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

“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.

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.

Bitless equitation in ancient times

Boy with horse (possibly Castor)
Marble relief from Hadrian’s Villa (Tivoli – Italy)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In recent years, the ability to ride a horse without using a bit, perhaps performing sophisticated dressage exercises, has often been presented as a demonstration of an innovative communication skill with the animal, due to the new techniques of so called “natural horsemanship”. But in fact, the use of riding without a bit is very old. Classical sources provide us with many examples, most of which relate to the use of a horse mounted without a bit, not simply to perform exercises that demonstrate his perfect training, but even in war in which the riders relied on their horses for their lives and their success in battle.

The best known case is that of the ancient Numidian cavalry. The Numidians were a people who lived in Northern Africa, in an area that went from the Mauretania to the kingdom of Carthage, which now coincides roughly with northwestern Algeria. They were skilled riders who provided mounted troops first to the Carthaginians, then to the Romans. The Numidian kingdom finally became a Roman province after the victory of Caesar over Pompey (48 BC.). The Numidian cavalry (equites numidarum) constituted a significant portion of the auxiliary corps of light cavalry in the Roman army from the Second Punic War until the third century AD. They were fast units, mainly used to strike the enemy with sudden attacks and quick retreats. They were armed with round shields of leather and short javelins. They were also used in patrolling tasks, but they were quite vulnerable in close combat.

Numidian Cavalry (on the right)
The horses have a simple collar as the only harness
Traian’s Column (Rome)

Their skill is mentioned by Livy, which recounts an episode in which their habit of riding without bits was exploited as defeat, with a trap, for the Ligurian that barred the passage to the Roman army. Livy writes:

«Between the auxiliary troops, the consul had about eight hundred Numidian horsemen. […] The Numidians jumped on the backs of their horses and began to ride in the face of enemy positions without attacking anyone. Nothing was more insignificant of their first appearance: men and horses were few and little ones, the riders had no belt and weapons, except for the fact that they brought with them a javelin, the horses were without bit and even their gait was bad, seen that they cantered with a stiff neck and head forward. Increasing on purpose such contempt, the Numidians fell from their horses and offered themselves to the sight of the enemy amidst mocking jokes» (Ab urbe condita, XXXV, 11, 8).

By this strategy, the Numidians were able to evade the enemy blockade and, once beyond the line of defense, they reached and devastated a village. Their action produced panic among the ranks of the Ligurians, which disbanded and, therefore, the Roman consul could proceed with the rest of his troops. Always, Livy (Ab urbe condita, XXIII, 29) points out that the Numidians had horses specially trained and that they took two animals with them into battle. At the height of the fight, they used to jump, as acrobats, from the tired horse to the more fresh, so great was their agility and the docility of their mounts.

Numidian Cavalry
Traian’s Column (Rome)

The Numidians habit of riding without a bit is also mentioned by Virgil, in the fourth canto of his Aeneid, when talking about them he defines them as (in verse 41) “infreni”. This adjective is usually translated with words like “unconquered” or “wild”, meaning “savagely hostile”, but literally it means “without brake”, namely “without bit”.

Further confirmation is in the Pharsalia of Lucan in which, giving an overview of the African troops under the command of Publius Varus Actium, lieutenant of Pompeius, he remembers that among them were mentioned the forces of the Numidian king Juba. Of the Massylii, namely the Numidian oriental tribes, he says “that, riding bareback, they direct the muzzles, unaware of bits, with a light stick” (IV, 682-683).

In his description of North Africa, even Strabo (Geography, XVII) points out the use of the Massylii to ride without a bit, only with the help of a rope and a stick. Their horses are described as small and ardent, but yet so obedient to follow their masters like dogs.

The Traian’s Column
Rome – Italy

Another use which is also confirmed, is found in the Column of Trajan, the Roman monument that celebrates the conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD) by the Roman emperor Trajan. This is a column which is about a hundred feet high, growing to about one hundred and thirty one feet if you include the base and the statue on top. Along the shaft, rolls up a spiral frieze, a total of about six hundred and fifty six feet long, which includes 114 scenes that tell, as a giant strip cartoon, the deeds of the imperial army. In one of these can be clearly seen, the Roman auxiliary cavalry Numidians troops who ride their horses without bits, but with a simple collar as the only harness.

