Iberian Peninsula Horsemanship, the Myth of the Moors’ Influence on Riding and the California Vaquero-style Bridle Horse

Background Information

When Hernando Cortés set sail from Cuba, which the Spanish had conquered in 1515, and landed in Mexico on March 4, 1519, he led  500-600 foot soldiers, a number of slaves, and sixteen lancer-armed horsemen. After a tough two-year campaign and with added reinforcements, he defeated the Aztec king, Montezuma, and entered the capital city of Tenachtitlan (now Mexico City) with around one thousand infantry and eighty-six lancer horsemen. For the next three hundred years, until 1821, Mexico was under the rule of Spain.

As the Spanish spread throughout Mexico they continued to import cattle and establish horse stud farms so that by 1550 Mexico was already known as prime horse country. Many of these Conquistadors, as Cortés’s army was called, became wealthy men and established huge haciendas with thousands of cattle grazing on the land. They also brought with them to the New World, among other things, their traditions, equipment, different styles of riding, and ways of training horses which were gradually passed on to the native inhabitants over the years and who subsequently modified the horse equipment and developed more efficient ways to manage and control the vast herds of livestock. These men became known as vaqueros.

But, one might ask, what was the origin of their style of riding and training?  For the answer to that question, we must go back in history.

Iberian Horsemanship and the Myth of the Moors’ Influence on Riding

As it was with other cultures in the world that developed different styles of riding and horsemanship techniques depending on the type of horse available, the geography of the country traveled, the intended use of the horse, such as for war, livestock tending, sport, etc. and which became traditional over time, so it was with the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula (today comprising the countries of Spain and Portugal).

However, on occasion an article appears that purports that when the Moors, who, by the way, were not a distinct or self-defined people but were rather of mixed Arab, Spanish, and Amazigh (Berber) origins invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 they introduced a style of riding to the inhabitants called la jinete (in Spanish) and la ginete (in Portuguese).

The term is possibly a corruption of “Zenata”, a Berber tribe in North Africa famed for its cavalry. It is loosely translated as “with legs tucked up” as well as ‘horseman”. 

The position of the la jinete rider is with the leg angle bent at about 90 degrees at the knee on a short stirrup, body slightly forward but in a balanced seat (similar to the position used by polo players and jumpers).  Originally, a military term, it referred to a type of light cavalryman or horseman armed with a javelin, sword, and a shield who was proficient at skirmishing and rapid maneuver. When these cavalrymen were formed into military units they were called Jinetes. This designation is probably based upon the fact that the type of horse that they rode was small in stature, much like the Spanish jennet or Spanish barb, with a smooth gait and quick movements. These attributes were ideally suited for the requirements of a light cavalry force. That’s all that the term means, nothing more. 

History of la Jinete Style Riding

The fact of the matter is that the la jinete style of riding was known and practiced by the indigenous peoples of the region called Andalusia (an autonomous community in southern Spain with eight provinces) since the time of the Carthaginian occupation (264-149BC). The style was used in the hunting of wild bulls in the forests and mountains of that part of the country while carrying the garrocha (a stout pole about fourteen feet long). 

Additionally, javelin throwing, an ancient military sport and fighting tactic dating back to pre-Roman times, was popular as a game of skill on horseback. It involved tremendous acceleration over a short distance, followed by a quick stop to launch the javelin that gave impetus to its flight, and then make a fast turnaround to prevent the rider from being spiked himself in return. Another activity in preparation for individual combat (later for sport) was fencing from horseback. In turning again and again for the attack or defense, the horse had to be trained and ridden to obtain a remarkable degree of anticipation and reaction; halting from the canter, canter depart from the halt, cantering in place, reining back and then swiftly moving forward, performing the half-turn, side-step as well as demonstrating speed control within each gait. And, last but not least, the art of bullfighting from horseback in the ring was a popular past-time. This type of bullfighting originated on the island of Crete in 3000 BC. The fast turns, the rapid movements forward and back to entice and lure the bull, the swift sideward escape and other movements needed by the horse, coupled with the need to stay with the horse through these moves dictated the use of a balanced seat.

