Haunted by Horses in St Petersburg

Last weekend I travelled to St Petersburg to start research on a new book and I thought I’d share my equestrian shots. I was only in this fascinating, complicated city for two and a half days and did not venture out of the very heart of it but I still found some horse history of interest – and some living horses too. There aren’t many hours of sunlight at 60 degrees north in December, so the photos are a bit brooding and murky – be warned. Also murky, the information in this blog post as my Russian is very, very limited and I can’t find guidebooks that really meet my horsey needs. Anyone with local historical knowledge is welcome to step in and correct what I’ve managed to tap out here!

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This (above) is St Petersburg’s most famous horse. He carries “the Bronze Horseman”, a statue of the city’s founder, Peter the Great, erected by Catherine the Great in 1782. The French sculptor Etienne Falconet intended it to be more allegorical than your average equestrian statue – the horse is Russia and under its feet it tramples a serpent that represents any treasonous opponents to Peter’s sweeping reforms. The repercussions from Peter’s rule and the subsequent history of the city have been embodied in references to the Bronze Horseman in literary works by great writers from Pushkin to Anna Akmatova. Quite often the horseman in these stories pursues deranged literary heroes through the city.

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You know that the Hermitage was the Russian royal family’s palace and is now an enormous compendium of a museum. You maybe didn’t know that its stables are still standing and currently under restoration. This is Konyushennaya Ploschchad or Stable Square, about ten minutes walk away along the Moyka river on icy, sloping pavements. It once housed a “stables museum” featuring the family’s carriage and sleigh collection as early as the 1820s. According to this piece on the Hermitage’s website by Igor Arsentyev, there are now over 40 vehicles in the collection and the ceremonial harness to go with them:

A coupé acquired from [leading carriage builder Johann Conrad] Buchendal for Catherine II in 1793 was reproduced in miniature in 1897 by craftsmen working for the firm of Carl Fabergé; this little gem was then placed inside an Easter egg commissioned by Nicholas II for his wife, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. A sledge for ten passengers, also made by Buchendal in 1793, was intended for trips around the park by the imperial family during the cold Russian winters. Eight horses were required to pull it and as well as the coachman required postilions riding on the first two pairs.

One charming piece is a mechanical droshky made in Nizhny Tagil between 1785 and 1801 by the craftsman E.G. Kuznetsov. Its mechanism includes a little organ that plays six melodies as the wheels turn and a verstometer (to measure distance) of ingenious construction (a similar principle underlies the speedometers used in modern forms of transportation).

I cannot work out if these carriages are currently on display in the main museum or will go on display in Konyushennaya Ploschchad. This site says the stable building is currently being decontaminated (having housed a petrol station) and converted into “a place for interaction between the city and its citizens, including a public communication centre, an exhibition hall, shops, cafés and a Start Up Center” but a word of caution – I was unable to verify this information or find much else in English about the old stables. What’s more, I’m not entirely sure that they are the Hermitage’s stables. Bear with me.

About five minutes walk from the Konyushennaya Ploschchad is the Mikhailovsky Palace, now a branch of the Russian Museum (which is not the same thing as the Hermitage). Construction began on it for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich in 1819, and the German traveller Johann Georg Kohl, who described it in a book published in 1841, was impressed by not just the building but its surroundings, including a nearby stables and riding arena:

this quarter of the city might almost be called [the Grand Duke’s] kingdom. Here are the dwellings of his officers, his stables, his riding-school, etc. The latter deserves particular mention, as the finest of the kind that exists any where. In the establishment fifty young people are instructed in riding and in all arts that have the remotest reference to horse or rider; for this object, and for the carousels in the fine riding-house, at which the count is often present, a number of the finest horses are kept, and both horses and riders are so well lodged and fed, that it is a pleasure to pass through the range of clean and elegant sleeping-rooms, sitting, and school rooms, saddle-rooms, stables, &c. All these apartments have double folding-doors in the centre, which stand open the whole day. A long carpet is laid along all the floors down to the stable, and the inspector at a glance can overlook every thing; can satisfy himself whether the beautiful white Arabian Asir, so celebrated for his silken hair and broad forehead, and the fiery Haimak of English blood, out of a mare from the Orloff stud, are in good condition; at the same time he can see what the young cadets, who value themselves so much on their rosy cheeks and sprouting beards, are doing in their chambers. It is wonderful how pure the air is kept in spite of this slight separation; it is as if the stud were perfumed with eau de Cologne, as well as the cadets.

