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Dancing into Battle

Olympic Gold Medallist Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Photo by BBC Sport.

At the end of every Olympic Games, several countries take home medals in the sport of Dressage. This graceful event evaluates the movement, athleticism, and obedience of the horse and its harmony with the rider. The Dressage test is a list of specific movements executed before a judge. The horse-and-rider team receive a score (out of 10) for each movement and for collective style marks at the end of the test. So what does “horsey dancing” have to do with medieval history?

While the modern sport is very formal, with impeccably groomed horses and riders in jackets inspired by fox hunting uniforms, Dressage has ancient origins as war training. A Greek text from c. 350 b.c., On Horsemanship, by Xenophon of Athens is one of the earliest known essays for any equestrian activity, and it focuses on Dressage training. The 14th century Livro do Cavalgar by Duarte I of Portugal is one of the earliest surviving medieval texts dedicated to horsemanship and riding styles, and numerous other manuscripts discuss medieval uses for horses including hunting, exercise, transportation, and military engagements.

Scene from the History of Busant: Tournament and the Departure of the Spouses. c. 1480, Musee du Moyen Age. Photo by D. Trynoski

In a medieval military context, horses were viewed as a tool. Unlike the swords or lances these tools have minds of their own! In order for horses to be effective in a military engagement, it requires specialty training.  Similar to progressive dog training, horses need incremental exposure to new experiences i.e., the noise of battle. As a prey animal, horses have a natural instinct to flee so training must emphasize the non-predatory nature of the man-made environment. Part of this is to be responsive to the directions of the rider’s aids.

The aids, including the legs, hands, weight (seat), and voice, are the steering wheel and gear shift of the equine vehicle. By applying pressure with the aids, the rider can ask for specific types of movements and transitions between the walk, trot, and canter.

Diagram of a Leg Yield by Nabil Youssef Dahan, CC-BY SA.

True Dressage training is really just riding practice; intended to refine the technique of the rider and the responsiveness of the horse. It’s like practicing a language in which neither conversant is a native speaker. Sometimes you might miss a verb or use an awkward phrase, but there should be some kind of understanding. As the studies and practices progress, so does the fluency and comprehension.

Dressage training helps improve the understanding between horse and rider and makes it a fluid partnership. In modern competitions, the rider should appear still and immobile, with the aids barely detectable. See the video below for an excellent example of harmony between horse and rider. This Olympic Gold Medallist and World Champion pair, Charlotte Dujardin riding Valegro, receive perfect marks on their harmony and precision from top judges. Not only are they a beautiful pair, but they embody the best of ancient and classical Dressage techniques.

This article will discuss a few select movements that were absolutely required in the field of battle. The horse needed to perform these movements obediently and immediately, which is also a requirement in Dressage competitions.

Leg Yield: The horse moves along a diagonal line, stepping forward and sideways simultaneously. The horse’s body stays mostly straight, occasionally with a slight bend away from the direction of movement. This is considered one of the introductory training movements, teaching the horse to move away from leg pressure. In a medieval battle, the rider might need to suddenly leg yield away from a swinging sword or a pike, then charge forward in an attack.

Diagram of a Shoulder-In by Nabil Youssef Dahan, CC-BY SA.

Diagram of a Half-Pass by Nabil Youssef Dahan, CC-BY SA.

Shoulder-In: The horse bends through the rib cage and continues moving along a straight line. The four feet travel along three tracks: The outside hind, the inside hind together with the outside front, and the inside front. This requires the horse to hold the tension along the bent inside half of its body while stretching the outer half. Imagine a shield wall facing a mounted charge, where the knights approach with their horses shouldering in so they can more effectively use their lances against the foe. A shoulder-in movement would allow the rider to more effectively face an approaching enemy in an attack or defensive situation by changing the angle of interaction between rider and enemy.

Half-Pass: This movement requires the horse to maintain a slight bend while moving forward and sideways. It is a combination of the leg yield and shoulder-in (and its relative the haunches-in). It places all four feet on four tracks, making for a steadier, more stable horse under the rider. The ability to give the rider a wider field of approach to his enemy, while moving forward and sideways, would be an unquestionable asset in a mounted military engagement.

Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.

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