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.

Bibliography:

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.

6 thoughts on “The Spanish Walk: classic exercise or circus trick?

  1. Ho girato l’articolo sulla pagina facebook di Roberto Bruno, presidente dell’AAEE (Asociacion de Alta Escuela Espanola in Italia) e mi permetto di riportarvi qui il suo commento:
    “è molto ben fatto, complimenti agli autori.”

    • Carissima Claudia,

      il tuo apprezzamento e quello del presidente Bruno mi fanno davvero molto piacere. Conosco di fama l’Associazione, anche se non ho ancora mai avuto contatti diretti con loro. Mi auguro che possa accadere nel prossimo futuro.
      Al momento, purtroppo, il blog è fermo perché sto traducendo il mio libro in vista della sua pubblicazione negli Stati Uniti (se nel sito leggi la pagina dedicato al Blog capirai a cosa alludo). Paradossalmente è stato più facile trovare un editore oltre l’Oceano che in Italia. È amaro, ma come vuole il detto “nemo propheta in patria sua”… Per questo il vostro interessamento mi è ancora più gradito e spero che ci manterremo in contatto. Grazie e a presto!

  2. Sul finire degli anni ’80 ho allevato un cavallo, figlio di uno stallone anglo-arabo e di una maremmana, che eseguiva spontaneamente(montato) il passo spagnolo. Lo stesso cavallo ho visto piaffare perfettamente davanti alla staccionata, nell’attesa della biada. Quindi, il passo spagnolo è un’andatura naturale.

    • Caro Cadorna,

      quello che dice è verissimo. Tutta l’equitazione classica non punta ad altro che a riprodurre la bellezza, l’agilità e l’eleganza del cavallo in libertà, nonostante l’impaccio che gli impone il peso del cavaliere.

  3. the so called ”paso espanol” is obvious on marbles in the archological museum of Athens. Iberian riders were also known and highly estimated during clasic antiquity. Modern rules have to do with a lot of important things, but certainly not with the old way of riding!

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