Classical dressage is a rather arcane equestrian pursuit. But it has a wonderful literary history. The first book to seriously analyze and teach riding as an art form was Xenophon’s The Art of Horsemanship published in Greece around 360 B.C. It has been republished countless times, and is still in demand today.
It was a revolutionary work in its time, and remained the only book to espouse kindness and gentle training over vicious bits and violent training methods for some 2000 years. Training methods during the Dark and Middle Ages were violent, and most trainers believed horses to be fundamentally vicious.
As warfare changed, lighter weapons such as crossbows and firearms came into use. Lighter armour was used and speed became an important factor. The large coldblooded horses of northern Europe became less useful to the cavalry and the lighter Iberian horse came to the fore. These horses are represented today in the Andalusian, Lusitano, and Lipizzaner breeds and are sometimes known as “baroque” types. These horses were (and still are) full of courage, and are very responsive and athletic. They require a rider with some skill. They are recognizable in old paintings as the horses with the exceedingly long manes and tails.
Modern interest in equitation and advanced training began in Italy during the Renaissance, and it was soon one of the skills expected of a well-rounded gentleman.
Federico Grisone was the author of Gli ordini di cavalcare, (1550 Naples) (Orders of Riding). He set up an equestrian school in 1532 in Italy. While Grisone had studied Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship, he really didn’t apply all of Xenophon’s principles. He still believed that horses were vicious beasts, and used a variety of rather shocking methods to break the spirits of the horses he trained. Tying a cat to a long pole and placing it under the belly and hind legs to punish the horse was one of his more inventive ideas. He also advocated putting a live hedgehog under the horse’s tail.
His riding style was closer to that of a Medieval knight than that of Xenophon (who advocated a relaxed lower leg and a balanced position). Grisone rode with his feet well forward and legs stiff.
Count Cesar Fiaschi wrote Trattato del imbrigliare, maneggiare, et ferrare cavalli (Bologna 1556). His methods were very similar to Grisone’s. However, he did advocate the use of the voice as an aid to training. He also used music for the first time.
Many pupils came from throughout Europe to study with Italian teachers. The most famous of these was Antoine de Pluvinel. He studied with Pignatelli, then returned to France after his training and opened a school in Paris. Pluvinel’s methods were much more humane than those of earlier trainers. He claimed that the use of the spur or the whip was a confession of failure. Pluvinel introduced a form of equestrian ballet known as “carousel” in which groups of horses and riders performed advanced drills to music. In one instance, over a thousand horses and riders performed together. Carousel is still performed today, though often called a “mounted drill” in North America.
Pluvinel’s notes were not published until after his death. Initially a portion of the notes were published as Le Manège Royal in 1623 along with the illustrations of Crispin de Pas. The notes were later edited and published (including Crispin de Pas’ illustrations) by Menou de Charnizay, as L’Instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter a cheval, which is the definitive and more complete edition.
England, though often considered a country of horse lovers, actually only produced one early master of classical riding. William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, was a royalist who lived in exile until the restoration of King Charles II. During his exile he opened a riding school in Belgium. He wrote La Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux , which has been translated under two different titles – A New Method to Dress Horses, and A General System of Horsemanship. The illustrations are among the most beautiful to ever grace equestrian literature.
François Robichon de La Guérinière was the most famous and influential early teacher of classical dressage. His methods are still used in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. He changed classical riding to a more forward and less over-collected style. Gueriniere invented the half-halt, the counter canter, the flying change, and the shoulder-in. His methods and teachings are still in use today at the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna (home of the Lipizzaners).
Guérinière’s book, l’École de Cavalerie (School of Horsemanship) was published in 1729 in Paris. It was really the first book to teach haute école in the way we understand it today, and likely the oldest title (other than Xenophon) that a modern equestrian can read without the occasional wince. It is still much in demand even today, and while it is periodically reprinted, is easy to sell in the secondhand market in any edition.
Xenophon. The Art of Horsemanship. Many editions (Greece, 360 B.C.)
Federico Grisone. Gli ordini di cavalcare (Napoli, 1550)
Cesare Fiaschi. Trattato del imbrigliare, maneggiare, et ferrare cavalli (Bologna, 1556)
Claudio Corte. Il Cavallarizzo (Venetia, 1562)
Pasqual Caracciolo. La gloria del cavallo (Vinegia, 1566)
Salomon de La Broue. Des préceptes de cavalerice françois (Paris, 1602)
Antoine de Pluvinel Le Manège Royal (Paris, 1623)
Antoine de Pluvinel L’Instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter a cheval (Paris, 1625)
William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. La Methode Nouvelle et Invention Extraordinare de
François Robichon de La Guérinière. Ecole de Cavalerie. (Paris, 1729)
dresser les Chevaux. (Antwerp, 1658)