Thursday, Sep. 21, 2023

Becoming A Horseman: The Medieval Guild System Revisited



The road to becoming an expert requires extensive training—but our columnist fears this path in the horse world is dwindling.

About 60 years ago, at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in a long-forgotten European history course, I learned about and promptly forgot the system of labor known as “the medieval guild system.” However, with the help of Google, I relearned some of its salient features.

For light summertime diversion, studying medieval guilds is low on most recommended reading lists. So without boring detail, the key thing to grasp is that if you want to become a total expert in some trade or craft, the requirements to do so are the same in 2015 as they were 500 years ago.

“And what were these requirements?” I am sure you are avidly asking.

The answer: “That you immerse yourself in ‘bottom up’ absorption of every aspect of your profession, craft or skill, and that you spend years doing so, and that you have experienced help to guide you in every stage of your development.”

Guilds existed for almost all crafts. “The guild was made up by experienced and confirmed experts in their field of handicraft,” says Google. “They were called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he had to go through a schooling period during which he was first called an apprentice. After this period he could rise to the level of journeyman.”

The five levels of competence were called “apprentice,” “craftsman,” “journeyman,” “master,” and “grandmaster.” Years of study were necessary to reach each higher level, and only a few would ever reach the highest levels.

But those who did reach the top became really good, and as so much that I read and hear declares that Americans are riders, rather than horsemen, it might behoove us to collectively think how we could convert tried and true methods into a modern iteration to change this perception.

“I’m On My Own”

There are current examples to guide us. I interviewed two friends, saddle maker David Stackhouse and farrier Greg Davis, whose personal backgrounds resembled the basic framework of the ancient guild system.

When he was 18, Greg asked a local shoer, “How do I become a farrier?” “Go to a shoeing school,” was the reply.

Greg couldn’t afford it, so he became a welder instead. He did this for five years, but always, in the back of his mind, he wanted to shoe horses. Eventually, Greg saved up enough money to pay up his rent for one year, and he went to the Eastern School of Farriery for three months. After graduation, Greg became an assistant to Bill Campbell in North Carolina.


“He paid me breakfast and lunch. I drove five days a week, an hour and a half each way, to learn. I did that for six months,” he said. “It was basic stuff, like trimming broodmares. I learned to pull and clinch, did the clean up, kept the truck stocked, basic stuff like that.”

Then, when his money to basically work for free ran out, Greg started working for Raymond Wall, in the Raleigh, N.C., area.

“I got $25 a day. He gave me a crash course. It was baptism by fire. He made me trim and shape shoes,” said Greg. “Some people named McNair had 140-150 horses and their own shop. We’d do two at a time, and I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder. We’d do 12-15 horses a day, some just front feet.

“We also did an Arab barn. 110 horses. Had to trim all those broodmares,” he added. “Our day started at 7:30, and I got there every morning by 6:15. We’d go ’til we were done, some days 12 hours.”

Greg said that Raymond was a nice man to work for, and that he helped his assistants. “It was all about working my butt off, but Raymond was always right there, teaching, teaching, teaching,” he said.

After a couple of years, Greg started shoeing a few of his own on weekends, working the other five days for Raymond. As his own practice started picking up, Greg said, “I started weaning off Raymond, but it took me five years to be able to say, ‘I’m on my own.’ ”

Now Greg has a large Southern Pines, N.C., practice, with his own apprentices, paying it forward.

One Step At A Time

David Stackhouse makes custom English saddles and lives in Pinehurst, N.C. This is his story:

“I came from a working class family in England. My father was a coal miner. I began my apprenticeship at Barnsby, in Walsall, England, when I was 15. I lived at home and had to be at work each morning by 8:00 a.m. I’d go to the cellar and start to soak the jute webbing with water. I’d get a big iron bar and rub the webbing to stretch it. I’d get six pence per strap.

“We had 20 saddlemakers, 15 bridlemakers, plus a cutting room. It took me six months to learn how to hand stitch, and I learned how to strain the tree. Our apprentice master would have two 15-year-olds, and a 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-year-old, the oldest ones already making saddles. It was almost two years before I put a saddle together. After my 21st birthday, I became a piece worker, paid by the piece.”

David explained that he learned the five stages of making a saddle: 1) “Straining” the tree, which means covering the tree with webbing; 2) Blocking the seat, putting wet leather on the strained tree and preparing to sew together the pieces of the seat; 3) Preparing the flaps; 4) Knocking together, pulling the seat back on after it’s been stitched. Screwing and tacking flaps to the tree; 5) Finishing with the panels, the bottom of the saddle, filling with felt or rubber or wool flocking.


Then, David said, he had to learn how to fit a finished saddle to an individual horse and an individual rider. These days, David and his former apprentice, now assistant, Lesley Ellis, travel the country to measure horses and riders to create custom fit Stackhouse saddles.

Well, those are examples of “bottom up” learning. You start with basics, and you learn the basics. Then you gradually acquire greater knowledge and broader skill sets, developing what I call “arrows in your quiver.”

Without A Welcome Mat

Is there an equivalent in the United States today for the aspiring young rider? Not in any formal sense, I think, although there are “looser” substitutes. We have organizations like 4-H and U.S. Pony Clubs, which teach horsemanship skills but nothing near the breadth or depth that Greg and David experienced. There are working student programs, but American kids are hard pressed, usually, to stay at one of these for a full year, and most find that staying for six months is a stretch. There are college equine science majors.

Probably the closest substitute to the old guild system that we have in 2015 America is the informal Barn Rat system, and even this is being jeopardized by our increasingly litigious society. Barn rats are the kids you see at every barn or farm, any place there are horses. They learn by osmosis, and I’d bet the average 15- to 16-year-old barn rat knows more basic horsemanship than most adult amateurs who live miles from their horses. So many times I’ve heard stable owners say, “I can comfortably leave my barn with Sarah, and I know she’ll take as good care of the horses as I would myself.”

Modern American liability issues are putting the damper on the barn rat route to excellent horsemanship. Barn owners don’t dare take the chance of being sued if one of these kids gets hurt. So the welcome mat is being pulled away, and everyone loses.

The stark reality for the 2015 American riding teenager is that as the U.S. population swells exponentially, land is lost, highways and subdivisions proliferate, and fewer and fewer Americans live in immediate proximity to the horses they ride.

“Other people”—usually paid employees of some sort—do the horse care. Other people feed, and clean stalls, and clean tack, and turn out, and bring in, and blanket, and clip and braid, and know about tack, and medicine, and shoeing, and the 1,001 details that collectively determine who will and who will not become a “real horseman.”

Is it possible for the avid young (or older) rider to replicate in 2015 some version of the basic framework, at least, of the medieval guild system, as evinced by the careers of Greg and David? Yes, I think, but only for those sufficiently driven and obsessed and willing to give up much in order to possibly gain an uncertain more.

Most Americans live in cities, towns and suburbs. The percentage of Americans who live on farms is tiny and dropping fast.

Horses live on farms. These are increasingly divergent realities, with no easy route to a solution. It’s hard to become a master of anything without total immersion, and it’s hard to be immersed in horses if you are in one place, and your horse is somewhere else.

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.



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