Making Fearless Men: A Medieval Riding Lesson

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I briefly mentioned King Duarte I of Portugal’s Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela (The Book on the Instruction of Riding Well in Every Saddle) in The Age of the Horse. It was written in 1434, 82 years before Xenophon’s On Horsemanship was first printed. If you’re used to the narrative in which all riding was brutal and dire until the Italians rediscovered ye olde Greek texts, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this medieval Portuguese book, which was finally translated by Jeffrey L Forgeng and issued by The Boydell Press as The Book of Horsemanship this year.

I spent a few hours poring over it in Cambridge University library last summer, kicking the desk in frustration that I hadn’t been able to include it in the book. It’s quite a revelation. Every now and then archives deliver a shock of realisation: these people from the past were human! They breathed and farted and got anxious! This is one of those texts.

Duarte I, “the philosopher king”, reigned from 1433 till his death in 1438, and had a difficult apprenticeship as a prince: at one stage he was incapacitated by depression for three years. He was also a superb horseman and hunter. In The Book of Horsemanship, both these elements come together, because not only is there advice on riding, there’s also tips on how to handle nerves in oneself and in one’s pupils. He is preoccupied with “will”, which sounds, in this context, rather like self confidence.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses, I found very little pre-eighteenth-century material on teaching the young to ride – especially girls. So I was delighted to find a chapter that gave me an insight into medieval pedagogy and psychology. I’ll share a brief extract from “How good experiences make some men fearless; and how to teach boys and others who are starting to ride”:

You should not give him instructions except to stay tight on the horse’s back and hold himself well however he finds most suitable. Whatever he does wrong, you should not correct him much, but minimally and gently. If he does well, you should praise him generously – as much as you can without lying. You should continue in this way with him for a time until you see that he is coming to enjoy learning and practicing, and wants to receive correction and teaching. From then on start explaining to him how to hold himself strongly, for this is most necessary, always minding what I have said: more praise, less blame. If he happens to fall, or loses a stirrup, or some other contrary thing, and you see that he feels it greatly, you should excuse it as much as possible, so that he does not lose the hope and will that is of great value for this and all other things.

Pit Ponies at Rest and at Play

The last British pit pony retired astonishingly recently in 1999. Between the mid-eighteenth century and the very start of the twenty-first century, stout “pitters” (short-legged Shire crosses), Welsh cobs and British native ponies of all stripes hauled coal underground and above ground and worked pumps to keep mines from flooding. They were often stabled in the mines themselves. Conditions were grim in some (but not all mines) until the 1920s, when the Pit Ponies Protection Society was founded and began to make some legislative headway to improve welfare standards. Have a look at this section of Hansard, where pit pony health is discussed in detail in the House of Lords, including the problem of “roofing”, where horses and ponies suffered injuries to their withers and backs because the ceilings in some tunnels were simply too low.

Here are three Pathé shorts on pit ponies. This one shows pit pony races in Yorkshire, with twenty local pits racing their lads and ponies against one another. Doesn’t look like all that much fun for the ponies given some of the riding, but their lads seem proud of them. I love the bells on some of the ponies’ bridles, too.

And here is “Horses’ Bank Holiday” from 1952. It’s a reel of unedited, silent footage showing Tondu Veterinary stables in Wales, where some working “pitters” or cobs are being treated and turned out to gambol with rather stiff legs about the hills. I hope to have more info soon, but alas the British Pathé site is down.

This one is just a fragment: Welsh miners and their pitters come to the international horse show at Olympia in London. Some of the horses have been in work for twenty years, and they look pretty splendid scrubbed up.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

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  • Beauty in the eye of the beholders: an artist creates a horse that grows more real as more people watch it (Wired)
  • Zoos specialise in rare animals. But unicorns? Really? (Cheezburger)
  • The Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, South London (Sky News)
  • For Halloween, a pair of truly twisted bakers present the Devil Horse Cake (Awesomer)
  • A horse owner in Bavaria was startled to find a drunken man asleep on her horse one morning. The horse looks like it could care less – proof positive that horses have long since accepted that humans are very very odd indeed (The Local)
  • (Your Halloween photo shows one of the guardians of the Taoist underworld, photographed at Dongyue Temple, Beijing. Apologies for the layout today – me and the iPad WordPress app. do not see eye to eye)

    Genius Rides Out

    From a great NYT feature on geniuses as children:

    After the English lawyer Daines Barrington examined the 8-year-old Mozart in 1764, he wrote: “He had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition. He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious.” Yet, Mozart was also clearly a child. “Whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse.”

    Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

    – the march of the Bronies continues apace – literally. We now have a thriving “military bronies” community, dedicated to adult My Little Pony fans, and a full range of customised guns to accessorise. (Military Times)

    – a two-year-old cob in West Yorkshire managed to trap himself in an underground pump chamber for five whole days. Thankfully he’s now been liberated. The BBC has a video of the rescue. (Horse Talk, BBC)

    – ‘”Think about it: They spend most of their lives with the world looking down on them,” Murray said. “Now they are up on top and above everybody. It is very empowering.”‘ Equine therapy in Houston. (Chron.com)

    – A horse festival in Tajikistan. (Huffington Post)

    – Zippy Chippy, a racehorse who couldn’t win a race to save his life is now saving lives by being a loser. (Washington Post)

    – Kathleen Stiles on “How to Survive a European Horse Shopping Trip”. “Meals are all taken and enjoyed. However, some are at “tank stops,” or gas stations as they’re known in the United States. They are everywhere since one blows through expensive fuel at an alarming rate. But I am horrified. I am spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses and am lunching where I would not normally visit a restroom?” It’s another world… (Chronicle of the Horse)

    – Paralympic dressage rider Lee Pearon’s kit in detail. (Guardian)

    – Thank you to Anne Billson for a link to Amazon’s sale page for those rubbery horsehead masks. Happy purchasers have sent in an entire album of images of themselves making use of them. Have fun. (Amazon)

    – in a year in which horses have unexpectedly taken centre stage in politics, from David Cameron’s rides on Rebekah Wade’s old police horse to Rafalca Romney, we have the first dressage-based political broadcast: