Mozart, Uccello, Caravaggio and a Riding School Carved from Rock

I don’t blog much about the work I’m doing on book two (The Age of the Horse), but here’s a sneak peak of something I’ll be writing about. In November I was lucky enough to have three days at the Equestrian Academy at Versailles, where they were rehearsing for this performance in the old riding school in Salzburg. The riding school was carved from the rock in 1693, and this was the first time it had had horses on its stage in over a hundred years. The music is Mozart. Choreography by Bartabas, who appears on Le Caravage (whom I last saw conked out in his stable in Versailles, legs tucked up in the straw and head resting on his chin).

I have a particular soft spot for the first cream on stage, Uccello. More about why in The Age of the Horse.

The Cremellos of Versailles

Curious cremello Lusitano at the Académie Équestre, Versailles, November 2014.

Curious cremello Lusitano at the Académie Équestre, Versailles, November 2014.

Scraps of incomplete research I’m doing to trace the history of cream-coloured horses at Versailles and earlier French royal stables.

I knew the Hanoverian monarchs of England had cream-coloured carriage horses (the “Hanoverian creams” mentioned in W J Gordon’s Horse World of London in 1893), and that cream horses are mentioned by François Robichon de la Guérinière, who ran the French royal manège at the Tuileries from 1730 onwards (poetic list of horse colours compiled by Guérinière here). But were cremellos just one of many exotic and distinctive colours collected by the rulers of France? Or did they have more special significance?

From “Third Letter from Paris” by “Chasseur”, a correspondent of The Sporting Magazine in November 1830, a hundred years after Guérinière. In July 1830, the unpopular Bourbon King Charles X was overthrown and replaced by Louis-Phillippe, the first of the Orléanist kings, and a constitutional monarch. The aftermath of what was known as the July Revolution included some sort of fire sale of Charles’ hunting paraphenalia, from gaiters to otter hounds. And, of course, his horses:

I was not at the horse sale, but many good useful horses were given away almost. By useful ones I mean the carriage horses – bays, with short tails – English three-parts-bred ones. The hunters I never thought much of. By the way, an old cream-coloured horse with red eyes, in the Versailles stable, a favourite of Napoleon’s, I hear has again changed masters, though not passed into the hands of Royalty. I would have bought him had I been there, to prevent so distinguished an animal from being degraded by base servitude, as I fear he will be subjected to.

Where might the cream horse have come from? This Wikipedia page for the Celle State Stud in Lower Saxony, Germany, says that cream carriage horses, originally from Spain, were bred for ceremonial use at Herrenhausen. They are the source for the English Hanoverian creams, and apparently Napoleon pilfered several:

When he captured Hanover, he ransacked the stables of the Elector and found a number of beautiful cream colored horses. These he incontinently purloined and not long afterward these same Hanoverian steeds drew the splendid state coach in which Napoleon rode to be crowned as Emperor at Notre Dame.

Frank Leslie’s popular monthly 52: 42, “Historic Coaches, Old and New”. 1882.

This wonderfully researched page has some contemporary images of these creams and the trappings they wore at Napoleon’s coronation. Serious plumes. And a cheeky statement from this upstart from Corsica – he appropriated the very horses of true royalty for his own apotheosis. The scraps I’ve found here seem to hint that either the same horses were also used for riding (which seems unlikely) or both Napoleon and the British kings had creams to ride in addition to the carriage horses. James Ward called his famous painting of a cremello, “Adonis, the favourite charger of King George III,” and then, from Jill Hamilton’s Marengo, the Myth of Napleon’s Horse:

Tolstoy in War and Peace, wrote: ‘Napoleon was riding on his cream-coloured English horse, accompanied by his guards . . . Napoleon rode on, dreaming of Moscow.’

Read more of Chasseur’s John-Bullish thoughts on Frenchies and horses here. If you want to read an excellent book about Napoleon’s horses, Jill Hamilton’s Marengo, The Myth of Napoleon’s Horse, is now available as a Kindle e-book.

Riding Philosophically, Riding Culturally

Hello folks,

I haven’t been such a great blogger lately because I’ve been working on The Next Big Thing – actually the Two Next Big Things. They’re books two and three, the first of which will be underway this spring, and the second needs whipping into shape so that it can be rolled out sometime next year. I’ve become more of a Twitterer as a result, but there’s one big, considered blog post that I’ve been mulling for  a while and I’m going to type it up now.

In February and March I spent three weeks in the UK and had two very different and very interesting riding experiences. On my return I got stuck into a book my brother got me for my birthday, and my reflections on the book have been drawn into my thoughts on those riding experiences and the way I learned to ride at a British child in the late twentieth century. When I started riding again after an eleven year break (as documented in If Wishes Were Horses) I thought it would be pretty straightforward – after all, hadn’t I spent countless hours having lessons as a child and teenager? Of course I’d overlooked the fact that I’d lost my nerve aged 14 or so and spent the next five years pootling around inoffensively on a pony called Tav, so I had quite a rude awakening when I found myself riding big old warmbloods and being asked to do things like “shoulder in” (what?).

At the same time I was also reading about the history of riding for the first time, and becoming aware of classical equitation. As a bookish type who’s preoccupied with at least trying to be as benevolent a rider as possible, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the equestrian philosophy derived from Xenophon and developed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Sylvia Loch’s Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding, flicked a switch and I began to think, “If I had the cash to learn to ride all over again – which I clearly need to do – this is how I’d do it.” I was spellbound by Nuno Oliveira and the écuyères of the nineteenth-century French circus. The artistry and care required to not only make a horse dance, but to do so without coercion, drew me like a magnet. Classical riding is about perfecting what the horse does naturally. Its philosophy is irresistable to the horse lover. Xenophon, quoted by Loch, wrote:

“Now if when his fire is thus kindled, you let him have the bit, the slackness of him makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with the proud gait and prancing legs, imitating exactly the airs that he puts on before other horses. Everybody sees that such a horse cries out that he is free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant and at once beautiful and fiery in appearance.”

At the same time I’d become fascinated by side-saddle, not just because of those écuyères, but also because of lady riders like Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Mrs Hayes, Lady Salisbury and Catherine de Medici, all of whom were something I’m not, namely brave huntswomen who, like the “Fair Girls on Grey Horses” in Will H Ogilvie’s poem, never went wide of a fence. I asked for a side-saddle lesson at Christmas 2010, and my mother activated the Norfolk horsey network and found me a teacher operating at Pine Lodge School of Classical Equitation, which turned out to be a classical riding academy of the Oliveira/Loch kind only a few miles from home in Costessey. At the end of last June I had my side-saddle lesson, documented here, and found myself legged up on Xis, a beautifully trained and very patient Lusitano. I chatted with the Lodge’s owner and presiding spirit, Sue Barber, about my interest in classical riding and she said I should come back for a lesson. Due to the vagaries of income and travel, it took me a mere nine months to take her up on the offer, but I finally returned in March 2012.

I’d travelled to the UK to launch If Wishes Were Horses and to write a piece about side-saddle and the Flying Foxes Display Team for the Telegraph. On February 19th Mum and I went to Audley End to meet the Foxes, who’d decided that I was going to have not just a lesson, but a bit of a jump, no matter if it was my first leap in 14 years. Becca Holland’s big grey hunter, Henry, was a trooper, loping gently into the fence as I sat back with the reins as loose as I could leave them – I was determined not to snag him in the mouth – and good-naturedly putting up with my inadvertant acrobatics. Becca encouraged me to ride short and although in my first side-saddle lesson at Pine Lodge I’d used my left leg so little that I’d wondered why I bothered bringing it, I now found myself actively gripping with both legs, poised for speed and take off, feeling like a jockey rather than a lay-dee. Bex Hathway White took a series of photos of our efforts for the Flying Foxes Facebook page as a visual aid for others who are experimenting with jumping side-saddle, and you can see them, and my terrified concentrating face here. The crowning moment for me came later as we cantered for the photographer in full rig in front of Audley End, and Henry took wing.

As I wrote in the Telegraph,

Henry …  lengthened his stride and suddenly there we were, bowling along beautifully. I sat back and thought, “This is it. This is how those Victorian amazons felt when they were leading the hunting field. Easy, elegant, smooth and so fast.”

It was a hell of a rush. It was also, I realised, very horse friendly: you sit back and let the horse get on with his business with relatively little interference.

Three weeks later I was back at Pine Lodge, watching as someone warmed up a grey Lusitano called Sasa with a few canter pirouettes before my lesson. He was, I was told, currently ranked eighth in the world in working equitation and worth more than every horse I’d ever ridden combined. No pressure then… Sue warned me before I hopped on, “People pay not to be taught by me. You’re going to wish your parents bought you some shoes rather than a riding lesson for Christmas” and she lived up to her threats, although she wasn’t right about the shoes. I didn’t care if she was scarcastic or strict because I was there to learn, and though an hour of riding without stirrups left me as crippled as dancing on a pair of four-inch stilettoes, I knew which I’d rather have. Sasa and a whole new way of riding.

It was far more intense than I’d anticipated. I had to grip solidly with my upper legs and use not my seat but my calves alone to ask for a transition. Without realising it I’d gotten into the bad habit of holding my reins in my fingers, not the palms of my hands, and of rocking back and forth in the saddle and not, as Sue demanded, rising up and down. “You’ve got to look like you’re doing bugger all,” she stressed. “Effortless. Get that fire,” here Sasa leapt and surged, “and energy, and don’t let him doze off. Watch his ears. He’s not paying attention to you. Get him concentrating.” We walked, trotted and cantered in circles, all without stirrups, as I tried to pull off the confusing new style that seemed like the old puppeteer’s challenge of “rub your head, pat your stomach”. “Turn him with your shoulders,” she called, as I failed again again to get Sasa to canter on the correct leg. I knew that my seat was important (what was that line from Sylvia Loch’s book about Oliveira being able to direct a horse purely with his lower back muscles?) but I could only use it heavily and crudely, and Sasa was both confused and contemptuous.

Sasa – ridden by somebody who knows what they're doing

By the end of my hour I was aching all over and full of questions: the art of doing “bugger all” seemed to be quite a work out. I also wanted more lessons, and to pursue classical riding when I next had the chance. I began to realise what effort must go into the decades-long partnerships that great classical riders forge with their horses as they both work towards perfection, achieving physical communication so swift that it looks like mind reading between rider and mount.  However, I was also beginning to wonder how on earth one could ride like that cross-country, or even on a hack. Which was best? The light seat I was used to (although imperfectly executing) or the “effortless” classical style? How can two styles of riding be so different and both “good”? I emailed my friend Karen, who spent years studying dressage, and she sympathised “Classical equitation really fucked my hunting and my huntseat. But it does feel pure.” I turned to history for clues.

The book I mentioned at the beginning of the post is Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, by Donna Landry. It’s a cultural history of the way in which the English not only adopted Turkish, Arab and Barb horses and turned them, within a generation,  into the “most English of horses”, the Thoroughbred, but also appropriated Oriental riding styles and repackaged them as the English hunting seat. In contrast to the classical Continental European style with its long stirrup leathers and firm seat, Eastern jockeys rode short and lightly in a manner that favoured galloping over open country on rangey horses rather than cantering in a menage on stouter baroque horses. As hunting evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English lost their residual interest in classical haute école and focused instead on speed and leaping, riding in a manner that encouraged their mounts to be “forward going” rather than collected, their outline extended and relaxed.

This, I realise, is the tradition in which I learned to ride. Leg contact only when you need it. Light seat. Snaffles and the rein, as eighteenth-century jockey Samuel Chifney put it, “silken… as fine as a hair … that you was afraid of breaking it.” Compare that to a line in K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night which I’ll always remember, as Ruth Hollis watches Peter McNair handling a brilliant but difficult pony at a hunter trial, “Toadhill Flax, as if held on a thread, trembling with excitement, pivoted on his forehand.” Compare this “natural” style also with a Horse and Hound “thruster of the week” from last year, who said that her horses were “almost feral” because she barely trained them, preferring to let them take hedges as they pleased, with minimal interference. In To Whom the Goddess the authors wrote, “For a woman riding side-saddle there is very little she can do to make a horse take off at the right moment, except give him a kick, and she is very handicapped in this way, and has to rely mostly on how she ‘presents’ her horse at his fences.” This is what I sensed with Henry, too – I could see how the grand hunting dames built up such confidential partnerships with their horses. Trust was essential. You could almost say that the British side-saddle seat for hunting with its long reins and low-positioned hands was the most extreme expression of the English/Oriental style.

Do not lean this far forwards when jumping side-saddle. Because when you land that's how far backwards you will ping.


Of course, as Landry is at pains to point out, this is very much an ideal which plenty of real riders miss by a country mile or flagrantly abuse. But the notion that the English rode “lightly” and “naturally” in opposition to the classical style with its complicated bits, philosophy and heavy collection, is a deep-set one. And the British were suspicious of dressage for a long time. Pat Smythe was criticised when she took the advice of the Swiss three-day event rider (her future husband), Sam Koechlin, and used dressage to train her horses. She won the Prix Caprilli, a competition in which participants both showjumped and performed a dressage test. For decades our three-day eventers excelled at the hunting-like cross country phase while falling behind in dressage – the exact opposite of the German riders. I’m guessing this is why, also, despite a decade’s worth of lessons in the UK, I never learned to “shoulder in”.

But my eleven year break from horses coincided with the culmination of a cultural change in British equitation that was a long time brewing. Dressage has become huge. Horse and Hound devotes as many pages to dressage as to hunting, and the traditional gymkhana faces stiff competition from local dressage events where expensive warmbloods line up against hairy cobs. We have a world-beating dressage team that’s a major contender for Olympic gold, and have begun to breed competition horses that wow even the Germans. There’s also an upsurge of interest in the classical style that goes hand in hand with a preoccupation with both its history and ethics, strictly and exclusively maintained by purists. As Sylvia Loch’s website states,

“Classical Dressage is correct for the horse, correct for you, and correct for that moment in time. The horse hasn’t changed in thousands of years, neither have human beings. We are all ruled by the same physical laws of nature, which is why there is no middle way. Only correct, and incorrect.”

How perfect to find the absolute Right Way to Ride a Horse, you would think, but then my childhood memories of the thrill and companionship of a darn good gallop with a sympathetic, excited pony intervene and I think of Donna Landry’s closing words in Noble Brutes:

“From the seventeenth century onward, utility and beauty were embodied, irresistably combined, in the Eastern blood horse as these equine foreigners embarked on their European sojourns. Inspired by their coming, abandoning the manège, and riding short, ‘after the Turkey fashion,’ horsemen and women in the British Isles would pursue the ideal of equestrian partnership not in dressage movements but in free forward movement over the green turf, where the love of galloping for its own sake, for the joy of liberty rather than collection and discipline, could be most keenly felt.”

So, which is it?

At the end of all these musings I realise I can’t be a partisan like Landry and Loch. Despite the clash between the two seats and the way that they have been played off against one another – especially by the British – to distinguish one nation’s horsemanship from that of others, they have more in common than purists would allow. Both classical and English-styles are performed on a rein that sags and with minimal tugging at the bit. Both involve a close, trusting relationship with the horse. Both are intended to look effortless and to enhance the horse’s natural skill to the best advantage. Both put the horse’s welfare foremost and celebrate its athleticism and intelligence. Why choose? I want to ride two horses: the Lusitano from an Uccello painting, balanced on his hindquarters in a levade that’s an expression of strength and art, and the English Thoroughbred with the loose, long stride and blood-quickening gallop.

