A Set of Simple Rules for a Lady Rider

Ever wondered what’s the correct way of going for a ride? Here is a short and simple set of do’s and don’ts for a lady and her companion.

In a nutshell, a lady should look elegant, but not too flashy. and a gentleman should bring his purse – you will see why.

Here are some basic guidelines from The Rules of social life and etiquette. Good manners, coll. By Juryev and Vladimirsky. St. Petersburg, 1889, 235-6:

Riding in the company of a noble person or your superior, you should keep on his left, trying to avoid overtaking him.

A lady who mounts a horse should be dressed following the latest fashion – but she should never exaggerate the fashion or put on a fantastic dress, because a lady who is dressed too brightly or too pretentiously risks looking like a circus rider.

A habit that is too long is very dangerous.

When mounting, gather the habit with your left hand, stand as close to the horse as you can, facing its head, and put the right hand on the saddle head. The man who helps you to mount holds his right hand at a certain distance from the land. Put your left foot on his hand and jump on the horse at the very moment when he lifts you.

Do not rise too high in the saddle, nor lie on the horse’s neck, nor hold the reins in both hands.

Young ladies should not ride without a companion.

The gentleman in whose presence the lady wishes to mount a horse should put out the palm of the hand so that the lady could put her foot on it. When the lady jumps in the saddle, the gentleman must help her with the pressure of his hand. For this purpose it is best to agree on a signal, for instance, counting “one, two, three,” so that the pressure of the gentleman’s hand and the lady’s jump would coincide with the word “three”… The gentleman should not press too strongly with his hand, as it may happen that the lady will fly over the saddle, especially if she is tiny and very light.

When the lady has mounted, the gentleman should help her find the stirrup and place her left foot in it. When this is done, and the lady sits upright, he must adjust her habit.

The presence of a groom or riding master does not release a polite gentleman from all these obligations concerning his female companion, just as the presence of a footman in the room does not release the gentleman of the becoming service of offering the lady a chair without leaving this to a footman.

A gentleman who rides in the company of a lady covers all expenses they may have on the way.

If they are faced with the need of opening the gates, a gentleman should undertake this labour and hold the gates open until the lady rides through.

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Are you afraid of… living a life?

Over the last six years of my life, I have been working with horses. Not for money, just for the fun of it. And what fun it was. In driving rain and freezing cold, knee-deep in mud or covered in sand and dust… I have probably spent two thirds of my waking time with horses.

Many of these horses have been described by people – often including their owners and trainers – as being hard cases, crazy, nervous, stubborn, bloody-minded, unsteady, even hopeless cases. I described them – sounding, in my own ears, much like Hagrid – as being sweat-hearted, calm, noble-minded, talented and easy-going little things. And I meant every word of it. Deep in their hearts, these monsters were. They had been sometimes hard hit by life, often inexperienced, mostly scared and/or mistreated by humans, who were not abusive, but simply well-meaning.

But…

The hard truth of it, working with horses is a risky business. Over these years, I had stitches in a few places in my head, a few concussions, a couple of broken helmets – lucky I had those helmets! And a few other minor accidents and scratches too trifling to remember. Like this time last summer when a young and unmannered – but well-meaning, sweat-hearted and talented – young guy dragged me along an unplastered wall of foam blocks. I did not let go. I ended up with my right arm dripping with blood from the elbow to the wrist – and I still have those scars – but this guy learned his lesson. And we became best friends.

Lioni, the first horse I have broken in on my own

Or this innocent-looking guy in the picture, Lioni. He cost me a helmet during our third or fourth training. And quite a few bruises all over my body, as he tried to kick his fallen rider for dear life. I am wearing gloves in this picture, something I don’t really like doing when working with horses, but this four-year-old gelding would jump at the slightest disturbance and try to run as if chased by a pack of tigers. Not only had he burnt my fingers badly quite a few times, but he had also dragged me over stones more than once. There were quite a few accidents later on in our life, before he settled down to be a steady, serene horse owned by a young amateur rider. Actually, his owner gave him as present to her grand-daughter, because he was not only talented, but also reliable!

Now, we live in the times of Corona, and we are taught to be afraid. To be afraid of something you can’t see, can’t hear and can’t smell. But also to be afraid and distrustful of your friends, neighbours and relatives, who may be unwitting bearers of the virus… To see any stranger without a mask as a threat and a personal enemy, who is plotting against you.

