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.

Sidesaddle in a Hot Air Balloon (and other adventures)

American lady riding sidesaddle in nineteenth-century Japan, as viewed by artist Yoshitori Utagawa in 1860. Care of the US Library of Congress.

American lady riding sidesaddle in nineteenth-century Japan, as viewed by artist Yoshitori Utagawa in 1860. Care of the US Library of Congress.

If you’ve come here after reading the Washington Post piece on the revival of sidesaddle in America (now going a little viral on Jezebel.com), here’s a selection from the archives – a little bit of everything from balloonists to tragic heroines, scandalous females and zebras ridden sidesaddle. I also wrote in detail about women and girls who rode in Britain and Ireland in If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession. Photos of the Mrs. George C. Everhart Memorial Invitational Side Saddle Race – the first sidesaddle race to take place in the US since the 1930s are here.
If you’d love to read some primary sources on women and riding in America in the nineteenth century, get thee to Archive.org to read Elizabeth Karr’s American Horsewoman and Theo Stephenson Brown’s hilarious In the Riding-School: Chats with Esmeralda. If you want to see what’s under the side saddle apron, well, here’s Eadweard Muybridge – perhaps NSFW.
As someone with a hip or two that are threatening to be arthritic, I’m glad of the sidesaddle revival as in the future it might be the only way I can ride a horse. Barbara Minneci of Belgium has been flying the flag for sidesaddle in paralympic dressage with her beautiful coloured cob, Barilla. There’s more about earlier para-sidesaddle riders in the list below.

How to Spoil a Horse

“The thing is this,” said Merrylegs. “Ginger has a bad habit of biting and snapping; that is why they call her Ginger, and when she was in the loose box she used to snap very much. One day she bit James in the arm and made it bleed, and so Miss Flora and Miss Jessie, who are very fond of me, were afraid to come into the stable. They used to bring me nice things to eat, an apple or a carrot, or a piece of bread, but after Ginger stood in that box they dared not come, and I missed them very much. I hope they will now come again, if you do not bite or snap.”

I told him I never bit anything but grass, hay, and corn, and could not think what pleasure Ginger found it.

“Well, I don’t think she does find pleasure,” says Merrylegs; “it is just a bad habit; she says no one was ever kind to her, and why should she not bite? Of course, it is a very bad habit; but I am sure, if all she says be true, she must have been very ill-used before she came here. John does all he can to please her, and James does all he can, and our master never uses a whip if a horse acts right; so I think she might be good-tempered here.”

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (1877).

… horses trained exclusively with negative reinforcement appear to make negative associations with humans, anticipating constraints they can’t control, said Lesimple. Certain training techniques and positions – as well as poor equitation style, especially of novice riders – can lead to chronic pain. Horses with chronic back pain showed more signs of depression, aggression, or learned helplessness (when they seem to “check out” of the environment that they have come to perceive as negative), she said.

“From their very earliest ages, horses develop an ‘appreciation’ of humans which is more or less positive, meaning that their perception of humans is associated with positive or negative emotions, but it is rarely neutral,” [French researcher Dr Clémence] Lesimple said. While the research provides a strong link between poor welfare and negative interactions with humans, there is a positive side to the research, said Lesimple. Improving a horse’s welfare can not only improve a horse’s relationship with humans, but when started from the beginning it can help ensure a lifetime of positive perceptions of humans on the ground, in management settings, and under saddle.

Study: Human Interaction Shapes Horses’ Negative Emotions, by Christa Lesté-Lasserre, The Horse.com, May 2015.

Equitation Tips from Medieval Germany

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 413v: Meister Rumslant. Between 1305 and 1315. Via Wikicommons, added to web by University of Heidelberg.

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 413v: Meister Rumslant. Between 1305 and 1315. Via Wikicommons, added to web by University of Heidelberg.

Thank you to Justin E H Smith for his translation of this “Blessing for Horses,” a twelfth-century German poem included in the Codex Manesse.

A man went his way ·
dragging his steed ·
There my lord met him ·
With all of his men ·

How · is it going · man?
Why aren’t you riding?
How can I ride when ·
my steed is all stiff?

Just push at his flank, man ·
while whispering to him ·
he’ll step with his right foot ·
and get along good ·

And the original Middle High German:

Man gieng after wege ·
zoh sin ros in handon ·
do begagenda imo min trohtin
mit sinero arngrihte ·

wes · man · gestu ·
zu ne ridestu ·
waz mag ih riten ·
min ros ist errehet ·

nu ziuhez da bi fiere ·
tu rune imo in daz ora ·
drit ez an den cesewen fuoz ·
so wirt imo des erreheten buoz ·