Recently I spent an afternoon in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Amongst other things there are various pieces of equestrian apparel including some 16th and 17th century bits. Those are real horror stories looking at them from the enlightened 21st century, although the workmanship is quite staggering, particularly when looking at the mass production of such items nowadays. A little bit harder to find in the vaults of the museum are the relics from ancient Greece and Rome and looking at those, which are clearly recognisable as horse bits, I was struck by the things we discard over time because we think we know better and then go back to. Those ancient snaffles for example.
The snaffle goes in and out of fashion and in its place various forms of bitting system have come and gone. Some are just a slight reworking of the original bit with more shaped mouthpieces or different types of ring. The FEI recently banned the hanging cheek version in some disciplines but a recent study from a bitting company has proved that it does not put pressure on the poll at all, so perhaps it will be reinstated.
We are so spoiled nowadays; we have science and technology to help us with every aspect of horse care, so what can looking at ancient history possibly teach us? Xenophon was the Greek who wrote the first ever recorded text on horsemanship. It is fairly sort, but a translation should probably be compulsory reading for anyone who rides or keeps horses. How can anyone argue with someone who is so wise in matters equine, he opens his first chapter with the paragraphs we have come to know as “no foot, no horse.” He advises that breaking horses is best left to the experts, that you should have a precise contract when you send your horse away to be broken and schooled that details exactly what you are expecting from the horse breaker. He says a horse you want to buy should be well tried, but not necessarily rejected if it fails in one or two aspects under saddle, as the horse “may fail not from inability but from lack of practise in those feats.”
Although his thoughts are much directed towards owning and training a war horse, he declares that smooth bits are preferable to those with a rough surface and that a horse trained “under compulsion” will be no more beautiful than a “dancer trained by whip and spur.” Who could argue with this? And it is quite sad that after 2,000 years, people are still getting eliminated, disqualified and even prosecuted because they have either forgotten that simple premise or never learnt it in the first place and it is hard for me to know which one is worse.
Much of Xenophon’s wisdom had been forgotten by the time his work was rediscovered and Pluvinel wrote his great work Manege Royal. Pluvinel was quite still harsh by today’s standards and it was about a hundred years later when William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle wrote A General System of Horsemanship, which is archaic in some areas, but his emphasis was on the humane treatment of horses, just as Xenophon had instructed. He was a great influence on Gueriniere, whose Ecole de Cavalerie first described the exercise which we would now call shoulder-in. Baucher came along in the 1800s and invented what we know today as flexion and another training exercise which involved the longitudinal flexing of the horse’s neck towards its chest……sound familiar? These days it’s called Rollkur. Before giving Baucher a hard time though, much of his training regime is still valid in the 21st century and the basis of much that is still taught at Saumur in France. He is credited with designing the Baucher snaffle – much loved, and sometimes called the hanging cheek snaffle, as mentioned earlier. Baucher also said that “the spur is a razor in the hands of a monkey.” Couldn’t have put it better myself to be honest.
So here we are in the 21st century. How far has horsemanship really come in 2,000 years? Despite all that we can do for our horses, we still allow them to be ridden to death for sport in endurance contests, we still allow them to be pumped full of drugs so they can race on the track, we still tack them up with nosebands designed to clamp their jaws together. I am no bleeding heart who thinks all animals should roam free. I have worked on professional yards for over 30 years, but I look at the equestrian news these days and in many cases, I don’t think we have come that far at all.