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The history of the horse in imaginative literature may be slim, but the history of literature on the horse and on equine training and usage, particularly military usage, represents a rich and distinguished tradition.
Commentators date its beginning in the West to Xenophon, the Athenian historian and general, and his principal equestrian treatise, On Horsemanship (c. 360 BC), sometimes translated as The Art of Horsemanship. The only extant text on its subject from the classical period, On Horsemanship belongs to the large and important body of work rediscovered in the late Middle Ages that launched the Renaissance. Published in the original Greek in Italy in 1516 and in England as early as 1692, On Horsemanship first appeared in English translation in 1584, with many other English translations to follow in the succeeding centuries.
Renaissance masters of horsemanship as renowned in their own time as in ours, most of them influenced by Xenophon, include Federico Grisone, author of the early Gli Ordini de Cavalcare (The Rules of Riding) (1550), and Thomas Blundeville, a polyglot humanist who translated Grisone into English as The Art of Ryding and Breakinge Greate Horses (1560) and then followed it with his own treatise on the subject, The Foure Chiefest Offices Belonging to Horsemanship (1580). Seminal post-Renaissance works, all in print today, include Antoine de Pluvinal, Le Maneige Royal (1625), William Cavendish, Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux (1658), translated into English (1667) and later published as A General System of Horsemanship (1743); and Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, École de Cavalerie (School of Horsemanship) (1730). Countless treatises, handbooks, and dictionaries on horsemanship, dressage, equitation, and related subjects followed throughout the 18th century, including Richard Berenger, A New System of Horsemanship (1754), Charles Hughes, The Compleat Horseman (1772), and Laurence O’Reilly, The Art of Horsemanship (1780), to choose three English works nearly at random.
Francois Baucher dominated horsemanship and dressage theory (in the broad sense of “training”) in France throughout the Victorian period, principally through his masterwork Méthode d’équitation basée sur de nouveaux principes (1842). The book enjoyed many French editions in the ensuing decades, including the important revision introducing Baucher’s “second manner” (1864), as well as multiple English editions, titled Method of Riding Based on New Principles, beginning in 1851. Baucher’s methods influenced such contemporary works as Lewis Edward Nolan, The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses (1861), James Fillis, Principes de dressage et d’équitation (translated as Breaking and Riding)(1890), Faverot de Kerbrech, Dressage methodique du cheval de selle (Methodical Dressage of the Riding Horse)(1891), and Alexis-Francois L’Hotte, Questions équestres (1906). His methods also provoked antipathy in Germany, notably in Gustav Steinbrecht, Gymnasium des Pferdes (The Gymnasium of the Horse) (1886). A continuing force throughout the 20th century, Baucherism informs General Albert Decarpentry, Baucher et son école (Baucher and His School) (1948) and Équitation académique (Academic Equitation) (1949), and, more recently, Jean-Claude Racinet, Another Horsemanship (1994) and Racinet Explains Baucher (1997).
Horsemanship and dressage primarily served military ends from the classical period into the 20th century, and their divergence following the Great War has led to a plethora of works treating horsemanship and dressage as valuable ends in themselves or as critical attributes of eventing and other equestrian sports. These include mid-century manuals such as Vladimir Littauer, Common Sense Horsemanship (1951), Waldemar Seunig, Horsemanship (1956), and Noel Jackson, Effective Horsemanship (1967), and personal accounts such as Nino Oliveira, Reflections on Equestrian Art (1965). They include technical and meditative texts by contemporary masters: Alois Podhajsky, Complete Training of Horse and Rider (1967) and My Horses, My Teachers (1968); Charles de Kunffy, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (1993) and Training Strategies for Dressage Riders (1994); and Walter Zettl, Dressage in Harmony (1998) and The Circle of Trust (2008). And they include modern histories, such as Dorian Williams, Great Riding Schools of the World (1975), David Collins, Dressage Masters (2006), and Henry Guillaume, The Great European Schools of Classical Dressage (2007).
Not surprisingly, the historical body of work on warhorses and mounted warfare exceeds that on horsemanship and dressage proper. Xenophon’s two important equestrian works — the second is The Cavalry Officer (also c. 360 BC) — set the pattern. The Renaissance and 17th century followed suit, with seminal works, such as those cited earlier, generally written for military application. The late 18th century exploded with military equestrian treatises such as Captain Robert Hinde, The Discipline of the Light-Horse (1778), Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke, Military Equitation (1793), L. Neville, A Treatise on the Discipline of Light Cavalry (1796), W.A. Tyndale, A Treatise on Military Equitation (1797), and Charles de Warnery, Remarks on Cavalry (1798), to name just a few. Scores of similar works, from many countries and in several languages, can be found in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and similar digital databases.
The 19th and 20th centuries gave us histories meant to instruct, such as Edward Lewis Nolan, Cavalry: History and Tactics (1853), Colonel F. Chenevix Trench, Cavalry in Modern War (1884), and Prince zu Hohenlohe Ingelfingen, Letters on Cavalry (1889); technical manuals on many subjects, such as Philip St. George Cooke, 1862 U.S. Cavalry Tactics (1862), George Patten, Cavalry Drill and Sabre Exercise (1864), John Boniface, The Cavalry Horse and His Pack (1903), and the comprehensive Cavalry Manual of Horse Management (developed by the U.S. Cavalry School in the 1930s and revised and published in 1979 “for today’s civilian horse owners and riders”). The past two centuries also generated many memoirs, such as George Waring, Whip and Spur (1875), Francis Yeats-Brown, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1930), and Lucian Truscott, The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry (1989), as well as an endless stream of regimental histories, battle studies, and combatant diaries.
From our historical perspective, the flurry of books on cavalry and mounted warfare published around the Great War represents a grim irony: many were written by general officers, such as the future Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who believed that cavalry would play a decisive role on the Western Front, a belief with severe ramifications (cavalry did play a critical role on the Eastern Front). Prewar texts focusing on strategy include Friedrich Bernhardi, Cavalry in Future Wars (1906), Gustav Wrangel, The Cavalry in the Russo-Japanese War (1907), Douglas Haig, Cavalry Studies: Strategic and Tactical (1907), Erskine Childers, German Influence on British Cavalry (1911), and George Denison, A History of Cavalry, With Lessons for the Future (1913). And wartime texts focusing on tactics and technical matters include Paul Trapier Hayne, Lectures on Cavalry (1915), Cavalry Notes, Compiled at Army War College (1917), U.S. Army, Cavalry Drill Regulations (1917), and William H. Carter, Horses, Saddles, and Bridles (1918). The immediate postwar years brought forth both histories, such as M.P. Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps: An Account of the Cavalry Operations in Palestine and Syria, 1917-1918 (1921), and unapologetic treatises on the important role for cavalry in future wars, such as Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Modern Cavalry (1922).
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching of equine related works from the Great War period, however, are the treatises and manuals on acquiring the vast numbers of horses needed to pursue the war — such as Spencer Borden, What Horse for the Cavalry (1912) or Walter Gilbey, Horses for the Army: A Suggestion (1913) — particularly when these are read in light of a primary wartime text on what actually was happening to those horses, Sidney Galtrey, The Horse and the War (1918), Galtrey’s tribute to “the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules that have been gallantly aiding the Empire’s Cause.” In the end, some 375,000 equines from Britain alone perished for that Cause, with comparable numbers from other national contestants. The carnage of the Great War, for humans and equines alike, was unprecedented.
The kind and degree of carnage was not lost on the literary horsemen and sportsmen who had seen military service and witnessed the equine slaughter. The English war hero turned war opponent, Siegfried Sassoon, for example, not only invoked the hunt in wartime poems like “Break of Day” (1917) and “Together” (1918), but also juxtaposed the open fields and the exuberance of horses in the rural English hunt with the confined trenches and the decimation of equines on the Western Front in his postwar trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936). And the American ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway likewise juxtaposed the tragedy that unfolds in the contained, controlled, but still unpredictable ritual violence of the classical Spanish bullfight with the vaster and more chaotic tragedy of the Great War. His Death in the Afternoon (1932) dwells less on the killing of bulls, as both fact and metaphor, than on the maiming of men and horses.