Ever wondered why you should always mount from the left, lead from the left, why in sports black saddles and brown warm blood horses of a certain size are favoured? Or why people call it horse sports but wear uniforms instead of comfortable sports gear? Ever wondered where sports such as competition dressage and show jumping came from? Then read on, for you are about to find out!
Many will tell you it all started with Xenophon, the Greek war general who was the first (that we know of) to pen a dressage and horse training manual. In fact horse sports did not start there at all; they only started much later in history. You see, up to the early 19th century horses were very important for people’s everyday life. It did not really matter what one did, a horse was almost always part of everyday living and surviving. People were mostly brought up with horses and communicating and working together came rather naturally from very young age. By working together constantly, human and horse would learn to cooperate side by side, simply by trial and error. Repeat what works, get rid of what does not. What people found out many centuries ago is, that when you just sit on a horse without certain preparation this horse will soon start to function less and less. The horses started to get physical problems which of course showed up in not being able to perform up to scratch. What people also found out is that you should wait at least until 5@half; years before you start preparing for ridden work and that stallions, because of their build and stamina, were most suitable. Besides that, all the mares were needed to bring up foals; after all for safe and light communication, one needs horses of excellent social upbringing.
The Friezes of the Parthenon in Athens, which I visited several times as a child, clearly show extremely collected horses on their haunches without bridle!
I imagine that horse trainers would have observed the horses in their herds and discovered what specific qualities those horses possessed that would function best under their riders. What they thus discovered was that those horses that were able to move their bodies in a certain way, were the ones who would perform best and last the longest as a riding horse. So a logical conclusion would have been to ask horses to perform these certain movements, which the best quality horses did, to see if that would improve their performance and withstand being ridden longer. Obviously, it did and the Gymnasium of the horse was born. You can read about it in Xenophon’s book ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ and many books of the so called ‘classical masters’ thereafter.
The art of war
Also, from Xenophon (and even before Kikuli) up to La Guérinière, we see that war training and horse training are interlinked, they are in fact one and the same thing. Within war it is obviously of vital importance to have outstanding communication with your horse that almost reacts to your thoughts. After all, you won’t last long in battle if you have to fight your horse as well as your opponent. Having said that, having a horse reacting to your thoughts is but a start, the next is that you have to have the horse’s thoughts as well. With that I mean that a thinking horse will also expand your lifespan. When being attacked from parts where you can not see but your horse can, would you rather have a horse who only acts on your commands, or a horse that reacts by getting away from every type of danger, whilst – mind you – keeping you on board. The ultimate war horse, called a ‘destrier’ would even protect his rider should he be slain and on the ground, by standing over him or by pulling him out of harms way by his garment.
Another example, this time of every day life. Towns were small and separated by enormous woods through which you had to travel, sometimes days on end. These woods were full of thieves, not all the likes of Robin Hood and his merry men, rest assured. So, if your horse did not want to go down some path and kept snorting and staring, it was to listen to one’s horse and choose a different path which the horse thought safe. The sum up, to have a long life you need a horse with which you have optimal communication, thatis healthy, agile and strong and that thinks! As it obviously takes time to get to this level of partnership, starting afresh with a new horse was not that evident. So the Gymnasium was designed to keep horses healthy, thinking and communicating for the many years to come. From the start of training at 5½ years preferably up to an age of 25 to 30. Still really common in places like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, for instance.
Xenophon’s thoughts on the subject:
“But whoever would desire to have a horse serviceable for war, and at the same time of a stately and striking figure to ride, must abstain from pulling his mouth with the bit, and from spurring and whipping him; practices which some people adopt in the notion that they are setting their horses off; but they produce a quite contrary effect from that which they intend.”
“For by pulling the mouths of their horses, they blind them when they ought to see clearly before them, and they frighten them so much by spurring and striking them, that they are confused and run headlong into danger; acts which distinguish such horses as are most averse to being ridden, and as conduct themselves improperly and unbecomingly. “
“But if a rider teach his horse to go with the bridle loose, to carry his neck high, and to arch it from the head onwards, he would thus lead him to do everything in which the animal himself takes pleasure and pride.”
“That he does take pleasure in such actions, we see sufficient proof; for whenever he approaches other horses, and especially when he comes to mares, he rears his neck aloft, bends his head gallantly, throws out his legs with nimbleness, and carries his tail erect.”
“When a rider, therefore, can prompt him to assume that figure which he himself assumes when he wishes to set off his beauty, he will thus exhibit his steed as taking pride in being ridden, and having a magnificent, noble, and distinguished appearance.”
