Eighteenth-century horsemanship books

During the eighteenth century, manuals about horsemanship, dressage, and care of horses proliferated the literary marketplace. The British style of riding in particular spread to mainland Europe in this period: as was evident in literature, fashions, art, pamphlets, and books of the time (cf Tomassini). The National Sporting Library & Museum’s collections of art and rare materials have wonderful examples of this period of eighteenth-century English horseback riding.

Horse races elsewhere in Europe during this period involved a completely different activity from what one sees today: in Italy for example, horses were raced without riders, and often in the streets (cf Tomassini). It was in England during the early modern period that horse races developed as a sport such as one sees today. Tracks were constructed in the early 17th century, rules became more set in place, and more famous races were established by the late 17th century (Tomassini).

The prototype of English horsemanship manuals was A General System of Horsemanship in All it’s [sic] Branches by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676). The NSLM has two copies of this book, which was published in two volumes in 1743.

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle

The Duke of Newcastle went into exile in Belgium during the English Civil War and established a famous riding school in Antwerp. His manuscript, written in English, was translated into French and published in 1657 and 1658, under the title of Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux. The copies from the first issue were largely destroyed in a fire in the bookseller’s shop and are extremely rare. Both the first version, in French, and the later translation into English are famous for the illustrations, which used the same plates. The illustrations feature twenty-four multiple stages of Cavendish and his assistant Captain Mazin involved in training complicated maneuvers. There are 18 additional plates to those (cf Bauman’s).

This book was one of two books written by the only true “early master of classical riding” in England–the other being A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses (1667).

All in all, the English edition (1743) of A General System of Horsemanship in All it’s [sic] Branches is a folio format with 106 total leaves of plates across both volumes.

It’s important to note that in England especially, the rise of the bourgeoisie (or the middle class) led to more gentlemanly lifestyle pursuits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This included horsemanship and other kinds of sports, as well as book collecting. And so books such as A General System of Horsemanship in All it’s Branches were very popular and appeared on a number of bookshelves in the eighteenth century, after its publication. Other such books were to follow, such as The Compleat Horseman; or, the Art of Riding Made Easy: Illustrated by Rules Drawn from Nature, and Confirmed by Experience; with Directions to the Ladies to Sit Gracefully, and Ride with Safety, published by Charles Hughes in 1772.

Published by F(rancis) Newbery, of the famous Newbery family of publishers in London, Charles Hughes’s Compleat Horseman had his own riding school “near Black-friars Bridge” (self described). Newbery published two issues in the same year (1772)–the NSLM has one or both, and two copies. Both issues are rare.

One of the copies likely has its original binding, or at least one that is contemporary: it is of Turkish marbled paper on boards and the book has not been cut down for a new binding, as was the tradition for new bindings from the 16th through the 20th centuries.

Hughes binding: Turkish marbled paper over boards

Compleat Horseman has two parts: it includes a section for women riders, entitled: Directions to the Ladies to Sit Gracefully, and Ride with Safety. Hughes regularly rode with his wife, Miss Tomlinson, and his sister, and so seems to have gained an interest in women’s riding in particular (cf Bonham’s). The final portion of the book is a set of plates showing circus-like tricks with horses–although saying “circus-like” is an anachronism, Hughes made something of a name for himself performing these kinds of tricks. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Hughes “vaulted backwards and forwards over three horses then over a single horse forty times without stopping.”

Overall, The Compleat Horseman has an engraved frontispiece and plate, and 9 wood-engraved illustrations on 5 leaves. Its format is a duodecimo.

There are a number of wonderful books on horsemanship in the NSLM on horsemanship from this period, in French and in English, especially from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If you go to the library catalog, plug in “horsemanship” in the search field, and limit it to the library and to “books,” you can also pull down the dropdown menu and instead of “title,” choose “date” and go to the earliest dates to find these extraordinary books. Two are highlighted here but there are so many more!


Bauman’s bookseller description of METHODE ET INVENTION NOUVELLE DE DRESSER LES CHEVAUX: https://www.baumanrarebooks.com/rare-books/cavendish-william-duke-of-newcastle/methode-et-invention-nouvelle-de-dresser-les-chevaux/71075.aspx

Christie’s bookseller description of METHODE ET INVENTION NOUVELLE DE DRESSER LES CHEVAUX: https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-5698514

Tomassini, Giovanni Battista. Anglomania (Part 1): The spreading of English style equitation in the Eighteenth century : http://worksofchivalry.com/anglomania-part-1-the-spreading-of-english-style-equitation-in-the-eighteenth-century/

Related to this post:

PREVIOUS NSLM blog posts!

Women riding horses starting in c17 and c18

Women’s equestrian portraits

Blogpost on women and 18th century horseback riding

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