In his Essais, Montaigne also points out that Julius Caesar, as did Pompey Magnus, was an excellent rider. So much so that in his youth he was able to ride «on a horse bareback and without a bridle», with his horse «running at full speed keeping his hands behind his back» (Essais, I, 48).

Finally, in the sixteenth century, the Italian writer and horseman Claudio Corte devotes a chapter (the 63rd of the second book) of his treatise about The Horseman (1562) to «the manner of riding the horse without the help of reins and without curb chain», explaining how, through progressive training, the horse can be taught to obey only with leg and seat aids, so that he can perform difficult exercises without the use of a bit.

Alizée Froment riding her lusitano stallion Mistral, without either bit or saddle. A superb demonstration of perfect understanding between horse and rider. To visit her website, click on this link: Alizée Froment website


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

LIVY, Ab urbe condita, libri XXIII e XXXV

LUCAN, Pharsalia, IV, 682-683

MONTAIGNE, Michel de, Essais, I, 48

SIDNELL, Phil, Warhorse: Cavalry in the Ancient World, London-New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007

STRABO, Geograhy, XVII, 3, 7

VIRGIL, Aeneid, IV, 41

The first domestication of the horse

Excavations at the French site of Solutré (1896)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

The domestication of the horse, for the purpose of using it for chariots and equitation, came after a very slow process. The first relationship between horse and human, in prehistoric times, was that between predator and prey. We have an impressive testimony of this in the site of Solutré, 8 miles from the city of Macon, in eastern France. Here, in 1866, was discovered a huge deposit of fossil bones of horses. It is estimated that in this place, between 32,000 and 12,000 years before our era, more than 100,000 horses were hunted and killed. The herds were driven through a narrow valley, where they were attacked by groups of hunters armed with stone-tipped spears.The importance of the horse to prehistoric man is also well attested by rock art, in which – according to a study of American anthropologists Patricia Rice and Ann Paterson – the representation of this animal prevails over that of other species (above the title, a detail of the wall paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France, dating from the upper Paleolithic).

Cave of Chauvet (France)

The debate about when and where the first domestication of the horse took place is still open. Based on archaeological and linguistic data, it is considered likely to have occurred in the steppes of southern Russia, in an area between the current Ukrainian plain, north of the Black Sea, and an area further east, towards the Altaic region. According to the American anthropologist David Anthony, the wear of the lower premolars in the remains of horses found inside the characteristics burial mounds (so called kurgan) in Khvalynsk, northern Kazakhstan, dating to 3500-3000 BC, show that the animals had worn a bit, probably made of bone. The hypothesis that the beginning of equitation  may be dated by means of these findings is denied by other authors, such as Nikolay Bokovenko. According to the Russian scholar, the use of vehicles and chariots was widespread in the nomadic cultures of the euroasiatic steppes during the Bronze Age (between 2300 and 850 BC), but it was only around the beginning of the first millennium BC that horseback riding was mastered, probably by shepherds. It is roughly at this time that the first horse rider was depicted in the form of a centaur. According to other scholars, the only available so far unique dating of domestication is the one that can be traced to written sources and iconography. The oldest of which is a tablet depicting a scene of war, known as the Standard of Ur, dating from around 2500 BC. The artifact, found in one of the royal tombs of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, south of Baghdad), depicts some four-wheeled chariots, probably not pulled by horses, but by onagers, or asses.

The Standard of Ur, dating from around 2,500 BC, is the first representation of the use of equides (probably onagres, or asses) for pulling chariots


ANTHONY, David – BROWN, Dorcas R., Eneolithic horse exploitation in the Eurasian steppes: diet, ritual and riding, in “Antiquity”, Volume: 74,  Number 283, 2000, pp.75–86.

BOKOVENKO, Nikolay A., The Origins of Horse riding and the Development of Ancient Central Asian Nomadic Riding Harnesses, in AA. VV., Kurgans, ritual sites, and settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, edited by Oxford, Archeopress, 2000, pp. 304-310.

LEBLANC, Michel-Antoine – BOUISSOU, Marie-France – CHEHU, Frédéric, Cheval, qui es-tu ? : L’éthologie du cheval, du comportement naturel à la vie domestique, Paris, Belin, 2004.

RICE, Patricia C. – PATERSON, Ann L., Cave Art and Bones: Exploring the Interrelationships, in American Anthropologist”, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Mar.), 1985, pp. 94-100.