The Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on display in Travagliato

The suggestive setting of the exhibition

The suggestive setting of the exhibition “Cavallo: storia, arte e artigianato”,
on display in Travagliato (Italy) until June 29
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Hidden treasures are still discovered, even today. For those who love the history of horsemanship, to visit the exhibition of the Giannelli collection in Travagliato, Italy, is like entering into Ali Baba’s cave! I confess I was really surprised at what I found there. I did not expect such a rich exposition and such an impressive setting in a small provincial town. But I was wrong. For the quality and completeness of the collection presented, the exhibition on display in Travagliato (not far from a Milan) until June 29, entitled Cavallo: storia, arte e artigianato (Horse: history, art and craft), could be held in great museums all over the world because it presents pieces that not even the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Metropolitan possess. I swear I’m not exaggerating.

The exhibition shows one of the largest private collection of ancient bits in the world Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition shows one of the largest private collection of ancient bits in the world
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

I have been studying the history of the equestrian culture for many years  and I have often dedicated my research to the different types of bits in use during  various periods. On this same blog, I began publishing a series of articles dedicated to this topic: Bronze Age bits; The Corinthian bit; Bitless equitation in ancient times; The bit that tamed the flying horse: Pegasus and Bellerophon. However, I had to stop because it was nearly impossible to find images and reliable information about the bits used during the Roman and medieval periods. The few scientific articles and books on this subject and the catalogs of the largest museums in the world, offered me little material to work with. So you can easily imagine my surprise when I discovered in Travagliato, hundreds of Mesopotamian, ancient Greek, Roman, Lombard and medieval findings, displayed side by side with the gigantic Renaissance and Baroque bits, along with some elegant nineteenth century specimens.

Claudio Giannelli - Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Claudio Giannelli – Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

But it is best now to proceed with some order in this article. First of all, you will probably want to know where this amazing collection comes from. Claudio Giannelli put it together through decades of passionate research. He is a truly unique personality, combining an extraordinary intellectual refinement with a politeness and class that seems to be from another time. The son of a cavalry officer, Giannelli grew up among horses and began riding at a very young age, taking good results in three day eventing and dressage. He graduated and practiced for several years as a notary. At some point, however, he decided to turn his passion for beauty and old things into a profession, becoming an important antiquarian. Meanwhile, he moved to Switzerland, where he still lives, and continued to ride, becoming also a three day eventing and dressage judge. His collection was born by accident. In the fifties, while browsing through the stalls of the flea market of Portaportese in Rome, he found an old bit, buried among various odds and ends. Gianelli, who at the time already knew the famous illustrations of Grisone and Fiaschi’s treatises, realized immediately that it was an antique piece, probably from the Renaissance. After the usual grueling negotiations, he bought it, managing to get it for a good price. The rest of the collection came together through his love for horses and history, his unique culture and his expertise as an antiquarian. Within a few years, he was found in the most important auction houses around Europe, bidding for the finest ancient bits available on the market to the curators of museums like the Louvre, or the British, and to a very restricted elite of collectors from all around the world.

Some very well preserved Ancient Greek bronze bits and muzzles are on display Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Some very well preserved Ancient Greek bronze bits and muzzles are on display
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition begins with some very ancient artifacts. Some cheekpieces made of bone from Central Asia, dating back to the second millennium before Christ, are on display in the first case. It then goes to the Mesopotamian civilization, and then to ancient Greece. In addition to some very well preserved bronze bits, there are some very interesting psalion on display. These were a sort of metallic noseband that restricted the opening of the mouth of the horse. There are also some perfectly preserved bronze muzzles. A beautiful shaffron (horse’s head defense) made of  bronze, with its psalion, stands between the other findings. We then move to the Etruscan civilization, with several specimens belonging to the so-called Villanovan period [see the article on Bronze Age bits], characterized by beautiful zoomorphic cheekpieces. But the main attraction, with regard to the Bronze Age is the incredible collection of Luristan bits, dating from between 1100 and 700 BC. They belong to a mysterious civilization, which flourished between the second and first millennium BC, in a region of southwestern Iran. The remains were found mainly within the tombs, where they were placed under the head of the buried body. They are made of bronze and they consist of a cannon of a single piece, straight or slightly curved, with, at each end a cheek piece, the form of a winged animal. These figures of animals had a large hole in the body through which passed the end of the mouthpiece, and two loops to tie the bridle and the reins. Those which are displayed in Travagliato are absolutely extraordinary. They also include a rare jointed snaffle, with cheekpieces decorated with anthropomorphic figures.  This is the piece chosen for the exhibition poster. Neither the catalog of the British Museum, nor the Metropolitan, which also have important collections of these findings, can boast examples of this quality and condition.

The incredible collection of bronze bits from Luristan, dating between 1100 and 700 BC. View museums in the world can boast specimens of this quality Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The incredible collection of bronze bits from Luristan, dating between 1100 and 700 BC.
Few museums in the world can boast specimens of this quality
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Also, the many Roman and medieval bits are very interesting. In front of their display case the heart of the scholar makes a jump. With the transition from bronze to iron, which is much more perishable, the findings from this era are, in fact, far more rare. Even in the books of the specialists, there are very few images to be consulted and they are almost always the same. The Giannelli collection shows snaffles similar to the current ones and the ancestors of modern curb bits. In fact, in Roman time, we start to find bits with long shanks, but still without a curb chain. The same specialists of this matter continue to argue about their exact principle of operation. They generally have a very rough and brutal look. The mouthpieces are often bristling with spikes and it is quite horrible to think of them in the mouth of a poor animal.

There are also many, very rare, bits of Roman and Medieval times Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

There are also many, very rare, bits of Roman and Medieval times
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Even the Renaissance bits look very severe. You can find in Travagliato exactly the same types of bits that are obsessively represented in the illustrations of the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century. It is difficult for us to figure out that their incredible variety was conceived to fit the mouthpiece to the anatomical peculiarities of the mouth of each animal! Beyond this, however, you can not help but admire their extraordinary craftsmanship. Many of them are true masterpieces of metalwork and are all the more remarkable when you consider the simple technical means used by the craftsmen who made them.

Renaissance bits look very severe, but they are also real masterpieces of metal work and they are exactly the same represented in the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Renaissance bits look very severe, but they are also real masterpieces of metal work and they are exactly the same represented in the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

With the passing of the centuries, we note the progressive reduction of the length of the shanks. which decreases the lever action on the jaw of the horse, and the constant simplification of the mouthpieces. The progress of the training techniques demonstrated not only that strong bits were unnecessary, but that they were counterproductive. Despite being used by expert hands, it is easy to imagine that they exasperated the animals, subjecting them to unnecessary coercion. If, however, in the eighteenth century, the mouthpieces were gradually simplified and reduced in size, at the same time their workmanship became even more precious, in some cases like that of real jewels. The collection is completed, also, by some oriental bits: Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and by a remarkable collection of wooden stirrups by the Mapuche Indians of Chile.

In the eighteenth century the bits get smaller, but at the same time, they become real jewels. Like these French bit and stirrups Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

In the eighteenth century the bits get smaller, but at the same time, they become real jewels. Like these French bit and stirrups
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

This brief synthesis certainly cannot really express the beauty and the importance of the pieces that are on display, whose history and meaning are explained in a series of panels which make the course of the exhibition understandable also to non-experts. And the setting is enriched by several paintings of equestrian topics of major authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and many by original engravings, such as those from the books by Jan Van der Straet, Antoine de Pluvinel, the Duke of Newcastle, or from the beautiful plates about horseback riding from d’Alembert and Diderot’s Enciclopédie.

The setting is further enriched by pictures and engravings of equestrian subject, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The setting is further enriched by pictures and engravings of equestrian subject,
from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition of the Giannelli Collection, in Travagliato, offers an extraordinary journey through the history of thousands of years of coexistence between man and horse. A past that is too often idealized, or criticized, without an exact knowledge of the techniques and methods that were actually used in other eras. Instead, an extraordinary exhibition like this puts us in front of the concrete objects, stimulates our curiosity and denies stereotypes and legends. Studying the history of the relationship between man and horse does not mean to put a nonexistent golden age of horseback riding on a pedestal, but rather to illuminate an important chapter of our civilization. And it is useful for today’s riders to understand the roots of their passion and to learn from the mistakes and the wisdom of those who, over the millennia, have preceded them in the worship of these wonderful animals that are the horses.


The exhibition, in the former Sant’Agnese Church, in Piazza della Libertà, in Travagliato (BS), has been extended until the end of July

Open: Saturday and Sunday, 10-12. a. m. / 3-6 p.m.;
            weekdays on request by calling +39 030 6864960.
            Monday closed.

For information:
call +39 030 6864960;

 Claudio Giannelli is working on a book about his collection, which will be published next Autumn. We will keep you posted as soon as it will be published.

You can see other beautiful pictures of the exhibition, by Gaetano Cucinotta, visiting his website, by following this link:

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

Resolution Day: Chronicle of a successful experiment

Francesco Vedani portrayed by Stefano Marchi

Francesco Vedani portrayed by Stefano Marchi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

I beg the readers of this blog to grant me an exception. I know that you are used to reading on these pages stories that took place in the past centuries and, most likely, you will feel disoriented to find, this time, the chronicle of an event that took place only a little over a week ago. But I believe it is worthwhile to tell you about the “Resolution Day”. It was, in fact, one of the most successful and innovative equestrian events in which I have ever participated. It was organized by Francesco Vedani and his Ars Equitandi Academy, in the Spia d’Italia Riding Center in Lonato del Garda (Italy) and took place on Sunday, December 3. And, as this blog is dedicated to the history, culture and traditions of classic horsemanship, I think this is the right place to give my report of the event. In my opinion, the Resolution Day was a new and significant event in Italian equestrian culture and deserves to be in the company of other noted historical events. It was innovative, featuring people of different personalities and backgrounds, who expressed in different ways their common love for the horse and for good horsemanship. And it was significant because it was marked by the participation of a large and highly motivated audience, who defied the bad weather following very carefully all the phases of this intense day. This event demonstrated that an enthusiasm, showing the growth, in my country, of a new sensitivity towards a more refined and respectful equitation, is now being combined with the growing desire of many riders to deepen their knowledge in the field of equestrian culture.

Francesco Vedani e il suo  Lipizzano Betalka

Francesco Vedani and his Lipizzaner, Betalka

“I wanted to put together in a single happening with most of the things I like,” said Francesco Vedani at the beginning. And, indeed, the eccentric formula of the event faithfully reflected the traits of his eclectic personality. The underlying theme was the rehabilitation and retraining of problematic horses. Some specimens, freely presented by their owners, were treated first from the ground and then from the saddle by Francesco, who explained his equestrian philosophy, inspired by a classical ideal of lightness. The same horses were then used by Massimo Da Re to demonstrate the use of the Tellington TTouch method. Da Re is a veterinarian and one of the most active and influential advisers in Italy of this new approach of communication with the horse. He has also translated and published in Italy the most exhaustive book by Linda Tellington-Jones. I was given the task to talk about the importance of equestrian culture and I chose to speak especially of Marco de Pavari, a mysterious Italian horseman who lived in the sixteenth century and left to us a very rare book, primarily devoted to the rehabilitation of problematic horses [the text of my speech will be published on these pages in the next days]. To further enrich the contest, the graphic and visual designer Stefano Marchi and the young illustrator Sofia Boccato reported live, through their designs and sketches, what was taking place during the event. Finally, there was the performance of the Court, a rock band which has already published four albums and has received several international awards and, in which, Francesco Vedani plays the drums.

