Although the expression “classical horsemanship” has long and widely been in use, its meaning continues to be rather vague and ambiguous. In some cases, in fact, the equestrian practices of the past centuries are considered as classical, as opposed to the more modern ones. For example, Renaissance and academic horsemanship are considered classical, as opposed to Federico Caprilli’s natural method. In other cases, the concept takes on a connotation inspired by a qualitative assessment. For example, some consider classical horsemanship with a more ethical orientation towards the horse, in contrast with the pressured focus on the performance, typical of riding competitions. Usually, in this case, people regret the loss of the finesse and elegance of the past and condemn the aggressive riding, the coercive postures (such as rollkur) and the unnatural movements imposed on the horse by a misunderstood spirit of competition. In reality, both of these interpretations are partial and contradictory. In the first case, in fact, techniques and practices that evolved over the centuries in different forms are assimilated in the generic category of “classical”, contrasting them with another equally generic and abstract category, in which attitudes and sensibilities often very different from each other, are labeled as “modern”. In the second case, the ambiguity is even more profound, as the past is idealized, even though it is not always to be missed (just think of Grisone’s praise of the stick!), and the present is condemned, in an equally summary and indiscriminate way, since, luckily, today as yesterday, there are also excellent riders alongside the mediocre ones.
In order to try to define more precisely what classical horsemanship is, it is certainly necessary to start from the adjective. Mainly referred to the world of Greek and Latin antiquity, considered as the foundation of western civilization, the term “classic” has taken on the extensive meaning of something “perfect, excellent, such as to serve as a model” and which, for this reason, “forms a tradition, or is linked to what it is generally considered the best tradition”. What seems to me essential of this definition is the reference to a past that has a foundational value and that generates a tradition of excellence. If we talk about classical horsemanship, then, we are talking about a type of horsemanship that refers to a past in which horseback riding begins to be conceived as a refined practice, tending towards an ideal of perfection. To try to identify the salient features of this ideal, we must therefore return to the works that exemplify the tradition of equestrian art and try to single out what are the distinctive characteristics of that tradition. While from a technical point of view the exercises, described in the treatises starting from the sixteenth century, change with the passing of time and the use of the horse, from the “stylistic” point of view, it is instead possible to identify some features that remain unchanged and that we can consider distinctive.
In one of the fundamental works of the Renaissance, The Book of the Courtier (1528), Baldassare Castiglione explains that the modern aristocrat must be a perfect rider, capable of excelling beyond everyone for the skill with which he performs the various chivalric exercises. But above all, he must be able to perform his exercises with grace and good judgment.
“I would hope that our Courtier is a perfect horseman in every kind of saddle, and in addition to understanding horses and knowledge of riding, I would have him work diligently to elevate himself a little above others in everything, so that he may be well-recognized for his excellence. And as we read of Alcibiades that he surpassed all the nations with whom he lived, each in their particular province, so I would have our Courtier exceed all others, in each of their best professions. And since it is the special pride of the Italians to ride well with the bridle [alla brida], to school wild horses with consummate skill, and to play at tilting and jousting, in these things let him be among the best of the Italians. In tournaments and in the arts of defense and attack, let him shine among the best in France. In lance throwing, bull-fighting and in casting spears and darts, let him excel among the Spaniards. But above everything, he should temper all his movements with a certain good judgment and grace, if he wishes to merit that universal favor which is so greatly prized.” (Book 1, 21)
If we can identify what Castiglione calls “good judgment” with the competence of the expert, who does not need to overdo to prove himself skilled, it seems more complex to define what he means by “grace”. For Castiglione, grace is the supreme virtue of the courtier (and of the rider) and it consists of the ability to veil the difficulties and the fatigue of the more daring deeds, the most complex works, as well as of the more challenging physical exercises.
