The Major Influences on Riding in Europe During the Renaissance and Baroque Eras

The Major Influences on Riding in Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque Eras

It is hard to believe, but nevertheless true, that within a span of time of just under three hundred years (approximately from the 1530’s to near the end of the 1700’s) there were more advancements and developments in the art of horsemanship than have ever taken place either before or after that time. The techniques, equipment innovations, and exercises that were created to train the horse to give him the necessary strength, suppleness, and balance to perform the movements that were desired of him with responsiveness and lightness are the foundations that we still use today in our development of the horse.  To have a better understanding of what occurred during that time and the personalities involved, this paper presents a short historical overview of the horsemen whose contributions to riding and training the horse are generally considered milestones in the development of the art, leaving a legacy which is still with us today.

These horsemen, each of whom will be discussed in turn, were: Frederico Grisone, Italian, whose book was published in 1550; Salomon de la Broue, French, whose book was published in 1594; Antoine de Pluvinel, French, whose book was published in 1623; William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, English, whose book was first published in French in 1658; and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere, French, whose book was first published in 1729. It is of interest to note that their entrance onto the world stage of equitation took place during the Renaissance and Baroque Eras.

The Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”) was a cultural movement that began in Florence, Italy about 1350, and then spread into other parts of Europe (England, France, Germany, and Spain) as well as other countries around 1480.  It ended around 1600 when the Baroque Era began which lasted until about 1750. This was a time when great advancements were being made in all areas of society and in the royal courts these advancements were taken to an art form in music, singing, dancing, painting, sword fighting, as well as horse training and riding. For example, it was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), a true Renaissance man and apparently himself a horseman of some ability, who originated the human hand as a unit of measurement for the horse’s height.

It should also be remembered that Italy during the 15th – 16th centuries was not a united nation, as we know it today. It would only become such around the middle of the 19th century. Back then it was a complex and ever-changing collection of wealthy autonomous city-states, the vast kingdom of Naples, powerful ‘imperial’ duchies, and rich papal principalities.  During this time of the resurgence of cultural pursuits, it is generally accepted that Naples became the center of the equestrian rebirth.

The first civilian-riding academy to be properly recognized outside Italy during those days of change and gradual awakening was opened in 1532 in Naples, Italy (the kingdom of Naples was annexed by the Spanish Crown in 1502) by Frederico Grisone (16th century). It became known as the Neapolitan School. Grisone was the pupil of Colas Pagano, who was a grandson (out of wedlock) of the King of Aragon (one of five kingdoms comprising Spain), which implies that there could have been some Spanish influence in Pagano’s teaching.  One of the things the school did was dissect dead horses almost on a daily basis trying to figure out how they moved and balanced themselves so that riders could have a more positive influence in directing the movements of the horse. Grisone wrote a book Gli Ordini di Cava/care (The Rules of Horsemanship) that was translated and spread throughout Europe. This was the first book to present a complete method of riding and signaled the beginning of educated (meaning systematic) equitation. But it is well to keep in mind that this educated riding was devised primarily for the nobility. While Grisone based his ideas mainly on the teachings of Xenophon, particularly the use of the rider’s legs (he had his students ride a la Estradiota style [meaning with a slightly bent leg with the heel placed under the rider’s hip)]), his methods were sometimes harsh.  As an example, he would tie the horse between two pillars with a cavesson-like device – a padded jointed-iron noseband with rings attached (although sometimes he substituted a metal noseband with internal spikes or rough chains affixed) – placed around his muzzle to which cords were attached back to the pillars and then use whips with sharp points on them to get the horse to go forward. Perhaps Grisone’s sometimes harsh methods can be explained by the fact that before the Spanish annexed the kingdom of Naples the early Renaissance riding masters had heavier, more massive horses than the Iberian style horses and their severe training methods and equipment were used to get these heavier horses to perform in a like manner what the Spanish horses did so naturally.  Later on, as more and more Spanish horses became available and eventually gained prominence in Italy, the training methods changed accordingly and a more enlightened approach to the schooling of the horse and rider replaced the earlier harsher methods.

A colleague of Grisone was Cesare Fiaschi (l 5(?)-1575) who opened his riding academy in 1539 in Ferrara, Italy, which was an independent duchy in the northern part of Italy and was considered one of the cultural centers of Italy.  He wrote a book Tratto dell’ imbrigliare, maneggiare e ferrare cavalli (A Treatise of Bridling, Schooling and Shoeing Horses) in 1556 from which we learn that he stressed the importance of the rider’s seat to promote correct balance and the giving of invisible aids and he taught circles at the walk, trot, and canter as well as the slow collected canter and some of the high school airs.  He also introduced music during riding to promote rhythm. It is interesting to note that while Grisone has become known as “the father of the art of equitation,” yet but for the difference of six years in the publication of their respective books, the title could have well been bestowed on Fiaschi.  But perhaps of greater importance is the fact that Fiaschi was the teacher of Giovanni Pignatelli (c. 1525-15(?)); although some historians claim that Pignatelli was a student of Grisone.  It matters not.

Pignatelli went on to found his own school and was instrumental in beginning the French “Golden Age of Equitation” through his students, an era of state supported exploration of training as a high art form lasting some two hundred years and ending with the French Revolution (1789-1799). Circus riders who came to Naples from Constantinople (which had been the center for such riding dating back to Roman times) also had an influence on him in his teaching, being that their training methods were based on weight aids, voice control and constant reward as well as disdainful of the use of severe bits and spurs.

Pignatelli is the one who is credited with the invention of the double bridle and is thought also to have initiated lateral movements and work on two tracks.  Additionally, the introduction of the pillars is attributed to him, although some writers give the credit to Antoine de Pluvinel (mainly because he was the first to adequately explain the use of the pillars [both single and double], especially as they pertained to suppling the horse’s neck and the hindquarters in his book The Manege Royal and because, unfortunately, Pignatelli left behind no written work).  However, a better case can be made for Pignatelli rather than de Pluvinel because of the circus riders’ influence on him plus the fact that de Pluvinel was his pupil and studied under him for six years. Be that as it may, it is unquestionable that the most important horsemen who came to study the new methods with him were the Frenchmen Salomon de la Broue (c.1530-c.16 l 0) and Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620) plus the German Georg Englehard Loehneysen (1552-1622) who first brought equitation to Germany.  After studying under Pignatelli the two Frenchmen then returned to France to introduce the new ideas under the patronage of the French Court and thus the center for refined, educated equitation shifted from Italy to France.

Regarding these two horsemen, la Broue was probably the more important of the two because of the contributions he made to the advancement of horsemanship, but, unfortunately, he is the lesser known one today. He wrote the first book on equitation in the French language in 1594, La Cavalerice Francois, (which is more useful than de Pluvinel’s book but de Pluvinel’s was more popular because of the drawings). He is credited as being the first to use direct flexions of the lower jaw and neck.  He was the first to stress “lightness of the mouth” and took the horse through four phases of training: cavesson only, snaffle (or bradoon, a small ring snaffle) bit, curb bit (without the curb chain) with the snaffle and then the normal bridle with the curb chain.  He is also credited with being the first to use cavaletti in his work.  He was an ecuyer to Henry IV and many of his teachings (as well as the Duke of Newcastle) are included in de la Gueriniere’s book.

On the other hand, de Pluvinel was the more famous of the two. He is generally acknowledged as the “Father of French Equitation.”  In 1593 in Paris he opened a School or “Academy” (one of perhaps twenty in and around Paris), located near the Grand Stables, for the education of young gentlemen of noble birth, not only for riding, but mathematics, literature, painting, and music – the classical education of a “gentleman.” In point of fact, one of his students was Louis XIII.  Pluvinel wrote two books with The Manege Royal being the most well-known which was published after his death by his pupil, Rene de Menou (1578-1651), in 1623. His book stresses discipline through gentleness and understanding of the horse’s mind and just like la Broue he exhorts the patient, humane approach to the schooling of horses.  He is also credited with being the first to do work with the horse around a pillar (see above for a different interpretation) as well as working him in a square so as to develop more balance quicker rather than doing it in the round.  He was responsible for founding the Academie des Tuileries near Paris that de la Gueriniere was given Directorship of some one hundred years later.

The success of la Broue and de Pluvinel caused the King of France, Louis XIV (1638- 1715), known as “the Sun King,” to give his support to this new movement in equitation and so the ‘School of Versailles’ grew and flourished.  The School began when the King moved his court from Paris to Versailles in 1681 on the grounds of the hunting lodge of Louis XIII and moved his horses there in 1682.  It was closed in 1789 at the time of the French Revolution, but reopened in 1815 only to be permanently closed in 1830.  The term “School of Versailles” was a name given to the whole philosophy of French Court Equitation and although there was a Royal Manege, by 1685 there were about ten academies around Paris and Versailles in which a core of professionals enhanced the work of the Royal Manege.  They perfected the art of collection by having the horse freely receptive to the aids of the hand and the legs making him more agile in performing what was desired of him. In other words, the “School of Versailles” became synonymous with the practice of French Classical Equitation.

Leaving the European continent for the moment, we now move to England where we come upon a nobleman of great wealth who wrote a very important book titled A General System of Horsemanship.  His name was William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1593- 1676).  The book was first published in 1658 in French with the first English edition being published in 1743, some 35 years after de Pluvinel’s book.  Sadly, he has been mostly forgotten in the equestrian world today, yet, in this book he laid the foundation for a humane, rational, and systematic training of horses (as did de Pluvinel).  In fact, the man widely regarded as the most influential figure in equestrian history, Francois Robichon ce la Gueriniere, who we will discuss later, credits Newcastle (as well as la Broue) with many of the ideas that he explored in depth in his book.  Even a century later great French masters such as Comte D’Aure (1799-1863) and Francois Baucher (1796-1873) continued to quote Newcastle in their works and the German master Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885) regarded Newcastle’s book as the most important one in equestrian literature.


Newcastle’s methods advocated the use of the cavesson with three rings attached to obtain lateral effects of the reins.  He also made use of the snaffle bit for the same purpose as well as for raising the horse’s head.  He was the first one to use reins either affixed to the saddle (later called “running or sliding reins”) or the girth (later called “draw reins”) and then passed through the cavesson rings back to the rider’s hands. Additionally, he advocated in the beginning of schooling the horse to substitute the action of the curb rein for that of the cavesson, then replacing the cavesson with the snaffle bit and finally using the curb bit alone.  He also believed in riding the horse outdoors, galloping and jumping, as did later la Gueriniere and earlier la Broue.  His purpose for using the advanced exercises in the manege was to concentrate the horse’s mind, supple him, and make him completely obedient in the field.  But, perhaps, his greatest (and most well-known) legacy was the innovation of the shoulder-in position, albeit on a circle; although he recognized that this exercise did put the horse on the shoulders and made him lean on the bit.  He performed the exercise by working the horse in diminishing circles using lateral aids at the walk, trot, and canter.  Additionally, he worked the hindquarters of the horse by moving him first on straight lines using diagonal aids to hold the quarters in (a sort of travers), and then worked him on a small circle around a pillar both in this position as well as a sort of renvers position.  The result of these two exercises being the complete suppling of the back as well as increasing the horse’s strength and balance.

Returning to Europe, we now come to a horseman who personifies the classical teachings of the “School of Versailles,” although he never was based there, and who heavily influenced the great Schools of Vienna (Austria), Saumur (France), and Hanover (Germany).  His name is Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere (1688-1757). His book Ecole de Cavalerie (School of Horsemanship) was first published in Paris in 1729 and went through several editions from 1729 through 1769, being translated in almost every European country in less than a century.  Even today, it remains the foundation document for all the work done at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  However, the real value of his writing lies in the fact that he preserved in an understandable form all that was good from the past while discarding all that was harsh and artificial. He admired both la Broue and Newcastle whom he referred to as real “connoisseurs” of the art of the manege but he also found much truth in the writings of his Greek, Italian, and French predecessors.  He ran his own riding academy for a while and was finally entrusted with running the Academie des Tuileries, near Paris, in 1730 which led to worldwide recognition within his lifetime.