Since last spring, I have lost count of emails that ended with “stay safe” instead of “good bye”. Safe is the keyword. Repeat it to someone who works with hooved creatures with a mind of their won and weighing half a ton or more, who can land you in intensive therapy any day. Yes, we learn to read horses. But we also make mistakes.

The risk is always there, even with the safest horse you have known for a decade or more. But… you learn to live with this fear, which motivates you to be more attentive to your equine partner and friend.
Now, what about Covid? I don’t mean it’s not real. It is. If I catch one, I have good chances ending up in intensive therapy, and I know that, because of chronic health problems, I am in the risk group. But I also know that fear kills. It kills with more certainty than the hooves of a scared horse. And I refuse to live with fear. I refuse to “stay safe” when it comes to things that are important for me. Bugger shopping and hairdressers, about which I never cared even in Covid-free times, but give me friendship and the possibility to meet people I want to meet. To meet them for real, not on screen. To shake hands, to exchange jokes over beer, to laugh and to brag. And I don’t care if anyone one of them is asymptomatic.

Do you want to live a life? If you do, like this blog and share it with your friends. And feel free to do what you feel is important for you. I don’t say “throw a party” if you are not a party animal, but don’t be afraid of having one if you feel you and your friend need it. Go to that dratted hairdresser if you need one. Go to a training if that’s what makes you feel alive. Don’t hole up! No one has ever saved the world by hiding as a snail in one’s little “safe” house.

If you don’t want to live, but want to “stay safe” – as if “safety” ever existed – forget about what I wrote. Forget about riding horses. Forget about flying in airplanes or driving cars. Stay safe. Hole up… And… forget about ever living and dreaming.

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The Tale of Ruffe

This is a Russian folktale about fishes acting in a suspiciously familiar, human-like way.

The tale was kindly translated by Edgar Rops. Read and enjoy!

Fish
British Library, Royal 2 B VII  f. 143  – Fish

Ruffe, busybody of a fish, piled his belongings onto a cart and drove from river Kama to river Tross, from river Tross to lake Kubino, from lake Kubino to lake Rostov, where he asked to stay for a day. After that day for three more days, after those days for three weeks, after those weeks for three months, and after that lived for three years. In the fourth year he began walking along the lake bottom, fencing it off, making all fish big and small his serfs and tenants. So all the fish big and small came together in council, elected the judge – Catfish with his whiskers long. 

So, Catfish summoned Ruffe and asked: tell me, Ruffe, my good man, by what right have you taken possession of our lake? 

Well, replied Ruffe, I did so because your lake has caught fire on St. Peters’ day and was ablaze until St. Elijahs’ day. 

Never, said Catfish, was there a fire in our lake! Can you prove it? Do you have witnesses, writs from Moscow, charters under seal? 

Sure, said Ruffe, I have witnesses, writs from Moscow, and charters under seal. Roach was at that fire, helped carry the embers, they scorched her eyes and her eyes are red to this very day! 

So, Dace the bailiff, Crucian the hangman, two scores of small fish – jurors and messengers – went to fetch the roach, saying: Roach, good woman, his honour Catfish with his whiskers long summons you to his court. 

Roach came and Catfish asked her: tell me, was our lake Rostov ablaze between St. Peters’ and St. Elijahs’ day? 

No, said Roach, never was our lake ablaze.

You see, Ruffe, said Catfish, Roach accused you to your face! 

Upon hearing that, Roach added: he who deals with Ruffe, supps without bread! 

Ruffe despairs not, trusts in God, says: but I have witnesses, writs from Moscow, charters under seal! Perch was at that fire, helped to carry the embers, burned his fins, which are red to this very day! 

So, Dace the bailiff, Crucian the hangman, two scores of small fish – jurors and messengers – went to fetch the perch, saying: Perch, good man, his honour Catfish with his whiskers long summons you to his court.

Perch came and Catfish asked: tell me, was our lake Rostov ablaze between St. Peters’ and St. Elijahs’ day? 

No, said Perch, never was our lake ablaze and he who deals with Ruffe, supps without bread! 

Ruffe despairs not, trusts in God, says: but I have witnesses, writs from Moscow, charters under seal! Pike, who is known as an honest and diligent widow, will tell you the whole truth, for she was at that fire, helped to clear burned timbers, got covered in ashes, so that her back is black to this very day. 

So, Dace the bailiff, Crucian the hangman, two scores of small fish – jurors and messengers – went to fetch the pike, saying: Pike, good widow, his honour Catfish with his whiskers long summons you to his court. 

