A Bit of Early Animal Ethics

Which reformation must be sudden too,
My noble lords; for those that tame wild horses
Pace ’em not in their hands to make ’em gentle,
But stop their mouths with stubborn bits, and spur ’em.
Till they obey the manege.
   — William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 2

In many ways, Europe’s equestrian literary tradition began in 1550 with the publication of Gli Ordini di Cavalcare (The Rules of Riding) by Federico Grisone. Grisone was a famed Neapolitan riding master, and his was the first new book on riding in Europe since Xenophon. Grisone’s work was a huge success, and spread throughout Europe quickly. It was also a product of its age, and is noteworthy for its cruelty in the curbing of horses. Grisone’s treatments were grisly, and included such shocking practices as tying a cat to a horse’s belly to “cure” the horse of refusal to cross a river. Later editions of the work included detailed diagrams of harsh bits designed by Grisone to force the horse to obey instructions.

An illustration of a bit, from Gli Ordini Di Cavalcare, Federico Grisone, 1561. Grisone reputedly designed these harsh bits, intended to force the horse to submit and obey commands. Grisone was famous for his ability to break recalcitrant horses.

Bits during this period broke down into two main categories: snaffles, which exerted direct pressure on the lips, bars and tongue, and the harsher curb bits, that pinched and cut the horse’s chin. To save the mouth from permanent damage, some trainers turned to cavessans which acted on the nose and muzzle instead.

Frontispiece of The Art of Riding, a 1609 edition of the translation by Thomas Blundeville of Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare. Although Blundeville revered Grisone, he was also among the moderate voices on the use of harsh bits, especially for young horses who were still being trained.

The tenor of these methods is rather unsurprising in the broader cultural context. The middle of the 16th Century was steeped in a philosophical tradition that viewed humans as the only thinking, feeling creatures in nature. The dominance over the horse became an analogue for man’s mastery over nature itself. But as equestrian literary offerings became more robust, varying schools of thought emerged on the practical matter of treatment of horses.

Image from A General System of Horsemanship, by the Duke of Newcastle. Writing in the 1650s, Newcastle was blunt about using physical punishment to curb recalcitrant horses, but also combined positive reinforcement as a most effective balance.

Through the late 1500s and into the 1600s, more and more voices advocated against the harsh methods. The moderate school included writers like Thomas Blundeville (who translated Grisone’s writings into English), Gervase Markham, and the Duke of Newcastle. All these writers struck a balance that required physical punishment for horses as a necessary part of training, but considered this a last resort, not a first treatment (for example, Markham advocated burning straw around a horse’s head as a treatment for obstinate refusal to carry burdens). In this light, most authors of the age took their cues from Xenophon. Of course, these perspectives were largely explored exclusively among the literate population of Europe. Servants, who were typically tasked with daily care but did not read, often mistreated the horses in their care.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from the frontispiece to her Poems and Fancies, 1653. Lady Newcastle was an early writer advocating better treatment of animals and a rejection of the anthropocentric tradition.

Unsurprisingly, the advocates for gentler treatment often had more experience working directly with horses, and maintained that horses were intelligent and possessed memory, senses and feelings. By the middle of the 1600s, more thinkers began to admit the intelligence of animals, beginning with the horse. The Duchess of Newcastle, in her oft-criticized works, decried the anthropocentric view of her day, asserting that

…Man doth think himselfe so gentle, mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.
   — Margaret Cavendish, Lady Newcastle, Poems

Lady Margaret’s views, which included criticism of meat eating and hunting, were radical in her day. The growing sentiment toward gentle treatment, however, likely had more to do with practical considerations than abstract philosophies. As the quality of horses grew, they became valuable as commodities and as status symbols. Consequently, owners of good horses wanted to keep them in good condition. John Astley, in his book The Art of Riding, claims that harsh bits ruined horses, having “so dulled and deaded the senses and feeling, as he feeleth little of paine, of pleasure nothing at all, and of a sensible creature is made a senseless blocke.”

The shift in perspective was slowly reflected in the wave of equestrian literature from 1550 to 1650. Authors looked to underscore proper care and training of horses, as a worthy way to perfect human riders, but also to protect costly investments in horseflesh. From our current perspective, it’s also possible to trace the first stirring of a notion of animal rights and the deeper ethical considerations that govern the treatment of horses today.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail


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