“But having often wondered whence this inborn grace springs, aside from those men who have it naturally, I find one universal rule concerning it, which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: to avoid affectation to the utmost as if it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and to possibly use a new word, to practice in everything a certain nonchalance [the word in Italian is sprezzatura] that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thinking.” (Book I, 26)
Grace is therefore the ability to naturally carry out difficult gestures or endeavors, while affectation is, on the contrary, an excessive, artificial attitude, i.e. exaggeratedly gaudy and clumsy. And it is significant that Castiglione – who was an expert rider and a horse breeder – uses an equestrian example to explain the “universal rule” to which a noble must conform in order to become a modern gentleman:
“You see how ungraceful a rider is who strives to sit bolt up-tight in the saddle in the manner we call ‘Venetian’ as compared with another who seems not to be thinking about it, and sits his horse as free and steady as if he were on foot.” (Book I, 27)
According to this criterion, excellence can only be achieved when even the most difficult exercise is carried out by the rider with absolute confidence, that is to say disguising the effort and the aids with which he directs his mount, which appears to perform the exercises in the most natural way, almost by himself. And it is precisely this ability to communicate ineffably with horses that Pasquale Caracciolo highlights, describing the skill of his contemporary Federico Grisone, a Neapolitan gentleman, author of the Ordini di cavalcare (Orders of riding, 1550), the first equestrian treatise ever printed:
“From the very first time, it seems that every horse obeys his simple gesture, so that the bystanders remain astonished” (CARACCIOLO 1566, p. 141).
On the other hand, as Cesare Fiaschi, an another Renaissance author, explains, the grace of the rider, the composure of his gestures and the accuracy of his seat do not only have an aesthetic function, but serve to correctly address the mount, promoting his balance and facilitating his movement in the more difficult exercises:
“All those riders who will show in public must take care to keep the time with the waist and the limbs, both head and arms as legs and feet, always making every effort to appear on horseback as graceful as they can, because, besides being beautiful to watch, they will also help the horse, that will appear more graceful and better in any sort of air he will perform.” (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 127)
The grace of the rider is not only a mere appearance, but represents the most effective way of always guaranteeing the maximum mobility and agility of the horse in the various exercises. At the same time, however, it also represents an ideal of decorum and elegance which, for example, prescribes the rider not to use his voice with a trained horse, on which he must instead completely hide the aids with which he guides him:
“It is bad to hear a rider scream on horseback and also very bad to see him squirm with his limbs and with his waist, because with that he must move only a little bit at a certain time to aid him [the horse], so that he does the rider’s will, showing also, in this way, to the bystanders not to be a statue, but instead, to have elegance and good manner in staying on a horse.” (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 111)
Even Claudio Corte, author in 1562 of a treatise intitled Il Cavallarizzo (The Horseman), agrees with the idea that the aids – either of voice or of other kind – should be completely hidden, so that the horse seems to obey to the rider by virtue of an occult art:
“But instead of the voice the other aids should stand in, which are most needed and masterly. Although, in the presence of these [the audience], it would be even better if the horse does well without any aid and that the rider proves a real covered art without forcing the horse to act with any aid.” (CORTE, 1562, p. 76r)
We find this ideal, which we have seen shared by Italian authors of the sixteenth century, also shared by riders from other nations in the following century. Such as Antoine de Pluvinel, from France, who came to Italy to learn the art of riding, at the school of Giovan Battista Pignatelli. In his treatise L’instruction du roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval (1625), he explains that, first of all, the rider must be a “handsome man of horses”, that is to say that he must first of all present himself well and with the correct posture. He considered this a prerequisite since:
“To do well and achieve the perfection of the science, one must begin, continue and finish from the good posture of the Rider.” (PLUVINEL, 1625, p. 9)
So that it is better to see a well-seated man on horseback, no matter how ignorant of the science he may be, than another one who is very competent, but who rides with no grace. The ease with which the rider makes his gestures must be manifested even in the happy expression on his face, to testify to the bystanders that he does not feel any embarrassment in doing what he does. The less actions the rider does, the greater his grace and the pleasure of the people who watch, explains Pluvinel. To be excellent, the rider must reach the almost complete dissimulation of the aids, giving the impression to those who watch him ride, that his horse is so well trained that he moves by his own will, “almost like a miracle in nature” (PLUVINEL, 1625, pp. 95-96). This attitude implies a greater respect for the animal, which is ridden with discreet aids, given at the right time.
“If the horses were kept going by no other aids than spur blows, I frankly confess that I would abandon the exercise of riding, since there is no pleasure in riding a horse only by force: because a man will never have good grace as long as he will be forced to beat him and a horse will never be pleasant to watch while performing his exercises if he does not take pleasure in all the actions he does.” (PLUVINEL, pp. 35-36).
