François de la Guérinière was born in France in 1688 shortly after the death of William Cavendish. De la Guérinière was the director of an equestrian establishment in Paris for 15 years, and in 1730 he was appointed director at the Manege of the Tuileries, home of the royal equestrian academy. He held this position for over 20 years until his death in 1751.
During this time he wrote “The School of Horsemanship” and the complete book was published in 1733. Building on the work of previous masters of dressage, he developed shoulder-in on a straight line, which he states is the “alpha and omega of all exercises”.
The School of Horsemanship is over 300 pages and covers all topics of equestrianism from naming the parts of the horse, to feeding and grooming to surgical procedures – not all of which we would agree with today! However, the section on training covers about 80 pages and is still very relevant for today’s rider.
He begins with discussing the correct riding position and how it is important for the rider to be able to give correct aids and remain in balance with their horse. He observes that there are riders who have not spent time developing a good posture to the detriment of both the horse and the art of riding.
It is important to note that he agrees with William Cavendish that different horses need different training depending on the temperament, conformation and intended final use of the horse. He views dressage as an art and throughout these pages he often refers to the need to observe the horse and train according to the nature of the horse. The qualities of a well-trained horse are suppleness, obedience and precision, as this horse is able to respond to the rider with ease and grace, and has no difficulty responding to the rider.
The section dealing with the hands and reins is slightly more difficult to transpose into today’s riding as he describes the use of a double bridle with the reins held in one hand, however there are some important details that we can learn from his description. He writes at some length about the action of the hand; a rider’s hand must be light, gentle and firm. A gentle feel being the primary contact, moving to either lighter of firmer, depending the aid needed, but always returning to the gentle contact. He is adamant that the hand should never move directly from a light contact to firm contact as this is too abrupt for the horse’s mouth and will provoke a resistance.
He defines the role of the rider’s leg as being used to control the body and quarters of the horse. A very long straight leg position with the lower leg resting close to the horse, with the thighs and calves turned inwards. So far, so easy, but he then says they must “be held firm in addition to being relaxed, for if they were not they would touch the horse’s belly incessantly, which circumstance would put the horse in a continual state of confusion.”
The remainder of this section gives a lot of other information. The timing of aids is important, as is the stillness of the rider in relation to the horse and the need for clarity in everything the rider does so as not to confuse the horse.
A well-timed, mild correction is most effective, as it preserves the good will of the horse, observing that horses make mistakes from misunderstanding or weakness, and if the trainer punishes them though anger or frustration it is likely to make the horse resistant to the rider, rather than respectful.
Trot was used extensively to build suppleness in horses, as this pace has a natural impulsion and uses all the muscles of the horse. The trot should not be used excessively, as the horse needs to have sufficient strength and energy in the work, and should not be worked until he is tired.
Famous for developing shoulder-in, de la Guérinière dedicates a chapter to the movement. He found that Cavendish’s exercise of quarters out on the circle created supple quarters in the horse, but could place them onto the forehand. It was this observation that led him to develop shoulder-in. He used shoulder-in to develop circular suppleness in the shoulders of the horse, which is needed to make turning easier and for lateral movements. He lists the benefits of shoulder-in as;
Following the work in shoulder-in de la Guérinière then moves on to croup to the wall, whereby the horse moves with the quarters towards the wall and the shoulders away. The horse should be curved round the rider’s leg in the direction of the movement.
However he advises that circles are still of benefit during all training, as they keep the horse supple and forward and can be used to refresh the horse after difficult exercises such as shoulder-in. De la Guérinière uses this movement as a natural progression from shoulder-in.
The book also covers passage, turns, changes of hand and offers some exercises and work patterns for riders to use.
Interestingly, he comes to the canter work late in the book. He agrees with other trainers of the period that horses should only canter once they have been made supple in the trot, so they do not lean on the reins. (I use correct trot work to improve a horse’s canter work.) De la Guérinière advised cantering only after “the horse is supple in its entire body, trained to the shoulder-in and croup to the wall, and is accomplished in the piaffe between the pillars” and then they will canter easily.
The canter should be short and energetic and created through impulsion, half halts, and “descente de main” (lowering of the hands and releasing the contact while the horse maintains the position). De la Guérinière deals with the various problems that a trainer may come across in canter, covering how to work horses with differing conformation and ability.
The final chapters deal with the voltes, pasades, pirouettes, terre-a-terre movements and the airs above the ground with a short paragraph dedicated to each.
When you pick up a copy of The Manual of Horsemanship it is a bit daunting to start to read, but see what you can glean from it. The first reading can be perplexing, but if you reread it you will begin to gain huge insights into classical techniques for training horses.
De la Guérinière’s legacy is that of a progressive training system, in line with the horse’s natural abilities, seeking to develop a light, calm and responsive horse. Although his book was written nearly 300 years ago, it is much easier to read than earlier books and the advice he gives on training horses is still applicable, and the criticisms he makes shows that there have always been conflicting ideas in the dressage world!
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer