A Brief Outline of the History of Dressage: Xenophon to Antoine de Pluvinel - by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2008 All Rights Reserved

return to the ARTICLES

Writing a history of dressage that investigates the discoveries of all the gymnastic training tools that shaped the body of knowledge of classical dressage and their role within the training system, along with the socio-economic, historical, and political factors that played a role would be a fascinating research project. But it would require several years to complete, and it would fill an entire book. Since I have neither the time to do all the necessary research at the moment, nor the space within the scope of an article, I will just give a brief outline of the evolution of dressage with a few comments on the most important authors and their contributions to our understanding of dressage.

Although horses were already ridden a few centuries earlier, the oldest written source we know of that espouses some of the most important tenets of classical dressage is a treatise by the Greek general Xenophon (430 – 354 BC). He, in turn, refers to a previous author, Simon of Athens, whose writings have unfortunately not survived. What makes Xenophon’s work so remarkable is his concern for the horse’s well-being. He is the first author who insists that the rider has to win his horse’s friendship and willing cooperation, because otherwise the training will have very little value, aesthetic or otherwise. He wrote: “For what the horse does under compulsion, as Simon also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign.” This principle remains as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago.

Xenophon’s sophisticated and cultured approach to riding and training did not seem to survive under the Roman Empire, much less during the Dark Ages in Europe. During the Middle Ages, when knights in heavy metal plate galloped heavy horses in a straight line towards each other in order to unseat their opponent with a lance, maneuverability, flexibility and subtle ways of communicating were not necessary. The riders, who were relatively immobile in their suits of armor, were standing in the stirrups with straight knees, feet braced forward against the stirrups. The saddles positioned them relatively high above the horse, hardly allowing them to feel anything, and the long shanked curb bits whose reins were held by a heavily gloved hand that also had to carry a heavy wooden shield did not exactly invite fine riding.

The first author, who wrote a treatise on riding after several centuries of silence, was king Dom Duarte I (1391 - 1438) of Portugal. His little known book “Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela” – The Instruction of the Art of Riding in Every Saddle – was published posthumously in 1438. Dom Duarte died of the plague before he could finish the third part of his book, which deals more specifically with horsemanship. He was only able to complete seven out of sixteen planned “recommendations” for riders.

More than a century passed after Dom Duarte’s death before the tradition of classical equitation was resumed. The economic, political, cultural and artistic center of Europe had moved to Italy during the 15th century. Aristocrats from all over Europe sent their sons to the academies in Naples, Rome, Ferrara, Florence, and Bologna that were set up to teach dance, fencing, and classical literature, as well as riding. Perhaps the most famous riding master of the time was Federigo Grisone who taught at the academy in Naples. His book “Gli ordini di Cavalcare” was published in 1550 and translated into most European languages.

Grisone, widely considered to be the founding father of classical equitation after the Middle Ages, already recognized the importance of the trot work for the training of the horse. Due to its symmetrical footfall sequence the trot is better suited to developing the musculature of the horse in a symmetrical, ambidextrous fashion than the canter, and due to its suspension phase after each diagonal pair of legs has touched down, the trot is less susceptible to developing impurities than the walk.

The goal of the trot work, according to Grisone, is to make the horse straight and light, with a soft mouth and a good rein contact, which is the basis of his entire method. He wanted the rider to carry the rein hand low, and he emphasized the importance of connecting the base of the horse’s neck to his shoulders. This is a discovery of fundamental importance, since it is only a secure connection between the base of the neck and the shoulders that allows the rider to align the horse’s hips and shoulders on the ridden track, and hence to establish functional straightness. This connection allows the impulses of the hind legs to travel along the spine to the bit without leaking out through a false bend in front of the withers. Conversely, it also allows the rein aids to travel along the horse’s spine all the way to the grounded hind leg.

Grisone followed Xenophon in his emphasis of the importance of the horse’s correct posture and the rider’s correct and effective seat.

Similarly to Xenophon, Grisone recommends training with gentleness and patience, but unlike the former, he condones excessively harsh punitive methods when the horse resists.

