Sixteenth-century English books on horsemanship

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Scholars in equine history generally agree on the broad historical contours of early European dressage and equitation: Italian schools, particularly Neapolitan, introduced and developed the first modern systems of the two closely related arts in the second half of the 16th century; Italian and French schools advanced them further in the 17th century; and French schools became the dominant force in the 18th century. Austrian and German schools, their theories and practices based on somewhat different principles, evolved with great refinement over the 18th century; and French and German schools, for all intents and purposes, competed for hegemony and influence throughout the 19th century. Spanish and Portuguese schools, of course, also played important roles in this history; while “English schools,” as a phrase, might be thought an oxymoron.[i]

Thomas Blundeville published an adaptation and translation of Grisone as The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Great Horses (1560).
Thomas Blundeville published an adaptation and translation of Grisone as The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Great Horses (1560).

Though Early Modern British horsemen, like generations of their descendants, preferred hunting to schooling, “manège riding,” as Elizabeth Tobey reminds us, “had been practiced at the English court since the early sixteenth century” (Grisone, 43). Italian masters taught in England, British noblemen studied in Italy, and “the Neapolitan school,” as a result, became known in England and “excited the interest of English horsemen” (Felton, 43). Ten years after Federico Grisone published his Gli ordini di cavalcare  (1550), the first modern equestrian treatise to appear in print, as opposed to manuscript (Tomassini, 79), the English courtier Thomas Blundeville published an adaptation and translation of Grisone as The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Great Horses (1560).[ii] Blundeville’s translation enjoyed “ten historical printings between 1560 and 1609” (Grisone, 18) and influenced “English horsemen for over a century” (Van der Horst, 128).

In the Preface to The Arte of Ryding, Blundeville advises readers to be thankful both to Grisone for having invented a system of horsemanship and to Blundeville himself for translating it and reordering and clarifying its presentation. He then adds: “And you shall haue very good cause also to be thankful unto my deare frende John Astley,” who practiced Grisone’s rules daily. I sawe him without helpe of any other teacher, bring two of his horses … into such perfection as I beleue few gentilmen in this realme haue the lyke” (Blundeville, np). Blundeville’s point is not that his readers should thank Grisone for Astley’s exceptional horsemanship, but rather, and obliquely, that they should thank Astley as the “deare frende” who introduced Grisone’s Ordini to Blundeville and encouraged him to adapt and translate it into English (see Van der Horst, 128, 132).[iii]

John Astley was the son of “a Gentleman Pensioner, one of the ultra-elite royal bodyguards … charged with the breeding of warhorses and the cultivation of horsemanship in England” (Van der Horst, 132).[iv] To the manner born, Astley too became an accomplished horseman and an ensconced courtier appointed to multiple posts of importance following the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1558.[v] In addition, and more to the point of our inquiry, Astley published in 1584 the second book on horsemanship written originally in English: The Art of Riding, “a breefe treatise,” to cite its title page, “with a due interpretation of certain places alledged out of Xenophon, and Gryson [Grisone], verie expert and excellent Horssemen.”[vi] Brevity notwithstanding, Astley’s Art of Riding is a treatise of signal importance to the emergence of systematic dressage and equitation in England.

At even this very early moment of equestrian treatises, Astley could state his intention as neither giving new rules nor altering old ones, but rather as “interpreting, explaning or shewing the reasons of such rules” with reference to his own practice of them. He identifies the foremost of those “reasons” as the mastery of “the true vse of the hand, wherein the chiefe substance of the whole Art of Riding standeth … a thing not easie, but very hard to be understood” (Astley, np).[vii] Astley then names Xenophon and Grisone not only as skilled horsemen who mastered the true use of the hand, but also as the writers who have explained this “thing” with the most clarity and authority.[viii] Invoked throughout his text, they serve as exemplars whose precepts, or rules, “all those that are desirous to haue the true order and exercise of this Art” should follow” (Astley, 10-11).[ix]