The riding school contained six mirrors large enough for horsemen to see their entire position. While, as Kohl proudly notes, it was Germans who brought the art of riding to Russia, the Russians had recrafted it in their own form. It took six years to prepare each cadet to become a riding master in the army. However, the high standards required were brutal on the horses themselves, who, though dazzling in quadrilles, were soon broken down by keeping up “parade paces”.

Kohl then writes about the “colossal Exercising-house”, and the description makes me wonder if it’s under that rounded roof on the Konyushennaya Ploshchad:

This manege covers a space, unbroken by a single pillar, of 650 feet long, and 150 wide; a regiment can go through its evolutions there with perfect convenience; a battalion may manoeuvre there, and two squadrons might fight a battle there. This establishment originated, as did nearly all such places in St. Petersburg, in the time of Paul. Sixteen giant stoves warm the buildings and the walls are lined with thick woollen-cloth. The roof with its appendages presses on the thick walls with a weight of 300,000 hundred weight; the iron rods alone weigh 12,840,000 pounds, and to this must be added 3000 great trunks of trees made use of in the woodwork, and 2,000 square fathoms of iron plates with which the whole is covered without. The Circassians may be generally seen here busied in their feats of horsemanship, or shooting at a mark, at which times a student in acoustics may make many interesting observations. A pistol-shot awakens so prodigious an echo, that heard from the street one might fancy the whole building falling in one crash.

At this point, anyone who can sort out this mess of the Hermitage and Mikhailovsky Palace stables for me is begged to step forward and save me in the comments. Meanwhile, here’s a more easily identifiable manège:

dsc07501This is the old Horse Guard’s Manège (Konnogvardeyskiy Manège), now an exhibition hall. It was built between 1804 and 1807 and is guarded by twin statues of Castor and Pollux of the “youth trying to stop a rearing horse” variety. They are copies of originals that stand at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, and according to this site they had to be moved to the rear of the manège for a long period after the priests at St Isaac’s cathedral (just over the road) complained about their nudity and pagan nature. You can see some shots of the interior as it is today here, along with a potted history of the building and some earlier images.

It looks as though the facade has lost its more elaborate decorations in the course of the twentieth century. I am not sure if this was the cavalry school at which the famous English écuyer James Fillis taught after Grand Duke Nicholas poached him from the Ciniselli Circus but it seems highly likely. As for non-military riding in the city,  Mrs Alice Hayes, one of my favourite sidesaddle authors, spent some time in Russia later in the nineteenth century than Kohl and was unimpressed. In The Horsewoman she comments:

Although the riding schools of Paris are not to be compared to those of Berlin, the worst of them is far superior to the two miserable civilian riding schools in St. Petersburg, where riding is almost entirely a military function. Very few Russian women ride, although history tells us that Peter III. kept a pack of hounds, and that his wife, Catherine II., according to her memoirs, listened to the loving solicitations of Soltikov while they were riding together “to find the dogs.” A saddle belonging to this amorous lady, which I saw at the Hermitage, was like an Australian buck-jumping saddle, with large knee rolls and a high cantle. It was covered with red velvet and decorated with cowrie shells. The side saddle appears to have been first used in Russia by the daughters of the Emperor Paul.

So where were the civilian riding schools? Where did people ride in summer? Where were the horses kept? And what about the ordinary working horses rather than the fancy parade horses and hunters? The standard housing unit appears to be a series of courtyards, as in Berlin (I wrote about these buildings here in a post on Clever Hans) – could there have been stable buildings in the courtyards? How did people keep horses of all kinds in such low temperatures? How did they cope with the slippery winter conditions?

Had I the Russian I could have asked someone. There are still horses in the very heart of St Petersburg – trotting smartly across terrain that I needed hiking boots and much concentration to cover. Before I caught a glimpse of one, I saw here and there piles of horse manure left neatly on the pavements – once even in a plastic bag, as if it were dog poo (I guess if the manure freezes on the road itself it becomes a hazard). The horses themselves appeared in due course, albeit in a rather more romantic fashion than their road apples.

The time difference of two hours between St Petersburg and Berlin is not large but it is annoying. Combine it with overexcitement about being in a city you’ve dreamed of visiting since you were a teenager and, well, not much sleep is had. My hostel room looked out over the Griboyedov canal – also frozen and much frequented by skating hooded crows – at the Kazan Cathedral and was just around the corner from Nevsky Prospect, which is the Oxford Street of St Petersburg. Despite that I woke groggily early on Saturday morning to the sound of hoofs on icy road, and got to the window in time to see a dark horse trot by pulling a battered black droshky with a bale of hay in the foot well.

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I caught up with the droshky horse that afternoon in Konyushennaya Ploschchad – he’s on the left of this photograph, in the background. Squint and you can make out a little red square over the grey horse’s neck. That’s a prop banner being used to film a crowd scene in a period drama. I’m not sure if the droshkies were involved or just hanging out, but they didn’t get hustled behind the cordon with the rest of us when filming began, and they were also patiently standing in a fog or pall of smoke being generated by the film crew’s machines.

I haven’t had the chance to look into many Russian equestrian sources for the nineteenth century, but even my scanty reading of Russian literature suggests that horses of all kinds were just as culturally important there as in Europe. What about the infamous horse race in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or his tale of Kholstomer, the talking horse? The most disturbing literary set piece is Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment, written some twenty years after Kohl’s account of the city. In it he revisits a childhood scene in the town where he was born:

He always liked looking at those great cart-horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it. But now, strange to say, in the shafts of such a cart he saw a thin little sorrel beast, one of those peasants’ nags which he had often seen straining their utmost under a heavy load of wood or hay, especially when the wheels were stuck in the mud or in a rut. And the peasants would beat them so cruelly, sometimes even about the nose and eyes, and he felt so sorry, so sorry for them that he almost cried, and his mother always used to take him away from the window.

As the child-Raskolnikov watches in the dream, the sorrel’s driver begins to beat her as more and more bystanders climb into the cart, laughing. As the old mare struggles, her driver hits her harder, and soon loses all control – eventually battering her to death with an iron bar (I did warn you it was awful). The mare’s death foreshadows Raskolnikov’s later murder of the elderly money lender Alyona Ivanovna. I should have read Crime and Punishment before I travelled as it turned out that I was staying on the same street where the novel was both set and written – the Griboyedov canal outside my hotel winds its way south west through Kolomna, where Ivanovna, Raskolnikov and Doestoevsky all lived.

Our German traveller Kohl saw peasant horses bought and sold at “Zimnaia Ploshchad” at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Though less literary than Dostoevsky, he also made a parallel many critics have made between the sorrel in Crime and Punishment and the beleagured peasants of the empire:

The horses sold in this market are duly imbued with the national character. Like their masters they are small, but active and supple; with long manes and beards, ragged hair, delicate joints, and iron constitutions. In the stable they are dull and heavy, but in harness full of spirit, unwearied in the race, and even after the hardest labour tricksy and playful. Cold, heat, hunger, and thirst, they endure with a patience truly admirable, and often receive their dirty straw with more apparent relish than their German brethren do the golden corn. Yet after all, there is but little energy in the Russian horse. He knows not how to husband his force, and if unable to clear the hill at a gallop he remains hopelessly fixed in the mud.

He noted that well-to-do Russians preferred Tartar coachmen – indeed, a visiting Duke of Devonshire even took one home as a souvenir – and that much of the vocabulary for coaching and driving was Mongolian or Tartar. These full-bearded men dressed typically in “a fine blue cloth caftan, fastened under the left arm with three silver buttons, and girded round his middle by a coloured silk sash.” Their postillions were “pretty boys, from twelve to fourteen years of age”. Kohl later comments that literacy was gaining pace in Russia and many servants aspired to learn the alphabet and read, for “even the little postilions may often be seen in a corner of the stables diligently forming the letters with their frozen fingers.”

Mrs Alice Hayes might not have been impressed by Russian ladies but she has nothing but praise for Russian cab men – quite something when one considers the reputation cab horses had for suffering:

… the Russian ishvoshik (cabman), treat their equine charges with far greater sympathy and kindness than our English grooms and cab-drivers do. … When passing through London on my return from a visit to Russia, we put up at an hotel in Oxford Street, where the night was rendered hideous to me by the brutal slashing of cab horses; for one hears nothing of that kind in Russia, and yet we English people pride ourselves on being a horse-loving nation! The speed of Orlov trotters is very great, but no whip is used in driving them; the coachmen drive with a rein in each hand, like the drivers of American trotters, and shout after the manner of firemen to clear the road, for these animals seem to require a good deal of holding. The Russian cabby uses a small whip like an ordinary dog-whip, which he tucks away somewhere under his seat, and when his horse is taking things too easy, it is only necessary for him to show it him, for he is driven without blinkers, to cause him to at once hasten his pace. Very often the man is unprovided even with this toy thing, in which case he obtains a similar result by abusing the animal’s relations! During the whole time that I was in Russia, I never once saw a cabby hurt his horse with the whip. Russia is the last country to which one would go to learn anything about the treatment of human beings, knowing what we do of her past and present history; but we certainly should emulate the Russian coachmen in their kindness to horses, and not shock our neighbours by exhibitions of brutality which may be seen daily in the London streets.

Kohl had a more nuanced take on this:

The Russian cannot be said to illtreat his horse. He rarely flies into a rage against his animal, and expends at all times far more words than blows upon it; on the other hand, however, he bestows but little care upon it, and spoils it as little with over-cherishing as he is himself spoiled with kindness by those in whose school he has been trained and broken in.

So this was a hasty little insight into Russian horses high and low in St Petersburg. As I wrote the bare bones of it I began to Google and turn up more sources that required cross-matching and confirming, and the whole piece began to spiral out of control, so it’s best if I stop now before I accidentally write 10,000 words and forget to write up my notes on the research I actually flew there to do. I’ll leave you with a final Petersburg scene.

At 3am on the Sunday morning I was awake again. The couple in the room next door had argued for hours and were now snoring. Outside, young men were screeching along the Nevsky Prospect in cars whose booming stereos rattled the window just above my head. Women were screaming at their boyfriends and drunks were raging. And then there was a brief lull and I heard hoof beats again – nippy, trotting hoof beats. I hauled myself up to the window sill and poked my head through the curtains.

The road was covered in patches of brown ice two inches thick. On it, trotting south along the Griboyedov canal towards where the droshky horse had come from and the homes of Dostoevsky, Raskalnikov and Alyona Ivanovna, was a bare-headed man with a heavy hood hanging down his back, mounted on a dark horse that moved without fear or hesitation past the neon-lit bars and kiosks and away into the pitch-black early morning.

Let’s Ride… NORTH KOREA! Or Maybe Not.

Thank you to Matt for the news that the North Korean leadership has decided it needs some authentic Gangnam style to accompany the gulags and famine. Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company offering trips to North Korea, sent Simon Cockerell to inspect the facilities at the Mirim Horse-Riding Centre just outside Pyongyang. The former military training academy boasts not just an indoor arena where you can ride while giant TV screens play war films and karaoke videos, but also a museum of the horse in Korea, featuring Kim Jong Il’s favourite white horse – now stuffed. I would absolutely love to learn the story they are telling in that museum… The Orlov trotters in the school look better cared for than many North Koreans.

You can read Simon’s account here. Official video below:

 

Talking Horses: Ponies Plot

Talking Horses is a series of extracts from novels, poems and short stories both classic and obscure that feature fictional horses who enter into the conversation.

Ponies Plot is a 1965 curio by the British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson. Curious because it sends up the classic pony book delightfully. It tells the story of a riding school on the verge of closing, where the ponies conspire to end up with the right kind of little girl who will cater to their whims – as you’ll see from the cover, it’s most definitely the ponies who are on top here. As the preface explains, “This … is a book about children, written for ponies.” In this extract, the ponies are gathered in their field and discussing ways to get themselves thrown out of the riding school. The oldest, Smokey, takes them all to task:

“You youngsters don’t see what the problem is. It is not enough to be unwanted here. You have first to find the girl you want and a home you would prefer. You must learn to look ahead! Decide, first of all, what it is you want.”
“Well,” said Skylark, “I should choose a girl of about nine, standing about fifteen hooves and weighing not more than four stone twleve pounds.”
“Or less,” said Dunblane quickly.
“She should have a snub nose,” said Brighty in a dreamy way, “with fair or red hair – yes, and freckles –”
“Freckles, yes,” agreed Skylark. “But a brunette can be all right too, so long as her back is straight and her legs are long.”
“I actually prefer a brunette with straight hair,” said Spice. “But she needs to be dependable, generous and kind, nicely mannered and reasonably intelligent.”
“Not too confident or rash,” suggested Dunblane.
“But with at least three years’ experience,” said Unbeatable.
“All right!” grunted Smokey. “Those are the Points we look for in the child. But what about her family and background?”
“She should have a prosperous father,” Unbeatable replied, “a doting mother – both reasy to help out in the stables. Yes, and two younger sisters aged five and one.”
“And what about brothers?”
“Only one, I think,” said Unbeatable. “Well-behaved and useful with apples.”

