William Cavendish was born in 1593. He lived through the English civil war, but his love of horses was a life-long passion, wherever he was his horses went with him. He was a highly regarded equestrian, and whilst some of his stable management advice is questionable in this day, his books provide a wonderful insight to his innovative training methods.
He published two books, written in French, La Methode Nouvelle et Invention extraordinaire de dresser les Chvaux in 1658, and Methode nouvelle, et invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux in 1671. These books added to the work of earlier renaissance riders and his work was hugely influential to later riders, one of the most notable being Francois de la Guérinière. Today it’s easy to dismiss his method of training horses as irrelevant, but, horses don’t change and the methodology he created was used by later masters of dressage and is still applicable to horses today.
A significant change he made was in the rider’s position. The method at that time was to grip with knees so the horse could not displace the rider. Cavendish advocates a position where the rider keeps his own balance and does not rely on the reins or gripping the legs.
Cavendish followed Grisone’s wish for a straight, light horse, but rejected the more forceful methods in Grisone’s training in favour of a softer, sympathetic approach.
Cavendish reminds the rider that “ you ought to be lavish of your rewards, and sparing of your corrections, otherwise you will spoil your horse. You should pardon him a great many faults, as proceeding from ignorance; for how should a horse know what he has never been taught?”
Viewing dressage as an art, he writes at length on the need to train each horse according to their natural ability, emphasising that not all horses are able to do dressage, and those that do may not be able to perform all movements.
“if the horseman studies nature, and dispositions of his horses, he would better know how to appropriate them to the uses for which they were created, and consequently they would become good horses.”
He stresses that it is the rider who responsible for the training, not the horse, and points out that the rider should never demand more from the horse than it is capable of giving, advising a gentle and unhurried approach. He uses a natural progression of exercises so that the horse wants to move on to the next stage. A horse put under pressure will either panic or resentfully accept the rider’s demands – either way, the rider will feel the repercussions from this at some point. Cavendish comes back to this point several times, reiterating that the rider must assert himself without intimidating his horse.
His methodology centres round keeping things simple, highlighting the need to create suppleness, which improves mobility in both the shoulders and haunches. The exercises he recommends improve the athletic ability of the horse by moving the horse laterally, beginning with the shoulders and then the haunches. He does not use many exercises, but each one is described in detail and accompanied by a diagram for clarity. However, this does not always make it easy to follow!
Throughout his books, he describes the lateral movements we use today. He clearly describes the shoulder-in, although he does not refer to it as such. It is a movement now strongly associated with Francois de la Guérinière, who further refined it based on Cavendish’s work, and often quotes Cavendish in his own book.
Cavendish cites patience and knowledge as essential qualities in a rider, using steady steps in training over several days, not forcing the horse’s head position but working slowly towards the desired head carriage and making the desired movement easy so horse wants to do the movement.
He recommends short, varied lessons, and that the session should end with the horse as energetic as when you started. This allows the horse to rest otherwise he will grow too tired to retain what he has learnt.
Cavendish suggests that you should praise often and use the whip sparingly.
“Instruct him then by frequent repetitions. When you have taught him, if he maliciously rebels, correct him, but let it be seldom, and the correction should not last long. If the horse obeys ever so little, stop him, and make friends with him by some present recompense.”
To retain the sensitivity of the horse, the rider should not give aids every step, but according to the rhythm of the horse. Constant aids makes horses insensitive, like a block or stone. When the horse obeys, you should cherish and make much of him.
Still extremely relevant, his manual should be high on the reading list of anyone who is interested in classical dressage.
Quotes are from “A General System of Horsemanship”, translation of Cavendish’s 1658 book
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer