre

Théodore Gericault, Riderless horse race, 1817, Paris Musée du Louvre

The premise is: fear of the animal, of his strength and of his temperament, but above all fear of the dangers of riding. Beginning with the fear of being unseated. If, in fact, according to Dom Duarte, the first and most important quality of a good horseman is the ability to remain firmly in the saddle in all circumstances – namely its seat – the second is to not be afraid of falling:

Not to fear falling off the beast or with her, keeping the appropriate confidence in yourself, the beast and the terrain where you are riding, to do whatever would be necessary (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 18).

Fundamental virtue, because the first quality specified by Dom Duarte is inextricably linked to the second. Regardless of  physically strong, in fact, one can never be really solid on the saddle if he is afraid. Conversely, those who are free of the tension caused by apprehension, will be more at ease and therefore in a better balance and in the condition of using their strengths at their best:

A man who is not afraid of riding has the capability to stay strongly mounted, maintaining a posture that reflects his strong will and simultaneously shows off how safe he feels (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 55)

Duarte then lists the means by which fear can be overcome. From the most noble, such as reason, knowledge, will and training, to the less elevated and more ephemeral: ignorance, anger, conceit, or the feeling of being in a special position of advantage. It is certain, adds Dom Duarte, that everyone can improve and must commit to this if he wants to excel in the equestrian art:

Although is commonly said that we cannot change our nature, I believe that men can reform themselves immensely, under God, correcting their shortcomings and increasing their virtues. And everyone should work hard to know himself better, maintaining and increasing the good virtues received and reducing his failures and correcting his shortcomings (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 45)

Giovanni Fattori - Lo staffato

According to Dom Duarte to not be afraid of falling is a fundamental virtue of a good rider.
Giovanni Fattori, Man caught in a stirrup, 1880, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Palazzo Pitti, Firenze.

Two in particular are the faculties that, according to Dom Duarte, the rider must cultivate in order to overcome the instinctive fear that the horse inspires him: knowledge and will. The first is the most effective antidote, but cannot be achieved without the latter. In fact, by understanding deeply the animal and the techniques to influence and steer his behaviors, you can overcome the fear of his reactions and prevent the potential risks which may arise from those same reactions.

In riding, like in all the things we want to do, if fear makes us unable to do it well we should, first of all, learn how to do it better; and if we know how to do it well, we will have the aforementioned presumption which in itself normally causes most or all the fear to vanish (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 45).

However, the equestrian universe is complicated and somewhat mysterious. Complicated primarily because each horse, while sharing some basic features with his fellows, is distinguished by its peculiar feeling, attitude and physical conformation. Mysterious, because the animal communicates with us only through his body and we can interpret his signs only through our experience and intuition. In horseback riding, our own body is an instrument of communication with the horse, and the rider must therefore enforce to himself a thorough physical discipline to control his attitudes and thus make his signals (i.e. the aids by mean of which he directs his mount) clear and unique. To achieve true expertise in the equestrian field is, therefore, a long and constantly perfectible process that can be undertaken only if motivated by a inexhaustible desire to improve. According to Dom Duarte, the will is therefore the essential virtue to overcome fear and achieve true competence.

Nobody should doubt that if someone desires to become a good horseman, his will would be sufficient to enable him to overcome the fear of falling from the horse – or with it – and therefore he will end up being a good horseman (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 46).

Pieter Paul Rubens, Equestrian portrait of Giancarlo Doria, 1606, Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Spinola, Genova.

In horseback riding, our own body is an instrument
of communication with the horse.
Pieter Paul Rubens, Equestrian portrait of Giancarlo Doria, 1606, Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Spinola, Genova.

Duarte says that the rider must always work to hide his insecurity. Not only because in this way he will show himself at ease to others even when he is in trouble, but because, by dint of dissimulating, he will get used to being heedless of the danger and he will convince himself of his own courage and finally feel at ease:

It is possible to show off our safety when we are doing specific things, faking it through the use of specific attitudes that normally reflect safety. That ability is not only useful to deceive others; if we do it frequently, these activities might become a habit and eventually convince our heart; we could end up really feeling safe. (DOM DUARTE, 2005, p. 59).

This is one of the most curious and interesting aspects of the inner discipline that the rider must impose to himself to overcome his fears. Dissimulation thus becomes a tool for self-persuasion. And in this regard, Duarte lists some “tricks” that the shrewd rider can use to hide his embarrassment when he is in danger. For example, when riding an unruly horse, he must show a quiet and pleasant attitude (but always, not exaggerating, in order to avoid affectation) and if the horse rears, bucks or kicks, he must tidy his dress and mantle, with a slow and calm movement, as would a horseman that is not at all worried about what is happening. Similarly, if he needs to correct the horse with the bit or with a more energetic use of his legs and spurs, he must do it by continuing to talk about this and that with other people, as if nothing disturbs the conversation.

Peter Paul Rubens, Publius Decius Mure’s death (detail), 1617, Fürstlich Lichtensteinische Gemäldegalerie.

Peter Paul Rubens, Publius Decius Mure’s death (detail), 1617, Fürstlich Lichtensteinische Gemäldegalerie.

But there is one aspect that the discourse of Dom Duarte does not touch, but which, in my opinion, is particularly relevant in reflecting on the fear that horses inspire in men. That secret fear, which often unwittingly undermines even the most genuine horse lover and many equestrian professionals, pushes many of those who deal with horses to an excessive use of force. The violence towards horses is, in fact, always the expression of the fear of not being able to control them by other means, and of the ignorance of more effective and appropriate ways to do it. And for violence here, I mean, not only the use of beatings and other abuses, but also an inappropriate overuse of the aids.  Cesare Fiaschi, at the half point of the sixteenth century, and many other Renaissance authors had already understood that the horse is an extraordinarily sensitive animal with which the rider often tends to communicate by too strong means, which then turns into useless and counterproductive violence. Fear leads inevitably to a lack of observation of the behavior of the animal and is generally exorcised by brutality, or at least by far more aggressive manners than necessary, which then establish a vicious cycle of human actions and reactions of the animal that are the source of endless misunderstandings and repeated failures.

In order to reach excellence the rider must overcome his fears and learn to trust himself and his horse. Carles Parrocel, Cavalry officer, in F. R. de La Guérinière, Ecole de cavalerie, Paris, 1736, p. 271.

In order to reach excellence the rider must overcome his fears
and learn to trust himself and his horse.
Carles Parrocel, Cavalry officer, in F. R. de La Guérinière, Ecole de cavalerie, Paris, 1736, p. 271.

The knowledge accumulated over thousands of years of co-existence between man and horse, which is handed down to us by the equestrian literature, teaches us that in order to reach excellence the rider must overcome his fears and learn to trust himself and his horse. The essence of the more sophisticated art of riding is in this inner confidence and in this trust, which lead man to reward the availability of the animal to cooperate by leaving him as free as possible to express his physical potential, without unnecessary constraints. This is the lesson of the “descent de main” mentioned by La Guérinière: the reward given by one of “the most subtle and most useful aids of Chivalry” (LA GUÉRINIÈRE, 1733, II, 7, p.89). As soon as the horse gives up resisting to the will of the rider, the latter leaves him “in freedom on one’s word”: that is to say, that he ceases the aids by means of which he controls the horse and permits him to carry himself. It is in that moment that the animal is able to express his elegance, his strength and agility at best. It is basically the same confidence that leads the rider to advance his hands to give “freedom to the horse’s neck” over the obstacle in the “natural system of equitation” by Federico Caprilli. This lead a revolution that, in the short span of two decades, between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, allowed the horse to pass over obstacles of more or less 4 feet to barriers of more than 8.  Even in this case, the rider must overcome his fear and the obsession of control and rely on the generous vitality of the animal, to become one with him and thus acquire the same power and grace of his mount.

The rider must overcome his fear and the obsession of control and rely on the generous vitality of the animal. Federico Caprilli, jumping a chair in an open field.

The rider must overcome the obsession of control
and rely on the generous vitality of the animal.
Federico Caprilli, jumping a chair in an open field.

Therefore, there is no high equitation without reflection and study, that is to say without working on ourselves to supplement and perfect the physical training and the technical learning. To overcome his fears and learn by observing his partner, in order to comply with his good inclinations and correct his shortcomings, the rider must undergo an endless initiation. “The act of riding – writes Michel Henriquet – is a sport with regard to the methodical practice of exercises that increase the strength, dexterity and beauty of the gestures; but it also tends toward a moral end that combines the perfection of the body with the education of the spirit”(Henriquet, 2006, p. 55). The daily interaction with another being, with whom we cannot communicate through language, but with whom we have to establish an understanding based on mutual comprehension, becomes then much more than a competitive sport or a recreational activity. It is a way of cultivating our soul and an opportunity to grow as women and men, and not only as riders.


BARTABAS, Manifeste per la vie d’artiste, Paris, Éditions Autrement, 2012. CORTE, Claudio, Il Cavallarizzo, Venezia, Giordano Zilletti, 1562.

Dom DUARTE, The Royal Book of Jousting, Horsemanship and Knightly Combat. A transaltion into English of King’Dom Duarte’s 1438 Treatise Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, by Antonio Franco Preto, ed. by S. Mulhberger, Higland Village, The  Chivalry Bookshelf,  2005.

GIUBBILEI, Carlo, Federico Caprilli, vita e scritti, Roma, Casa Editrice Italiana, 1911.

HENRIQUET, Michel, La sagesse de l’ecuyer, Paris, L’oeil neuf Éditions, 2006.

LA GUÉRINIÈRE, François Robichon de, Ecole de Cavalerie,contenant la connoissance, l’instruction et la conservation du cheval, Paris, Jacques Collombat, 1733

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, Le traité du roi D. Duarte: l’équitation portugaise a l’aube de la Reinassance, in AA. VV., Les Arts de l’équitation dans l’Europe de la Reinassance. VIIe colloque de l’Ecole nationale d’équitation au Chateau d’Oiron (4 et 5 octobre 2002), Arles, Actes Sud, 2009, pp. 140 -150.

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

“Maneggi and jumps”. The basic exercises of Renaissance horsemanship (Part 2)

Benozzo Gozzoli, Chapel of the Magi, detail of the est wall, Palazzo Medici- Ricciardi, Florence, 1459

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

At the beginning of the second part of his Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise on bridling, training and shoeing horses, 1556), Cesare Fiaschi explicitly states his intention of codifying the equestrian art of his time, setting the rule for the proper execution of the different “maneggi”. A rule which, in the author’s intention, served also to safeguard those who applied it from the criticisms of the many riders who at that time, rode without due accuracy.

In this second part of the treatise I intend with my speech not only to set the standard for the handling of horses, but also to expose by means of designs some acts of riders on horseback and their horse tracks [indicating the position of the hooves of the horse on the ground] and the time in Music of some exercises so that no one can be blamed every time that he performs them if following these instructions. Since I have seen many [riders], both in the past and now that do not aspire to do what they entirely ought to do with the horse, I feel pressed to undertake this effort, and also because I know that currently some, for the reason of not being made aware, incur in many errors […] but no one should disdain to accept my opinion, given that if he shall proceed as indicated in this treatise, and by means of drawings and Music, he will be honored, without fear of being considered ignorant, because with the living reasons in the hands he will shut the mouth of those who dare to contradict him. (FIASCHI, 1556, II, 1, pp. 87-88)

The part of  Fiaschi’s treatise specifically dedicated to horse riding can, in fact, be considered as a canon of the different exercises performed with a horse which has already been perfectly trained. However, the author says very little on how the animals were prepared to perform these refined movements.

