In the remit of historical equestrian consultant and coach, I am approached by a number of riders who want to learn ‘skill at arms’ i.e the use of sword, lance and sabre on horseback. But there is far much more to this than wielding a shiny sword.
In order to use a sword on horse back, the rider has to have a fully developed independent seat, whereby they can use each arm independently of one another, and control their mount with their legs and seat. Many riders today, simply cannot do this and come quickly unstuck. With the reins in the left hand, all our aides are transmitted by our seat and weight, and above all by our mind. In a previous post, we looked at the importance of the saddle in what we do. In order to ride in the classical manner, what we sit on has to be the same as used by the great masters of the 18th century. Secondly, we must be able to sit in the saddle in the same manner.
The biggest fault of many riding instructors in the modern era, is that the instructor nine times out of ten teaches them to ride in the manner in which they do. Common sense. But this often compounds many problems, primarily, hands are often thrust down onto the withers, the hand pulls the horse into a contact, the back is arched forward, and thus the rider tips forward, or the shoulder blades are pulled back ‘to ride like a soldier’ consequently hollowing the back. How many times I have heard ‘sit up straight, shoulders back like a soldier!’ being shouted by an instructor to the client. The instructor is totally wrong, and yet it goes on in 9 out of ten riding schools in Great Britain. Somehow, instructors seem to think that chest out, shoulders back and the resulting hollow back is how a soldier rides and how you should ride.
So how did a soldier ride? Well the answer comes from the 18th century masters. The French Royal Riding School was founded at Versaille in 1744, and was to teach the principles of de Guérinière; he was a brilliant man, he was a product of his age: at this time in history, scientific reasoning was beginning to become the mark of an educated man. Therefore, de la Guérinière approached riding from its foundations– explaining theory as well as practice. This book is still considered the “bible” of classical work. For two hundred years riding developed in France as the center of aristocratic culture. This period of time is called the Golden Age of Equitation– and it encompasses the 17th and 18th centuries in France. De Guérinière taught the Haute École of the early masters, but replaced punishment with kindness, and adopted the teaching for its use in the outdoor school and use in war. The first military riding school was formed in 1751 and remained in operation until 1788. A school at Saumur was opened in 1771 and also ceased to function in 1788. Charles Mercier Dupaty, Marquis de Clam, was born on December 4, 1744, in La Rochelle, where his father was the president of the Tresoriers de France in the department of Finance. A man of his age he shared with many of his contemporaries an interest in the sciences and traditional classical culture. He knew Ancient Greek and said that Xenophon’s Horsemanship was ‘one of the most beautiful monuments on horsemanship that the Ancients have left us.’ He used the exact sciences and the natural sciences to demonstrate how well founded his equestrian theories were: ‘Geometry, anatomy and mechanics give us the first rules of horsemanship. Nobody in his right mind can doubt their validity. It is much wiser to take the known sciences as a guide, rather than merely following one’s whims.'” [ Pratique de l’équitation ou l’art de l’équitation réduit en principes]
He received his first education as a young aristocrat at the academy in Caen, whose director was M. de la Pleignière, royal ecuyer [at Versailles], who was known for his talents in all areas, and who was married to de la Guérinière’s niece. Dupaty de Clam wrote an homage to his teacher, ‘the zealous citizen who has worked unselfishly and with an integrity that always followed in the footsteps of truth.’
Dupaty de Clam died in Paris on November 12, 1782, at the age of 38. Unfortunately, his legacy is almost forgotten since he stands in the shadow of de la Guérinière. It was thanks to Baucher’s abhorrant training methods, still used by many riding schools and riders throughout the world to the detriment of the horse, that du Clam’s teachings were re-discovered as it were.
Du Clam as with his contemporaries divided the body into three parts, two mobile and one immobile, which was copied from contemporary English thinking.
For the position of the rider, he stressed the head was to be held high, clear of the shoulders, and the neck to have movement and be free. The shoulders were to be free and the chest rounded. By this he means the shoulders were to be relaxed, and not pulled back [boobs on high beam as many instructors incorrectly demand of their clients], nor were he shoulders be allowed to slouch too much.
