William Cavendish: An English Giant of French Dressage

The front of the collector's edition hardcover "The New Method of Dressing Horses, by William Cavendish.
The front of the collector’s edition hardcover “The New Method of Dressing Horses, by William Cavendish.

William Cavendish. The New Method of Dressing Horses (previously published as A General System of Horsemanship). 1743. Commentary by Elaine Walker. Foreword by William Steinkraus. Edited by Richard Williams. Franktown, VA: Xenophon Press, 2020.

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle.
William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle.

The progenitor of modern dressage, Federico Grisone counted among his pupils the late-16th century Neapolitan master Giambattista Pignatelli. A key figure in the transition in dominance from the Italian to the French schools of early dressage, Pignatelli taught Salomon de la Broue, author of Le Cavalerice François (1602), and Antoine de Pluvinel, author of Le Maneige Royal or L’Instruction du Roy, En L’Exercise de Monter à Cheval (1623 and 1625). De Pluvinel, in turn, directly influenced William Cavendish, the subject of this review, and Cavendish, along with de la Broue, directly influenced François Robichon de la Guérinière, who invoked Cavendish in the immensely influential 18th-century treatise École de Cavalerie (1733) as “the greatest expert of his age in the matter of horses (de la Guérinière, 78).” [i]

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676), was a wealthy and educated polymath renowned as an equestrian and trainer of horses and riders, philosopher and scientist, poet and playwright, music scholar and musician, and diplomat and politician. To the manner born, Cavendish also was the nephew of William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire, a noted horseman and holder of a vast estate who maintained a stud that bred high-quality saddle horses for a market of his titled peers. A Loyalist and military commander against Cromwell’s forces, the younger Cavendish lost his estates after the Revolution and fled from England in 1644. In exile on the continent until the Restoration in 1660, Cavendish devoted himself to horsemanship — training horses, refining the art of manège, and establishing an important riding school at Antwerp.

The title page of La méthode nouvelle (1658).
Title Page of 1671 French Translation (1671) of A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses (1667)
Title page of the 1671 French Translation of A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses.

Cavendish wrote two seminal manuals during and following his exile: La méthode nouvelle et Invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux (1658), published in French while Cavendish was abroad, and A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses (1667), published in English after his return. Though the two works “follow the same lines and principles,” as Koert van der Holst has noted, Cavendish described the latter work as “neither a translation of [the former] nor an absolutely necessary addition to it.” The latter was translated into French first in 1671 and, with the author’s encouragement, again in 1677, and the former, and historically more important of the two, was published in French in England in 1737 and translated into English in 1743 as A General System of Horsemanship (see van der Holst, 312).

Cavendish shared many premises with his Italian and French predecessors, particularly with regard to equine “vices” and their corrections, but he often argued from those premises to different conclusions. He ascribes the same human qualities of malice, subtlety, and cunning to the horse’s disobedience and “his opposition to the rider, in every thing he possible can,” for example, just as he warns that the rider responding in anger will not prevail because the horse’s “passion” and strength will outdo his. Though generally accused of harshness, like his predecessors, however, Cavendish criticized more sharply than them, on both technical and moral grounds, those “ignorant” riders who respond to resistance with overuse or misuse of whips, spurs, and bits.

Regarding spurs, for example, Cavendish admonishes, “the more you spur [restive] horses, the more obstinately they resist,” and he continues, “it is not the beast then that is vanquished, but the man, who is the greater brute of the two: the whip and the spur serve only to continue the quarrel even to death, as in a duel.” Similarly, regarding bits, he quips, “if [horses] were made tractable by this piece of iron put in their mouths, the bit-makers would be the best horsemen in the world,” and he later advises, “But above all, this rule is chiefly to be observed, to put as little iron in your horse’s mouth as possibly you can.”  In short, following Pignatelli and de Pluvinel and anticipating de la Guérinière, Cavendish, despite other lapses, helped to advance the humane shift in 16th through 18th-century equitation from reliance on harsh iron to refinement of soft hand. [ii]

From A General System of Horsemanship (1743).
From A General System of Horsemanship (1743).

Cavendish also departed from his predecessors on the application of metaphysics and “Natural Philosophy” to horsemanship. He disdained writers who plumb the “theological mysteries” of the horse’s soul or spirit, just as he dismissed endeavors “to discover the constitution and particular disposition of horses by their marks or colour, and which of the four elements enters chiefly into their composition, whether it be earth, water, air, or fire.” Consistent with a zeitgeist that was evolving from magical thinking and alchemy to rationalism and experimental science, Cavendish emphasizes observation and experience, and reasoning based on them, advising “that a horseman ought to mount a horse often, by which means he will be able to form a better judgment, than any of those who philosophize upon his colour, or by the elements, since that is only a piece of empiricism or quackery.”