The works by Grisone and Corte were reprinted many times during the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries
Frontispieces of the 1551 edition of the “Ordini” and of the 1573 Lyon edition of “Il cavallarizzo”

From the point of view of horse training techniques during the Renaissance, two other fundamental texts of the sixteenth century are more interesting. Namely, Gli ordini di cavalcare (The orders of riding, 1550) by Federico Grisone, a kind of real manual for the training of the horse “to the use of war,” and Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman, 1562) by Claudio Corte, one of the most refined and innovative works among those devoted to the equestrian art in the sixteenth century.

According to Grisone, the horse had to be tamed when he was at least three years old. The training was rather quick and lasted an average of four to six months. Grisone suggested that the horse be ridden initially on a plowed field, where other horses have made a track. In this way, the author argued,  the horse was induced to follow a correct path, avoiding the trouble of walking on loose soil. With the progress of the training, a shallow ditch could be used in order to force him to follow an even more rigorous path.

Grisone suggests using a shallow ditch to induce the horse
to follow a more rigorous path while performing the passade.
Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie françoise et italienne, 1620

According to the Neapolitan author, the so-called “torni” were essential to prepare the horse to perform the “maneggi”. They consisted in making two circles (“volte”) to the right and then, two circles to the left, followed by going along a straight line (“repolone”) after which the horse had to be stopped performing some pesades (“posate). Then, when the horse was “quiet and proper”, he had to make two narrow voltes to the right, then two to the left. With the progress of the training, the rider had to have the horse perform one or two pirouettes (which Fiaschi and Grisone call “doubling”- raddoppio – or “doubled voltes” – volte raddoppiate). Finally, the animal was led back on the straight line and “went out” of the “torni”. The exercise was performed initially at the trot and then, in a more advanced stage of the training, at the canter.

This is the form of the “torni” offered by me, with some written words, by which, and also for what I said before, will be easily understood. By the way in which they are illustrated, you can see how different they are from the ancient turns, which, a few years ago, were done between the trees and in the countryside, and were done wider and with no measure of number or width, changing place and not as methodically as today. (GRISONE, 1550, II, p. 54r-54v)

Diagram of the so-called

Diagram of the so-called “torni”, the basic exercise to prepare the horse to the “maneggi,” according to Grisone

The “torni” were used to train the horse to find his balance under the weight of the rider, in order to teach him how to run the repolone (or passade), stopping after the charge and turning on his haunches, and cantering again in the opposite direction.

To help the horse to become accustomed to facing battle on any kind of soil, Grisone also suggested placeing stones on the path. The author insisted on the importance of training the horse to stop straight, perhaps even with the help of a man on the ground who put him into frame with a stick. For the same purpose, he considered it useful to rein back. At the first stage of the training, the horse was mounted with a cavesson and a curb bit. Then, when he was already trained at a trot, Grisone suggested to take away the cavesson and to use the so-called false-reins, namely additional reins which were secured to special rings on the bit’s shanks, at the ends of the mouthpiece. The bridle then functioned like a pelham bit (1). This use was harshly criticized by Fiaschi, who considered it harmful to the horse.

The pesade was considered essential to accustom the horse to stop carrying his weight on the hind legs.
Giovanni Battista Galiberto, Il cavallo da maneggio, 1650

Soon the horse was taught the “pesade” (posata), that is to say to bring his hind legs under his body, lowering his hips and lightening the front legs so as to lift them from the ground. This technique made ​​it possible to collect the horse to the extreme, making him capable of a rapid change of direction at the end of the “repolone”. It was also a spectacular exercise which was used as a presentation air.

Compared to Grisone’s book, the work of Claudio Corte introduces various other training exercises, the most part of which are still used today, even if with slight differences. Clearly, these were not invented by Corte, but he had the merit to explain them in his treatise, consolidating their use.