Dancing with Lusitanos

I’m interrupting polo week to bring you the maestro, Nuno Oliveira. I wrote a little background on him here to accompany some sketchy YouTube footage, but HHO just directed me to these two short films on Daily Motion. Bliss to watch happy, relaxed horses working hard and moving so beautifully. (for some reason WordPress won’t let me embed them, so please click through!)


http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x6noog
Nuno oliveira (1925-1989) von Bolinette

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x2d9bq
Extrait Nuno Oliveira cheval dressage von mariepoppins009

The Difference a Rider Makes

When I got back from my sidesaddle lesson I was rather overexcited about the fact that I had ridden a PUREBRED! CLASSICALLY TRAINED! LUSITANO! and couldn’t wait to show people the photos that my mum took of the lovely Xis. Some people were a little disappointed, and said, “But he just looks like a pony,” and I wondered if perhaps some horses weren’t photogenic, or somehow failed to give their best in the camera lens. The answer is a lot simpler. It’s all about the rider.

Here’s Xis noodling around the school with me as I try to work out how the hell to stay on board the sidesaddle:

Last week Mum went back to Pine Lodge to watch their annual display, and caught this shot of Xis with the German classical rider, Ute Pulvermacher:

See what I mean?

First Sidesaddle Lesson: Not Quite “Posed Audaciously Like a Wing”

My Christmas present this year was an hour’s sidesaddle lesson at the Pine Lodge School of Classical Education in Norfolk, with top teacher and judge Sarah Walker. Aside from actually buying me a pony, this was probably The Best Gift Ever. Not only did I get to try a style of riding I’ve been curious about for years, BUT I got to ride a classically trained Lusitano. It was like having a driving lesson in an E-type Jag.

When I was researching If Wishes Were Horses (a history of girls and horses) I ended up flipping through a large number of old sidesaddle manuals – in fact, my chapter on the nineteenth century threatened to get altogether out of hand, and I’m still swimming in a surfeit of material. Why was I so intrigued?

Sidesaddle is pure patriarchy: it was introduced to prevent women getting imagined sexual pleasure from riding astride (as if), from compromising their virginity and therefore their value, and from a belief that the female body was too weak too ride “properly” (and yet it was quite up to childbirth and working a twelve-hour day cleaning rich peoples’ houses – but I digress). What becomes abundantly clear from the literature of sidesaddle’s heyday, is that lady riders thoroughly subverted this notion of frailty.

They hunted pell-mell across the most challenging country. They leapt six-foot six-inch fences. They cleared steeplechase courses. They toured nations. They performed haute école dressage – Jenny de Rhaden would coax her horse to a full rear and lie back on his quarters with her hair trailing on the stage floor of the Moulin Rouge. It’s Fred and Ginger: everything the man does the lady does too, but backwards and on high heels.

So, without further ado, here’s my lesson. This is the lovely Xis, an eight-year-old Lusitano from Portugal (all photos in this post taken by my mum, Rosemary, who nearly took Xis home with us):

Sarah started the lesson on the ground by showing me the saddle and explaining its various parts. This is a 1930s model, and the deep notch at the withers tells you it’s post-1920s. Each sidesaddle was custom-made for both the rider and the horse, and the lady’s name, thigh-length measurement and her horse’s vital statistics were written inside the frame. I just about fit onto this one, but if I had a longer saddle, I wouldn’t have fitted onto Xis. There aren’t many downsides to being this tall, but I’m obviously going to have to have my own handmade sidesaddle and a long-backed Luso if I win the lottery.

The “leaping head” is padded out with what’s called a “queen”, in this case an old sock and some tail bandages. There was an extra pad for Xis’ shoulder wedged between the numnah and the saddle. Having read a lot of accounts of hideous sidesaddle accidents, I was pleased to see that the stirrup was attached by an open clasp and would slip out easily if I toppled off, and that the stirrup itself was nice and big. Sarah promised me she’d only fallen off twice in all the years she’d been aside. I believed her.

When you’re used to a normal cross-saddle, a sidesaddle is a strange beast indeed. Aside from the forked pommel, there’s the doeskin-covered seat which is flat as a tea tray and shaped like a pilcrow. Once I got on board the patient Xis, I had to chuck almost everything I knew about my seat straight out of the window.

You can’t “sit deep” on a tea tray. You can’t squeeze with your legs – not even the lower, left leg – without unbalancing yourself, so you have to make do with waggling your left ankle as an aid. Strictly speaking I should have been carrying a long whip on the righthand side to make up for the missing leg, but Sarah didn’t want to fry my brain and goodness knows, I had enough to think about. I look pretty grim in most of these photos, but there was actually a lot of laughter (I had a small audience including Mum and the stables’ owner, Sue Barber, who knows a thing or two). I was just trying to be in that Zen state when you’re concentrating but not thinking.

So how do you stay on? It’s all in the right leg, says Sarah. You actually have a larger “seat” than you have astride because you place much of your weight on that right thigh. It grips the top pommel of the leaping head while your right calf lies flat against the horse’s shoulder and your toe points down (didn’t quite achieve this one). The left leg, waggling aside, feels oddly passive by comparison. In faster paces, jumping or dire emergencies your left thigh grips the underside of the lower pommel. Your torso is just as it would be astride, but you sit far back and your hands are held to either side of your right knee.

Having spent years riding a pony with no mouth and a thick neck and also having a general desire to be nice to horses’ mouths, this slightly laidback style suited me just fine. I just kept minimal contact with Xis’ mouth and moved with his movement as closely as possible. The cliff face on my righthand side, uninterrupted by any pommels or stirrups, kept me focussed on using my right leg as Sarah instructed.

Sarah always keeps the actual riding in a first lesson to a minimum because there’s a lot to absorb and the skills required of both horse and rider are so different. I would walk a few circuits then turn into the centre to switch to sitting astride for a break and instruction, then swing my leg back over and start again. Once I turned Xis in a tight “U” without thinking and found myself clinging on for dear life because he was so responsive and my seat was far from secure. At another point I shifted around a lot to try to get square and he reacted instantly with a little serpentine. This is what’s known as a push-button horse!

Eventually Sarah persuaded me to try a short trot. It was like being five again. I bounced, I joggled, my right leg flapped. The seat was so flat that it didn’t help me one jot – I thought I was going to somersault backwards off Xis’ right side. The books I’d read had led me to believe that sidesaddle provided a very secure seat – there are disparaging remarks about lady riders who just lump along on their horses, safely attached by the pommel, and claims that it’s far harder to be dislodged aside than astride. I couldn’t believe this at all once we started trotting, even on a horse with gaits as smooth at Xis’. It’s not like mastering sitting trot astride – as I said earlier, you cannot sit deep in the same way, and you are unbalanced from the first.

At my fourth or fifth go, it suddenly clicked and there I was, making a creditable go of sitting neatly in the saddle rather than jouncing around like a full potato sack in the back of a flat-bed truck. Xis pricked his ears and got a well-deserved pat, and we called it a day.

The damage? Well, despite doing very little actual riding, I was a little tender in the right, er, “glute” and along the underside of my thigh a day or two later,  which makes me wonder if Victorian lady riders stumped around with massively overdeveloped right legs. Mum developed sympathy pains just from watching. One thing lasted longer than the muscle soreness though, and that was the desire to get back on and try again. I hope to have another lesson when I’m back in the UK, and am saving my pennies towards that Luso and the tailored sidesaddle. Oh, and the top hat and veil.