Pike came and Catfish asked: Pike, you are known as an honest and diligent widow, so tell me, was our lake Rostov ablaze between St. Peters’ and St. Elijahs’ day? 

No, said Pike, never was our lake ablaze and he who deals with Ruffe, supps without bread! 

Ruffe despairs not, trusts in God, says: but I have witnesses, writs from Moscow, charters under seal! Burbot was at that fire, helped to clear burned timbers, got covered in ashes, so that his back is black to this very day.

So, Dace the bailiff, Crucian the hangman, two scores of small fish – jurors and messengers – went to fetch the pike, saying: Burbot, good man, his honour catfish with his whiskers long summons you to his court.  

Burbot said: oh, friends I have never been to court, never stood before judges. My back is too stiff to bow courteously, my lips too fat speak eloquently. Take this gold ruble for your trouble and go in peace. 

Thus all fish big and small found Ruffe guilty and tied him to a post. But through his prayers, God sent rain and mud and Ruffe slipped away, went from lake Rostov to lake Kubinka, from there to river Tross and from river Tross to river Kama. There he saw Pike and Sturgeon swimming together and shouted: “Where do you think you are going?” 

Some fishermen heard his squeaky voice and cast their nets to catch the Ruffe, busybody of a fish.

Boris threw Ruffe into the boat, then Peter put Ruffe into a basket saying “let’s have fish soup for dinner”. And this was the end of Ruffe. 

Notes:

  • St. Peter’s day: July 12 (Gregorian);
  • St. Elijah’s day: August 2 (Gregorian). 

Fish mentioned in the tale:

  • Ruffe, busybody if a fish – Eurasian ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua);
  • Catfish with his whiskers long – Wels catfish (Silurus glanis);
  • Roach – European roach (Rutilus rutilus);
  • Dace the bailiff – common dace (Leuciscus leuciscus);
  • Crucian the hangman – Crucian carp (Carassius carassius);
  • Perch – European perch (Perca fluviatilis);
  • Pike, honest and diligent widow – Northern pike (Esox lucius);
  • Burbot – Lota lota
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The art of being a good horseman

In mid-seventeenth century, an English courtier, a Renaissance man, writes a treatise on horsemanship, in the preface to which he says ‘… no art in the world is as hard to learn as that of being a good horseman’ (‘… il n’y aucun Art dans le monde si difficile à apprendre, comme à être parfait homme de cheval.’).

Does it sound familiar? Would you be tempted to dismiss these words as a mere boast of a master about his art?

Having been riding horses for the last twenty years, I tend to think the English courtier was quite right. No other art, be it what we understand as arts these days – visual arts, music, theatre – or the arts in the seventeenth-century sense of the word, which would include the art of fencing, or even the art of leading war, is as hard to master. Why? Because it’s not just a battle of a human against his or her natural limitations. And it is more than the coordinated teamwork, or antagonism, between humans. It is a union – or antagonism – between a human and a non-human animal. Between me and another – another being, who has very different ideas, aspirations and reactions. Another being, totally incomprehensible. An Other, in the most complete sense of the word.

Did the Englishman, the first Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish, think about this when he was writing his treatise?

He certainly viewed the relationship between the rider and the horse in a different way than many, if not most riders, do today. To him, a horse was a man’s necessary attribute, but his inferior.

‘…l’homme ne paroist jamais tant homme comme sur un beau cheval.’

‘…a man never appears a man so much as on a beautiful horse.’

William Cavendish. La methode et inuention nouuelle de dresser les cheuaux

Citing these words in the twenty-first century has a certain irony, as beautiful horses are the attribute of grown-up pony-girls and a handful of professional male equestrian. A man is judged for his manliness in driving a car or a motorbike. But then a sports car or a motorbike has no agency of its own. There is no confrontation between Me and an Other, as all you need is a certain skill set, which is applicable to any individual Object of a given class. Driving a BMW of a given model is always roughly the same, if the car is in good order. But what about horses?

Actually, Cavendish’s approach is strictly utalitarian in this respect, too. A good horseman can do well on any horse, even on a less than excellent one, while a bad horseman has no advantage in riding a good horse. On the contrary, a bad horseman will appear even worse if given a fine mount, because, as a fine mechanism, a well-trained horse requires a precise agent to activate its movement. It is very much like a sports car, which makes a bad driver appear ridiculous and can be even dangerous to drive. Good horses need good riders to appear at their best.

