Of Horses, Men, Books, and Things: Learning How to Ride in Early Modern Europe

Learning how to ride a horse has always been a tricky business. Xenophon pondered it in the fifth century BCE. So did the famous Renaissance riding master Federico Grisone. Even today, book shops have plenty of titles on learning how to ride (Figure 1). To put it a bit bluntly, riding a horse is about more than just sitting on a creature that moves. Unlike walking a dog or hunting with a hawk, horse riding is not only an activity shared by a human and an animal actor but entails actual co-movement. Whereas a dog or a falcon is instrumentally conditioned to fulfill a specific function according to human commands, horse riding is a physically shared co-activity based on (ideally) harmonious movement.

Figure 1  A few of today’s many riding manuals.

Horse riding involves two actors, horse and human, and these have to be trained individually and jointly. Riding manuals can therefore focus on training the rider, the horse, or both. Learning how to ride is a very physical activity based on movement and feeling. My dressage trainer, for example, gives a verbal command like “Drop your pelvis!,” which is immediately followed by “Do you feel that?” The difference is hardly observable to a layperson, yet it is a perfect example of the interaction between human and animal: The dropping of the rider’s pelvis is felt by the horse; it changes its movement; and this change in the horse’s comportment can again be felt by the rider. What interests me as a medieval and early modern historian is that riding is not just a universal human-equine relationship but entails the historically variable, learned, and practiced co-movements of rider and riding horse.


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Here, I would like to offer a historical perspective on horse riding as a complex body of knowledge that brings together different agents: horses, humans, books, and things. We know of several important horsemanship texts from antiquity to the High Middle Ages that focus on hippiatric and hippological questions. From Xenophon’s Peri Hippikes (fifth century BCE) to Jordanus Ruffus’ Medicina equorum (mid thirteenth century), the main knowledge imparted in texts on horses concerned the assessment of horses, and good care and treatment of their illnesses and injuries. Actual riding manuals as instructions on how to ride in this time, however, were scarce. For a long time, the how-to learning aspect seems to have been delegated to the realm of actual practice, that is, daily exercise and verbal instruction. Unlike knowledge of a horse’s dietary needs or how and when to bleed it, horse riding was an activity, not a reading topic. From a history of knowledge perspective, the question is how the cultural and social practice of horse riding found its way into books. Furthermore, how did writing and reading about riding shape horse riding practices?

Figure 2  Frontispiece by Parrocel, in François Robichon de la Gnuérinière, École de cavalerie (Paris: Jacques Collombat, 1733). Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Reading these manuals makes clear that they were written in societies in which horse riding was practiced from a very early age. The question these books had to deal with was not how to ride as such, but how to ride properly—as horse riding had to fulfill certain social and aesthetic expectations. The 1733 frontispiece of the widely known École de cavalerie by François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751) presents telling visual imagery. Riding is situated in a school environment. The complex body of knowledge is depicted as a dynamic assemblage of various agents (Figure 2). The center position is dominated by the wise centaur Chiron, who teaches Achilles the art of horsemanship. In this specific teaching and learning arrangement, the teacher is both instructor and riding horse, the ideal teacher. This configuration is playfully mocked by two little boys in the foreground. One boy mimics the horse by crawling on all four legs while wearing a bridle, whereas the other seems to be mounting him, whip in hand. This playful riding mimicry contrasts the unskilled, ignorant, and forceful mounting of a horse with the skilled, well instructed, and harmonious art of riding.

The prospective reader of the book was thus reminded of the underlying principles of riding and the value of learned instruction. The frontispiece also offered a clear rejection of violent force when working with a horse, one of the main concerns Guérinière raised in his work. Yet, the the image also reminded readers of the important role of equipment (bridles, bits, saddles, crops, and so on). Learning how to ride included proper training in equipment knowledge. A good rider was characterized by good judgment: he knew which saddle was most suitable for both rider and horse and what kind of bit was best for the horse’s mouth.

Horse riding involves not only rider and riding horse but also riding equipment to facilitate and medially transmit the human-equine co-movement. Teaching and learning how to ride adds even more agents to this assemblage. Little is known about the common medieval and early modern horse trainers and riding teachers because the most famous “equestrian bibles” of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were written by riding masters. The courtly setting of the noble art of riding dominated equestrian genres, and consequently also the research on late medieval and early modern human–horse relationships. Not only the riders but also the riding horses that the masters worked with were almost exclusively aristocratic and male.

