Classical dressage and equitation emerged in Italy in the 16th century and developed en fleur in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620) and François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688-1751) stand tall among horsemen of the period in France, and their respective masterworks — Le Maneige Royal (1625) and École de Cavalerie (1733) — stand as mileposts of two moments in that period.
The distinguished late-16th century Neapolitan master Giambattista Pignatelli published no work in print (some writing did circulate in manuscript), but he taught two brilliant students who disseminated and refined his ideas: Pluvinel, who called Pignatelli “the most excellent Horseman of our century as well as of the preceding one,” and Salomon de la Broue, who wrote the important and widely circulated treatise, Le Cavalerice François (1602). Pluvinel and especially de la Broue, in turn, influenced de la Guérinière.
Pluvinal and de la Guérinière both held high office in addition to teaching, training, and writing—positions that enhanced their authority well beyond the strict confines of horsemanship. Pluvinal, écuyer and courtier to Henri III, Henri IV, and Louis XIII, founded the Academied’ Equitation at the Tuileries in Paris, where French nobility learned equestrian and other arts essential to their cultivation and social standing. A century later, de la Guériniè reserved not only as écuyer to Louis XIV but also, building on Pluvinel’s legacy, as Directeur du Manège des Tuileries.
Pluvinel’s seminal work first appeared posthumously in 1623 as Le Maneige Royal and in expanded form in 1625 as L’Instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval (the latter edition now generally goes by the name of the former). Rather than a treatise, the book takes the form of a dialogue between Pluvinel as master and the young Dauphin (later Louis XIII) as pupil. Part I, or The King asks Monsieur de Pluvinel what one must do in order to become a perfect Horseman, as the title intimates, unfolds Pluvinel’s philosophy and theory of equitation and dressage; the much longer Part II, or His majesty begins to ride, their practical application.
A classical humanist of 17th century stamp, “Pluvinal considers himself not only a teacher of the equestrian art, but also a teacher of virtue and morality” (as Hilda Nelson notes). Indeed, teaching — or “schooling” — is the conceptual and structural lynchpin of the two parts of Le Maneige Royal: a nobleman must develop reason, grace, and sound judgment through learning, “according to his inclination, his energy, and his disposition,” and use them to perfect those skills assigned him by nature and rank; and a nobleman as horseman(and vice versa) likewise must bring a horse to reason and to the expression of its innate grace through training,according to “his strength, his agility and lightness, his memory, and his disposition based on either his good or bad will.” Perfecting a horseman and perfecting a horse, in short, are parallel processes.
With respect to the latter, “the whole science of schooling horses,” Pluvinel writes, “lies in making a horse obedient to the bridle [left] hand and to the two heels.” The horseman must use “patience, industry, and judgment,” and must be “sparing with blows and generous with caresses and flattery.” Since “each horse has his own particular air which is natural to him,” the horseman must identify that air and enable the horse to express it fully. As for particulars, Pluvinel advocates working with a horse “gently, for a short while, and often”; working him “at what he finds most difficult, until he finally obeys”; and working him through a strict regimen of movements, especially the volte, “the most important movement a good horse can do, because therein lies more science than in any of the others.” Pluvinel’s ultimate goal: “perfect harmony between Horseman and horse.”
De la Guériniere’s celebrated École de Cavalrie first appeared as a complete folio in 1733 (pieces had been published between 1729 and 1731). The volume comprises three parts on what its author calls the “three essential aspects” of horsemanship: “knowledge of the horse, the manner of training it, and its care.” Part I covers “the external parts of the horse …, the discernment of age, the differences of coat, the horses of various countries, the bit and the saddle.” Part II “contains principles for the dressage of the horse, either for the manège or for war, for the hunt or for the carriage.” Part III presents a “treatise on the bones of the horse”; catalogs “the illnesses of the horse,” providing recipes for liniments, poultices, and medications; and discusses “surgical operations performed on the horse,” including the common 18th century practices of bleeding and applying hot irons.
A quintessentially 18th century work, École de Cavalrie is encyclopedic rather than didactic and rationalistic rather than moralistic. It reflects and advances core Enlightenment values of disinterested reason manifested in science, system, and method, combined with more specifically French values of clarity and conciseness in expression. De la Guérinière defines his “task” as “the development of whatever is true, simple and useful in the art of horsemanship, with a mind to avoiding the tedious excursions and repetitions found in most earlier treatises.” A recent translator has nicely identified the foundation of that task as a conviction in “the perfectibility of Nature’s potential through the powers of human reason,” joined to “a concept of inherent goodness” in which schooling serves primarily to bring out “the excellent qualities of the horse.”
Three key points from Part II of École de Cavalrie may serve to illustrate de la Guériniere’s thoughts on dressage: 1) Horsemanship must be based on a theory, for “without the theory, the practice will always be uncertain”; and the theory, to be effective, must provide “sound principles” that do not oppose “what is natural” but allow the horseman to “perfect nature with the aid of art.” 2) To apply those principles, a “true horseman” must “like horses, be energetic and bold, and have abundant patience”; must make “an understanding of a horse’s nature”— physical and psychological — his “principle consideration”; and must acquire “gracefulness” through “correct posture and independent seat” resulting from “strict attention to the use of [the] body as a counterweight.” 3) “To be between the hand and the legs is the quality of a perfectly trained horse”; suppleness and obedience are the “first qualities which a horse must have in order to be trained”; and the shoulder-in is “an indispensable lesson” for developing that suppleness.
Pluvinel, in brief, took horsemanship from its 16th century Neapolitan origins to its 17th century French incarnation, and de la Guérinière brought that incarnation decisively into the world and worldview of the 18th century. Pluvinal contributed the first detailed prescriptions for achieving airs above the ground and, as de la Guérinière credits him, “invented” pillars and their systematic use. Though perhaps not the first horseman to use the shoulder-in, de la Guérinière certainly created the principles and practice for its systematic use and, probably more important, contributed a comprehensive, cohesive, and scientific theory of horsemanship — one that set the stage for François Baucher’s counter-theory and, eventually, Nuno Oliveira’s negotiation of the two.
The publication of Le Maniege Royal and École de Cavalrie in affordable and well-illustrated editions is a welcome event. It provides broad access not only to two of the founders of modern dressage, but also to two brilliant minds and, in the case of de la Guérinière, to a writer of pellucid prose. We read Pluvinel and de la Guérinière today not only to learn technique, but also to understand history, and reading them is well worth the time and effort that they demand and deserve.