Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The importance of horses

One of the many things I love about Paulette Jiles's historical novels — Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning are the two I've read — is that horses play such an important role. Horses are always so present ... as was the case in the past. It is one of the reasons I'm attracted to history: I love horses (I have the privilege of sharing my life with a now elderly Thoroughbred), and I long to experience a world that was "peopled" by horses.

Although horses are no longer intrinsic to our day-to-day lives, they are still a part of our vocabulary. We "keep pace," "hit our stride," "get off on the wrong foot," "kick up our heels" and "feel our oats."

I'm surprised how little has been written about the historical horse culture, which is one reason I went to some trouble to find The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World, a collection of academic essays edited by Karen Rabet and Treva J. Tucker (whom I consulted while researching Mistress of the Sun).

In the 16th century, a new type of horseback riding came into being. In Italy, the rediscovery of Xenophon's The Art of Horsemanship triggered a horsemanship renaissance. Schools teaching what we now call dressage opened in Italy, attracting noblemen from all over Europe.

Similar schools opened in other countries, and by the end of the century, the French could fairly claim to be in the forefront of the style of riding that came to be known as haute école.

Much of the impetus for this development was due to the change in warfare. With the advent of gun-bearing infantry and the mounted pistoleer, traditional fighting in armor became impractical. With the added problem of a peace treaty in 1598, French noblemen — who were defined as calvary warriorswere suddenly without a job, much less an identity.

By degrees, then (of course), the definition of a nobleman expanded to include a man's qualities and abilities, the most important of which was grazia — or grace. High on this list was grace on horseback, men who had mastered this new riding style. Nobility was no longer proved on a battlefield, but in demonstrating a profound unity with a horse.


Some other wonderful books on this subject:

Pluvinel, Antoine de. The Maneige Royal. J A Allen & Co Ltd; London; 1989. This is a beautifully illustrated large-format book.

Dent, Anthony. Horses in Shakespeare's England. J A Allen; London; 1987. This is a wonderful book with lots of practical details.

Xenophon. The Art of Horsemanship. Where it all began.


Mary Sharratt said...

Although horses are no longer intrinsic to our day-to-day lives

Speak for yourself, lol! My Welsh mare's intrinsic position in my day-to-day life has elevated me to Crazy Horse Lady status!

Thanks for the great post. I'll look up those books.

Helena said...

Yes, horse lore is essential to understanding seventeenth-century life.

A bibliography I have found useful is John B. Podeschi, Books on the horse and horsemanship: riding, hunting, breeding and racing 1400-1941, London: Tate Gallery for the Yale Center for British Art, 1981.