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'After man, the horse is the most noble animal’: the Duke of Newcastle and the horse’s mind.

By Elaine Walker

William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676), published two horsemanship manuals, setting out his New Method for the rearing, training and management of the ‘horse of mannage’, the ancestor of today’s dressage horse.  Aside from being the only seminal texts on horsemanship ever produced by an English author, they are also largely at odds with those of Newcastle’s contemporaries, while being surprisingly familiar in many ways to the modern reader.         

The first manual, La Methode Nouvelle et Invention extraordinaire de dresser les Chevaux (Antwerp: 1658), was published in French for the Continental rider, and set out to gracefully supersede the methods of Antoine de Pluvinel whose posthumous manual of 1623 had greatly refined the approach of earlier masters. [i] Newcastle’s second manual, A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses (London: 1667), was a different, though closely related, text published in English ‘for the more particular Satisfaction of my Country-men’. [ii] This manual openly undermined the continued reliance by English riders upon the adapted translation by Sir Thomas Blundeville (A Newe Booke containing the Arte of Ryding and breaking greate Horses, London: 1560), of the teachings of Federico Grisone (Gli Ordini di cavalcare, Naples: 1550), by then over a hundred years old.

Newcastle published his manuals during a time when horsemanship texts proliferated. From 1550 onwards, at least twenty different manuals that dealt specifically with riding as an art were circulating across Europe. However, the greater proportion are derivative works, essentially tributes to a great master or his followers, with little claim to originality. Newcastle however states emphatically that ‘my Book is stolen out of no Book, nor any mans Practice but my own’ and with characteristic self-confidence, adds ‘it is the Best that hath been Writ yet’(1667: pp.13-14).

In the discussion with which Newcastle opens his first manual, he declares:

There are but two things that can make an accomplish’d horse, viz. the hope of  reward, or the fear of punishment, […] and as far as we know, God has no other means of exciting his people to virtue, but by the largeness of his infinite rewards, and the terror of the pains that are prepar’d for their crimes. (1743: p.12)

This analogy sets out his philosophy both for the training of the horse and the behaviour of the man towards it, forming the central motif for all that follows. As an ardent Royalist, believing passionately in the hierarchical model of leadership typified in the monarchy, Newcastle’s relationship with his horses supported and underpinned all he believed in. The art of the riding house elevated each rider to authority over a creature with the physical ability to kill him by virtue of superior strength. Attempting to subdue that strength by sheer force was, in Newcastle’s view, inviting  danger and violence as a response, but also reducing the man to the level of an animal. To work with the horse and gain its co-operation by means of strong but moderated authority reinforced the rider as a natural leader through his skill and perception.

Newcastle argues that through interaction with the horse, man can experience a relationship that gives him the responsibilities and power that echo God’s relationship with mankind. Winning the horse’s trust goes essentially with a firm discipline that leads to the respectful submission to leadership: ‘For it is Fear makes every Body Obey, both Man and Beast’ (1667: p. 96). This is akin to the fear man feels for God, so is linked with respect, the acceptance of authority and the expectation of swift but just punishment. His approach, however, is not driven by a desire to dominate that denies the horse any co-operative interaction with man. Thus, infuriated by Blundeville’s methods, he rages, ‘He would have Us to Strike a Horse with a Cudgel or Rod, between the Ears, and upon the Head; which is Abominable, though he thinks it a Rare Secret’ (1667: pp. 22-23).

While Blundeville, following Grisone, always starts with a quiet approach, if the horse does not understand or co-operate then beating him violently until he submits is the next step and it is evident from his text that horses were frequently blinded or even killed in the training process. To some extent Blundeville’s expectation of the horse’s understanding is far greater than in any method put forward by Newcastle. With a horse that attempts to lie down crossing water, he advocates four ‘footmen with cogels’ so that:

           when the horse beginneth to lie down they may be readye to leape upon him

           and […] force him to ducke his heade downe under the water […] continuallye

          beating him all the while with their cogels […] berating him with loude and

          terrible voices. That done, let him onelye lift up his head to take breath & aire.

