The Father of Modern Dressage: William Cavendish

William Cavendish was an Englishman, the 1st Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676), who loved art, poetry, and…horses! As a boy, he was taught to ride with King James I’s son Prince Henry, and he was eventually chosen to teach Charles II how to ride. In fact, Cavendish began planning for a college of horsemanship in London but those plans unfortunately never made it to fruition. He believed strongly in systems of hierarchy in all relationships, which makes sense because he was also a staunch Royalist.

Widely considered the father of modern Dressage, which evolved from the art of manège, his first horse manual was actually published in French and was much different than the horse publications of others during his time. Cavendish’s second manual was published posthumously in English and it differed only slightly from the first. He claimed that it was the best horse care and riding manual written thus far, which it very well may have been, as shown by how different his beliefs were from other “horse experts” of his time.

Many equestrians during that time were in favor of using brute force to train a horse and to gain their respect. Cavendish, on the other hand, wrote that reward and simply the fear of punishment are the only two ways to make a good horse. He believed that horses have an intelligence that others of the time did not feel that they have.

Cavendish’s gentler methods may have been derived from the Ottomans of the East. He thought that humans riding horses offered authority over the animal and that relationship was to be respected. He claimed that training by force is unsafe and should only be used as a last resort. Cavendish wrote that using spurs to move a misbehaving horse forward was better than beating them, which was standard at the time. He believed that horses move away from pressure, and it turns out he was right! One of his recommendations was to reward the horse immediately after it does as asked, which was his version of modern day give-and-take.

One of his best recommendations was to begin handling horses while they are young so that they become more trusting and compliant during training as adults. Cavendish advised not to make unrealistic demands of a young horse, comparing their training to the teaching of young children.

Although his methods may certainly have been more rough than what we would consider doing today, Cavendish was clearly much less extreme than his contemporaries. He understood that horses are emotional and intelligent beings that need to feel some level of trust and communication in order for training to be effective. In this way, he created the foundation for Dressage as we know it today. You find his full publication in English here.


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