Explaining the “true use of the hand,” Astley notes, requires that he first address the art of riding in full, for “how shal a man make another know what the true vse of the hand is in the Art of Riding, if first he dooth him not to vnderstand in general, what the verie Art it selfe in nature is?” (np, and see 2).[x] After defining the Art in his opening chapters, Astley then can turn to “the true use of the hand,” or contact.[xi] Through contact, as Astley derives its import from Grisone, “all the other qualities may be best brought to perfection, and the head and necke to great straiednes, the mouth to a sweete and perfect good staie, the which (to end withal) he counteth to be the verie foundation of the whole Art” (16, repeated verbatim 42). While Grisone and Xenophon agree on the foundational nature of contact, however, they differ on the degree of control afforded by proper contact: contact serves “to mainteine [the horse] without giuing him anie libertie at all, as Gryson saith, though it seeme otherwise to Xenophon” (39).

John Astley published in 1584 the second book on horsemanship written originally in English: The Art of Riding, “a breefe treatise,” to cite its title page, “with a due interpretation of certain places alledged out of Xenophon, and Gryson [Grisone], verie expert and excellent Horssemen.”
John Astley published in 1584 the second book on horsemanship written originally in English: The Art of Riding, “a breefe treatise,” to cite its title page, “with a due interpretation of certain places alledged out of Xenophon, and Gryson [Grisone], verie expert and excellent Horssemen.”
Astley attributes specifically to Xenophon “the patterne that Art should imitate,” namely, regaining (or simulating) through artifice the natural movement of the horse.[xii] He then aligns Xenophon’s principle with the Renaissance aesthetic ideal of art imitating nature — a universal ideal, as Astley saw, that carried specific ethical implications with regard to the art of riding. Since “an Horse is the matter and subict wherevpon this Art worketh, and is a creature sensible” (3), the rider must embrace gentleness and patience and shun both violence and unruly passion as “contrarie to nature, which to content and please is the end of the whole art” (44).[xiii] Averse to impatience, intemperance, and force, and circumspect about rigid control, Astley defines the ultimate goal, obedience, as the horse’s “readie willingnes to doo the will of him that dooth command” (3).[xiv] The emphasis on the horse’s willingness (as opposed to the rider’s strict control) aligns Astley, in the end, more closely with Xenophon than with his primary source, Grisone (see also 46).[xv]

Astley introduces “this Art of Riding and Horsemanship,” finally, as belonging “to the warre and feates of armes” (1), but he soon after invokes Xenophon (and follows Grisone) on the point that educated riders, in their various roles, employ two types of horses: “the one, for the [military] seruice aforesaid, the other for pompe and triumph, the which we call stirring horses, the vse of which are verie profitable for this seruice, because they teach a man to sit surelie, comelie, and stronglie in his seate, which  is no small helpe to him that must fight and serue on horssebacke: but of this last I meane not now to speake” (4). Despite the convoluted language, Astley appears to be saying that two types of horse may have different purposes, but that one art of riding serves both purposes: that of war and that of pomp.[xvi] That dual purpose, in the end, confirms the importance of the art.

In addition to Astley’s treatise, 1584 also saw the publication of Thomas Bedingfield’s Art of Riding, a translation, abridgment, and adaptation of Claudio Corte’s important treatise, Il cavallerizzo di Claudio Corte (1562). An influential and cosmopolitan Neapolitan master, Corte resided in the English court in the 1570s and deeply impressed its leading horsemen.[xvii] Blundeville, for example, praised Corte as a “most excellent Rider,” and “well learned, wise, courteous, and modest,” and Astley, invoked him (together with Grisone) when discussing how best to turn a horse (Astley, 58).[xviii] Bedingfield most likely knew Corte both indirectly through the latter’s writing and directly through his teaching, so he obliged when the Gentleman Pensioner Henry Macwilliams entreated him “to afford his paines in the reducing of these few precepts, gathered out of a larger volume written by Claudio Corte, into our English toong.”[xix]

