Making Fearless Men: A Medieval Riding Lesson


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.

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!)
Nuno oliveira (1925-1989) von Bolinette
Extrait Nuno Oliveira cheval dressage von mariepoppins009

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.


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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