Outline of History and Theory of Horsemanship

The history of horsemanship is often little known among those who practice this discipline for the simple reason that his teaching has always been done and continues to be done according to a pedagogy based solely on practice. It follows that a teaching whose base is the study of different methods of ancient and modern masters and the analysis of the "equestrian mechanics" is generally neglected.

Without going into historical details, which would require a much more substantial discussion, we can trace the evolution of riding through the centuries:

1. From the origins to Xenophon


It is in the heart of a vast region of Asia, between the Aral Sea, the basin of the Syr Daria and the plateau of Mongolia, which you can locate the place of distribution of breeds predisposed to the saddle, and the cradle of 'riding.

Unfortunately, among the peoples of antiquity knights,. with the exception of the Arabs, no one has left writings on riding.

The first equestrian treaty that has entirely survived is the one written in about 400 BC by philosopher and historian, as well as knight and statesman, Xenophon.

Before him, Simon of Athens had written a voluminous and detailed book on equestrianism, that Xenophon himself cites repeatedly. Unfortunately this book has been lost as well as the one written by Pliny, also mentioned by Xenophon.

The Treaty of the latter consists essentially of a training manual for the use of the horse in a view to its military use, but nevertheless two chapters are devoted to high school, where he speaks of the decontraction of the jaw and the rising of the neck, and lightness.

More than 2000 years before Baucher, Xenophon speaks of sizing flexibility through the decontraction of the mouth. For the first time also there is the distinction between military riding and  stables riding.

But what is most surprising is the accuracy of his explanations and deep understanding of the feelings of the horse. His precepts of training were based on intuition and gentle treatment of the animal.

2. From Xenophon to Renaissance

The History crosses a long period during which the riding will not make nearly progress.

The numerous invasions which crossed, from Xenophon to Charlemagne, the Roman world and the West, had the merit, as far as equestrianism is concerned, to take a few discoveries of great interest: the bit, shoeing, saddle with tree, the stirrup.

The Renaissance Europe will base its riding on the knowledge base that the Arab invasion of the seventh century. brought to the West, and that will develop in two main areas:

- Southern Italy, where the Kingdom of Sicily cultural contacts were constant between Christianity and Islam. Since 1134, a group of Byzantine Ecuyers founded a riding academy, ancestor of the Neapolitan School;

- Spain where, in the battles of the Reconquista, for some centuries, the Spanish knights were adapted to the techniques of their opponents ("a la genette").

3. The Renessaince

Antoine de Pluvinel

It is no wonder, therefore, that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century settled two distinct equestrian currents.

1. In the South of Italy developed the current defined "classic".

A Riding Academy was established there in the first half of the sixteenth century by Federico Grisone, which generated many followers: many writings began to appear which described principles and different methods of dressage.

Grisone himself was the author of an important book on the subject: Gli Oridini di Cavalcare (1550).

At around the same time, Caesar Fiaschi founded in Naples a riding school which soon became famous.

Giovanni Battista Pignatelli, their disciple, formed in 1550 several Ecuyers who traveled throughout western Europe.

The method of Neapolitans Ecuyers, applied to heavy horses, resorted to empirical and brutal means: they proposed the impulse, sought the balance on the hips through a flexibility of the rear, but, on the contrary of Xenophon, rejected the importance of flexibility of  the neck.

Their teaching will be introduced in France by two students of  Pignatelli: Salomon de La Broue (1552-1602), regarded as the "restorer", author of one of the oldest equestrian treaty, "Le Cavalier Francais," and Antoine de Pluvinel ( 1555-1620), known as the "founder".

The contribution of these early masters will lead to the establishment of "Ecole de Versailles" in 1680 and "Manege Royal des Tuileries" in 1730, with Francois Robichon de La Gueriniere (1687-1751), father of the classical academic school and author of a seminal text: Ecole de la Cavalerie (1733) .

In this regard, we must mention the great influence on the latter by a great english horseman, the Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676) who described his original training methods in a book published in 1658: A General System of Horsemanship.


2. In Spain and Portugal, the military current “a la genette” developed, which will be perpetuated until the eighteenth century, where it will eventually renew with bullfighting, without first being brought to America where it will evolve into working equitation.

4. From the middle of the eighteenth century


1. In France, different currents developed:

1. 1. the classical one, in which we can inscribe Cordier, head of the Ecole de Cavalerie of Saumur, and especially the Comte d'Aure (1799-1863), which both of them have attempted to adapt  to new tastes of the civil world as well as to the needs of the military, while remaining faithful to the basic principle of the classical school: the balance through collection;


1. 2. The military current tself, which will evolve considerably by the end of the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century. We can quote Melfort d'Auvergne, who simplified the classical riding, and General de Beauchesne, who rejected purely and simply collection;


1. 3. Finally, the current represented by the works of Baucher (1796-1873), a contemporary and rival of Count d'Aure, who refused almost all of the classical heritage and considered himself a creator unprecedented.

          His school will pretend even to be general so to speak: that is to adapt itself to high school horsemanship, as well as to the military and the country.

In the face of this explosion of equestrian thought in France, great talented masters, most dedicated to the practice than theory, tried to put together the best aspects.

They were Duthil and Fillis in the nineteenth century, and Saint-Phalle and Wattel in the twentieth.

