52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 44: The Art of Horsemanship

Thursday 4 September 2014

For my last post I wanted to recreate something that I had a particularly keen interest in…horse riding. Having ridden since the age of 10 it seemed like a natural choice, I just needed to find something in our collection that would fit the bill. After sifting through our catalogues and asking colleagues in the department I discovered a wonderful text on the art of horsemanship, Cavalarice, or The English Horseman published in 1616 and written by Gervase Markham (TypBL.C17AM).

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Cavalarice, or The English Horseman by Gervase Markham (TypBL.C17AM)

Markham, a poet, writer and former Groom to Henry, Prince of Wales, had previously written a treatise on horsemanship in 1593, A Discourse of Horsemanship, and so was somewhat passionate about equestrianism. He explains in Cavalarice that his reason for writing a further, more expansive, work was to share his greater knowledge and experience of horsemanship to the wider public, like other horsemen had done before him such as Xenophon, Ruffius and Federico Grisone. In fact Markham references Grisone repeatedly throughout the book.

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The perfect saddle from Cavalarice, or The English Horseman

Grisone, a Neopolitan who first wrote on the subject of horsemanship, Gli Ordini di Cavalcare, 1571, founded a school of equitation in Naples. It was from Grisone’s and other Italian riding schools that dressage evolved as a modern equine discipline. (Watch Team GB’s Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro, perform her Individual Olympic Gold Freestyle test at London 2012. It’s just breath taking.)

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The metal cavesson in two pieces
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The metal cavesson in three pieces

Cavalarice, is a collection of 8 books, bound as one, each dedicated to a different distinguished person and covers everything from breeding, breaking, identification, tack, training, diet, stable management and illness. Whilst throughout Markham references his Italian predecessors he’s quick to criticise their methods of training horses, which by account were quite brutal. In book two he talks in detail about the types of cavezan noseband (or cavesson as known in modern English riding – a type of noseband not attached to the bit, or mouthpiece) which was in use at the time in Italy, and includes drawings of what they looked like. Their rather savage form enabled the rider to control a horse, particularly if it was strong or wilful. In modern equestrianism the rider uses a variety of bits of varying strength to achieve the same result.  It was comforting to know that Markham wholly disapproved of the use of this barbaric tack, and I’m sure the SSPCA would undoubtedly have something to say if a modern rider chose to use a metal cavesson with sharp metal teeth.

That said, for my ‘historical how-to’ I decided not to repeat any barbarous acts but to recreate some ‘turns’ that Markham had suggested in his book two, which was dedicated to Henry, Prince of Wales. These exercises were largely performed in a manège or school as they’re more commonly known and were designed to train horses to listen to the rider’s hand and leg commands.

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Meet City Buzz, the ex-racehorse.

With the help of my riding instructor sister, Carly, and my trusty steed, a 24 year old thoroughbred ex-racehorse called City Buzz (Buzzy), I attempted to recreate Markham’s first suggested move called ‘incavallare’. The definition, according to John Florio, is ‘to lap one thing over another, properly to hold your rod over the right shoulder of the horse, to make him bring in the right fore foote over the left’. (John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, PC1640.F67H2).  In other words you need to get the horse to change direction by crossing the forelegs over and pivoting on the hind legs.

Incavallare in a grid formation, with quarter turns
Incavallare in a grid formation, with quarter turns

In his text Markham instructs the rider to ‘gently walk out a straight ring on your right hand, being at the most not above eight yards in his greatest compass, and in the making thereof you shall have a special regard by the carriage of the left rein’. This initial movement, Markham states, should be done so that ‘your horse carry his head and neck very just and even’ and so that he doesn’t bend his neck or look round toward his right side. Markham then asks the rider to walk in

‘an even line, about two yards, or two yards and a half at the most forward, and there, by laying your left rein close to his neck, your left leg close to his side and your rod upon his left shoulder, make him bring his body about, and make just one quarter of a complete circle upon your right hand’.

He then instructs the rider to repeat this until the movement forms a complete square.

Whilst Markham describes this as being done on the right rein (or right hand), the image actually depicts it being done on the left rein…causing much confusion between myself and my sister. However, in the failing evening light, and wearing present day riding attire not a traditional 17th century riding habit (for reasons of safety and comfort, as stirrup leathers can seriously chaff the legs!) I attempted an ‘incavallare’ on Buzzy…

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A hint of a crossover of the forelegs

This particular move is still performed today when training horses for dressage, or for the rider to establish better control and connection with the horse, but is now known as a ‘turn on the haunches’. Although it may look easy, trust me it isn’t. Markham instructs the rider to hold the left leg (or right depending on which rein you’re on) against the leg, but Buzzy wasn’t responding sufficiently to this so more of a kick of the leg was required to execute the move.

An extension of this particular move is encouraged next, by Markham, where the rider performs half turns instead of quarter turns.

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Incavallare in a linear formation, with half turns

Watch the video of me on Buzzy attempting to perform the ‘incavallare’ in both quarter and half turns.

For the unwilling horse Markham refers to Grisone’s recommendation of having a ‘Foote-man’ stand before the horse with a whip in hand and strike the horse on the nose and threaten the horse by crying ‘turn here’ or ‘turn there’.  Again Markham notes his disapproval,

‘I hold it barbarous and unprofitable, for it will both bring the horse to weakness and uncertainty of his head, to rearing and plunging; and lastly, to such a cowardly fearfulness, that he will hardly after endure any man whatsoever.’

I would whole-heartedly agree with that.

But Buzzy was a charm to ride, as always, and performed well in spite of the presence of the camera and the pressure of impending stardom on YouTube. It was an interesting experiment and demonstrates something very different from our collections.

Many thanks to Carly Lee, Carly Lee Equestrian, for her help and use of Merito; to Merito for being a delight to ride; and to Donna and Simon Clark, Lathockar Stables, for the use of their yard and arena.

-Kirsty Lee

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3 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 44: The Art of Horsemanship"

  • liz read
    liz read
    Thursday 4 September 2014, 11.44am

    Congratulations...especially to Buzzy!

  • joycecormie
    Thursday 4 September 2014, 12.00pm

    Hadn't seen that wonderful dressage of the 2012 Olympic Gold Medallist. Thank you so much for that. Well done for attempting to teach an old horse 'new tricks'

  • […] collections with the vast amount of talent in activities as diverse as making stained glass and dressage, and revealing skills colleagues possess which perhaps no one at work knew about before. And the […]


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