I have always been an equestrian. I took my first riding lesson when I was eight years old and spent the next ten years as an eventer and dressage rider, riding with some of the best trainers in New England. I’ve ridden a half-dozen Grand Prix trained dressage horses, bragging rights that are not common among adult amateurs. In my teen years I began slowly transitioning to riding western, the discipline I find myself in today. My fondness for English sport has never left me, as evidenced by my current position at the National Sporting Library & Museum, but the comfort of a western saddle and the ability to leave all four feet on the ground has enormous appeal.

This varied background has given me a unique perspective on the two disciplines, and some observations I will now share with you.

Please note, the division of English and western riding is far more complicated than just a difference in saddle, and even within those categories individual disciplines are as varied as can be; reining and barrel racing are as different as dressage and foxhunting.

Western and English styles of riding were both born out of necessity. In Europe, after the invention of the saddle with stirrups, the mounted soldier was a formidable weapon on the field of battle. A method of riding where the rider had complete control of the horse and all his limbs was paramount for successful waging of war. The animal had to be nimble and strong and completely broken of any habits which might interfere with the soldier’s ability to ride and brandish a sword. The saddle had to be secure enough to assist the rider in staying on, but minimalistic enough to allow a great range of movement. The horse and rider had to be able to clear obstacles in the varied European terrain. Athleticism in the moment was more important than endurance; the horse had to be powerful, but only had to last long enough to win or be replaced by reinforcements. Communication between human and equine was constant, allowing for minute adjustments and instant changes in action to respond to attacks.

Painting of a gray horse performing a levade with a rider and two handlers on the ground
(after) James Seymour, (English, 1702-1752), Four-Panel Sporting Screen (detail), c. 1860, hand-colored engravings mounted on canvas, and oil on canvas mounted on a wooden frame , each panel 81 ½ x 27 inches, Bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, 2006

The horse here is depicted schooling the levade, a movement that in battle would have intimidated the enemy and moved the rider up and out of sword’s reach. Today the movement is considered one of the most difficult in dressage and is one of the famed “airs above the ground.”

As war became leisure for the aristocracy, disciplines such as dressage and hunting developed to demonstrate a horse and rider’s abilities to fight successfully in facsimile. The enemy was replaced by a wily fox or a distinguished audience, and the movements once used on the battlefield were fine-tuned for less bloody competition.

Western riding developed similarly out of necessity. In the wild west, vast expanses of land allowed for the cultivation of cattle while necessitating a mode of transportation that was efficient and comfortable. Horses, not requiring roads, paths, or rails, were naturally the mode of choice. Riding for hours and hours tending cattle required a method of riding that was comfortable and long-lasting, but athletic when needed. The trot, a jarring and inefficient gait, was transformed into the jog, a slow but smooth manner of moving for the horse that can be maintained by man and beast for hours. The horse also had to be able to react quickly in case of emergency, hence the development of the American Quarter Horse who can run faster than any other breed but only for short distances. While the cowboy’s attention was on the cattle or scanning the horizon for danger, the horse had to fend for themselves, leading to a style of training in which the horse is more responsible for its own carriage and propulsion. There were no pages, squires, or grooms; a horse left tied had to reliably stay tied, often for hours at a time.

Phoebe Phipps (English/American,? – 1993), The Quail Hunter, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Gift of Mrs. Mimi Abel Smith, 2012

In this image by Phoebe Phipps, the western discipline is showing its usefulness in modern times. This rider is able to traverse difficult terrain inaccessible by vehicle during the course of the quail hunt. His horse is wearing saddle bags, likely holding supplies. The western saddle is designed to hold a variety of equipment and typically has ties and rings throughout the skirt for attaching such.

The difference is well-illustrated in this clip from the 2015 World Cup “Duel in the Desert,” where a reiner and showjumper swapped horses and disciplines for an exhibition. The western rider steers the horse towards each jump, then effectively gets out of the horse’s way. Without the minute adjustments provided by the English rider, the horse rushes the fences and knocks most of them over. The horse is also on the wrong lead for a few turns, suggesting the rider did not direct him to change and the horse did not manage to change on his own. The English rider maintains strong rein contact while attempting to cut the cow, trying to steer the horse by hand to follow the cow. Unfortunately, the delay between the rider noticing the cow’s movement and directing the horse to follow is too long and the horse misses the cow at every turn; the western rider would have dropped the reins and allowed the horse more freedom to watch and follow the cow on its own, eliminating this reaction time. Both riders are very good; they both stayed on despite being thrown out of their comfort zone, but they ride in ways their horses are not accustomed to, accentuating the differences between them.

I will stop short of suggesting which discipline is superior (although I will assert that the western saddle is far more comfortable, and no one can change my mind on that). Both approaches to horsemanship accomplish what they set out to do through specializations of tack, training, and even breed of horse, developed over the centuries as horseback riding transitioned from necessary task to enjoyable endeavor.