Corte proposed an updated scheme
of Girsone’s “torni,”
which he called “rote”
Claudio Corte, Il Cavallarizzo, 1562

According to Corte, the starting point of the training is the work on the circles. Therefore, he proposed an updated scheme of Grisone’s “torni”, which he calls “rote” (“wheels”). The difference between the two exercises is that, after covering the straight line, the horse had to turn on three contiguous circles with a diameter of 8-12 meters(26-39 feet), then he had to come back on the same straight path, after which he had to turn on three smaller circles (of about 6-9 feet in diameter).

Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562

According to Corte, the exercise of the “caragolo” was the most effective
to make the horse supple and obedient.
Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562

After confirming the horse in this exercise, Corte suggested to start him to another one: the so-called “caragolo” (from the Spanish “caracol”, i.e. snail). It was about performing a spiral then, after covering a repolone, performing another one in the opposite direction. Corte considered this the most important and effective exercise, capable of producing the same benefits of the work on the “rote” (circles), but allowing the horse to become more agile in a shorter time. After a certain amount of training, the horse had to perform it also at the canter. According to Corte, at that point, the exercise also assumed a significant aesthetic value, demonstrating the docility and the smoothness acquired by the horse and the skill of the rider.

Training the horse to the so-called “esse serrato” (tight S)
served to prepare him for the “repolone.”
Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo,1562

Another innovative exercise is what Corte called “esse serrato” (tight S). It was a path in the form of a figure eight, from which the rider comes up with a repolone, stopping the horse on the straight line. The author recommended performing it initially on a wider path, which was gradually reduced as the horse became accustomed and more dexterous in turning. Among other things, it was considered a prerequisite to the repolone (i.e. to the passade).

Curiously, Corte argued that the most generous and noble horses were pleased to perform the serpentine.
Claudio Corte, Il Cavallarizzo, 1562

Finally, the last exercise introduced by Corte was what he called “to snake” (“serpeggiare”), i.e. the serpentine. It was, he said, a kind of training suited to promote the balance of the horse and his obedience to the bit and to the legs. The author considered it also useful to avoid firearms shots in battles and, argued that horses, especially the most generous and noble, were pleased to do it. He added that, unfortunately this exercise was generally neglected in the riding schools, where courbettes and pesades were mainly taught.

The “Passade” remains the fundamental exercise for mounted combat
until the eighteenth century.
WIlliam Cavendish, duca di Newcastle, La methode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux, 1658, Tav. 21

Corte was also the first author to mention the use of the work in-hand, with the rider on the ground who guides the horse with the reins. Over time, this way of training the horse would subsequently have a remarkable development, being used to teach the horse the different exercises of dressage without the hindrance of the weight of the rider. Corte recommended it for training the horse to rein-back. If the animal resisted the aids of the rider, he had to dismount and, taking in each hand the reins of the cavesson, he had to push the horse “pleasantly” back until he understood what he had to do. As soon as the horse took a few steps back, the rider had to get back in saddle and ask the horse to rein-back. If again he resisted, the rider had to repeat the exercise from the ground: “that you have to be very sure that doing so in two or three mornings, and even in less than an hour, you will have him at this” (CORTE, 1562, II, 8, p. 66v).

to be continued

to read  the continuation of this article, please click here -> part three

(1) Grisone and the other Renaissance authors do not describe the false-reins, but we find their description in later editions of the treatise by the Duke of Newcastle: “To work Horses with false Reins, is very false working, for, being tied to the Arches of the Bitt, and pulling it, that flacks the Curb: and so no Horse shall be firm and settled with it, for, that Horse that doth not suffer the Curb, shall never be a ready-horse; so it makes the Bitt like a Snaffle” (I quote from the English edition: William Cavendish (Duke of Newcastle), A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses, etc, Dublin, James Kelburn, 1740, p. 277). I owe this information to Michael Stevens, who has friendlily pointed out an inaccuracy in the first version of my article. Having such attentive and competent readers is a privilege and an honor to me.