‘Among the two evils, a good horseman on an average horse is worth more than a bad horseman on a good horse; because a good horseman appears reasonably well on an average horse, while a bad horseman does not know how to ride a well-trained horse, because this horse is directed by the slightest movement, and the rider’s ignorance leads to the horse making mistakes and incorrect movements, which makes it appear worse than an ill-trained horse. Which is why the better a horse is trained, the more necessary it is to ride it with art and knowledge; because it responds to all movements. Although I admit that a good horse does much, yet a good horseman does as much: so much so that a good horseman mounted on a good horse has sufficient advantages.’

‘De ces deux maux, un bon homme de cheval sur un cheval mediocre vaut mieux qu’un méchant homme de cheval sur un bon cheval ; car un bon homme de cheval paroit raisonnablement bien sur un cheval mediocre, au lieu qu’u méchat homme de cheval ne sauroit rien faire sur un cheval dressé, parce que le moindre mouvement luy commande, & l’ignorance du Cavalier luy donne tant de contre-temps & des faux mouvements, qu’il le rend pire qu’un qui plus mal-dressé. C’est pourquoy tant plus un cheval est bien dressé, tant plus est il nécessaire de le monter avec art, & connoissance ; parce qu’il est sensible à tout mouvement. Quoy que je confesse qu’un bon cheval fasse beaucoup, toute-fois un bon homme de cheval fait autant : de sorte qu’un bon homme de cheval, sur un bon cheval, a de l’avantage assés.’

These words come in the dedicatory preface, where Cavendish addresses the King of England, explaining him the importance of having accomplished riders at the court. At first, I was tempted to dismiss these words by ascribing what Cavendish says by the need to promote his treatise. Because I have a deep respect for well-trained, experienced horses, who, indeed, have taught me more than a riding instructor ever could. But then, I thought about my experience of seeing horse owners who buy a well-trained, hot-blooded horse which is clearly above their level of horsemanship, suffering injuries at worst – or bad frights at best, and then being afraid to ride their good horses. I thought of the horses who came to be re-sold – and traumatized by the experience – and of amateur riders, who, perhaps, would never want to ride again… And Cavendish’s words began to take a new appearance to me.

I am not by any means an expert rider, and I probaly made many a good horse appear to have been worse trained than it really was. And yet, Cavendish was not prejudiced when he said a good horse needs a good rider. Indeed, a good horse needs a good rider even more than a good rider needs a good horse. Because horses can be trained by good riders, but it would be unjust to expect a well-trained horse to act as teacher as well as a companion. Horses are supremely intelligent, sensitive, kind-hearted and generous beings, and yet… It is humans who want to ride them. A horse has no inherent desire – or need – to be ridden, even though it can view the process of being ridden as a pleasurable and fulfilling activity. If we want to ride horses, it is our duty to try and master the hardest art of all, the art of horsemanship. And, first and foremost, never assume to be a master in this art, choosing a horse above one’s level of skill. But, if you do, be humble and accept the insruction it gives, including the falls and the injuries, which are all part of the learning curve…

Source:

William Cavendish. La methode et inuention nouuelle de dresser les cheuaux par le tres-noble, haut, et tres-puissant prince Guillaume marquis et comte de Newcastle. 1658

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Summary of Horse History Meeting, 7 July 2020, held during vIMC 2020

watering horses before tournament, London, British Library, MS Additional 122228, fol. 150r

For the last five years, equestrian history sessions have had their presence during the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. Over the course of these years, fascinating projects were discussed and initiated. The recently published volume The Horse in Premodern European Culture is largely based on the papers presented at IMC 2016 and 2017. Likewise, in 2019 a book series was launched, dedicated exclusively to the history of horses and horsemanship, Rewriting Equestrian History, published by Trivent Medieval. My own book, Practical Horsemanship in Medieval Arthurian Romance (2019), which started the series, is to a considerable extent based on the material I presented at the IMC. One of the less direct outcomes is the establishment of the Equine History Collective, whose founder, Kathryn Boniface, was among our speakers in 2016.


The situation with Covid-19 has unfortunately affected our possibility to meet in person and discuss our work and plans over a cup of coffee or a pint of the IMC ale. Some of the authors had to withdraw their papers, and our ability to socialize in person was restricted, too. Skype call is a poour substitute to an informal chat, but we did our best, and it was certainly well attended, with about 50 people joining the call from all over the world.

Below is the summary of our informal discussion.

