Comportment of the Rider

While the comportment of the horse was important, the rider’s position was even more so to the period riding masters, because, according to Astley:

“The instrument whereby this art is wrought, is the rider, a creature reasonable, and therefore ought to be able to render a reason of every thing that he teaches, in making the horse obedient to his will, that which if he cannot do, he is suspected as one unskillful in the art, and he knows not what he doeth.” (Astley, p. 3)

Thus, a rider who could not sit a horse properly and have the horse perform obediently was essentially no rider at all! But what exactly did it mean to sit a horse properly? The period masters had plenty to say on this topic:

“You must also carry your body straight and firm, with your face upward, and your legs comely…” (Corte, p. 92)

“... that all those horsemen who will be seen publicly must endeavor to follow with rhythm, with the waist and the limbs, and as much with head and arms as with legs and feet; always doing everything to appear as graceful as they can on horseback, because in addition to making a good show of themselves, they will also help the horse who will appear more elegant and better in that type of manege.” (Fiaschi, p. 127)

“And see that you do not only sit him boldly, and without fear, but also conceive with your self, that he and you do make as it were but one will. And accompany him with your body in any moving that he makes, always beholding his head right between his ears, so as your nose may directly [above] his foretop. Which shall be a sign unto you to know thereby, whither you sit right in your saddle or not.” (Grisone, p. 43)

These quotes give us only a general description of what the rider should look like atop a horse. For a clearer picture, we must consider the parts of the rider’s body separately.

Because of the importance placed on the horse’s head and neck carriage, which are primarily controlled by the rider’s hands, we must conclude that the use of the hands would be of great concern to the period riding masters. Riders were instructed to hold the reins with one hand, like so:

“... as touching the reins, you must hold them in your left hand, so as the little finger, and ring finger too (if you will) may always be placed between the two reins and the thumb close upon the reins, with the brawn thereof turned toward the pommel of the saddle, and being thus closed together in your fist…” (Astley, p. 57-58)

Lest the modern re-enactor believe that the reins were only ever held in the left hand, there are many period drawings of the reins being held in the right hand, and there are even instructions on how to ride two-handed:

“... for then having the right rein in the right hand, and the left rein in the left hand, they may be drawn on either side in a reasonable manner.” (Astley, p. 30)

Once the rider was holding the reins properly, the next step was for the rider to hold his arm in the correct position:

“You must also use your hand and arm with a certain just and comely motion, and chiefly your right arm ought to be a little bowing…” (Corte, p. 35)

After the rider’s reins and arm were properly position, it was time to practice one of the many exercises recommended for training horses. Since small, quick turns were required of the horse, the use of the hands and reins for such maneuvers was discussed:

"For who so wil haue his horse reane well: let him beare his hande rather lowe than highe, so shall he be hable to keepe it alwayes at one stay, which is one of the chiefest pointes of horsemanship. Notwithstandinge, if our horse be anything headstronge, then when you manege him, or otherwyse handle him, beare not to stiffe a hande, but rather somewhat lyghte and temperate, for the more you force him, the lesse he wyll yeald. But if he hath no such fault, then doe alwayes as I tolde you before. And remember alwayes when you tourne your horse, to drawe neyther your arme nor hande more of one side then of another, but to keepe it euen with the horse's creast, and onlye by tourning your fist a little inwarde, or outwarde, to signifie unto him to tourne." (Grisone, ch. XI, trans. Blundeville)

Stopping “justly” was also important, and the hands and body played an important role in stopping the horse with his rump underneath him. It is interesting that period riding masters, like modern riders in many disciplines, were aware that stopping a horse with just the reins was not the best way to get a precise stop - instead, the entire body should be used:

“... even to stop, at that which you must not draw your hand hastily to you, but even with a little sway of your body back, and your hand together… and let you had with your body go to their place again.” (Astley, p. 51)

The period masters also placed great emphasis on how the rider should use their body, legs, and seat in order to appear more comely:

“... settle yourself just in the midst of the saddle, letting your legs fall in due order, neither putting them too much forward, nor too much backward, nor too near, nor too far from the horse’s belly, staying your feet upon the stirrups, as they ought to be, turning your toes somewhat towards the horse’s shoulder, and settling yourself upon the stirrups, yet not so hard as though your feet were grown out of them. … The surest hold and stay you must have on horseback shall consist not in the stirrups, but in your knees and thighs, which ought to be as ever as it were made fast or nailed to in the saddle: but from the knees downward let your legs be loose and at free liberty…” (Corte, p. 34)

From this passage, we see that the rider’s position had evolved from the middle ages, when riders stood in their stirrups for jousting and sword fighting, to a more seated position where the leg was allowed to fall naturally. This change of position (as well as the different saddles that were used) meant that the rider’s leg could be used to aid the horse was used differently.

When it came to showing riding skill, Corte thought that an accomplished rider showed his skills best at the gallop (modernly called the canter or lope):

“And there is nothing that makes a man sit so comely on horseback as the gallop: for in galloping his may take time to settle his feet in the stirrups, to hold his legs in their due place with his thighs and knees closely, and his whole body straight and disposed, with either hand bestowed in their places.” (Corte, p. 73)

But the entire purpose of perfecting the comportment of both horse and rider was to demonstrate the elegance of the unity between the two:
“... so as these two several bodies may seem in all their actions and motions to be as it were only one body.” (Astley, p. 5)

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