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.