The arms were to be held naturally, the elbow to be relaxed. The upper body was to be free and relaxed, but not allowing the back to hollow, to be firm ‘around the kidneys’. I understand this to mean that the rider is bearing down as it were, to keep the core muscles stable, but in no way to keep the core muscles tensed and not able to absorb the movement of the horse or stay in equilibrium. I have taught some riders who get left behind the horse’s movement as they lack core stability, or are so tense that they hardly move, so fixed in their minds eye on keeping a perfect seat. Podhajsky comments that the rider’s back must be upright with the small of the back braced. The spine must not be hollow and the back must remain supple and flexible. This is necessary to enable the rider to follow all the movements of his horse as if he were a part of his own body. The back must remain firm and upright to allow the rider to use the small of his back as an aid; otherwise he would not be able to prevent the horse from pulling him out of the saddle when lying on the reins. The rider should sit upright but not stiffly, and he should be completely relaxed without slouching.
The thighs were to ‘kiss’ the saddle as were the knees. Podhajsky comments that
If the knees are raised and too far forward they will provoke the ‘chair’ seat. If they come too far back, the leg will nearly be vertical to the ground and throw the rider onto his fork. The knees must lie flat on the saddle and must never move from it. A gap should not be seen between the knee and the saddle. The lower legs should form a wide angle with the thighs and lie close to the horse’s body, hanging down by their own weight without tension. They should be on the girth. The foot, parallel to the horse’s side, is the prolongation of the leg turned inwards throughout its whole length. The heel should be the lowest point of the foot.
The wide angle means having a stirrup length that allows this. Too many modern dressage riders are heading back towards the vertical leg of the 17th century, in a misguided attempt to “lengthen the leg”. In some cases, this results in the ‘tongs across the wall’ seat to quote Francois Dwyer.
In the correct seat, the seat and thighs down to the knees lie close to the horse’s body. The upper part from the hips upwards and the legs from the knees downwards are moveable. Their movements must co-ordinate with the movements of the horse. The rider must not fall back as the horse starts to move, or fall forward when he reduces the speed.
For du Clam, the leg was to hang naturally down, with a little bend to the knee. The upper body and lower leg were the mobile portions of the rider’s body, the lower back, hips and thigh to the knee were the immobile parts. By making the upper leg and pelvis immobile, the treatise made it clear rising trot was not used. The lower leg needed to move, so the rider could place the spur against the horse’s side and also move the leg to give different aids. Given the riders foot hung below the belly of the horse, swan neck spurs were used to raise the point of the spur higher, and to use it more effectively, the heel could be drawn up to apply the spur behind the girth.
Today the leg of the rider generally does not hang below the belly of the horse, and the lower leg does not move to apply the leg aid. Of course as riders we are aware that the upper leg does move, tensing and relaxing muscles in the inner thigh affect the way in which the horse moves and reacts to the seat. As we rotate our pelvis to ask for bend, our upper leg automatically moves. If one was to literally understand the idea that the upper leg did not move, one would imagine the rider using all their concentration to keep the upper leg still. Placing the upper leg and not forcing it to remain in position, keeps the rider in equilibrium with the horse, which a tensed upper leg would not allow. A tensed leg would, in the seated trot, make the rider bounce, as the fixed upper leg would not allow rotation through the pelvis and absorption of the horse’s action through the lower back and inner thigh muscles. A tensed leg would reduce our feel. A classical seat has to have two essential components: balance AND feel. When we ride our upper leg and pelvis may look still, but under the surface, our back, hip joint, knee, pubic symphysis and numerous tendon and muscle groups are moving. Blocking this movement in our endeavour to keep the upper leg still, makes our seat noisy, heavy, uncomfortable for the horse, and it lacks balance and feel. Soldiers, never rode with the shoulders back and chest thrust forward, yet this is taught in modern day riding schools. It is an abhorrence, and shows the total lack of classical training as well as grasp of biomechanics of the rider and horse. A hollow back, resulting from the chest thrust forward, does not allow the spine to absorb the movement of the horse. It causes the rider to tip forward onto their hands, or to lean back from waist and pull with their hands. Yet no one dares contradict these so-called instructors, despite what they teach being wrong.
To get back to the main thrust of the blog. In order to use a sword on horseback, firstly you need the independent seat, and to be sat ideally on an 18th century saddle. With the ‘shoulders back like a soldier’ or ‘boobs on high beam’ style of riding for the upper torso, the rider has little chance of developing the correct the seat. What the rider does with their head, neck, shoulders and upper torso automatically has a major impact on what the rest of the rider’s body will do in consequence of the bad upper body position.