This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Among the British athletes to taste success in the summer of 2012, few were practising a sport with as colourful – and violent – a past as dressage. When Charlotte Dujardin led the British dressage team to Olympic gold on her horse, Valegro, in the magnificent Greenwich Park, the bloody battlefields of the classical world and medieval Europe must have seemed a long way away. But it is there that this most graceful of sports – defined by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) as “the highest expression of horse training” – can trace its roots. And it is the 17th-century riding house of royalist William Cavendish, built to impress Charles I, that was the model for the modern dressage arena.
Dressage, from the French word “dresser”, was initially a means of training cavalry horses. Its story can be said to begin with the first military equestrian texts. These date back at least as far as the Assyrians, whose clay tablets record the exercise and feeding regime of chariot horses. However, it was ancient Greek writers, most notably Xenephon (c430–354 BC), who first established horse riding as a noble art. Xenephon was a pupil of Socrates and a great Spartan general whose seminal work, On Horsemanship, would influence equestrian thinking for centuries.
The most significant of the medieval treatises on riding was that written by King Duarte of Portugal. The Book on the Instruction of Riding Well on Every Saddle (1434) is part riding manual, part jousting and hunting book. In it, Duarte instructs the rider to “turn his horse about himself”. This very phrase was later used (in 1630) by the French royal riding master Antoine de Pluvinel to describe a turn in a circle executed with the inner hind leg used as a pivot around which the other three legs turn. In modern dressage this move is called ‘canter pirouette’.
The establishment of the knightly class in Europe during the medieval period created a whole class of men devoted almost exclusively to distinguishing themselves as professional mounted warriors. The increasing international popularity of jousts and tournaments encouraged noblemen to develop their mounted combat skills, at a time when the use of weapons itself was evolving rapidly.
In the 15th century, fencing masters including German Hans Talhoffer and the Italian Fiore dei Liberi incorporated mounted combat into their works on swordsmanship to teach knights and professional soldiers the most efficient way of disabling and killing their opponents in battle. The illustrations of these works are brutal, giving the student a visceral feel of the nature of fighting on horseback.
By the mid-16th century, riding academies became the places where aristocrats and gentlemen learned to handle and look after their expensive horses. The Italians gained prominence in this area when Federico Grisone published his Rules of Riding in 1550. Regarded as a great equestrian milestone (despite the fact that it contains a number of cruel training techniques), this work spread Grisone’s influence across all of Europe.
What was by this time known as ‘riding art’ continued after this point to undergo something of a renaissance of its own in the 17th century, with the publication of a number of important treatises, including Georg Engelhard Lohneysen’s monumental Della Cavalleria (1609) and, most significantly to developments in England, William Cavendish’s A General System of Horsemanship, published in exile in 1658.
Like many of the riding connoisseurs before him, William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, could certainly be considered a ‘Renaissance man’. His family acquired huge estates in the Midlands, the centre of which was Bolsover Castle near Sheffield. The renovation and expansion of Bolsover was to become Newcastle’s passion. Nowhere is this passion more obvious than in a riding house that he planned as part of major improvements to Bolsover in preparation for a visit by Charles I in 1634. Cavendish’s riding house was to become the model for modern dressage arenas, and is today regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of its kind in Europe.
Cavendish trained and exercised his horses in the Bolsover riding house every day. But when the Civil War erupted in 1642, he had to forego his pursuit of riding art in order to raise an infantry regiment, the White Coats, in support of the king. Cavendish was initially successful as a general, yet he was to be plagued by poor communication with his commanders and, at the battle of Marston Moor (1644), he was defeated by the parliamentarians and forced to flee. One positive outcome of his exile in Antwerp was that he was able to continue his writing and his riding.
Cavendish considered horsemanship to be “a science peculiarly necessary throughout all of Europe and which has hitherto been so much neglected or discouraged in England”. This was not surprising, given the overthrow of the aristocracy who promoted ‘high school’ riding. The Puritan Commonwealth had little interest in equitation beyond military applications, and even these were changing radically. Cavendish himself recommends a horse that performs ‘high airs’ as suitable for single combat and the other requirements of the nobleman. However, he does not recommend fine horses for cavalry troops. The age of the mounted knight was over.
For these reasons, while Cavendish’s works became famous throughout continental Europe, his influence in England would remain limited. The development of the thoroughbred horse and the modern culture of horse racing guaranteed that the great riding horses of the previous century would never regain their prestige in England. Even King Charles II, who Cavendish had taught to ride as a boy, soon rejected the ménage (riding arena) in favour of the racecourse.
Cavendish could be considered the last of the real knights in England, those virtuoso horsemen who defended the Divine Right of Kings, which in his time was increasingly being thrown into doubt. His work continued to be highly regarded by those passionate about classical riding. And, although his methods were later modified, we can still trace his influence – from the 18th-century French riding master François Robichon de La Guérinière all the way to Hans von Heydebreck’s 1912 riding instructions written for the German army. Given the events of last summer, this final work is especially pertinent, for it formed the foundation of the FEI dressage rule book, the same set of rules that is used in Olympic competition today.
Dominic Sewell is an equestrian trainer who supplies historical events to museums and heritage sites