Isn’t that my squire’s job?

Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in October 2011

As many of you know, our Cavaliere Program has within it three streams of learning: riding, mounted combat, and horsemanship.  Two are fairly obvious:  learning to ride, and learning to wield a weapon from horseback.  However, it may be less self-evident why we insist our cavaliers also learn horsemanship:  that is, the care and handling of horses.  After all, in mediaeval times wouldn’t a squire, a groom, an ostler, or the stable master look after the horses, just like a barn manager does today?  You can learn to drive a car without ever looking under the hood, so can’t you learn to ride a horse without knowing how to look after it?  There are many reasons the short answer is ‘no’, and for us at Duello they fall into three categories.


Yes, knights had squires who could take care of their riding horses and destriers.  However, mediæval knights had generally all been squires at one time, and had paid their dues as grooms before they earned their spurs.  And while knights at tournament could certainly depend on numerous helpers, it would be suicidal for cavalrymen to head out on campaign without knowing how to handle and look after their horses.  Even if they left home with a cadre of support staff, there would be no guarantee they’d still have them after the first battle, or even after the first long march.  Throughout history, from Xenophon’s time to the modern period, cavalry have known how to care for their horses.


Coffin bone.  Colic.  Gelding.   Warmblood.  Shoulder-fore.  Pelham.  Impulsion.  Two-stride to a bending line.  Bench-kneed.  Rollback.  Crupper.  Chestnut.  Halflinger.  Galvayne’s groove…. Think Italian swordplay has a lot of fancy new terms to wrap your head around?  Wait until you get into the vocabulary of horses.  At least it’s in English – though it may not seem so at first.  The language of the horse world is ancient and varied, but entirely necessary if you want to understand and be understood by those of us who spend all our spare time at the stables.

Terminology aside, practical knowledge of equine anatomy and physiology will help you understand the strengths and limits of your mount, and an understanding of horse psychology will help you get the best behaviour from him.  Being able to keep your tack clean and well maintained is a safety issue; plus if you ride someone else’s horse, returning the horse sound, well groomed and with the tack properly cleaned increases the likelihood you’ll be welcome to ride that horse again.  Knowing breeds and ages may tell you that a pretty three-year-old thoroughbred may not be the best choice of jousting horse; and knowing what a normal healthy leg looks and feels like will let you know if the horse you’re tacking up is lame and shouldn’t be ridden.  A basic knowledge of equine first aid, and a cool, experienced head could even save a life.


Beyond all the above reasons for a broad and deep knowledge of the horse is our moral duty to the animal.  When we ride we are using other living beings for our own pleasure, courtesy of their extraoadinarily gentle and cooperative nature.  Even a horse that is cantankerous, stubborn, dull or mean deserves the best care we can possibly give him, for he certainly didn’t ask to carry us on his back.  Which means we owe it to the horse to constantly strive to increase our knowledge and improve our horsemanship for his benefit.

Grooming is also bonding time!

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