We could add many other examples of how this ideal of the rider’s grace characterizes the most part of equestrian literature. We limit here to list three authors from different eras. The first is François Robiçhon de la Guérinière, who in his École de cavalerie (1733) writes:
“Grace is such a beautiful ornament for a Rider and at the same time such an important encouragement to science that all those who want to become Horsemen must, before anything else, take the time necessary to acquire this quality. By grace, I mean an air of ease and freedom […] and that the movements of the Rider are so subtle that they serve rather to embellish his seat, than to help the horse.” (LA GUÉRINIÈRE, 1733, p. 82-83)
More than a century after him, General Alexis L’Hotte still proves to be fully in line with Renaissance aesthetics:
“Nothing in the rider must show the effort or emphasize his commands […]. In some way, the rider must forget himself, to become one with his horse.” (L’HOTTE, 1906, p. 172)
Finally, we find the same concepts expressed in the effective prose of Nuno Oliveira, the Portuguese master, who in the twentieth century is in a line of full continuity with the tradition that we have summarily reconstructed here.
“Without grace there is no refined equitation end and without finesse it’s impossible to think about art. Hardness and strength are the prerogative of mediocre people, who do not ever want to be true.” (OLIVEIRA, 1991, p. 309)
Considering this premises, I believe that we can reasonably conclude that “classical horsemanship” means an approach to horseback riding inspired by a refined ideal, which aims at an intimate communication between the horse and the rider, made possible by discreet and almost invisible aids, and which is based on a steady and elegant seat, allowing the rider to always be “with his mount”. An ideal that, therefore, bans all violence and is, rather, based on lightness and respect for the animal. An ideal which requires a higher awareness of the rider and that aims at a full agreement between two profoundly different, but extraordinarily compatible beings, such as man and horse. From a technical point of view, this ideal find its most complete realization in the “descente de main” (descent of hands) described by La Guérinière. When the horse is in the correct position to express his full potential in terms of strength and movement, the rider ceases his aids and leaves him “on parole”, guiding him with imperceptible aids and regulating his impulse with minimum and simple variations of the balance of his body. Then the horse, as the authors of the past wrote, seems to obey to the rider’s “simple gestures” and performs the most difficult exercises “by himself”, fully realizing that fusion of the will of rider and horse, which transforms the man into a centaur.
It is, therefore, clear that this ideal is not linked to a particular riding discipline, nor to the use of techniques and exercises typical of the past, such, for example, as school jumps. Whether it is dressage, show-jumping, western riding, or high-school, the discriminating factor is the respect for the animal, the search for full understanding, the finesse of the aids, the ability to interpret the animal’s potential and the courage to let him express it in the most free and joyful way. What underlies this way of interpreting horseback riding is an aesthetic dimension that points to the absolute and, that for this reason, assimilates true horsemanship to art. All that is forced, violent, disordered, or contradicts this ideal, is mediocre and cannot but deserve the execration of all those who love the beauty embodied in a horse
The ideas presented in this article were, in part, inspired by the dialogue held on the evening of 23 November 2019, at the Scuderia del Principino, in Bregnano, in the province of Como. During the meeting I was awarded with a prize dedicated to the memory of Jean Alazar, rider, friend and master, who was remembered with touching affection and emotion. I am particularly grateful to Michele Coloru and Simona Beltrame, organizers of the evening, who gave me this sign of their esteem and friendship and offered to all the participants, as well as an exquisite dinner, also a pleasant opportunity for discussing horsemanship.
CARACCIOLO, Pasquale, Gloria del cavallo, Venezia, Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, (in 4°), 1566.
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.
L’HOTTE, Alexis François Questions équestres, Paris, Librairie Plon, 1906.
LA GUÉRINIÈRE, François Robichon de, Ecole de Cavalerie, Paris, Jacques Col- lombat, 1733.
OLIVEIRA, Nuno, Principes classiques de l’art de dresser les chevaux, in L’art equestre, Paris, Editions Crepin-Leblond, 1991.
PLUVINEL, Antoine de, L’instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval, Paris, M. Nivelle, 1625.