This section of the Bayeux tapestry shows the battle of Hastings in 1066. The reins hang slack and often are not held at all. The front and hind legs at the same level suggests terre-a-terre.
This was all fine in man-to-man battle until in the early nineteenth century when warfare changed. Heavy artillery was the new deal and all these horses that were brought up with such care and had so many years of careful training died by the masses. Years of work gone in minutes. Everything changed there and then: it was painfully clear this era of intelligent horse training was over. There was no time for long training and above all, it was not needed! For horses would not come back from the battlefield and if they did, they would often only be good as meat to feed the soldiers. So, to save time they now started the training with foals of 2½ years. Not much preparation at all, just saddle on, lunge and rider on, done. Of course, this would destroy any horse in due time, but who cared? The horse was not meant to last. An other advantage is that a young child of 2½ is much easier to bully around and brainwash than a 5½ year old agile stallion. After all, galloping towards cannon fire does not seem like and intelligent thing to do, and it isn’t. So intelligent, self-preserving horses were not a choice; on the contrary! Now horses were needed that did not think for themselves and complied with every order, no matter how stupid or dangerous. For this purpose the army needed horses that did not offer any objections whatsoever, which became the new purpose of training. Horses who acted like machines to all commands. To reach this goal, stallions were no longer used. Geldings started at an early age, 1½ to 2 years. Mares were used as well. There was a vast demand for horses now as they did not last long anymore. The social upbringing of horses was no longer valued so much, so the foals were taken away from their mother at 6 months as opposed to staying in the herd for years as was common in the past. The training now had one prime directive: complete and utter obedience. Or in other words, to train cannon fodder. To get that obedience it was vital to break any resistance (thus thinking in fact) by a constant demand for precisely that which the horse did not want to do. For instance, a horse did not want to canter, then the riding soldier was commanded to use violence by putting spur and whip to the horse until it cantered and then keep it cantering for as long as the rider wanted. Of course the obvious reason for a horse not to canter would be that his body was not strong, supple and straight enough, nor mature. But again, that did not matter anymore. A horse spooked somewhere? Beat him towards that spot. This was all just preparing for artillery warfare. Or in short, training cannon fodder.
British cavalry rider from 1842, sitting behind the movement therefore hindering his horse, and pulling his horse behind the vertical with the reins.
Being the army and liking things uniform, horses were preferred to be the same height and the same colour. Bay was more available than black; grey was not practical and red blood is such a dramatic sight on a white horse, it could lower moral. In training, all riders would lead from the left, mount from the left because their weapon would hang left and above all, in exercises horses would all need to be ridden in the same head set. Head down would prevent the horse from looking around. It is far more easy to dominate a horse who can not actually look around. Now tell me, by reading this, does it all seem familiar? Of course from the late nineteenth century horses became less and less important in warfare. The lieutenants and generals however kept horses for inspecting troops and keeping fit. Busy bees as these high officers were between battles they would start holding contests to show off how obedient their horses really were. These horses were so obedient that they could pull off movements that almost looked like some high school movements! Of course, trampling on the spot is not piaffe, so levade could never follow as the horse is in contra-collection. The horse would sooner stand on his head than on his hind legs, from this contra-balance. Shoulder-in could only be performed on 3 tracks not 4, simply because it was not really a shoulder-in, but just a form of yielding along the track. For a true shoulder in, a horse needs to be able to lift the shoulders and that is impossible when not being prepared from early and correct training. All the high school movements were gone… a true piaffe and levade is the door to the airs; cannon fodder was never able to reach a performance like that. From this cannon fodder training modern horse sports and school riding developed. It is all about showing how obedient your horse is and what a rider can let him do, inspite of the horse itself. The cannon fodder training is therefore constantly present all around us and riders, just like the soldiers and their horses then, do not think about what is healthy, sane, logical or even fun. They all keep up this training without questioning why, looking at the old master’s training as if they were aliens or even worse… do not even know they existed. I once spoke with a well known grand prix dressage rider about Riding Art and he had never heard of La Guérinière, nor of Antoin de Pluvinel. He did not know what Levade or terre a terre was. I was shocked… to me that is like being a painter and not knowing who Rembrand or Rubens were! Or a chef who has never heard of Michelin stars! What would you think of such painters or chefs? Would you expect any good work from them? Not me.
So to complete this – alas- ever so true saga, I would like everyone to ask themselves one question:
Are you training your horse for the benefit of both of you, or are you training cannon fodder?