Applied to haute école training of “leaping-horses,” the rare animals equipped by nature for airs above the ground, Cavendish’s premise has clear implications.
Applied to haute école training of “leaping-horses,” the rare animals equipped by nature for airs above the ground, Cavendish’s premise has clear implications. Image from A General System of Horsemanship (1743).

Such a horseman, Cavendish argues, then can judge properly the “natural” capacities and gifts that a particular horse possesses and, on that basis, the proper training for that horse. Since “art ought never to be contrary to nature but to follow and perfect it,” he writes, horses “ought to be worked according to their make, and that form which nature has given them.” Applied to haute école training of “leaping-horses,” the rare animals equipped by nature for airs above the ground, Cavendish’s premise has clear implications. The horse, whether consciously or not, acquires agency — “every horse is to choose his own air, unto which nature hath most fitted him” — and “a horseman hath nothing to do in making leaping-horses, but only to give them the time, which is all the art ought to be used to a leaping-horse.” Having identified the individual horse’s precise innate capability, in short, the horseman must enable that horse to realize it perfectly, and “he that thinks to shew more art in a leaping-horse, will but shew his ignorance and folly.”

Cavendish’s General System of Horsemanship instructs the reader in minute detail how to perform virtually all tasks necessary to correct horsemanship, whether specific, such as not giving the horse “two contrary aids at one and the same time,” or general: While the rider should depend on the horse’s fear rather than his love, he should exploit that fear not for subjection but for obedience. Cavendish repeatedly addresses “the hand and the heels” as the principal tools “to make a perfect horse,” and the “other things require’d to make him perfectly obedient to the hand and heels,” and he characterizes putting the horse “in the hand [as] the foundation of our art.” As with the means, so with the end: putting the horse “upon his haunches … is the quintessence of horsemanship”; to succeed is to produce a horse “well dressed, and [to] compleat the art of the Manege.”

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle.
William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle.

De Pluvinel, Cavendish, and de la Guérinière not only introduced specific principles and techniques critical to the evolution of horsemanship, but they also, perhaps more important, advanced theories that constituted an evolving philosophy of horsemanship. The view of the horse as an innately malicious and willfully recalcitrant beast, immune to reason, gave way to a view of the horse as an intelligent animal mainly prevented from compliance by poor training or riding, one that could be brought to reason with reasoned and reasonable methods. Demanding subjection gave way to commanding willing obedience — not through harsh treatment and overwrought tools, but through judicious treatment and humane tools. Likewise, the view of horsemanship as artifice intended to subdue nature, or at least to feign that conquest, gave way to a view of horsemanship as an art and, increasingly, science, developed to perfect nature not with discursive methods but with methodical system. Modern dressage stands on their shoulders.


*    *     *     *

No one interested in the history of dressage and equitation can afford to ignore Cavendish, and any contemporary rider interested in improving his or her horsemanship can benefit from his technical insights. Cavendish advanced the evolution of French dressage in the 17th and 18th centuries, he strongly influenced French and German dressage in the 19th century, and he stands almost without question as the most important English dressage master of any century. [iii] As W. Sidney Felton wrote in the standard text Masters of Equitation (1962), “school riding in England clearly reached its greatest height under [Cavendish]” (Felton, 48). A caveat lector, however, is in order: Cavendish is prolix and highly repetitive — he typically details a given lesson on one rein, for example, and then repeats it, verbatim, for the other. Nonetheless, his historical importance and continued relevance more than compensate for his difficulties.

from A General System of Horsemanship (1743).
From A General System of Horsemanship (1743).

Seventeenth-century books on any subject often have complicated publishing histories and, as a result, pose challenges to establishing an authoritative text. Though no exception, A General System of Horsemanship, in one sense at least, poses fewer challenges than most. In 1743, the printer John Brindley, as he said in his dedicatory letter to the Master of the Horse to His Majesty, “procured a Translation” of the 1658 French edition and added “several ornamental Prints.” Findley also appended “A Dictionary [of] Technical Terms”. Findley’s book has served as the standard English translation since 1743, and as the basis for facsimile editions, including an exact photographic facsimile, sadly long out of print, published by J.A. Allen in 2000. [iv]

As part of an overall mission to recover historical works on horsemanship and to make them available to the modern reader, Xenophon Press, with its new edition, also has sought to make Cavendish’s work more accessible to that reader by “updat[ing” thousands of spellings and typesettings,” including the “long” or “medial” s that looks like an f and can vex the modern eye. (Xenophon also has elected to publish the work under the title, The New Method of Dressing Horses, a literal translation of the French title of 1658 and one also used by Findley in his dedicatory letter, though not on his title page.) Most readers likely will welcome the updating, though many, myself included, will prefer the original text.

