To Horse! Horses and Riding in the Historical Novel
by Duncan Noble
Most historical novels that include riding give nothing very much in the way of what it feels like to be on a horse. Until the advent of the car, horses were the fastest available means of land transport, with a top speed over two miles (the maximum duration of any flat-out gallop) of thirty miles an hour and an average speed of no more than seven miles an hour. However, contrary to modern attitudes to animal welfare, horses were often regarded as expendable. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, with all the cruelties it describes, was a true-to-life plea for a more considerate attitude towards horses in the 19th century. This is yet another aspect of former ways of thinking that are unacceptable to a modern readership, and they represent a challenge for the writer who has to produce a character who is both sympathetic and yet of the period when it comes to the handling and treatment of horses.
One classic pitfall for the historical novelist is the length and speed of the rides described. Even considering that horses were occasionally ridden to death, a ride should not be beyond what any horse could manage. In Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (Penguin Classics), Rassendyll’s epic fifty-mile ride from Strelsau to the hunting lodge at Zenda appears to have been taken at a constant gallop, but then Hope did admit that he had never actually ridden a horse. The ultimate long-distance ride was in 1920 when a Mongol courier, Tzeren, rode a relay of horses over the 1,740 miles from Ulias in Mongolia to Beijing in just 9 days, a total of 158 hours in the saddle at an average speed of 11 miles an hour. But he was a Mongol, riding Mongol horses, and he changed by jumping from one mount to the next without stopping. Only a fine athlete springs onto a horse. A young, reasonably weighted rider would regard 30 miles in 6 hours on a very fit horse to be a hard day’s riding. So let us not have incredible long journeys at unbelievable speeds.
Next comes the breed of horse your hero, or villain, should have. Medieval warhorses, destriers, were big stallions. But no knight ever rode one except in battle. For transport he rode a lighter, more comfortable horse that was not continually looking for action, or a mare. Riding a mare in season in the company of even a gelding is quite exciting. Lack of attention to who is behind you could end up with you having a pair of steel-tipped hooves round your ears.
This is a matter of taste, but there is an unfortunate preference among dashing characters in novels for the English thoroughbred. This horse is certainly fast, on the short grass for which it was trained. However, it is not the safest mount on rough country, through heather or down steep hills. Most horses give you a split second’s notice that they are going to bolt. A thoroughbred gives you none at all, and it can take 500 yards to pull up from a flat gallop. A good cross-bred is much safer and not much slower.
What about the style of riding? In the Middle Ages, the rider, who had no heels on his shoes, sat back in the saddle with his legs out forwards and his toes down. Ladies sat sideways in a man’s saddle with both legs on the same side and feet resting on a board. The horse was probably led in hand and the rider would have been insecure and uncomfortable. Side saddles were not invented till the 16th century, and the two leaping horns on the side saddle did not appear till the 1830s. The side saddle was invented because it was considered indelicate in upper class circles for a lady to open her legs so that one was on each side of the horse. Since the mid-20th century, riding side-saddle has been relegated to the pastime of a few enthusiasts. It is said to be much safer than riding astride but is harder on the human spine as the rider has not the same capacity to accommodate herself to the movement of the horse. It is certainly more dangerous if the horse comes down, as the rider is not thrown clear and can end up crushed under half a ton of horse. A 19th-century lady would certainly have ridden side-saddle, although a poor tenant’s daughter would probably have scrambled barebacked onto a farm horse, though she would not have used it as a regular means of transport.
As late as the mid-20th century there was a saying in England that ‘There is a key to every horse’s mouth’: a mettlesome horse could be controlled by its bit and these were often severe and cruel. After WW2, this approach was replaced by reliance on gentle but thorough training through the introduction of continental dressage (a French term which roughly translates to “training”) into competitions. Classical dressage really started in France in 1733 with the methods of the horse trainer François Robichon de la Guérinière. In the 18th century it was the mark of a cultured gentleman that his academies, accomplishments, should include dressage.
La Guérinière’s method is based on balance and is very different from the old cavalry one which I first learned, as did everyone in Britain, in the 1960s. That was based on a scissor grip with the legs on the saddle, toes turned out, feet fully home in the stirrups, and the soles of the feet canted up to the outside, much more use of the reins, and a rougher approach to jumping, where one ‘lifted’ the horse over the jump, and leaned well back on landing, if necessary flinging one arm back up behind oneself as one ‘called a cab’ to balance oneself. I was taught this antique method by a tough guy who had been a sergeant-major in a cavalry charge in Syria in the Second World War. It does not have the sophistication of the classical method and is harder on the horse, but if things go badly wrong one does not fall off so readily — particularly if one takes a swipe with a sabre at someone and misses!
In the 20th century, as the automobile replaced the horse as the most convenient means of transport, horse riding became a sport. Dressage went from a continental European training activity to be a competitive sport. To this was added show jumping over artificial jumps in an enclosed arena and eventing, which combined dressage, show jumping and cross-country riding with jumps. When the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, there were no equestrian events in today’s sense. These first appeared at the 1912 Games, although in that year there was a polo match and a mounted high-jump competition.
At the urging of Count Clarence von Rosen, Master of the Horse to the King of Sweden, eight countries entered horses for equestrian events in the Stockholm 1912 Games. There the events included jumping and an obedience test that involved riding the horses near frightening objects. Polo survived until the 1936 Games. Up to 1936, only commissioned officers of the competing countries’ armies were allowed to compete, and it was not till 1952 that a woman, Marjorie B. Hayes of the United States, was allowed to compete.
The three classes of equestrian events, dressage, show jumping and eventing, were very elementary by modern standards before the late 20th century, but with successive Games they became progressively more difficult. The requirements for the dressage changed dramatically after 1912, when the exercises featured small circles at a slow trot, although counter canter and flying changes were included. The jumping section was deleted in the 1920s and canter pirouette, piaffe and passage appeared in 1936. Half-pass and renvers were included in 1948. Nowadays dressage horses are specifically bred for the sport and are not the cavalry chargers they were in 1912. Show jumping in the early days was much more basic, with the jumps being lower, more natural and without the brightly coloured poles we have today.
Eventing at the Olympics started with endurance races of around 30 miles, and jumping and dressage tests of a lower standard than applied in the special events for those disciplines. The road ride section was gradually reduced in length until it was abolished at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The 1948 London Olympics were important for British riding, for through them dressage and show jumping, which had been regarded as foreign, came to be seen as interesting activities. While American Western riding, which is based on Spanish riding, is a style designed for herding and roping cattle from horseback, the English style of riding has its origins in fox hunting, which involves a lot of short fast gallops over rough farmland and ploughed fields, and jumping of fences and hedges three or more feet in height. On the Continent, on the contrary, half a metre (20 inches) was regarded in the 19th century as a large enough fence for even a cavalryman to attempt to jump. But the harsh continental winters encouraged dressage in an indoor school as a suitable winter equestrian pursuit. If your historical novel is set in Britain or on the continent between the 18th century and 1945, your characters, unless they are enlightened 18th-century gentlemen skilled in dressage, will ride with the cavalry method, or something like it.
Historical novels with realistic accounts of riding include MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge (1973) and, in complete contrast, Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt (2007), but readers will no doubt have their own favourites.
About the contributor: Duncan Noble is a writer who is passionately fond of horses, has ridden over a hundred, and shared his life and risked his neck with a good half dozen. He has now given up dangerous things and has a share in a patent safety heavy cob which he rides on the Welsh moors and is training for classical dressage.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 61, August 2012