The stars and the horses

Anonymous, The Zodiac Ceiling
in the Hall of the Geographical Maps
of the Farnese Palace – Caprarola (Italy)
Sixteenth century

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Given the wide diffusion of astrology during the Renaissance, it is not surprising that, at that time, the belief that the stars had a decisive influence, not on only on the fate of men, but also on the characteristics of animals, especially of horses, was widely shared. Banned for the first eight centuries of the Christian age by the condemnation of authors such as St. Augustine, the astrological doctrines returned gradually to become popular in European culture, through the mediation of the Aristotelian theories of the Muslim astronomer and astrologer Albumasar (IX sec.). Important figures of the medieval culture, such as Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas, showed great interest in astrology, which over the centuries ended up by permeating popular, as well as university, culture. During the Renaissance, kings and generals kept astrologers in their service. This is the case, for example, of Cosimo de’ Medici with Marsilio Ficino, of the famous Bohemian condottiere, W. Albrecht E. von Wallenstein with Kepler and Seni, of the duke of Milan, Lodovico il Moro with Ambrogio Varese from Rosate (who predicted to Pope Innocent VIII his death, which actually followed a few days later).  During the period in which he taught in Padua, Galileo Galilei produced horoscopes for payment and the famous French astrologer, Nostradamus, was summoned to court by the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici.

In the fourth book of his monumental treatise, La gloria del cavallo (The Glory of the Horse, 1567), the Neapolitan gentleman, Pasquale Caracciolo, sums up in these words, the belief that the horses would be influenced by the planets:

«As it is necessary (as Aristotle says) that this lower world continually receives his virtues and his rule by the supernal motions; and although all horses are subject to Mars, they also participate of the others». (CARACCIOLO, 1567, p. 280)

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of the month of March
in the Schifanoia Palace – Ferrara (Italy)
around 1470

Caracciolo then lists the characteristics of the seven “planets” (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), corresponding to the seven ages of man: «infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, manhood, old age, and decrepitude» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 280). According to Caracciolo, each planet affects specific body parts of the animal (eg, Saturn, the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, the phlegm and the bones; Jupiter, the touch, the lung, the ribs, the cartilages, the arteries and the semen, etc.), though, he adds, the authors do not agree on the exact correspondence of their influences. The planets also exert a more general influence on the “complexion” of the animal. Thus, for example, the Moon «makes the animal phlegmatic, mutable and inconstant, not uniform of eyes; greedy eater, dangerous in the water, unfit to discipline and easy to fall ill» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 281), while Venus «gives a lot of grace and loveliness to creatures; especially in their eyes and makes them lovable, witty, lascivious and friends of harmony; with a temperate complexion when she [Venus] is Western» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 282).

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of the month of April
in the Schifanoia Palace – Ferrara (Italy)
around 1470

The effects produced by the power of the stars then changes depending on the position they assume in the twelve houses of the zodiac. Even the signs of the zodiac determine the characteristics of the animal born under their influence. So the horses born under Aries «are agile and strong: with a fleshy body, thick hairs, small ears, long neck, and thin head» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 289), while Gemini brings «vexed animals, but little lasting in anger: sterile, but eager of high things; virtuous, docile, beautiful, lucky, sanguineous, and of good complexion, because in the month of May the blood is more refined in everyone» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 289). The combination of the influences produced by signs and planets, depending on the astral configuration present at the time of the birth, causes complex effects that, the author himself admits, are «very difficult to investigate: been necessary many subtleties of Astronomical rules, and many minute, but very important circumstances, which can be hardly understood more through divine inspiration than through art» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 294). Caracciolo, however, concludes that, though powerful, the influence of the stars cannot counteract the effects produced by man who, according to his ability and doctrine in the care and training, can ruin the most gifted specimen, as well as improve and correct the most disadvantaged:

«I do not deny already, that it not consist of the man’s free will to use well or badly his instrument: because every day you see a good horse becoming better under a good Rider, than under another: and if he will be less good, certainly he will not go with so much disorder and danger, if he’s ruled by a learned maker, than if the brake is in the hands of a fool and inexperienced» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 293).

Giovanni Maria Falconetto, Sagittarius,
from The Hall of The Months and of the Zodiac
in Palazzo d’Arco – Mantua (Italy)
Sixteenth century

According to the renaissance authors, the stars should be taken into account not only in assessing the characteristics of the different specimens, but also in giving them treatments. In his book Delle razze, disciplina del cavalcare, et altre cose pertinenti ad essercitio così fatto (Races, discipline of riding and other things relevant to this exercise, 1560), Giovan Battista Ferraro warns that treating different parts of the horse, which are under the influence of the Zodiac, should be avoided at certain times:

Following the example of the care of man, the ancients warned that in the care of this noble animal the celestial bodies and lights should be observed; this means that should not be touched with iron, or fire, those parts of the horse which are subjected to the Zodiac, that is the circle of the twelve signs, when the moon dwells in those signs, that rule over the limbs of animals. But being the Horse a Martial animal, this should be even more avoided when the moon, dwelling in more signs corresponding to the limbs, has aspect to Mars (we quote from the revised and extended edition of the treatise in Ferraro, 1602, p. 98).

Giovan Battista Ferraro, Zodiac Almanac
for the care of the horse,
in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo Frenato,
Napoli, Antonio Pace, 1602, p. 99

In short, also according to Ferraro, the signs of the zodiac have an influence on different parts of the horse’s body and for this reason those parts should not be treated when the Moon is in the corresponding sign. The horse is in fact considered an animal born under the influence of Mars and the Moon is considered adverse to him. The author then compiles a real almanac in which he warns “not to touch with iron or fire” the head and neck of the horse when the Moon is in Aries, the shoulders and ribs when it is in Gemini or Cancer, while loins, stomach and back should not be touched when it is in Leo or Virgo. Libra and Scorpio, instead, affect the rump, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces affect limbs, hooves and thighs.

Giovanni Sacrobosco, De sphaera mundi, Venetia, Bartholomeo Zanetti, 1537.

With the progress of veterinary medicine, however, these beliefs were gradually abandoned and already in the text by Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo, infermità et suoi rimedi (Anatomy of the horse, his illness and remedies – 1598) they are no longer taken into consideration.


CARACCIOLO, Pasquale, Gloria del cavallo, Venezia, Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1566.

FERRARO, Pirro Antonio, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, Pace, 1602.

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.