So, it should become obvious that the la jinete style of riding was common on the Iberian Peninsula long before the arrival of the Moors.

Other Riding Styles on the Iberian Peninsula

This is not to say that there wasn’t exposure to other riding styles that were brought to the Iberian Peninsula during the Moors’ occupation from 711 to 1492. By the way, and as an aside, the Moors might have invaded and occupied the Peninsula, but they never entirely took it over. 

Actually, the Moors did not even defeat the Spaniards in battle, because, in those days, the king led his army into battle and if the king was killed (as was the case in the Moors’ invasion) then his entire army surrendered and thus, in a sense, the Moors “won”. However, the entire northern tier of the country remained in Christian hands whence came the start of the Reconquista [the retaking of the country from the Moors]. By the way, the Portuguese ousted the Moors in 1249, some 250 years prior to the Spanish doing so.

When the English or Norman Crusader knights (the Crusades lasting from 1095 to 1291), called at the ports of Lisbon or Cadiz on their way to the Holy Land, they rode in a style which later came to be called la bride, meaning “riding from the hand”. La bride does not mean “to brace” or “to brake”. In this style, the Crusader knights rode with their legs held straight with no bend in the knees, thrust forward in narrow stirrups and with their body leaning back against the cantle of the saddle. This style is similar to the position used by some Western pleasure riders and it can also be seen in some old-time pictures of western cowboys as well by riders of gaited horses in Central and South America.

This la bride style of riding came into being at a point in history when weaponry on the battlefield, especially in northern Europe, was changing, e.g., English longbows, crossbows, and firearms were becoming more common resulting in increasing amounts of plate armor vice chainmail being worn by the mounted knights, which reduced their flexibility a great deal. This, in turn, caused a change in the makeup of the lances used to disable an enemy as well as changes to the configuration of the saddle used – lower cantle, two girths, narrow stirrups hung forward of the center of the saddle, etc. With heavier armor for the rider, and, at times,  also for the horse,  plus carrying more weaponry (lance, lance holder, shield, sword, etc.), it also became necessary to ride with bits that provided more leverage. Some shanks were 15 inches in length with a chinstrap of chain and had harsh mouthpieces to control the horse. Thus the term la bride. It is interesting to note that for a time during the early Renaissance period, this style became prevalent in northern Europe, especially at court among the nobility, until Frederico Grisone, who opened the first civilian riding school to be recognized outside of Italy in 1532, modified it by introducing the la estradiota style with more bend in the knee (about 110 degrees) thus allowing for use of the leg in cueing the horse.

However; in southern Spain the Catholic monks opposed the la estradiota style of riding, proclaiming that the la jinete style of old as being the only true form of horsemanship. The monks even threatened to excommunicate even those who rode in the la bride style.

Differences in Riding Styles Regarding the Military

To get a better understanding of how the different styles of riding were used in warfare let’s take a brief look at the Second Italian war (1499-1504) which was fought over control of the Italian city states primarily between Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon in Spain (sometimes referred to as Ferdinand the Catholic, an honorific title given to him by Pope Alexander VI in 1496). French forces outnumbered the Spaniards in terms of total forces and had large numbers of heavy cavalry, riding la bride style. The Spaniards had only light cavalry, riding la jinete style (note: light cavalry were principally  employed for reconnaissance, harassing, and skirmishing, NOT frontal heavy cavalry charges), BUT the Spanish forces were armed with a new weapon called  an arquebus – a forerunner of today’s rifle.

In the final battle of the war, the French made four futile heavy cavalry frontal charges against the Spanish fortifications. The Spaniards using the arquebus to great effect forced the French to retire from the battlefield. ONLY THEN did the Spanish light cavalry get into action by harassing the retreating French forces. They DID NOT defeat the French cavalry as is sometimes presented. It was possibly the first war that was decided by the use of firearms.