Theme for horse history meeting at IMC 2021:

The main strain of IMC 2021, so it was decided we can join this theme. We can include the widest understanding of climates, including literary and political climates, etc.

The theme for the Round Table was voted to be breeding

It was also suggested that the next and future IMCs could incorporate horse-related fringe events, both involving real horses and more theoretical ones.

  • In particular, it was suggested that a demonstration/spectator event could take place either at the Royal Armouries, which have a tilt yard, or the Harrogate Riding Centre, which rents out its arena for events. Jurg and Jack Gassmans volunteered to bring two horses, and they also have insurance for performances with horses. Anastasija Ropa has contacted the IMC with initial enquiry, and, if they agree to consider such event in principle, Emma Herbert-Davies promised to contact the Royal Armouries and the Harrogate Riding Centre with further enquiries.
  • Hylke Hettema suggested a visit to the horse and donkey sanctuary near Leeds, which can be a nice informal excursion before/ during/ after the IMC. I am not sure we need to contact the IMC to make it an organized event, a group of us can just do an informal visit, if there are enough people interested.
  • For events/workshops not involving real horses, it was suggested to hold a meeting where practitioners could share videos where they work with their horses, and these can be discussed during the meeting.
  • Another possibility is a workshop about making armour for horses, saddles, how to measure your horse, how to construct saddles, possibly also about bits and bit work and measurements.
  • Another idea for a workshop is the complexities of depiction vs. ‘reality’ of medieval horsemanship in manuscript illustrations and other depictions

Future conferences

An online conference Historical Practices in Horsemanship and Equestrian Sports will take place on 24-27 August, organized by Anastasija Ropa and Timothy Dawson and hosted by the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. The registration will open in late July / early August.

It was agreed that it would be useful to hold a regular annual/biannual horse history conference in Europe (for those researchers who would find it difficult to attend the Equine History Conference in the USA, for more information see their website https://equinehistory.wpcomstaging.com). Again, Emma Herbert-Davies, who is a student at the University of Leeds, offered to contact the university if the next conference is to be organized in Leeds. This would be distinct from the IMC, and it can potentially encompass other historical period (antiquity, early modern, maybe even modern). Participation in such an event can be cheaper, and it can incorporate practical equestrian activities, with excursion(s) to stables, or with some participants bringing their own horses, depending on the hosting institution and facilities available. Anastasija Ropa suggests she can explore the possibility of organizing such a conference in future, either at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education (in which case the focus will be on historical equestrian sports) or elsewhere in Latvia. It is possible to organize such a conference elsewhere in Europe, too, e.g., in France.

If possible, the preferred format would be a non-virtual conference, but hybrid or virtual formats can be considered, depending on the world situation.

There was also a suggestion that horse history papers presented at IMC 2020 can be shared in some format to those who could not attend the IMC sessions. The papers can be shared via Google Drive, social media, or they can be gathered as podcasts/videos, with a link shared on the page of the Re-writing Equestrian History series. It depends on what the speakers will agree to do.

Publication information

During the call, the following publications were mentioned:

The Horse in Premodern European Culture, edited by Anastasija Ropa and Timothy Dawson, 2020, https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/558197

Current and planned publications in Rewriting Equestrian History Series: for the publications and outstanding calls for papers, see https://trivent-publishing.eu/39-rewriting-equestrian-history.

Anastasija Ropa and Timothy Dawson are currently editing a volume that includes contributions presented at IMC 2018, which was commissioned by Brill.

For further information about the above, pm Anastasija Ropa

Varia:

There was a lively discussion of early horse training practices and horse equipment, saddles and bits.

Jurg Gassmann shared an interesting example of grooms watering horses which they ride bareback and in snaffles/halters: Before the Tournament, http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_12228_fs001r, Folio f.150r

Karen Campbell shared information about a Facebook group, Horses: Proper Bits and Bitting Techniques, which does bitting demonstrations using a horse skeleton and tongue to demonstrate different bit and bridle pressures.

John Clark describes the use of a hinged curb bit replica during an episode of the TV show Time Team in his chapter in The Horse in Premodern European Culture – for further information, you would need to go to the chapter itself.

Arne Koets and Diana Krischke have reconstructed and experimented with a good few historical bits and saddles, and there is also a FB group “Medieval Horse Equipment 1100-1530”.

