What is the point of connection between medieval horse-riding practices and modern equestrian sports? Some say it is the sixteenth-century rise of the manege exercises, which developed into modern dressage, that is the starting point for equestrian sports in Europe. Sometimes, equestrians go back to Xenophon’s writings on horsemanship, suggesting that true equestrianism began there and then, but somehow disappeared in the ‘dark’ Middle Ages, to be triumphantly rediscovered in Renaissance, together with other texts of the Antiquity. Indeed, prior to Dom Duarte’s Art of Horsemanship in the fifteenth-century, no medieval text is known that would be devoted to equestrianism, and, for all we know, Dom Duarte’s text would not have been known or copied widely.
On the other hand, the number of treatises devoted to farriery specifically, as opposed to hippiatry, is also limited, but it would be obviously absurd to state people in the Middle Ages had no farriery skills.
There were, of course, equestrian games and displays, including racing both in the Early Middle Ages and up to the fifteenth century. The Smithfield Market, for instance, was the place where horses were not only dealt, but also shown to their best, including racing, jumping, etc. Should we assume that, because the word ‘equestrian sports’ was not in currency, and there are no texts teaching these skills, the Middle Ages had no understanding, no theory and method of horsemanship.
Indeed, if we understand horsemanship as the relation between man and horse for the purpose of working together, for performing in the best possible way under a certain condition and for a certain outcome, it seems that, just like today, there was sophisticated understanding of equestrianism. However, there were no equestrian manuals as such, and the set of know-hows would be passed orally or learnt by seeing and imitating one’s elders. The underlying theory, meanwhile, could be transmitted through a variety of media: not only texts devoted to horses, but the entire body of chivalric literature, including romance, could be seen as encoding and transmitting the sum of knowledge pertaining to chivalry, including the knowledge of horsemanship.
Today, manuals of horse riding and horsemanship are available in plenty, both for specific sports and for general readers wanting to deal with horses, and these are available not only in a variety of media, but also for a variety of schools and approaches. Classical riding, ‘natural horsemanship,’ the Spanish school, the French school, the Russian school… But does it mean that French horses are substantially different from Russian horses or that ‘natural’ riders have radically different ways of schooling their horses, making them superior to those ‘broken’ by traditional methods?
It seems that the differences may be largely doctrinal and that doctrines themselves may differ more by their ‘packaging’ than by their substance. Reading the manual of show jumping written half-a-century ago by Olympic rider and trainer of French origin Jean d’Orgeix, I was surprised to see that, in his understanding of the horse and rider’s relations in the course of their performance, the underlying principles were those advocated not only by – once again – Xenophon, but also by the authors of medieval chivalric literature, produced right at the time when apparently ‘nothing was going on’ in European equestrian thought.
The fundamental principle of d’Orgeix’s method is that of ‘rider’s permanent intervention’ or, to be more exact, ‘control’ of the horse throughout the jumping course. At the end of the foreword to his second manual, Cheval, quand tu nous a tenu! [The horse, when you have held us!], d’Orgeix makes a lyrical aside to explain his understanding of the ‘rider’s peкmanent commanding/controlling the horse.’
‘Commander’ est un honneur, mais c’est aussi une responsabilité.
Un vrai cavalier respecte trop son cheval pour prendre cette responsabilité tant qu’il ne croit pas en etre digne.
[‘To command’ is an honour, but it is also a responsibility.
A true rider respects his horse too much to undertake this responsibility if he does not deem himself worthy of it]
This reminded me of the point made by the Lady of the Lake to Lancelot in the prose romance:
au commencement si com tesmoigne lescripture nestoit nus si hardis qui montast sor cheual se cheualier ne fust autant’ [originally, as the Scriptures reveal, no one was as bold as to mount a horse, if he was not a knight]
In chivalric terms, the rider is also the ruler, the lord, the master of the people and the master of his body, his instincts and his passions:
‘li cheuax sor quoi li cheualiers siet & qui a tous besoins le porte senefie le pueple Car autresi doit il porter li cheualier en tous besoins & desus li doit seoir li cheualiers’ [the horse, on which the knight sits, and which carries him in every need, signifies the people, for in the same way they should carry the knight in every need, and he should sit above them]
. The relation is to be that of respect, based on the rider’s competence, through which he can claim the obedience of his mount. As we all know, an incompetent ruler provides a ready scenario for political disaster, yet a ruler may overjudge his competences.
Interestingly, d’Orgeix also makes a connection between the body political and the body equine:
…On peut évidemment de bonne foi préjuger des ses qualités et se croire à tort capable d’atteindre un stade plus élevé. Si l’on est sincère, ce n’est pas un crime, ce n’est qu’une faute !
…Et c’est seulement en politique qu’une faute est pire qu’un crime !
[…One can obviously overestimate one’s capacity and in good faith mistakenly believe oneself able to reach a high degree. If one is sincere, it is not a crime, it is just a fault!
…And it is only in politics that a fault is worse than a crime!]
By way of conclusion, it seems that d’Orgeix is on to something that the theoreticians and practitioners of medieval chivalric culture knew only too well: the anonymous author of the prose Lancelot and, later, Ramon Lull, as well as those theologians who metaphorized the horsed knight as a soul ruling over the flesh all allude to the ethos of horsemanship that has not changed to this day, whether one practices show jumping, dressage, or ‘natural horsemanship’.
Jean d’Orgeix, Cheval, quand tu nous as tenu! (1951, repr. Paris 2012)
Heinrich Oskar Sommer, The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances: Le livre de Lancelot del Lac (Carnegie Institute, 1910-12)