Cesare Fiaschi, a contemporary of Federigo Grisone and the teacher of Giambattista Pignatelli, founded a riding academy in Ferrara in 1534. His book “Trattato dell’imbrigliare, maneggiare e ferrare cavalli” (Treatise on bridling, training and shoeing horses) appeared in 1556. Fiaschi was the first author who mentioned the importance of a steady rhythm and tempo: “without tempo and rhythm nothing good can be accomplished”. This was a groundbreaking discovery, since a steady rhythm and tempo is the conditio sine qua non for the horse’s longitudinal balance. Balance in turn is the prerequisite for suppleness/Losgelassenheit, and together they form the foundation of impulsion and collection. Fiaschi found one of the eternal truths of the gymnastic training, which is still as important today as it was 500 years ago and is reflected in the fact that rhythm/tempo became the first element of the training scale that the German cavalry developed in the famous 1912 edition of their training manual, which was subsequently adopted as a general training guideline by the German national federation and the USDF.

Fiaschi wrote that “it seemed necessary that the good rider recognize the nature of the horses he wants to train” and that the rider “should always proceed with reason and with a good temperament in everything he does”, a point of view that is reminiscent of Xenophon’s philosophy and that presages the admonitions of Antoine de Pluvinel and many later masters to treat the horse with gentleness and fairness.

It is interesting to note that Fiaschi was also an authority on farriery and his book on the subject remained in use until the 19th century.

The next important authority who greatly influenced the course of dressage was Giambattista Pignatelli (c. 1525 – c. 1600), the teacher of Antoine de Pluvinel. Since he unfortunately never published a book, like so many riding masters, we don’t know very much about his training method. The Portuguese author Carlos Manoel de Andrade (1790) credits him with discovering the gymnastic value of riding circles on a single track.

The work on circles of various sizes is the centerpiece of bending the horse in motion, which helps to unlock the horse’s abdominal muscles. It also plays an important role in developing straightness, as well as equal suppleness in both directions, and the engagement of the inside hind leg underneath the body mass. The training of the young horse begins with teaching him to maintain a steady tempo on a round 20m circle at the longe line in order to lay the foundation for balance, Losgelassenheit, as well as an even rein contact, and eventually impulsion and collection. Throughout the entire course of the horse’s training, circle work in its many variations remains of the utmost importance. For instance, the curvature of the volte (the smallest circle to whose bend the horse’s spine can conform on a single track) is the same as the bend of the horse’s spine in the lateral movements (shoulder-in, counter-shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, and half pass). This means that the bend of the horse’s spine from ears to tail is the same on the volte as in the lateral movements. For this reason, riding (correct!) voltes greatly improves the execution of all the lateral movements. Figure eights are a great test of straightness and ambidextrousness, and they can be used as gymnastic tools to create equal suppleness on both sides of the horse. In addition, they can be used to teach flying changes, and the effortless execution of figure eights in the canter with flying changes in both directions are an effective preparation for tempo changes.

In 1976, a handwritten manuscript by Pignatelli surfaced in Saumur, but it was purchased by a private collector and was never published. On an interesting side note, Pignatelli was from a family who produced a pope (Innocent XII, 1691 – 1700) and a saint (St. Jose Pignatelli, d. 1811).

One of Pignatelli’s most famous students was the French écuyer ordinaire de la Grande Écurie du roi, Salomon de la Broue (c. 1530 – c. 1610). Some authors consider him to have been very forceful in his training methods. However, in his writings he appears to be as patient, as progressive, and as gentle as his contemporary Antoine de Pluvinel. De la Broue was concerned about protecting the horse’s mouth and started the training of his horses with a snaffle. He is the first author who mentions flexions of the neck and poll that were later expanded and improved upon by E.F.Seidler and François Baucher two centuries later. De la Broue also posits as a main principle that the lightness of the horse’s mouth has to come from the overall posture and the steady rein contact with a vertical head position. This constitutes a very important discovery.

Later authors explain in greater detail how the posture and alignment of the horse’s entire body creates an even weight distribution over all four legs, which permits the horse to make contact with the bit without leaning on it. We can see over and over how a heavy or stiff rein contact on one rein or on both reins can be corrected by balancing the horse evenly on his legs. If the horse leans only on one rein, he is carrying too much weight with his shoulder on that side, and this shoulder has drifted laterally off the assigned track. By moving the shoulder back in line with the hips and transferring the excess weight towards the diagonal hind leg, the rein contact becomes lighter on that side. At the same time, the horse will now start to approach the rein on the opposite side, where he had been behind the bit. If the horse leans onto both reins, the reason is often that the hind legs are disengaged and not supporting the body mass enough. As soon as the rider brings both hind legs under the body and flexes them in their upper joints, the combined body mass of horse and rider will flow more and more away from the front legs and towards the haunches, which results in a lightening and softening of the contact on both reins.

Like many honest horsemen, who have a greater talent for communicating with horses than with people and who have a poorly developed business sense, De la Broue died a poor man. The great 18th century master De la Guérinière considered him and the Duke of Newcastle to be the only previous authors who had anything truly intelligent to say about training horses.

One of the undisputedly greatest horsemen of all time was Antoine de Pluvinel (1555 – 1620). At the age of ten, Pluvinel was taken to Italy where he studied under Pignatelli until to 1571 or 1572. After having been introduced to King Charles IX the same year, he was appointed premier écuyer to the king’s brother, the Duc d’Anjou, the future Henri III. Pluvinel accompanied the prince to Poland when the latter was crowned King of Poland in 1573. When King Charles IX died only a few months later in 1574, Henri III rushed from Krakow to Paris, giving up the Polish crown in order to succeed his brother as the new King of France. Pluvinel returned with Henri to France and was amply rewarded for his loyal service. When Henri IV succeeded his cousin to the throne in 1589, Pluvinel remained in charge of crown prince Louis, and kept his other offices.

In 1594, Pluvinel was authorized to found the Académie d’équitation, which was located close to the royal stables. He passed away in 1620 before he was able to edit his book manuscript. A first edition appeared in 1623 under the title “Le Maneige royal”. A second version, with an improved text, entitled “L’Instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval” appeared in 1625, thanks to his old friend Menou de Charnizay. Unlike most training manuals, Pluvinel’s “Instruction du Roy” is written in the form of a dialogue between the king and the author, with additional comments by other notable riders of the court. The king asks Pluvinel questions about the training of horses that he answers. The king in question is young Louis XIII (1601 – 1643), who ascended to the throne upon his father’s assassination in 1610. His mother assumed the power of regent until Louis took over the reins of government in 1617.

Today, Pluvinel is probably most famous and admired for his emphasis of treating the horse as an intelligent being and teaching it with kindness and gentleness. The following quotes illustrate his philosophy: “But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of how to begin it, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his brain, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his gentleness: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns.”

“I concentrate mainly on exercising his mind and his memory, in such a way that I achieve what I want: so that it is the horse’s mind which I work the most: the mind of the rider must work perpetually as well, in order to detect all kinds of opportunities to arrive at my goal, without letting any movement pass unnoticed, nor any opportunity unused.”

“If possible, one must be sparing with punishment and lavish with caresses, as I have already said, and I will say it again, in order to make the horse obey and go out of pleasure rather than discomfort.”

Beside his rather modern sounding training philosophy, Pluvinel also advanced the technical, gymnastic side of training over his predecessors. In order to supple the horse more effectively, he worked on two tracks, rode voltes, as well as turns on the forehand in motion and passades around a single pillar. He is also said to have invented the work between two pillars, which is a highly effective tool for suppling the hips laterally, flexing the haunches longitudinally, and for developing the piaffe as well as the levade.

The single pillar marked the center of the turn on the forehand in motion and the passade. In order for these exercises to be effective, the horse has to execute two round concentric circles with his shoulders and his haunches, while his spine has to be parallel to the radius of the circles. In the turn on the forehand in motion the forehand describes the smaller circle, while the haunches describe the larger circle, which means that the hind legs have to take bigger steps than the front legs. Consequently, the exercise supples the hip joints of the horse. The horse is bent around the laterally driving leg, against the direction of the movement. This helps tremendously in teaching the horse to relax on the inside aids, which allows him to stretch into the outside aids and allows the collecting half halts of the outside rein to go through. The turn on the forehand in motion is historically as well as gymnastically a precursor of the shoulder-in.

In the passade, which could be called a turn on the haunches in motion, the hindquarters are closer to the center of the circle, whereas the shoulders are on the larger circle. As a result, the exercise supples predominantly the shoulders. The horse is bent in the direction of the movement, which makes the passade similar to the haunches-in and half pass.

In addition, the part of the horse that is closer to the center of the circle tends to carry more of the body mass, while the part that is farther away from the center tends to be relieved. In the turn on the forehand in motion the body mass is generally supported more by the front legs, whereas in the passade the hind legs carry a larger share of the weight. Both are excellent suppling exercises that teach the horse to follow the motion of the rider’s pelvis as well as to yield to leg pressure.

return to the ARTICLES