So the French, heavily armored and riding relatively heavy horses (for that time in history) and riding la bride style could mainly move only forward or retreat in straight lines, while the Spanish light cavalry, riding la jinete style on quicker moving and lighter horses, could swiftly move in all directions and in short fashion, using ‘hit and run’ tactics, cut down the retreating French cavalry.

Changing Times and Riding Styles

During these changing times, labeled by historians as the Renaissance period (translated as “rebirth”) when all things in the royal courts, such as music, singing, dancing, painting sword fighting as well as horsemanship were taken to an art form and with everything in a state of flux, yet another style of riding came into being. As previously mentioned, the first civilian riding school to be properly recognized outside Italy was opened in 1532 in Naples, Italy by Frederico Grisone (16th century). His school became known as the Neapolitan School. Grisone had his students ride in a hybrid style variously called la estradiota or la bastarda (meaning “straddling”) where the position of the rider had the knees slightly bent with the heels carried straight down and placed under the hips, thus allowing him to sit in a more balanced position or “la jinete balance”. The difference between the la jinete seat and the la estradiota seat could merely be the degree to which the legs were bent; however, this position allowed for better balance, more upright carriage of the upper body, and permitted more use of the legs for cueing the horse (similar to a rider’s position when riding dressage or a Western stock horse).

Additionally, and as a matter of historical equestrian interest, even before Grisone’s time, in 1438 King Duarte I of Portugal, a man well ahead of his time, wrote a book, The Art of Riding in Every Saddle, in which he discusses, among a multitude of horsemanship topics, the saddles used at that time and the riding style necessary to sit in them, i.e., with legs extended straight (la bride style) or with legs flexed (la jinete/la estradiota style), depending on the task to be performed.

So, as in all matters of art, science, and religion as well as the world of the horse, nothing can ever be ‘stove-piped’. Thus it cannot be denied that, with the constant movement of peoples and ideas over time across the continent of Europe, there would not be opportunities to occur for the ‘blending’ of riding styles and the different methods of training horses.

The California Vaquero-style Bridle Horse

Therefore, when Cortés came to Mexico with his small force it can be reasoned that they would be familiar with the riding styles of la jinete, la bride, as well as la estradiota/ la bastarda and so it reasonably can be assumed that they would have used whatever style was dictated by the task at hand, i.e., riding with armor and lances – la bride/la estradiota or riding with swords and pistols – la jinete/la estradiota. [books are available in which there are facsimile tracings verifying all this] or working their increasingly large herds of cattle that continued to increase in number.

Over time, these different riding styles along with their horse training techniques were passed down to the native population as they began to be the ones who tended the vast herds of cattle on the haciendas. They subsequently were absorbed by the American buckaroo (an americanized version of the word vaquero) who continued to add refinements to the process which ultimately produced the California Vaquero-style bridle horse that is so admired the world over for its grace, beauty, responsiveness, and athletic ability.

It should also seem obvious from all of the foregoing that the original Conquistadors were well established in the Iberian tenets of the various styles of riding and horse training techniques before they arrived in the New World. And so, it becomes clear that the major influences that eventually led to the development of the California Vaquero-style bridle horse emanated from the southern part of the European continent in the countries of what are now Spain and Portugal.

There is no evidence to believe that there was a French influence in the process, as a reading of the development of educated horsemanship clearly indicates that the emergence of more refined riding and training of the horse, after a hiatus of over 2000 years from the time of Xenephon (427-355 BC), formally commenced in Italy when Grisone opened his riding school in 1532 and published his book in 1550. The flow of knowledge-seekers went from north to south as he, as well as other riding masters of the time, had students traveling south to that country from France and Germany to learn from the Italian masters before returning to their native countries to eventually open up their own riding schools and continue to build on the knowledge they acquired.

Summary

This brief glimpse at history reveals that the horsemen and warriors of the Iberian Peninsula were familiar with and practiced the different riding styles of la jinete, la bride, and la estrodiota long before Cortes arrived in Mexico. When he did go he took with him these riding styles.

It should also be evident that the establishment of the French influence on horsemanship in Europe did not even begin to emerge until many, many years later – after the Spaniards were firmly settled in Mexico.

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