La Gueriniere is best known for his work on the exercise focusing on the horse’s shoulders, called the shoulder-in, as well as the half-halt, but he also put great importance on longitudinal softening and suppling.  In his book, he acknowledges the Duke of Newcastle as the inventor of the shoulder-in by laying the groundwork for the exercise by performing it on a circle.  La Gueriniere developed it to its present form by doing it on straight lines along the perimeter of the school and through the corners. Both he and Newcastle did the exercise on four tracks, which is still practiced at the Spanish Riding School and The Portuguese School of Equestrian Art (in today’s dressage world it is performed on three tracks due to the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) rules which define a prescribed angle of roughly 30 degrees for the horse in executing the movement).  La Gueriniere also defined the role of the rein of opposition when working the horse into the outside hand with the inside leg.  Additionally, he fully developed the concept of descente de main et desjambes (“yielding of the hand and the legs”) meaning that the horse should not alter his head carriage or his speed by one iota once placed in ‘self-carriage’ with the hand and legs “giving,” which is one of the most important principles of the French school.  Further, he strived for the horse being easily collected, soft in the mouth, supple through the back and flexed in the hocks.  None of this progression would have been possible had not La Gueriniere contributed toward a more balanced position of the rider in the saddle because he recognized that the seat was the base of the rider’s position in the saddle.  He did this by making several improvements to the manege saddle by flattening the front of it, lowering the cantle portion and doing away with the high protective rolls which prevented the rider’s legs from being close to the horse.  By making these modifications the rider could now draw the leg further back with a slightly bent knee and therefore, with the lower leg closer to the horse’s sides, the aids could become more effective.  He was a true Ecuyer, meaning a recognized “Master of Equitation,” who continues to this day to inspire the world of classical horsemanship.

There were many followers and colleagues of La Gueriniere and one of the best remembered is Monsieur Louis Cazeau de Nestier (1684-1754) who became ecuyer to Louis XV.  He was a stern disciplinarian and was known as “The Grand Silencieux” (the

Grand Silent One) because he rarely spoke to anyone except the king.  He is still referred to today as being the standard for mastery of the teachings of the School of Versailles. He is credited with being the first to shorten the shank on bridle bits so they would have less leverage and the rider could do more with the hand without tilting the bit in the horse’s mouth.

So it becomes clear that the most important era in the development of equitation took place during a period of approximately three centuries (from the XVI to the XVIII centuries and a little bit into the XIX century) during which were developed the methods of schooling the horse that are the very foundation of the science and art of equitation as it exists today. Our present-day understanding of the essential principles of schooling is derived primarily from the discoveries and teachings of the great masters of that period. The focal point of this development was the French School.

While all of these innovations and developments were taking place in the civilian sector, the military was also learning of these advancements and then incorporating them into their own training academies. Every country in Europe had a military riding academy where highly selected officers were trained who would then return to their regiments as instructors to pass on what they had learned in order to make the cavalry regiments better prepared for battle. In particular, in France, during this period of time being presented, the military riding academy at Saumur must be acknowledged for its continuance of the ideas developed in what has become known as the French School. In 1763, following France’s defeat in the Seven Years War (a world war that took place between 1754 and 1763), Louis XV entrusted the Duke of Choiseul with the reorganization of the French cavalry. The Duke set up a school at Saumur for officers from all the cavalry regiments (at this time there were also other cavalry training schools operating in France) and because of the quality of training conducted in this School of Cavalry at Saumur, it became the premier academy to the extent that by 1771 all the other schools were closed. For some seventeen years (up to the time of the French Revolution in 1789) this school taught in the traditions of de Pluvinel, de la Braue, de la Guerinierc and the “School of Versailles” and was visited by many foreign dignitaries. It was closed in 1788 because of the beginning of the French Revolution. It was reopened in 1815 by Louis XVIII and was called “The Imperial School of the Cavalry at Saumur.” At this time, the school’s mission became twofold: to provide academic instruction to officers whose equestrian aims were both military and academic, and to furnish instructors to provide training for the cavalry.

It was these instructors who became known as the Cadre Noir. From 1830, with the closing of the “School of Versailles,” Saumur became the sole repository of the French equestrian tradition. In 1946 the French cavalry and armored troops merged to form an armored training school with the cavalry as a subordinate branch.  The Cadre Noir was later incorporated into the French National School of Equitation.

So as can be seen from this brief historical overview, all the ingredients that went into the training and development of the horse and the riding style involved – whether for war, work, pleasure, or competition – are still with us today in our schooling of the horse regardless of the discipline we choose to pursue.