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

FIASCHI, Cesare, Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli, Bologna, Anselmo Giaccarelli, 1556

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

Coats, socks, blazes and the theory of humors

Diego Velasquez – Portrait of Philip IV on horseback (1635-36)
© Museo del Prado – Madrid
In ancient times it was believed that the legs with socks
were slower and weaker than the others

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In ancient times and up to the Renaissance and beyond, it was a widespread belief that the color and markings (such as socks, blazes and other markings) of the horse’s coat identified the nature, inclinations and the specific characteristics of each animal. This belief led to the preference of some coats, which were considered as expression of a more reliable and healthy nature, and to dismiss others, regarding them as signs of an unfavorable “complexion”. We find an explicit mention of this belief in the main Renaissance treatises, starting from the first printed book dedicated to horse riding: Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Orders of Riding, 1550), by Federico Grisone. The favorite coat of the Neapolitan author, who expresses what was a current opinion at the time and not just a personal preference, was the bay, but he also appreciated the dapple gray and the liver chestnut. In general, the author considers the white hairs a symptom of weakness and, for this reason, he gave preference to specimens with dark legs, or small socks. Despite the fact that the author stresses that these considerations are drawn from experience, rather than from opinion, he admits that often «these marks fail and one sees the opposite effect» (GRISONE, 1550, p. 4v). For this reason, he recommends that to best assess the horse’s “complexion”, one should begin to examine him from the ground, that is to say by the quality of his hooves and limbs.

We find similar convictions in the subsequent work by Cesare Fiaschi: Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses, 1556). Also, the author from Ferrara argues that the color of the coat and the markings should be regarded as indications of the nature of the animal (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 38). Similarly, he considers the light hairs as a sign of weakness, because in them lies the phlegmatic humor (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 153).

Andrea Mantegna, Detail from
the “Camera Picta” (1474)
Ducal Palace, Mantua
The best coats were considered the bay,
the dapple grey and the liver chestnut

This conception was based on the so-called “theory of humors,” introduced by Hippocrates (IV-III century BC), considered the father of medicine, and then backed up by the Roman physician, Galen (129-216). This doctrine remained dominant in ancient Western medicine until at least the seventeenth century. It was the first attempt to explain the cause of diseases, replacing the previous religious and magical beliefs, and was based on the idea of the Greek philosopher Anaximenes of Miletus (fourth century BC) that the universe was made up of four basic elements: air, water, fire and earth. From these four elements Hippocrates identfied four basic humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood (red humor). The black bile (also known as melancholy) corresponded to the earth, fire to the yellow bile (also known as anger), water to the phlegm, and air to blood. Four temperaments (phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric and sanguine) corresponded to the four humors, and further to: four elementary qualities (cold, warm, dry, moist), four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and four seasons of life (childhood, youth, maturity and old age). According to this scheme, health would depend on the humors’ balance within the body and the predominance of one of them would influence the personality of the subject, defining his temperament and physical constitution (known as “complexion”).

Claude Deruet – The four elements: Fire (Vers 1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans
The theory of humors was based on the idea that the universe was made up
of four basic elements: air, water, fire and earth

The clearest and more detailed explanation of how this theory could also apply to horses is given by Claudio Corte, a Lombard horseman who published, in 1562, a book called Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman), in which he shows a remarkable literary culture, which is reflected in the richness of the quotations, as well as in the adoption of sophisticated literary proceedings in his treatise.

According to Corte, the natural heat governs the digestion of the humors in the body of the animal. This process generates “sooty vapors”, which are pushed upward by the force of the same heat and exert a pressure to exit from the body. The leakage occurs through the pores and «through that flesh, which they find more suitable and open to give them way» (CORTE, 1562, p. 23r). When they get in contact with the air, they “conglutinate”, that is to say that they thicken, forming the hairs and the mane, which are thicker, or thinner, depending on the greater or lesser heat which has pushed them out and then take on different colors depending on the humor from which the vapor producing them was generated. Similarly, the hairs are straight or curly depending on how much dry, moist, straight or crooked are the ways by which they are released. For this reason, Corte says, the quality of the coat gives a clear indication of the nature of horses, «of their greater warmth or coldness, dryness and moisture» (CORTE, 1562, p. 23r).