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

I was away! Things happened! But first – a round up of curious happenings in the horse world!

  • Looks like I got rid of the virtual racing stable I ran in the early 1990s far too early. An unraced imaginary horse from the Digiturf game has just been sold for $5,225. Yes, not only is it nonexistent, it’s also unproven. $5,225. You could get a real racehorse for a lot less. ESPN reports.
  • The Guardian’s dance critic was dispatched to review para-dressage: “With their tightly plaited manes and long ballerina necks, they perform tightly controlled pirouettes and piaffes with impressive finesse; they float across the arena with a silken stride that is like a horsey grand jeté.”
  • An Australian study suggests that Monty Roberts’ methods should be re-assessed. (Horse Talk). UPDATE: Monty responds with a link to an earlier peer-reviewed study of his methods from Anthrozoology.
  • A riding school in Kenya thrives, thanks to its enterprising owner. (BBC).
  • Yahoo has a mighty fine photo gallery of an Icelandic horse round up. Iceland: a nation where horse shoes are sold at garages. MSNBC has sulky racing on the north German coast.
  • The Bloggess brings us the worst example of equine taxidermy I’ve yet seen – and I love bad taxidermy. It’s meant to be a falabella.
  • Kazakhstan is shipping its own horse-meat sausages to London for its Olympic Team. (The Atlantic)
  • As a US Senate hearing calls for stricter rules concerning drug use in horse racing, the New York Times gets hold of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s vet sheet. The colt had been battling tendon problems and osteoarthritis for some time before he even began his Triple Crown bid. That’s an unsound horse, racing on dirt at the highest level. Since the NYT’s report, other racing figures have come forward to say this is no big deal and in fact, common and legitimate. (New York Times).
  • Meanwhile, here’s a less depressing NYT blog post on using dressage to train both competing and retired racehorses. (NYT)
  • Riding school ponies stolen in area of Florida notorious for blackmarket horse-meat slaughters. (CBS Local).
  • And so that we don’t end on a bum note, here’s North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend, Hyon Song-Wol, singing her smash hit “Excellent Horse-like Lady” or “A Girl In The Saddle Of A Steed”. Enjoy.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Spotted by Helen Maguire at the UCCA contemporary art gallery in Beijing

Fair Girls on Grey Horses

Fantastic news via Fran Jurga’s Equus blog: Hannah Zeitlhofer, one of the two first women to be admitted to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna (video from 2008), qualified as an “Bereiteran’wärterin” on the 1st May. This means she can now take part in the famous school’s public displays. British-American rider Sojourner Morrell dropped out a couple of years ago and is now working as a model, but the new intake of five “elevin” includes four women. Their names are Marlene Tucek, Theresa Stefan, Ulla Reimers and Agnes St George. There’s a photo of Agnes and Hannah here. Marlene Tucek is the daughter of a Vienna riding school owner who has competed in the Iberian discipline of working equitation (a kind of combination of dressage, bull-fighting and cow-work skills).

If you want an idea of the kind of opposition these women faced, check out this blog, which doesn’t seem to have any concrete argument against women joining the Spanish Riding School, but doesn’t like it anyway. It quotes some comment from the time of Hannah and Sorrell’s first admission:

“I am not happy about this decision,” Elisabeth Max-Theurer, the female president of the governing board. …

“I stress that I am not against women – I am only concerned about tradition,” said Max-Theurer, a former dressage rider who won gold for Austria in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Well, tough. I found an interview with Hannah from earlier this year auf Deutsch on Rosarot’s blog. Here’s my clumsy translation of one section:

Wie war das für sie als Frau unter Männern?
Da ich die Arbeit im Stall gewöhnt bin war das nichts Außergewöhnliches. Das heißt die Grundarbeit ist natürlich schon ordentlicher und strenger und disziplinierter als sonst. Aber so war das nichts Besonderes. Die Männer im Stall, das sind alles Kollegen. Da gibt’s nichts.

What was it like for you to be the only woman ranked below the men?

Once I was used to working in the stable it was not out of the ordinary.  That is to say that the basic work is naturally very thorough, strict and disciplined as can be. So it was nothing special. The men in the stable were all colleagues. There wasn’t a problem.

Viel Glück, ladies! There’s good tradition and pointless tradition, and I’m sure you can tell the difference.

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.