Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023

Riding To Music Has A Long, Long History

Last February, I gave a short talk on the history of freestyle as a part of the National Judges Forum Axel Steiner and I conducted together in California. Since this is "the year of the freestyle," it seemed a good time to review that we really have an extremely long history of riding our horses to music.


Last February, I gave a short talk on the history of freestyle as a part of the National Judges Forum Axel Steiner and I conducted together in California. Since this is “the year of the freestyle,” it seemed a good time to review that we really have an extremely long history of riding our horses to music.

When we look into the history of classical riding, we often start by mentioning the Athenian Xenophon, one of the first equestrians to take the initiative to study other riders and put his observations into the form of a book, with the intent of passing them on to other riders. Xenophon, who died in 354 B.C., was a philosopher, a historian, and a soldier.

This Greek cavalryman closely studied the style of warfare exhibited by the Iberian cavalry because of its ability to perform fast and exact maneuvers with the horses. Remember, until relatively recently in history, the cavalry was of utmost importance to any civilization. From the time when humanity domesticated the horse until the 20th century, the expansion of nations and the development of cultures depended on the strength and power of the cavalry.

Among the ancient tribes of Europe and Asia, the cavalry, when it wasn’t at war, performed ritual rides on religious days. Tribes held rides around the grave of their heroes or made mounted presentations to show off the strength of their horse-borne troops through various maneuvers.

The rituals were al-ways accompanied by music, which in those days was performed by an assortment of trumpets and drums, so-called “open-air music,” all of which is well documented on Greek and Roman stone carvings.

From these performances stems the Latin word “Tor-nare” and the German word “Turnam,” which means “fast turning around with horses.” In the Middle Ages this developed into tournaments, which al-ways opened and closed with pa-rades of participating knights and their horses’ with music playing a major part.


But when firearms were introduced, the knights in heavy armor became obsolete, and the style of riding had to be changed. The type of horse needed to survive was no longer a monstrous creature, strong enough to carry the weight of his own and his rider’s armor, but rather a mount that was light and agile and could dodge the enemy and go faster over long distances.

The Middle Ages were followed by the Italian Renaissance, which strived to return to the glories of the old Rome, and the various courts of Italy started to imitate the cavalry celebrations of ancient times, again including lots of music. During the ensuing Baroque period, the first form of the carousel appeared. The carousels usually included a parade, followed by fights on horseback, but in a choreographed form that created basically harmless games without any real danger to the participants.

In Italy, especially at the court of Medici in Florence, a form of Carousel was created to celebrate the “Festa de Caballo,” the festival of the horse, presenting a story on horseback. Normally it exhibited a theme from a saga or allegory, artfully accompanied by music.

This syndrome lead to a rash of “horse ballets,” which were performed all over Europe, some of them almost becoming elevated to the status of operas on horseback. Out of this was born the quadrilles, which were also usually based on some theme from an already known story. The composers at the courts would write music especially for the mounted performances.

The most famous and largest horse ballet took place in Vienna in 1667, and it included more than 600 horses and about 1,300 people. It was performed to celebrate an imperial wedding, and the choreography, the music and the story (which presented the emperor of Austria as the Master of the Elements) have been preserved to this day, part of it as engravings. An entire orchestra was involved in providing the music, including clarinets and violins.

The extravaganza in Vienna rather knocked the air out of any other attempts at one-upmanship, and after 1667 very few horse ballets are mentioned. Instead, the carousels enjoyed a short revival as indoor events, accompanied by a full orchestra.


The end of the 19th century closed the era of carousels. Instead, horses entered the arena of sports, and in 1912 the equestrian disciplines were made part of the program at the Stockholm Olympics.

Two World Wars put a stop to a lot more than horse activities and sports events. But through it all equestrian traditions have survived in their purest form at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France, La Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Equestre in Jerez, Spain, and the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestra in Queluz, Portugal.

For the most part, these institutions keep the art alive in quadrilles, and right now there are some serious debates going on to determine whether the quadrille should become part of international competitions. Having watched the freestyle explode onto the competition scene in every division, I don’t doubt that it is a possibility.

The freestyle is both loved and hated.It’s loved by spectators because of its entertaining nature, loved by the riders who enjoy riding to music, and hated by some riders because of all the work’and sometimes expense’involved in creating and practicing the rides.

Judges often consider it the most difficult test to score correctly because of the many factors on the artistic side of the score sheet. But, once the judges are comfortable with this addition to their duties, many of them look forward to the freestyle because horse and rider often perform to music with more élan and improved relaxation.

That’s why we decided to work on the details of judging the freestyle in our forum last February. When you watch the freestyles from the World Equestrian Games, you’re actually seeing the closing of the circle: Riding to music has come back to stay.




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