Figure 3  Frontispiece by Crispian de Pas, in Antoine de Pluvinel, Instruction du
Roy
(Amsterdam: J. Schippers, 1666). Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The works of riding masters such as Federico Grisone (1507–1570) and Antoine de Pluvinel (1555–1620) were thus informed by specific values and aesthetics. As late medieval and early modern societies were highly attuned to visual spectacles, learning how to ride a horse was synonymous with learning how to appear in public. Antoine de Pluvinel’s dialogue with the King of France in his Instruction du Roy is not only a fascinating example of how to teach a king but also an illuminating example of what the ideal horseman had to know. One of the first things the king had to learn was that there was a difference between a good and a beautiful rider. For Pluvinel, it was apparently useless to be a good rider without embodying beautiful form. The aesthetics of good and beautiful were the central category of his riding instructions. The book’s frontispiece employed a different contrast than Guérinière’s later Chiron-centered imagery (Figure 3). Pluvinel’s instructions to the king were the medial manifestation of the difference between book-based understanding (scienctia) of the nature of horsemanship and brutish handling that relied on force to dominate a horse (rubor).

Figure 4  Training illustrations by Crispian de Pas, in: Antoine de Pluvinel, Instruction du Roy (Amsterdam: J. Schippers, 1666). Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

These few examples suggest how late medieval and early modern books on learning how to ride engaged with and even strengthened the binary configuration of learning how to do something, of bookish knowledge versus practical experience. The codex-based manuals had to establish their own usefulness in teaching a kind of doing that was very much based on practice and experience. By focusing on insightful knowledge and judgment skills, the manuals highlighted their additional, if not indispensable value over practical experience.

In this context, it made sense that most manuals did not elaborate on actual riding skills but rather on elements such as appearance, style, and equipment. This might also explain why the illustrations and especially diagrams essential to today’s manuals took a long time to find their way into manuals.

Yet Pluvinel’s Instructions can be read as a full-fledged teaching book as it not only employs the didactic form of dialog but also makes ample use of diagrams (Figure 4). Including these images increased not only the book’s learning value but also its monetary worth. The riding masters as authors and their publishers created a distinctive way to depict riding and riding exercises. Moreover, they contributed to the professionalization of riding. The “correct” and “suitable” way to ride promoted in these manuals required not only the right training, equipment, and resources, but also exclusive spatial arrangements like the manège and an even more exclusive sophistication in equestrian terminology.

These examples of early modern riding manuals do not only offer insights into a fascinating cultural technique based on the co-movement of riding horse and rider. They also open a window on common binary oppositions of experience–knowledge, science–ignorance, and practice–theory. This last binary was especially manifest in the work by Bernardo de Vargas Machuca (1557–1622).

Figure 2  Frontispiece of Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, Teorica y exercicios de la gineta (Madrid: Diego Flamenco, 1619). Scan from Editorial Maxtor Librería facsimile (Valladolid, 2009).

His Teorica y exercicios de la gineta (Figure 5) is a compelling example as it was deeply influenced by de Vargas Machuca’s experience as a mounted soldier in Italy, North Africa, and the Americas. Although his manual centered on offering advice and revealing the secrets of Iberian riding skills and techniques (gineta), he also drew on light cavalry knowledge reaching all the way back to the Iberian Reconquista. He proudly recounted how the riding style later adapted for American frontier skirmishes (gineta indiana) was first used by North African cavalry, was then adapted to Iberian needs, and had now been perfected for the Indies. Unlike the courtly riding schools and their imposing dressage, the co-movement of rider and riding horse in the Americas—la gineta indiana—had proved its worth and so represented the only true form of riding.

De Vargas Machuca’s book was also a supplement to his more widely known Milicia indiana, which is today recognized as the first manual of counterinsurgency. Unlike large-formatted codices, his pocket-sized Teorica y exercicios de la gineta was not printed to be read in a study. It was a best-seller intended not just for an exclusive readership. It was an affordable manual meant for more ordinary riders seeking advice on how to ride in style.

Teaching and learning how to ride a horse has always been based on the elementary triangle of horse, rider, and teacher mediated through various kinds of equipment. But the rise of instructive manuals from the late fifteenth to the eighteenth century show how bookish knowledge became more and more important. The riding masters defined values and a professional vocabulary that became necessary knowledge for any distinguished rider. The binary configuration of this knowledge as theory and practice was in no way limited to riding manuals. Yet, we have to discuss how different forms of physical activity and sports established different instructive traditions. The riding manuals’ focus on equipment, style, and informed judgment suggest that the co-movement of riding horse and rider involved a non-human actor that could be trained, but that refused theorization. Thus, the horse itself is not as present in riding manuals as one would think. Yet, what comes into view when we study these riding manuals is that the co-movement of rider and riding horse was not explicitly taught. It was conceptualized and set in discourses on nobility and lordship. The harmonious co-movement of two bodies was shown to exemplify not only an equestrian ideal but the very foundation of the art of good government.

Isabelle Schürch is Senior Assistant in the Medieval History Department, University of Bern.

Suggested citation: Isabelle Schürch, “Of Horses, Men, Books, and Things: Learning How to Ride in Early Modern Europe,” History of Knowledge, May 16, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/16/of-horses-men-books-and-things/.