We also discussed historical techniques of horse breaking, with Rufus starting horses in a bridle with no saddle, while 16-17 c. authors recommend a saddle and cavesson. Today, horses are started in bridle and saddle, though in some disciplines horses are started in a halter and breaking pad (reference by Karen Campbell).

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Horses in Medieval India: Imports and local breeding

In his travels, Marco Polo notes one peculiarity of India, and this is related to horse breeding in the country:

another strange thing to be told is that there is no possibility of breeding horses in this country, as hath often been proved by trial. For even when a great blood-mare here has been covered by a great blood-horse, the produce is nothing but a wretched wry-legged weed, not fit to ride.[1]

While this note may be one of Marco Polo’s ways of highlighting the exoticism of this far-away land, research by twentieth-century scholars tended to stress the region’s reliance on horse imports from Persia and Arabia. Indeed, a number of studies have accumulated evidence of horse trade in medieval India from the twelfth century onwards. Simon Digby, in his influential War-horse and Elephant, says as much, and the assumption has gone largely unquestioned since.[2] Irfan Habib is careful in stating that “better horses for cavalry use were largely imported,” but he goes on state that “India was not a country where good horses could be bred, or good-breeds, once imported, protected from decay.”[3] On the other hand, Nazer Aziz Anjum claimed that while “north India got horses through inland as well as oceanic routes, south India mostly depended on the ocean.”[4]


Thus, it has been widely accepted as a fact that medieval and early modern India relied on horse import from the distant Arabic peninsula, Persia and Iran, without inquiring into the reasons and rationale for importing apparently huge quantities of horses via sea routes, a process that must have been complicated, expensive, and prone to lead to the waste of a considerable number of horses. Even today, horses do not always fare well during sea voyages: they can suffer injuries to their limbs, be weakened due to sea sickness, inferior quality of feed and water, succumb to infectious disease or colic. Thus, a wholesale import of horses would have been a very expensive business, making the horse an elite animal, accessible only to the wealthiest and most noble members of the Indian society.

The import of horses by land into the north of India would have been an equally complicated and expensive affair. The so-called “Khorasan-India Road” connected “the Silk and the Fur Roads to the maritime Spice Route,” and was approximately 730 km long.[5] Khorasan was a region in Iran, famous for its horses. The road was long, and, although it had pastures and studs on the way, it would take a long time to transport the horses along this route. In reality, the Khorasan-India road was used to import horses not only from Khorasan but also from other regions in Asia, including Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, etc. Ali Bahrani Pour claims that, “according to their breed and use, horses had been sorted out into four main categories: warhorses (Turkish, Qipchaq tribes’ breed of Cumania), horses for routine riding (from the Badgheis region), racehorses (Arabians), and ceremonial horses (a pure Arabian breed).”[6] Still, it the appellation of Arabians is clearly anachronistic, as the concept of the breed did not exist in the medieval period, neither was the Arabian breed consolidated as such at that point. It is also hard to see how the distinction would be applied consistently throughout the period considered by Pour (13th to 17th centuries).

Much of the evidence for horse trade in India comes from writings by foreign travelers, such as Marco Polo in the twelfth century, or the fourteenth-century Arabic writer Ibn Battuta.[7] The latter notes, for instance, that the best warhorses were imported by sea from the regions of Yemen, Oman and Fars. However, other medieval Arabic authors confirm that horses were used for transport, albeit it seems that these were the less elite, locally bred specimen, called tattu.[8]

In fact, there is no lack of evidence both from the later medieval and the early modern periods that there existed a range of local breeds in India. Many of these local breeds were praised by the authors for their hardiness and endurance, although implicitly they were inferior to the imported horses. In the case of one breed, the legend has it that it originated from a number of horses from Arabia, which came from a shipwrecked ship and multiplied. This account, tracing the descent of a local breed to a limited number of imported (and implicitly superior) ancestors is not unique to India. The English Thoroughbred traces its descent to three Arabian sires, although recently the role of indigenous British horses in the formation of the breed has been reevaluated, especially with the help of the DNA analysis. No such work has been recently conducted for Indian indigenous breeds, so the proportion of imported blood from Arabian and Persian sires remains to be determined.

