In the first part of this article we saw that, in the eighteenth century, a growing interest in the British institutions and culture spread throughout Europe. This trend also involved the equestrian field. “English equitation” became fashionable and interest in horse racing and country riding raised. So much so that in the nineteenth century English clothing, harnesses and horses became de rigueur among the continental enthusiasts.
Since at least the seventeenth century, the different morphological features of English horses and their use in racing and hunting in the countryside stimulated, in England, the evolution of a different way of riding in comparison with the other countries of Europe, where the academic style was still prevalent. The most evident innovation was the introduction of the rising trot, which was exactly called the “English trot”. This came together with a seat with shorter stirrups and a slightly forward position of the upper body. This technique also required different tools: starting from the flat saddle, with low pommel and cantle, and the bridoon, which in many cases was associated with a curb bit with shorter shanks than the one in use in academic riding, attached to a second rein.
The spreading of this new way of riding in the “English style”, even in continental Europe, ignited lively debates which, in many ways, resembles the diatribes that real, or supposed “innovations” in equestrianism, stir up even today. For example, we can compare it to the dispute that now divides supporters and opponents of so-called “natural horsemanship”. Even in the case of “English riding”, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, practitioners and horse lovers were divided between enthusiasts and absolute opponents. We find an interesting testimony of this controversy in a chapter of Federico Mazzucchelli’s book Scuola equestre (Equestrian School, 1805), entitled Avvertimenti sul modo di cavalcare all’inglese e sulle corse praticate in Inghilterra (Remarks on how to ride in the English style and about the horse races practiced in England).
Mazzucchelli begins his argument noting that this way of riding “which today is very fashionable […] produces many reasons of disagreements and issues. There is no person, even ignorant of horse riding, who has not his particular way of considering it” (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 285). In short, the debate did not involve only experts, but the new fashion was so widespread and popular that even those who were “ignorant of horse riding,” had their own opinion about it. With great, good sense, Mazzucchelli distinguishes between a proper way of “riding in the English style” and a wrong way, which, as unfortunately it often happens, was predominant because it was the easier way.
The same thing happens also in England, where those who are good [riders] are not many, and indeed they can be pointed out among all the others and deservedly exalted. There [in England] the number of riders is infinite, and an easy way, suited to those who have no skills, or who do not want to learn, is widespread. In Europe, this way is fatally believed worthy of imitation, as if it was the best of that school. Instead that is not but the manner of common people, who are ignorant of these interesting gymnastics. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 285)
Mazzucchelli says that the English technique is particularly suited for riding in the countryside and at the races, but it is especially necessary because of the characteristics of English horses. The author does not seem to appreciate them, while he prefers the breeds traditionally used in academic riding, Andalusians and Barbs, but he liked also Arabs. He considers English horses rather unsuited to the typical collected gaits of academic exercises. For this reason he believes
that the education of this quadruped, destined to racing and hunting, will be directed to instruct him to the extended trot in the open field, and supported with long working sessions. The disciplines which tend to collection would be inopportune; therefore the lesson which is said “to bend [collect] a horse”, which makes the horse sensitive to the legs and able to perform two track movements like half-pass and pirouettes, would be unworkable. So it all comes down to a negligent walk, a low but active and violent trot; to an ordinary and full speed canter, either right or left at random. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 286)
This was a far too severe opinion, which was clearly vitiated by a prejudice. In the nineteenth century, in fact, English horses will be used with amazing results also in academic riding, and will prove to be capable (with riders of the caliber of François Baucher, or James Fillis) of very sophisticated exercises. Instead Mazzucchelli considers them rather hard horses, heavy on the hand, and on which it is impossible to support the elegant seat of academic riders. According to him, they could only be ridden while posting the trot and leaning forward. For this reason, he considers ridiculous the idea of combining the English and the academic styles, which in his opinion are completely incompatible.
Nevertheless, even Mazzucchelli admits that, with suitable horses, it is possible, and necessary, to use the new technique. He then outlines the ideal portrait of the “good English rider.”
He is determined in going forward, perfectly leading the horse, using the bridoon; and as light as a feather and in perfect balance, more on the stirrups than on the saddle, quite leaning forward, and with the left shoulder more forward than the right, he accompanies the energetic movement of the trot, gracefully rising, at the right time, avoiding the shock and pushing the horse in the momentum. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 287)
According to Mazzucchelli the ideal English horse should be:
quite tall; of light and slender shape; courageous, fast and enduring; strong in the extended trot, so that the movement on the horizontal line is resolute and fast. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 288)
He says that he also rode in England, following the dictates of this technique, and that this gave him “a very pleasant sensation:”
The surroundings of London, the movement, the wealth, the industry, the beautiful roads scoured so quickly, produce a singular meeting of pleasures, that you can hardly find together in other places. This is another kind of horse riding, another kind of delight. It almost seems that the rider is ravished and transported by fast wings, and dealing almost nothing with his horse, he is revived by the rapid change of the objects surrounding him, so many, and so different from each other. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 289)
Although clearly influenced by his preference for the academic tradition, Mazzucchelli’s opinion of the English style proves to be quite balanced and clearly demonstrates the evolution of equestrian techniques between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. An evolution determined by complex factors which highlights the rich network of relationships and mutual influences that links horse riding to our culture.
MAZZUCCHELLI, Federigo, Scuola equestre, Milano, presso Gio Pietro Giegler, Libraio sulla Corsia de’ Servi, 1805.