Corte’s “larger volume” comprised three books, the first on the horse, the second on the art of riding, and the third on “the figure of the horseman” (Tomassini, 142).[xx] When Bedingfield indicates in his dedication of the book to Macwilliams that “I haue here brieflie collected the rules of horssemanship according to Claudio Corte in his second booke,” he points to his Art of Riding not only as a translation and abridgment, but also as an adaptation: he often speaks of Corte, in fact, in the third person (see, for example, 17, 50, 90). Bedingfield adds, moreover, that “I have not Englished the author at large [but have spoken only of those things] that concerne the making of horsses for seruice”; and that he has addressed neither Corte’s precepts for “bitting the horsses,” nor his “counseling … touching the helpe of thee hand,” because Blundeville already covered the former and Astley the latter (Bedingfield, Epistle, 66).[xxi]

Claudio Corte’s important treatise, Il cavallerizzo was published in 1562.
Claudio Corte’s important treatise, Il cavallerizzo was published in 1562.

While Bedingfield’s great contribution was to give an English readership access to Corte’s technical precepts on horsemanship, he also introduced Corte’s related social ideas on figura (appearance, or overall presentation of self). Bedingfield (and implicitly Corte) often advises the rider to avoid (in Bedingfield’s English term) “affectation” in seat (33, 35, 36, 50), while encouraging galloping, for example, as a means of developing a “comelie” seat (73). Perhaps more to the point, Bedingfield, like Astley, esteems the value of gentleness and denounces the vice of violence more expressly in terms of noblesse oblige than do Grisone (and Blundeville). Citing Grisone’s extreme corrections, for example, he admonishes that to “touch [the horse] with fire, or tie chords to his stones, or cats to his taile, as some men doo,” is to engage in practices not only cruel and damaging to the horse, but also “overbase, and vnfit to be vsed by gentlemen (97).[xxii]

Bedingfield’s focus on making horses for military service, finally, required some finesse. Granting that Gentlemen typically use horses “more for pleasure than seruice,” Bedingfield points out that, nonetheless, “the principall vse of horsses is, to trauell by the waie, & serue in the war” (np). Likewise, allowing that advanced training allows “Princes & greate personages [to] make proofe of the riders excellence [and] to shew the capacitie of the beasts,” Bedingfield adds that skills such as “turning vpon the ground serueth to manie good ends, as well in skirmish as battell, in combate and triumph” (45). He devotes a full chapter to the topic, “in what sort you should vse and exercise horsses of seruice for the warre,” that advocates, as would generations of subsequent English writers, that “aboue all things you must accustome an horsse of seruice to hunting, where manie other horsses are assembled, and where is great noise and shooting” (95).[xxiii]

With the publication of Corte’s Il cavallerizzo in 1562, Giovanni Tomassini observes, “books on equestrian art [began] to speak to each other” (Tomassini 137). Almost from its inception, put differently, the European discourse on dressage and equitation became not only international, but also intertextual: it would proceed through the following centuries as an ongoing conversation among and between theorists and practitioners, and masters and students, in books that constantly invoked one another. Astley’s treatise and Bedingfield’s translation of Corte provide an almost too literal metaphor for that conversation: the same London printer, Henry Denham, not only published both books in the same year, and sold each book separately, but he also, and not uncommonly, sold the two books bound as one volume.[xxiv]


[i] Though William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle and one of the most important theorists in the history of horsemanship, was English, he spent many years on the Continent as a political exile. Cavendish wrote two treatises, one in French and one in English, and is generally considered to be in the French school.

[ii] A Renaissance polymath and polyglot, Blundeville wrote or translated some ten books on topics as diverse as morality and logic; courtliness and politics; cartography and historiography; cosmography, astronomy, and geography; and “the Arte of Nauigation.”

[iii] Astley returned the compliment in the Dedication to his Art of Riding, citing Blundeville’s Arte of Ryding as such a skillful translation and adaptation of Grisone’s work that “if men take good heed, & will be diligent, they cannot but greatlie profit thereby, to the great benefit of themselues, and the seruice of their countrie” (Astley, np).

[iv] Astley dedicated The Art of Riding to “the Right worshipfull Gentlemen Pensioners, M. Henrie Mackwillan, and M. William Fitzwilliams,” who, in turn, added their own dedicatory note “To our verie louing Companions, and fellowes in Armes, her Maiesties Gentlemen Pensioners.” In the latter, they characterize Astley as “a man … knowne to be of singular skill in the Art of Riding,” and “the onelie man, that persuaded Maister Blundeuill to take first in hend his worke of Frederike Gryson.”

[v] Van der Horse reports that “Astley was appointed Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and Master of Jewel House He also became Master of the Game in Elizabeth’s Enfield Chase and Park and steward and ranger of the manor of Enfield,” and, “jointly with his wife … Keeper of St James’s Palace and the Wardrobe.” Justice of the Peace for Middlesex and Kent in the early 1570s, he “was appointed in 1574 to muster the horses and geldings for the wars in the county of Middlesex” (Van der Horst, 132).

[vi] Blundeville’s The Foure Chiefest Offices belonging to Horsemanship (1565-66) was the first book written in English (as opposed to translated into English). Blundeville incorporated a “newly corrected and amended” version of The Art of Ryding as the second tract in this more comprehensive treatise.

[vii] Astley repeats variations of this specific phrase some ten times over the course of his treatise (Astley, Dedication, 1, 2, 6, 16, 22, 39, 42, 52).

[viii] The Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon wrote two seminal books on horsemanship around 360 B.C.  On Horsemanship (also known as The Art of Horsemanship), dealt with “the selection, care, and training of horses in general”; and The Cavalry Commander, dealt with “military training and the duties of the cavalry commander” (van der Horst, 200). Italian translations of the two works were published in 1580.

[ix] Astley identifies proper use of the “Cauezzan” (cavesson) as a gap in Xenophon and Grisone (20), and thus appends to his text a “discourse … of the Chaine or Cauezzan, and likewise of the Trench & Martingale, … not the Authors worke, but the experience of another Gentleman” (69-79).

[x] Perhaps not surprisingly, given Astley’s emphasis on horsemanship for military service, he chooses a military analogy: “For how shall one make another vnderstand, to what purpose the pomell of a sword serueth, if he shew him not first what a sword it self is?” (Astley, Dedication)

[xi] Tobey writes that Astley was “perhaps the master who best understood Grisone’s theories of contact,” called appoggio by Grisone and translated as appuy by Blundeville. Tobey also offers convincing evidence that Astley read Grisone in Italian as well as Blundeville in English (Grisone, 55).

[xii] “Thus if nature be obeyed, and hir order preciselie kept,” Astley adds, it cannot be but the end will haue such successe as we do desire” (5).

[xiii] Astley earlier had cautioned that “the profitablest waie of teaching the Art of Ridingis, [is] not to deale rigorouslie or hastilie: for anger foreseeth nothing, and is the companion of repentence” (14).

[xiv] Discussing the use and abuse of harsh bits, Astley adds: “But as these things happen by vnskilfull riders, and violent meanes by them vsed, so they seeke to remedie their owne defaults by more violent waies (as is before mentioned) vntill they ascend vnto the highest degree of violence most horrible to nature, as by cutting those knobbes, and their toongs out of their mouthes, and also the grissels our of their nostrils, and thereby deserue the name of Butchers rather than of Riders” (8).

[xv] Astley follows Grisone (and Blundeville) in most other critical points, including, for example, the need for the rider to “accompanie [his horse] in time and measure, so as to the beholders it shall appeare, that [horse and rider] be one bodie, of one mind, and of one will” (57).

[xvi] Astley muddies the point, though, when he further subdivides the two types of horse: “Of seruice in the warre or field on horssebacke, there be two kinds: the one in troops and companies, and those be likewise of two sortes, either in the maine battell, or skirmish: the other, when ben being singled by chance or of set purpose, meete & fight hand to hand, which is more proper to this Art” (5).