Tucker Smith: A Celebration of Nature, on view now at the NSLM, features a wide variety of paintings by the artist inspired by his life in the American outback. The horse is still a widely used tool in the region and Smith’s work often features the working western mount. Be sure to visit and learn more about the western discipline in everyday use.

Cynthia Kurtz received her M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and her B.A. from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. She is responsible for marketing, social media, and graphic design to support the entire NSLM. When not working, she enjoys trail riding in the woods of Loudoun County.

She can be reached at ckurtz@nationalsporting.org.

By Charles Caramello

Scholars in equine history generally agree on the broad historical contours of early European dressage and equitation: Italian schools, particularly Neapolitan, introduced and developed the first modern systems of the two closely related arts in the second half of the 16th century; Italian and French schools advanced them further in the 17th century; and French schools became the dominant force in the 18th century. Austrian and German schools, their theories and practices based on somewhat different principles, evolved with great refinement over the 18th century; and French and German schools, for all intents and purposes, competed for hegemony and influence throughout the 19th century. Spanish and Portuguese schools, of course, also played important roles in this history; while “English schools,” as a phrase, is often considered an oxymoron.[1]

Gil Ordini di Cavalcare by Federico Grisone (1550). Part of The Ludwig von Hunersdorf Collection, the gift of the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation.

The National Sporting Library holds a large number of works on dressage and equitation spanning this history, including and featuring many of the earliest seminal titles. Exceptionally rich in both quality and quantity, NSLM’s rare book collections house, for example, no less than ten separate editions of the ur-text of modern horsemanship, Federico Grisone’s Gli ordini di cavalcare, ranging in dates of publication from the first edition of 1550 to early 17th century editions of 1608 and 1620.[2] In addition to Grisone, the collections include first or very early editions of pivotal works by the 16th Italian masters, Claudio Corte,  Cesare Fiaschi, and Alessandro Massari Malatesta, as well as by the 17th and 18th century French giants, Salomon de la Broue, Antoine de Pluvinel, William Cavendish, and François Robishon de la Guérinière. NSLM also boasts copies of the some of the few and very rare early works on horsemanship published in English.

Gil Ordini di Cavalcare by Federico Grisone (1550). Part of The Ludwig von Hunersdorf Collection, the gift of the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation.

Though Early Modern British horsemen, like generations of their descendants, preferred hunting to schooling, “manège riding,” as Elizabeth Tobey reminds us, “had been practiced at the English court since the early sixteenth century” (Grisone, 43). Italian masters taught in England, British noblemen studied in Italy, and “the Neapolitan school,” as a result, became known in England and “excited the interest of English horsemen” (Felton, 43). Ten years after Federico Grisone published his Gli ordini di cavalcare (1550), the first modern equestrian treatise to appear in print, as opposed to manuscript (Tomassini, 79), the English courtier Thomas Blundeville published an adaptation and translation of Grisone as The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Great Horses (1560).[3] Blundeville’s translation enjoyed “ten historical printings between 1560 and 1609” (Grisone, 18) and influenced “English horsemen for over a century” (Van der Horst, 128).

The Art of Riding by Thomas Blundeville (1609). The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

In the Preface to The Arte of Ryding, Blundeville advises readers to be thankful both to Grisone for having invented a system of horsemanship and to Blundeville himself for translating it and reordering and clarifying its presentation. He then adds: “And you shall haue very good cause also to be thankful unto my deare frende John Astley,” who practiced Grisone’s rules daily. I sawe him without helpe of any other teacher, bring two of his horses . . . into such perfection as I beleue few gentilmen in this realme haue the lyke” (Blundeville, np). Blundeville’s point is not that his readers should thank Grisone for Astley’s exceptional horsemanship, but rather, and obliquely, that they should thank Astley as the “deare frende” who introduced Grisone’s Ordini to Blundeville  and encouraged him to adapt and translate it into English (see Van der Horst, 128, 132).[4]

The Art of Riding by John Astley (1584). The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

An accomplished horseman and highly regarded courtier, John Astley published in 1584 the second book on horsemanship written originally in English: The Art of Riding, “a breefe treatise,” to cite its title page, “with a due interpretation of certain places alledged out of Xenophon, and Gryson [Grisone], verie expert and excellent Horssemen.”[5] Brevity notwithstanding, Astley’s Art of Riding is a treatise of signal importance to the emergence of systematic dressage and equitation in England. Its importance lies, one, in Astley’s technical analysis of “the true vse of the hand, wherein the chiefe substance of the whole Art of Riding standeth,” by which he means the fundamental principle of contact, “a thing not easie, but very hard to be understood” (Astley, np); and, two, in his essentially historical explication of Xenophon and Grisone and their respective developments of the principle: similar in their methods for achieving contact, they differed in the degree of control that contact should produce.

The Art of Riding… by Thomas Bedingfield (1584). The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The year 1584 also saw the publication of Thomas Bedingfield’s The Art of Riding, a translation, abridgment, and adaptation of Claudio Corte’s treatise, Il cavallerizzo di Claudio Corte (1562).[6] An influential and cosmopolitan Neapolitan master, Corte resided in the English court in the 1570s. Bedingfield most likely knew Corte both through the latter’s writing and teaching, so he obliged when Henry Macwilliams entreated him “to afford his paines in the reducing of these few precepts, gathered out of a larger volume written by Claudio Corte, into our English toong.”[7] Corte’s “larger volume” comprised three books, only the second of them, on the art of riding, the basis for Bedingfield’s translation and adaptation. Bedingfield not only provided an English readership access to Corte’s technical precepts on riding, but he also advocated Corte’s related social ideas on figura (appearance, or overall presentation of self), advising against “affectation” while encouraging the gallop, for example, as a means of developing a “comelie” seat (73).

Il Cavallarizzo by Claudio Corte (1562). Part of The Ludwig von Hunersdorf Collection, the gift of the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation.

With the publication of Corte’s Il cavallerizzo, Giovanni Tomassini observes, “books on equestrian art [began] to speak to each other” (Tomassini 137). Almost from its inception, put differently, the European discourse on dressage and equitation became not only international, but also intertextual: it would proceed through the following centuries as an ongoing conversation among and between theorists and practitioners, and masters and students, in books that constantly invoked one another. Astley’s treatise and Bedingfield’s translation of Corte provide an almost too literal metaphor for that conversation: the same London printer, Henry Denham, not only published both books in the same year, and sold each book separately, but he also, and not uncommonly, sold the two books bound as one volume.[8]

[1] Though William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle and one of the most important theorists in the history of horsemanship, was English, he spent many years on the Continent as a political exile. Cavendish wrote two treatises, one in French and one in English.

[2] Given NSLM’s stunning collection of Grisone editions, it is not surprising that the first English translation of Grisone since Blundeville’s translation of 1560 was executed at NSLM, using its collection, under the auspices of the John H. Daniels Fellowship. See Grisone, The Rules of Riding.

[3] A Renaissance polymath and polyglot, Blundeville wrote or translated some ten books on topics as diverse as morality and logic; courtliness and politics; cartography and historiography; cosmography, astronomy, and geography; and “the Arte of Nauigation.”

[4] Astley returned the compliment in the Dedication to his Art of Riding, citing Blundeville’s Arte of Ryding as a skillful translation and adaptation of Grisone’s work that “if men take good heed, & will be diligent, they cannot but greatlie profit thereby, to the great benefit of themselues, and the seruice of their countrie” (Astley, np).

[5] Blundeville’s The Foure Chiefest Offices belonging to Horsemanship (1565-66) was the first book written in English (as opposed to translated into English). Blundeville incorporated a “newly corrected and amended” version of The Art of Ryding as the second tract in this more comprehensive treatise. NSLM holds two copies of the revised edition of 1609: one with all four tracts and one with the first two only.

[6] NSLM’s holdings include a copy of the first edition of Il cavallerizzo of 1562 and two copies of the subsequent edition of 1573.

[7] See Macwilliams’s prefatory epistle directed “To the right worshipfull, my verie louing companions and fellowes in Armes, hir Maiesties Gentlemen Pensioners.”

[8] Astley’s treatise appeared earlier than Bedingfield’s translation, and the two texts appear to have been bound together in that order. I base the generalization on Van der Horst’s description of the copy in the library of Johan Dejager (Van der Horst, 190), and on my examination of the copy in the John H. Daniels Collection at NSLM.


Astley, John. The Art of Riding, set forth in a beeefe treatise [etc]. London: Henrie Denham, 1584.

Bedingfield, Thomas. The Art of Riding . . . Written at large in the Italian toong, by Maister Claudio Corte. London: H. Denham, 1584.

Blundeville, Thomas. The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Greate Horses. Facsimile 1560. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Felton, W. Sidney. Masters of Equitation. London:  J.A. Allen, 1962.

Grisone, Federico. The Rules of Riding. 1550. Ed. with an Introduction by Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey. Trans. Tobey and Federica Brunori Deigan. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014.

Tomassini, Giovanni. The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art: A Survey of the Treatises on Horsemanship from the Renaissance and the Centuries Following. Trans. by author.  Franktown, VA: Xenophon, 2014.

Van der Horst, Koert, ed. Great Books on Horsemanship: The Library of Johan Dejager. Leiden: Brill, 2014.


Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library & Museum and Professor of English at University of Maryland. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, Horsemen, Horse Soldiers, and Grand Illusions.