What these references to local breeds show, however, is that, contrary to Marco Polo’s statement that a locally bred horse in India was “not fit to ride,” indigenous horses were not only used for riding but also highly valued for their specific qualities, such as their endurance and ability to cover difficult terrains. Perhaps, we should view Marco Polo’s and Ibn Battuta’s statements about the superiority of imported horses and inferiority of locally bred specimen with a pinch of salt and inquire into the reasons for which these two authors wanted to highlight the difference between the two types of horses. Was owning and riding an imported horse a mark of status? Was it one more way to promote one’s belonging to a higher social class, as different from the lower-class people who had to ride locally bred ponies? By associating themselves with foreign, imported horses, their riders would not only appear superior by their ability to afford more expensive, imported goods (who, moreover, would require specialized foods), but could also possibly claim their affinity to imported cultural values.

On the whole, while there is no question any longer that horses are indigenous to India rather than imported, the question remains why India seems to have relied so largely on horse imports rather than local breeding and what was the exact role of imported horses in forming the Indian cavalry.


[1] Marco Polo, The Book Ser Marco Polo , the Venetian, Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East , translated and edited, with notes by Colonel Henry Yule, third edition, revised throughout in the light of recent discoveries by Henri Cordier (of Paris) London, 1903, vol. II, 342.

[2] Simon Digby, War-Horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate (Oxford, 1971).

[3] Irfan Habib, Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 (Delhi, Chennai, Chandigarh: Centre for Studies in Civilization, 2011), 61.

[4] Nazer Aziz Anjum, “Horse Trade in Medieval South India,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 295-303, at 296.

[5] Ali Bahrani Pour, “The Trade in Horses Between Khorasan and India in the 13th-17th Centuries,” 124.

[6] Pour, 124, referring to Mazaheri 1993, I, pp. 36-39.

[7] Ibn Battuta, The Travels oflbn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354, transi, with revision and notes from the Arabic text by Ç. Defremery & B.R. Sanguini, by H.A.R. Gibb, New Delhi, 1993, vol. 2.

[8] Barani, Tārīkh-i Fīrozshānī, 313, reference in Habib, 62.

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CFP: Historical Practices in Horsemanship and Equestrian Sports

Online conference. 28-29 August 2020

This conference is devoted to discussing historical practices of horsemanship and equestrian sports, their emergence and evolution over centuries and into the present day. The conference is open to papers from all historical periods, and In particular, we encourage the speakers to consider the links between historical and current practices in horsemanship and to inquire into possible tendencies and future developments in equestrian sports.

We understand the word sport in the broadest sense, to include the connotations of play, leisurely and cultural activities, which are not necessarily practiced with a practical outcome in mind. On the other hand, equestrian sports often developed and were justified with a certain end in mind, for instance, as military practice.

Possible research strands include, but are not limited to, the following issues:

  • Origins and evolution of equestrian sports
  • Social practices related to horsemanship
  • Reciprocity in horse and human relations; horses as athletes
  • Revival and survival of traditional equestrian sports and practices
  • Horse care and breeding
  • Approaches to training horses and riders
  • Preparation and use of horses in warfare
  • Equipment for horses and riders

All disciplines and approaches are welcome, and we are open to a variety of presentation formats. If you have a proposal that seems to fall outside the suggested themes, we will be happy to discuss it.

Please submit your title, an abstract of 250-300 words and a short biography (50 words) or CV to Anastasija Ropa (Latvian Academy of Sport Education, anastasija.ropa@lspa.lv) and Timothy Dawson (levantia@hotmail.com) by 1 July 2020. You will be notified about the outcome of your application on 10 July.

A volume of articles based on selected papers will be published in the Rewriting Equestrian History Series by Trivent Medieval. Please indicate in your application if you would like your paper to be considered for publication. The papers presented at the conference will be 15-20 minutes long, but longer treatment is possible in the published article.

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Where to find a two-headed horse?

Where would you find a two-headed horse, in case you need one for gentle riding? If you are thinking about some kind of monster, perhaps the Apocalyptic kind of creature poulating the margins of an Apocalypse manuscript, think again… You need a horse for quiet riding for your dad, and he has specified that one head should look east, and the other west…

Queen Mary psalter, f 133v

The hero of a Kalmyk folktale, an honest and well-meaning but somewhat thickheaded son of a local ruler was issued with just this order one day. The ingenious lad went to the herd and, unsurprisingly, failed to find the steed that would match the above description. Knowing that his father would be furious if he returned empty-handed, the poor lad devised a plan: catching two horses, he tied them tail to tail and brought to his father’s yurt.

It must have been a feet of bravery and hard work, as I would imagine the horses would hardly submit to this kind of treatment without mounting in fierce resistance.

In vain!

The boy was in for a whipping by his enraged father. Not a word of explanation followed.

What is worse, when the poor guy returned, crying, to his own yurt, he was met by his beautiful and clever wife. This was not the first time she saw her husband crawl back home bloody and tearful, and she instantly demanded, without any compassion, what foolishness he has done this time. The poor young man told about it all: his father’s order, his own execution thereof and the outcome.

If he had hoped to receive consolation from his beloved, he was sorely mistaken. Instead of wiping away his blood and tears, she scolded him, calling him a fool and regretting she had ever married such an idiot. “Surely,” cried the clever girl, “you must have realized that a two-headed horse, with one head looking east and the other west, is a mare about to be delivered of a foal! These mares are reputed for their soft gait, and it would be perfect for gentle riding!”

Reading this story, I could not but sympathize with the poor hard-headed boy who always gets it wrong and is ever in for a beating from his dad and a scolding from his wife. The tale is about the “wise daughter-in-law,” and she is a brave personality indeed. However, I do not any affection for her, because of the way she always berates her good-for-nothing hard-working husband. I rather expected she would make him cleverer, that the guy would grow out of his foolishness, like the French Sir Perceval or the Russian Ivan the Fool, but no, the Kalmyk story is very realistic in this respect. A fool will always remain a fool. And the wise girl ends up conquering a neighboring tribe.

One thing I am still wondering about is whether a mare that is about to deliver a foal is really that extraordinarily soft-gaited. I have never ridden one, but the Kalmyks certainly knew their horses, so it must be true.

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What to do if attacked by a knight. An opportunist Saracen’s advice

Obviously, medieval knights have developed a very particular ethos as regards proper and improper chivalric behaviour. But what was one to do if actually confronted by someone wielding a heavy spear, once your own spear is lost, broken, or nowhere to be found? And you have only a small recurve bow at your saddle?

For the sixth-century pre-Islamic poet ‘Antarah this was never a question. In one of the poems, ascribed to ‘Antarah by the early grammarians, the warrior poet siezes a bow and lodges an arrow squarely in his opponent’s body:

I skewered a warrior

on my spear, and a Bajlī

welcomed my arrow.

(‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, War Songs, trans. James E. Montgomery, 47)

Elsewhere, though, ‘Antarah ridicules an enemy who was too cowardly for a face-to-face combat and shot an arrow at him:

The night my men

set up camp

between the peak

and the pass

he shot an arrow

at me and

its iron flange

sliced me to

the quick

(‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, 101)

But, from a medieval chivalric perspective, horseback archery was an opportunistic as well as a very dangerous thing. Perhaps to underplay the dangerous consequences of such Saracen tactics as shooting arrows from the back of a swift and agile horse, medieval artists would often depict Saracens in a variety of awkward situations: falling from horseback or fleeing a charging knight, as on a fourteenth-century ivory casket from France.

Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, KK 998. Knight on horseback charging with a spear; bearded man on horseback with a bow.
Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, KK 998. Knight on horseback charging with a spear; bearded man on horseback with a bow.

The ivory carving shows the scene in amazing detail, and 3D, something that is, of course, impossible for manuscript images or frescoes. Moreover, ivory carvings are generally well-preserved, in difference from statues and carved images in stone. While I am sceptical whether this image represents with historical accuracy a particular class or ethnic group of fourteenth-century horseback archers, it certainly shows medieval western attitudes to horseback archery as something as lowly as to be done when retreating, as different from the glorious attack launched by a knight clad in mail. I would also note that the archery is barefooted, as different from the knight whose legs are hosed in mail, with sharp spurs attached. The saddles are different, too: the knight sits in a saddle with a high back arch, encasing his buttocks, while the archer’s saddle has a lower back arch.

I am not a specialist in Gothic ivories, so there may be details that evade my untrained eye. But they seem to be a rich source for studying medieval equestrian culture. The above image is from the online database of Gothic ivories, which has an abundant collection of equestrian images – with a simple search for “horse”, I hit 715 images in 165 objects, which is amazing.

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in working with the cavesson, and in beginning to work young horses, a pupil will learn more secrets than well-trained horses will show him, because the latter are experienced. But the young ones, who cannot forget their liberty all at once, show their humor and their mettle by their actions and their ignorance, from which one should know how to profit to make them useful for man or to correct them, to create other habits using appropriate rules

(sieur de Lugny, from Frédéric Magnin, ed. Une école d’équitation à la fin de la Renaissance. Le traité inédit du sieur de Lugny (1597). A.H.C.E., 2019)

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