When Astley finally does speak of military equitation, he turns the question of “the right use of the hand [for] the teaching and making of a horsse” to that of “the vse of the hand vpon a horsse already taught, and fit for the seruice, wherein we haue but the vse of the left hand onelie: for the other must serue vs for our weapon whatsoeuer it be” (52). He closes, in short, on a point that would echo through the next three centuries of writing on military equitation, namely, that a soldier used his left (bridle) hand to control the horse, because he used his right (sword) hand to fight his adversary.

[xvii] Van der Horst reports that Corte “had spent a year in England [in 1565] at the invitation of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Master of the Royal Horse,” and that he returned to England in 1573 “to become the expert counsellor on the horses and horsemanship at the England court. … Together with Grisone, Fiaschi, and Pignatelli, [he] belongs to the most important Italian authors on horsemanship and horse training, all of whom were invited to enter into the service of various European courts” (Van der Horst, 132, 190). Tomassini attributes “a considerable homogeneity of the equestrian practice of the time” to the fact that “the best horsemen [moving from court to court] spread the equestrian doctrine in Italy and in Europe” (161).

[xviii] In his more comprehensive equestrian treatise, The Foure Chiefest Offices belonging to Horsemanship (1565-66), Blundeville praises Corte in the specific context of Blundeville’s plan to write “another little Book of Additions … to join this volume, briefly comprehending all the precepts of a later writer, now being your Honours most excellent Rider, called master Claudio Corte,” and including anything that Grisone in the Ordini, or Blundeville, in its translation, “perhaps haue negligentlie omitted.”

[xix] See Macwilliams’s prefatory epistle directed “To the right worshipfull, my verie louing companions and fellowes in Armes, hir Maiesties Gentlemen Pensioners.” Bedingfield had established his bona fides with a translation, in 1573, of “a philosophical work by Girolamo Cardano” (van der Horst, 190).

[xx] Written as a dialogue in imitation of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, book three, the most consequential in Tomassini’s view, intends “to establish the figure of the horseman as a precise social role” — one parallel and equivalent to that of the courtier (155).

[xxi] In a prefatory note to the reader, Bedingfield adds that “before M. Blundeuile, I find not anie that haue written in our toong; neither were the teachers of that time of much knowledge.”

[xxii] With respect to especially resistant horses, Bedingfield adds that “all these extremities may be vsed, but M. Claudio thinketh that horsses so desperatelie disposed, are vnwoorthie the stable of Princes or Gentlemen”  (105).

[xxiii] Echoing Xenophon closely, Bedingfield concludes that “the ideal warhorse will be a swift and sure runner, a good eater, light vpon the hand, strong, nimble, and valiant, without fault or imperfection” (95).

[xxiv] Astley’s treatise appeared earlier than Bedingfield’s translation, and the two texts appear to have been bound together in that order. I base the generalization on Van der Horst’s description of the copy in the library of Johan Dejager (Van der Horst, 190), and on my examination of the copy in the National Sporting Library and Museum.

In addition to 16th-century printed works on dressage and equitation by Blundeville, Astley, and Bedingfield, Christopher Clifford published The School of Horsemanship (1585) and Gervase Markham, How to Choose, Ride, Train and Diet Both Hunting Horses and Running Horses (1599). There well may be others.


Astley, John. The Art of Riding, set forth in a breefe treatise [etc]. London: Henrie Denham, 1584.

Bedingfield, Thomas. The Art of Riding … Written at large in the Italian toong, by Maister Claudio Corte. London: H. Denham, 1584.

Blundeville, Thomas. The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Greate Horses. Facsimile 1560. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Felton, W. Sidney. Masters of Equitation. London:  J.A. Allen, 1962.

Grisone, Federico. The Rules of Riding. 1550. Ed. with an Introduction by Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey. Trans. Tobey and Federica Brunori Deigan. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014.

Tomassini, Giovanni. The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art: A Survey of the Treatises on Horsemanship from the Renaissance and the Centuries Following. Trans. by author. Franktown, VA: Xenophon, 2014.

Van der Horst, Koert, ed. Great Books on Horsemanship: The Library of Johan Dejager. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

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