However, it was the general L’Hotte (1825-1904) to take the best of the teachings of the two great masters of d’Aure and Baucher, and to shape the excesses.

The doctrine, made explicit in his most important book "Questions Equestres", summed up in his saying "forward, calm, right", which he adopted to Manege de Saumur, referred to the principles of the Count d'Aure for country riding , and those of Baucher for high school horsemanship.

It was he who introduced the rising trot in the cavalry.

At his death the French equestrian world was long divided by disputes over the methods of the previous century and it was in this context, strongly felt the need for education of the cavalry unit, that Lieutenant-Colonel Biasque-Delair attempted to unify the French equestrian heritage in an official document “Le Manuel d'equitation et de dressage” of 1912, on whose basis some very talented military riders added the developments necessary to reach high school.

Among these stands the general Albert Decarpentry (1878-1956).

Having been a long time Dressage judge, he felt the need for a text that would help riders for the tests and wrote an important book, "Equitation académique", which he himself modestly called a compendium of the teachings of the great masters.

Gustav Steinbrecht

2. In Germany: Frederick the Great rethinks horsemanship to suit the necessities of war, and at the end of the eighteenth century, the master Louis Hunersdorf will actualize this evolution in a treaty.

But in this country a great influence was exerted in the early part of the nineteenth century by Max Ritter von Weyrother.

Sedler, Seeger and Oeynhausen, who were his disciples, were powerful enough to supplant the teachings of Baucher and impose their methods.

Suffice it to say that it is on their work that is based on one of the most important books "The Gymnasium of the Horse", edited by Paul Plinzner first (with some of its additions) and completed by Colonel Hans von Heydebreck in 1935, and which contains the writings of Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885).

In this book it is clear the opposition of Steinbrecht  to the Baucher  method of working separately on different parts of the body of the horse and from the start make him movable in all directions, while for the german master one should work on the whole body of the horse and impose the forward movement keeping it right, and only after search flexion;

Alois Podhajsky

3. In Austria, the Spanish School of Vienna, is what has preserved to the present day the purest classic current, based on the teachings of de La Gueriniere.

H.E. von Holbein, director of the School until 1901, outlined the training methods to be followed in a publication of 1898, "Directives".

Another influential director of the School was from 1939 colonel Austro-Hungarian Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973), who, during World War II managed to save the horses of the school by putting them with the help of General Patton under American protection.

One of his books, "Die Klassische Reitkunst" is a detailed guide through the various stages of training.

Federico Caprilli

4. In Italy, the classical current, which here had its birth in the early twentieth century, was completely neglected.

But a horseman of genius, Federico Caprilli (1868-1907), has revolutionized the way to ride over obstacles.

Until then, the riders faced obstacles with a position of the torso backward and long stirrups.

Caprilli on the contrary thought that it was more appropriate to follow the movement of the horse during the jump, so as to enable him to use the neck as a balancer.

This led to a radical change in attitude of the rider so that, by adopting shorter stirrups, his center of gravity were always in agreement with that of the horse.

He called his method "Natural System of Horsemanship."

Caprilli was convinced that a systematic and specific training was necessary for jumping and for this purpose he invented a device which is now an integral part of the work program of the horse jumping: the cavalletti.

His method was soon adopted by the major schools of cavalry in Europe, and many countries prepared structures similar to the School of Cavalry in Pinerolo.

In France was Colonel Pierre Danloux (1878-1943), director from 1929 to 1933 in Saumur, who adopted in the School the Caprilli method, although with some variations.

Danloux was the inventor of the saddle that made ​​it easier to mount according to the dictates of the Natural System of Horsemanship.

Bertalan de Némethy

In America a great horseman of Hungarian origin, Bertalan de Némethy (1911-2002), who became coach in 1955 of the American Showjumping Team, based on the Caprilli method, combined with the precepts of the great masters of classical school, its training system described in the book "The de Némethy Method".

George H. Morris, who in the past has been a member of the American Equestrian Team, founded in turn his own method which refers expressly to Caprilli and which he described in the book "Hunter Seat Equitation".

In Germany the Natural System of Horsemanship has been implemented very slowly.

Colonel von Flotow was responsible for its introduction into the Cavalry School in Hanover.

A great rider, Olympic dressage champion, Reiner Klimke (1936-1999), wrote a book, "Cavalletti", entirely dedicated to this training device of the horse and rider invented by Caprilli.

Nuno Oliveira

                          _ _ _ _ _ _ 

We can not conclude this outline without mentioning a Portuguese horseman, Nuno Oliveira (1925-1989), who has had, in recent times, a great influence on horsemen who are attentive in training to  lightness and harmony, as well to deep love and respect towards the horse.

"Reflexions sur l'Art Equestre" by Crepin Leblond, is the book that describes most closely the thought and work of this great master of classical horsemanship.

5. Some recent developments in the USA

Monty Roberts

A separate chapter, finally, are the methods of taming and training, based in particular on the relationship between man and horse other than hitherto generally practiced, and which were finalized in America in the so-called working equitation.

Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, John Lyons, among others, have produced a vast literature, visual documents, established schools, but also gained many proselytes in the cradle of classical horsemanship, Europe.

It is a fact now that many leading riders, in all Olympic disciplines, effectively include in their work with the horse and the young ones in particular, some of their techniques.

© Fabrizio Buccarella