Horsemanship – an essential skill in the Middle Ages

‘the art of being a good horseman is one of the most important skills that  lords, knights and squires ought to possess.’ (The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal)

Have you ever thought why horsemanship was an essential skill for almost any medieval person with any sort of ambition? Naturally, there were knights, who could not practice chivalry without a cheval, horse. However, any medieval person, peasant or knight, monk or king, housewife or lady, would have at least some practical knowledge of horsemanship. Horses were everywhere, like cars are nowadays, but there were ways in which horses were very much unlike cars. In fact, horsemanship could save your life – in this world and the next one – or lose it.

Français 111, fol. 252v, Tournoi symbolique

Symbolic Tournament in the Queste del Saint Graal

We all know that horses were an essential part of medieval warfare. Ann Hyland in The Warhorse 1250-1660 emphasizes the role of the horse in the high medieval Scottish wars: ‘Horses kept medieval rolling stock on schedule. To gain a balanced picture we need to look at the horse as part of the Plantagenet military machine. Horses of all degrees were used, from droves of carectarii hauling supplies, to cavalry horses.’ The role horses of all kinds and characters played in medieval warfare, agriculture and logistics is just apart of a picture. In fact, horses were prominent in the medieval imagination and on the spiritual landscape, just as they were part of everyday physical reality.

People in the Middle Ages had the knack of seeing life phenomena in two ways: literally and metaphorically. Dom Duarte in his famous Book of Horsemanship routinely intersperses practical and spiritual advice to his readers. Accordingly, Dom Duarte begins Chapter 1 of Part 1 as follows: ‘Since all men naturally desire honour, profit, and proper pleasure, it seems to me that all lords, knights, and squires should greatly desire this art, seeing how it engenders these benefits for those who practice it well.’ Yet in Chapter 3, Dom Duarte warns that

This art by itself is not sufficient to make someone valuable, as are other skills by which men live, unless you happen to be a horse-dealer or want to breed and train them. For the principal things that (with the grace of God) allow men to acquire good things in this world and the next are these: to have a good will to do all things virtuously and faithfully to God and to men; to have good and reasonable strength of body and heart, by which we have the power to enact, counteract, and endure all major events and adversities; and to be knowledgeable through experience and natural understanding regarding things that pertain to our estates and offices, which will allow us to know surely and truly what we should desire, enact, counteract and endure, both within ourselves and in external actions.

Are you wondering why should Dom Duarte be introducing this lengthy discussion of moral and spiritual character among the premises for horse riding? The answer is that a horse is more than just a vehicle or a means of ostentatious display. A good horse is not just a Harley Davidson, it might be your soulmate. And good horsemanship is more than showing off – it may be your ticket to heaven… Next time you watch a YouTube video of medieval music, like the one below, or see medieval miniatures, think about the horses and medieval horsemanship: they are so much more than expensive mounts.

Old Music-Middle Ages

Or come to our equestrian sessions at IMC Leeds, which is another great way to learn about medieval horses.

Call For Papers – Medieval Equestrianism at IMC Leeds 2017

About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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