Merlin the Bullfighting Horse

7/8/2013: Having learned more about the format of the rejoneador or mounted bullfighter’s craft, I’m updating this piece. There’s also a detailed account in The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History.

Well, you call it a bullfight and you put the horse in the ring. What do you expect? This bullfighter, Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, has another exceptional horse too.

I’m not the first person on the internet to publish the video below with the proviso, “I don’t approve of bullfighting but look at this HORSE!” Orpheo/Merlin is spectacular. This is haut école dressage in the face of a charging bull. I suspect there’s a lot in Portuguese and Spanish on the horse, but not so much in English, though The Circus: No Spin has done some footwork:

Merlin(Orpheo) is a Bullfighting Lusitano stallion 7/8’s Lusitano X 1/8th Quarterhorse, bred by former Rejoneador Jacques Bonnier (the tall gray haired gentleman in the video who greets de Mendoza before he returns to the bull). Merlin was initially trained by Rafi Dumond [SF – Rafi Durand], who is seen in the opening segment schooling Merlin. He is currently owned and ridden in the bullring by Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza. … De Mendoza is often called the finest Rejoneador in the world by aficionados and press.

I do not know what mixture of training, obedience, fear, bravery and, perhaps, sheer bravado goes on in the mind of this stallion. No bulls are killed in this footage, and Orpheo/Merlin doesn’t get a scratch on him, if you want to watch.

Some history on the sport here. Social anthropologist Kirrilly Thompson‘s academic articles on mounted bullfighting and Sylvia Loch’s The Royal Horse of Europe: The Story of the Andalusian and Lusitano were a great help in untangling what is going on. The Portuguese form is the same as that practised in Spain up to a certain crucial point, as I’ll explain below. Mexico, France and Colombia also follow the Portuguese form.

Paseillo

A parade of the rejoneadores and the matadors who provide their back-up by distracting the bull from the horse. Includes dressage moves.

First Tercio

The bull is fresh and uninjured. The rejoneador endeavours to stab it in the shoulders with a long barb that, when it jabs into the bull, breaks off to reveal a flag. If the bull does not charge, the rejoneador and horse perform haute école to provoke it. For one spectacular example, disable your pop-up blocker and click here.

Second Tercio

More lances/barbs are jabbed into the bull from horseback, with the matadors stepping in when required. The rejoneador often uses different horses for different lengths of lance/barb. As the bull tires (and bleeds), the horse and rider must get closer to attack it with shorter lances/barbs.

When about six darts have gone home, the Portuguese rejoneador leaves the ring and the bull to the forçados, who are another brand of insane altogether. After they’ve done their stuff, the Portuguese bullfight ends as the bull trots out of the ring with a herd of bullocks. It is killed “backstage”.

Third Tercio

In Spain the rejoneador does not leave the ring when all the barbs are in place. The rejoneador has two chances to try to kill the bull while still mounted. For this he/she uses a lance-like sword. If he or she fails, they must dismount and kill the bull on foot.

A further distinction is dress. The Spanish rejoneador wears very plain, traditional vaquero clothing. The Portuguese rejoneador dons high-eighteenth-century style, complete with frock coat and marabou-trimmed tricorn. Furthermore, the Portuguese bull has its horns blunted and covered with leather shields.

Merlin is no longer with Hermoso de Mendoza, having moved first to the Portuguese rider, Joao Moura, and then to his son. I was in touch with Joao Moura Jnr’s press contact last year, and he told me Merlin is, contrary to daft internet rumours, very much alive and well, and “on the field playing mares” rather than in the ring taunting bulls. He added that all the people who come to this blog post wanting to breed a mare to Merlin should contact Moura Jnr.

UPDATE: January 2013: Some footage of Merlin with the great rejoneador Joao Moura Senior. No slow-mo, no black and white, no soft rock, just the realities of the ring.

He’s now with Joao Moura Junior:

UPDATE: January 2017: Here’s a video of one of his foals.

I’m the author of If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession, a cultural history of girls and horses.

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