Massimo Da Re. Design by Stefano Marchi

Massimo Da Re
Design by Stefano Marchi

Three horses with different problems were presented during the day: two mares, an Arab and a thoroughbred, and a Lusitano stallion. Although none of these horses showed “extreme” defenses, the resistances of each of them were clearly visible and were quickly “resolved” by Francesco, who showed an extraordinary equestrian “tact”, both by identifying the root of causes and then removing them by means of appropriate work (albeit in the short time of a public demonstration). It should be stressed that Francesco had not seen, nor ridden the horses prior to the day of the event. But what I really want to emphasize here is not so much his “performance” (even if, of course, it is relevant), but the aspect that I found most interesting, which was the practical demonstration of work based on non-coercive methods, inspired by the canons of classical horsemanship, and how it can be so effective in removing resistances from all types of horses, producing a harmonious understanding between man and animal. Francesco has also presented his 16 year old Lipizzaner, Betalca. A beautiful horse that he has been retraining for about nine months and was “performing” in front of a large audience and in a new a place for the first time. With Betalca, Francesco was able to show what the results are from the longer period of this type of training that he uses with his horses. The goal is to have a horse which is calm, willing to work and able to perform all the exercises of dressage, through the application of discrete aids, allowing him to freely and fully express the brilliance of his movements.

Stefano Marchi at work while Francesco is treating a Lusitano stallion

Stefano Marchi at work while Francesco is treating a Lusitano stallion

The approach of Massimo Da Re was as well very interesting. With his polite style, he offered a very inspiring demonstration of the Tellington TTouch method’s potential. I found, particularly significant, the idea that man can not only manipulate the body of the animal to change his posture and enhance his physical wellbeing, but that by doing this, he can also improve the horse’s emotional balance and performance. For example, working with the Arabian mare that had a tendency to raise her head and to quicken her gaits, Massimo highlighted that the high position of her neck and head was a clear symptom of the activation of her flight instinct. However, from this banal observation Da Re deduced a corollary which was not at all taken for granted: that training the horse to lower his head, he said, you get the effect of disabling his tendency to flee. It is therefore possible to induce calmness by acting on posture!

Sofia Boccato working during the Resolution Day

Sofia Boccato working during the Resolution Day

Finally, the unprecedented combination with graphic arts and music was very inspiring. Although these arts did not have any direct link with horseback riding, they instead gave a very interesting contribution of creativity to the event, because riding is not a mere practice, but is actually a world of it’s own, a way of life (as I took the liberty to point out in my speech). And, as shown with the accompanying art and music, there is nothing like fantasy and beauty to make life richer and more fruitful…. perhaps only irony. And it was with his captivating ability to not take himself too seriously, that Francesco involved all of us, demonstrating his charisma and his humanity – a style that I really appreciate, because irony is the most pleasant mask of intelligence.

The eccentric formula of the Resolution Day also included the beautiful exhibition of The Court

The eccentric formula of the Resolution Day also included the beautiful exhibition of The Court

In short, for me, with this initiative, Francesco Vedani (who was assisted with great professionalism in the organization by Giulia Barberis) has proven to be one of the most interesting personalities of our equestrian scene. The Resolution Day was a successful experiment. To be repeated.

December 3, 2014

December 3, 2014

I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about the protagonists of the Resolution Day to visit their websites (by clicking on the links below):

Francesco Vedani – Ars Equitandi

Tellington Ttouch Training Italia (Massimo Da Re)

Sofia Boccato

(Stefano Marchi hasn’t a personal website, but you can contact him on Facebook).

For those who know some Italian I also higly recommend reading Francesco Vedani’s book: Equitazione e leggerezza (The Search for Lightness)

Libro VedaniAbout the Tellington TTouch method you can read The Ultimate Horse Behavior And Training Book: Enlightened And Revolutionary Solutions for the 21st Century, by Linda Tellington Jones


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.

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