From A General System of Horsemanship (1743).
From A General System of Horsemanship (1743).

No one, though, can dispute the importance of putting Cavendish’s work back into print, and, moreover, in a handsome oversize volume that shares format, and forms a trilogy, with Xenophon’s recent editions of Pluvinel’s Le Maneige Royal and Baron d’Eisenberg’s The Art of Riding a Horse, or Description of Modern Manège, In its Perfection (1727). As in Pluvinel’s and d’Eisenberg’s works, the 42 illustrative plates that Findley had attached to Cavendish’s General System were not simply “ornamental”: In a pre-photographic age, they served as highly detailed representations of proper training and riding techniques. This new edition reproduces them all and reproduces them well.


[i] In the opening passages of Part Two of École de Cavalrie, de la Guérinière writes, “From the large number of authors, there are only two whose works are agreed to be valuable by all the connoisseurs. They are Salomon de la Broue and [William Cavendish] the Duke of Newcastle” (de la Guérinière, 51).

[ii] Pluvinel argued that a “correct mouthpiece” is one that “fits [the horse] properly, as well as one that is compatible with the hand of the master” (Pluvinel, 169), a point that de la Guérinière took to its 18th-century rationalist conclusion: “The knowledge of how to fit various types of horse with bits, according to the differences of their mouths, is in itself insufficient. The best bridles are useless without a good hand and great prudence on the part of the rider” (de la Guérinière, 51).

[iii] With respect to Cavendish’s place in the French tradition, Elaine Walker argues in her “Commentary” on the Xenophon Press edition that Cavendish likely first published his work in French not only because he was living on the Continent at the time, but also because he was acutely aware of the emerging French school of dressage and of Pluvinel as his precursor and was intent on establishing his position in that school. With respect to Cavendish’s influence in the 19th century, Schmit-Jensen noted in his “Technical Commentary” on the J.A. Allen edition, “A century later the great French masters d’Aure and Baucher were continuing to quote from Newcastle in their works, and the German equestrian genius Gustav Steinbrecht regarded Newcastle’s book as the most important in the literature” (Schmit-Jensen, np).

[iv] On the publishing history and textual challenges of Cavendish’s works, see Walker’s monograph, “To Amaze the People with Pleasure and Delight”: The Horsemanship Manuals of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (2010), and her “Commentary”; Schmit-Jensen’s “Technical Commentary”; and Koert van der Holst’s detailed analysis in Great Books on Horsemanship, 308-32.


Other Works Cited

De la Guérinière, François Robishon. School of Horsemanship. Trans. Tracy Boucher. 1733. London:  J.A. Allen, 1994.

De Pluvinel, Antoine. Le Maneige Royal, or, L’Instruction du Roy, En L’Exercise de Monter à Cheval. 1623. Expanded 1625. Trans. Hilda Nelson. Franktown, VA : Xenophon, 2015.

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

Schmit-Jensen, E. “Technical Commentary.” In Cavendish, A General System of Horsemanship, In All It’s Branches. Facsimile 1743. London: J.A. Allen, 2000.

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.

2 thoughts on “William Cavendish: An English Giant of French Dressage

  • September 21, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you Charles – my mentor was Schmit-Jensen and was an avid and highly respected Newcastle Scholar – I have that long out of print Facsimile – the only thing I would say is that I wish modern dressage was built on the shoulders of the methodologies of old, however dressage has long forgotten correct methodologies and would do well to study the old masters as you’ve suggested.

  • September 27, 2020 at 10:48 am

    Thank you, Caroline, for your kind comment and mention of Schmit-Jensen. I certainly concur that “old masters” always will and should command and reward our attention—whether Raphael and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Milton, or Cavendish and de la Guérinière. The same can and should be said, though, for modern masters—such as Baucher, Steinbrecht, and Fillis, or Caprilli and Chamberlin—and for contemporary masters who will become the “old masters” of the future—such as Oliveira, Zettl, and van Grunsven, or Steinkraus and Wofford. I suspect that you’d agree. Anyway, thanks again.


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