Tiziano Vecellio, Charles V at the Mühlberg battle
(1548) © Museo Nacional del Prado
The black horses were less considered because it was believed that
they were influenced by the melancholic humor

Thus, the color and quality of the hair derive from the four humors (rage, melancholy, blood and phlegm) and from the corresponding qualities (warm, cold, dry, moist). Each of these humors and qualities generate a coat color: anger produces chestnut, blood produces bay, from phlegm comes the grey (“leardo”) and from melancholy comes the black. These qualities are almost never absolute, but they generally combine one with the other:

And since you cannot find on earth any body totally simple, or rather of simple quality, we will say that one cannot find a fire that is not warm and dry, air that is not warm and moist, water that is not moist and cold, earth that is not cold and dry. So we can also say that there is no horse that is simply sanguine, nor only choleric, but choleric-sanguine, choleric-burned, choleric-melancholic, phlegmatic-sanguine, phlegmatic-melancholic, earthy-melancholic and icy, and melancholic-choleric… (CORTE, 1562, p. 24r)

Claude Deruet – The Four Elelments: Air (1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans
In the Hippocratic theory air corresponded to the blood humor

As for the coats, Corte agrees with the general opinion of the time, granting a preference to the bay, the dapple gray and the liver chestnut. Roans are also appreciated, because they combine the natures of the four main coats. He shows, however, very little consideration for the black, although he admits that there are some very good examples. Finally, he is skeptical about the meaning of socks. Having failed to find convincing explanations, he claims to refer to the authority of the ancients, according to whom the leg with the sock would be slower and weaker. On this point, however, he maintains some reservation, concluding that the experience shows the irrelevance of socks and of other signs, such as blazes and whorls.

And to fortify my opinion, the experience, master of things, shows that the weakness and strength, speed and slowness come and depend on the climate of the whole body and on its disposition and proportion and not on small socks, as well as little force comes and depends from little humor. (CORTE, 1562, p. 29r).

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket (1762)
© National Gallery – London
Accroding to Corte, the chestnut coat was produced
by a prevalence of anger (yellow bile)

It is clear that, even if this theory was, at the time, universally spread and recognized as valid, it could only collide with direct observation. For this reason, all the authors point out that the principles should be considered as parameters for the first assessment of each specimen and not as exhaustive criteria. The same Grisone stresses that, even if a horse is well-marked and born under a “happy constellation”, he must be well-formed and proportioned. On the other hand, he adds with common sense, the good nature of the horse is not sufficient without the expertise of the rider and the proper training:

And do not think that although the horse is well organized by nature, without the human aid and the true doctrine he could work well by himself, because you have to wake up his limbs and the occult virtues that are in him through art, and with the true order and good discipline he will show clearly his goodness. On the contrary, when art is false it ruins and covers all his virtues, as well as when it is good it compensates to the many parts where his nature lacks (GRISONE, 1550, p. 10r).

Claude Deruet – The Four Elements: Water (1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts Orleans
Water corresponded to phlegm, which was moist and cold

It was, therefore, well kept in mind, as it should be today, that an experienced rider and a rational, gradual training program may compensate for the morphological defects of a horse, just as incorrect work can ruin even the good qualities of the more physically gifted specimen.


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

FIASCHI, Cesare, Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli, Bologna, Anselmo Giaccarelli,1556.

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

JONES, William Henry Samuel, Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946

JOUANNA, Jacques, Ippocrate, Torino, SEI, 1994

KLIBANSKY, Raymond – PANOFSKY, Erwin – SAXL, Fritz, Saturno e la melanconia, Torino, Einaudi, 1983 (ult. Ed. 2002).

KRUG, Antje, Medicina nel mondo classico, Firenze, Giunti, 1990.

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.