For centuries the fate and fortune of countries depended on how educated their riders were and how they proved it to the world in war, tournaments and carousels.
Four tablets, and two books
In our civilisation, the roots of horsemanship go a long way back. Around the same time Moses received two tablets with Ten Commandments, Kikkuli from Mittani wrote four tablets on horse management, covering breeding, husbandry and feeding, riding, driving and training sequences. Kikkuli was a horse master to the Hittite king Suppililiuma and his knowledge on breeding superb horses and training them for war allowed the Hittite to become a mighty power rivalling Egypt.
One thousand years later, the Greek horse master Xenophon wrote two books about horsemanship and how to teach soldiers to ride their horses, a testament to the relevance of his writings, is that his books are still valid for today's riders.
The era of Horse Masters
For a long time, the influence of countries and Kings were judged by their horses; by the breeding and the cavalry. The consequences of a cavalry riding to war without great skills were fatal for riders, horses and their country, placing the horse masters in essential positions of power.
As a consequence, courtly riding schools were founded all over Europe with the dawn of the Renaissance, the most well known being in Naples, Italy and Versailles, France. These academies and universities were highly regarded institutes of knowledge, and people would travel from afar to visit the stables to discuss the arts of riding with the scholars and professors.
The courtly riding schools were run by a horse master, and it was a highly paid profession of great esteem. Their education usually required many years abroad, and the students of the art of riding would spend up to ten years at the university or an academy, where they rode for at least four hours a day.
In addition to the art of riding, horse masters were taught skills like dancing, singing and fencing. A rider had to learn how to lead and be led. Rhythm, melody, weapons skills and diplomatic ability were essential components of the education for a horse master. Horse masters dedicated their whole life to educating horses and students. They were universal academics who knew how a horse should be fed, managed, trained and used well.
Horses were, and still are, very expensive and always a long-term investment. Horses worked at the riding schools until they were retired at the age of 25, and after that, sometimes they were used for breeding.
From baroque to modern times
The only institutes left from that era are the European Schools in Vienna and Bueckeburg in their original architecture with stables, riding house and other rooms and building. There were many, many more at the Renaissance and Baroque times, but sadly most of them did not survive the last centuries. Some were reused for other purposes like museums, theatres or function rooms. Whilst some were destroyed in World War II or later, like the University riding school of Goettingen in Germany, the headquarters of Master Ayrer and his rare White Born horses.
Photo by Niels Stappenbeck
The breed White Born (Weißgeborene) was born white, and they were the Stars of European Courts in baroque times. Originally bred in Denmark. Later, they bred them in Hannover as well, but at the time they did not know about genetics, and unfortunately, the breed was extinct in 1812. However, there are still white born horses from the Knabstrupper breed.
Photo of Diana Krischke by Gabrielle Boiselle
In the 19th century, the military academy of Saumur was founded in France. In the 1970ies the schools of Jerez (Spain) and Lisbon/Queluz (Portugal) followed as academic riding schools in the tradition of the glorious riding times of the European baroque. These five schools represent different types of traditions; from baroque to modern times.
Breathing air into old traditions
Today, horses and riding are commonly associated with being a rich niché sport, a leisure activity or part-time "hobby" profession, with the exception of mounted police officers, cowboys, the odd lumberjack or carriage driver. Seemingly, the importance of horses to the global economy has dwindled with some of its great and magnificent traditions and being a horse master is not a glamorous nor a highly paid profession.
However, you can still find passionate contemporary horse masters all over the world, work hard keeping the fabulous traditions with the horse alive. They are breathing air into the historic traditions and teaching many elements, including; styles descending from those that were used to train the cavalry; Légèreté, Baroque and Classic-baroque, Jousting, Skill at arms, Side saddle, Academic Art of Riding and Straightness Training to mention a few trending methods.
There are also the great traditions of the cowboys; Vaquero Style, Working Equitation, Doma Vaquera and Gaucho riding. Additionally, there are growing interests for Liberty training and Bitless riding (working with the horse without any equipment) along with the increase in popularity for more modern disciplines like show jumping, eventing and dressage.
The contemporary horse masters
Today they might be called Equestrian instructors, coaches and trainers; their role in society has changed a great deal along with the change of the horse’s role. Becoming an instructor or trainer today is in most cases a causal process in comparison to what it used to be.
One can say it is a natural change following the shift from horsepower to engine and oil. Adapting has been necessary not to leave the dear partner behind. One could say that new roles have been formed for the horse as well as the horse masters. Supplementary skills like dancing, singing, weapons skills are replaced by skills like technology, social media marketing and customer service, however having diplomatic ability is still very very valid in high demand.
If you are interested in lessons to learn more about historical riding or classical dressage, check out these dedicated instructors: Arne Koets, Stefanie Niggemeier, Sabine Oettel, Anja Beran, Manuel Borga Veiga, Celina Harich, Martine L’Orsa, Christina Drangel, Karin Wåhlin, Meg Brauch, Tamina Pinent or Diana Krischke.
Just want to read more about it? What about reading some of these:
Richard Hinrichs Schooling horses in Hand: A means of Suppling and Collection (2001)
Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere Ecole de Cavalerie
Antoine de Pluvinel Le Maneige Royal or L´instruction du Roy
Gustav Steinbrecht The Gymnasium of the Horse
About Diana Krischke
Krischke is an Ecuyer of the Fuerstliche Hofreitschule in Bueckeburg, which is Germany‘s oldest and only existing courtly riding school. She is also a research assistant at the University of Kassel in the department of animal husbandry.