This should be repeated upon subsequent days until ‘you shall see it will make him forget his lyinge downe and to pass through quietly’, though a cord tied to the horse’s testicles which ‘the rider may straine and let go according as he see occasion’, may be efficacious. Aside from the shock to modern sensibilities of this advice, its practicality is severely doubtful and injury inevitable to rider, horse and cudgel-bearers. However, what is most significant is that Blundeville believes that the horse will learn from ‘the greefe’ of the drowning that it should ‘leave this vice’. [iii] Thus he expects the horse to use deductive reasoning to conclude that the instinct to lie down causes his suffering.  Newcastle’s approach, however, is to use spurs to drive a recalcitrant horse forward, based on his awareness that the horse’s instinct to move away from pressure overcomes all other instincts. His method reveals an evident understanding of stimulus and response and the nature of a flight animal that simplifies the training method and makes it safer for all concerned. The specific mention of using spurs on ‘a Horse that Falls down upon the Ground, or in the Water’ (1667: p. 307) suggests a deliberate counter to Blundeville. While Newcastle would undoubtedly have disciplined his horses with a greater severity than most riders today would consider acceptable, in the context of his own time his rejection of outright violence and determination to use force only as a last resort is exceptional. The riding house derived from that tradition whereby the intellectual superiority of humans was illustrated through the aggressive and forceful domination of the irrational beast. However, this view was changing and was quite unacceptable to Newcastle.

Pluvinel had introduced more humane methods, aiming to gentle the man’s approach for the good of his own character, despite the stubborn and cowardly nature of the horse. Newcastle progresses further in crediting the horse with the intelligence to recognise and acknowledge man’s mastery. He argues that through insight into the horse’s mind, not as that of an equal, but certainly as that of a thinking creature, man himself shows independence and courage. In a right relationship with his horse, man is ennobled because he has god-like authority and status over a creature whose own worthiness of spirit and intelligence become a reflection of the rider’s skill. If a horse does rebel, the good rider should never ‘put himself in a passion with his horse, but chastise him with a kind of divinity superior to him’. Like God, the horseman must mete out justice tempered with dispassion. Then the horse will ‘take all in good part, and never be offended’ (1743: pp.13-14). Newcastle states that it is fear in man that refuses to allow intelligence to horses, an astute statement, showing his insight into man’s need for intellectual as well as physical domination.

Once the correct relationship is established, he advocates generous praise and positive reinforce­ment so ‘when they do Well, I Cherish and Reward them’ (1667: p 198). The idea that a horse appreciates ‘cherishing’ was not new and it is one of the anomalies of Grisone’s method that his followers believe that discipline which is little more than gratuitous violence can go alongside an easy relationship with a horse that loves its master and its work. Newcastle however, realises that a confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’ (1667: p. 208; p. 200).

Newcastle’s political stance affirms a tradition whereby the right of the monarch to rule is supported by the willing acceptance of his authority by his subjects, to their mutual good. Horsemanship both parallels and contributes to this philosophy in action and the horse is the appropriate vehicle for the demonstration of this relationship in Newcastle’s eyes, due to its natural intelligence. His acknowledgment of the horse as a creature having ‘Imagination, Memory and Judgement’ (1667: p. 219), has considerable implications for the methods of training.

While Pluvinel also credits the horse with understanding and memory, he states that a system of reward and punishment is necessary ‘so that we can make ourselves understood by these stubborn beasts’, [iv] which seems less sympathetic towards them generally. Newcastle allows that some horses are ‘vitious’ or try ‘Jadish tricks’ but also states that ‘the worst natured Jade in the world […] is much easier Drest […] than a Horse that has been Spoil’d by ill Riding’ (1667: p. 311). He argues repeatedly that the reason and understanding of a horse is comparable to that of a man in that it can be seen to learn, to remember, and to understand. The inability to speak was one of the key arguments put forward by the contemporary philosopher Rene Descartes, who believed animals were little more than living machines with no feelings or thought at all. Newcastle, however, argues that ‘the reason why men speak, and not the beasts, is owing to nothing else, but that the beasts have not so much vain-glory as men’ (1743: p.12).

The similarities between his advice on horses and that on the handling of courtiers in a ‘little book’ of private advice he wrote to the future Charles II are striking.[v] As a committed royalist, Newcastle’s assertion that ‘Monarchy is the Govermente in Cheef off the whole Bodye Poletick, In all Itts partes, & Capaseties by one Person only’ is in no way surprising. That this should filter into his treatment of horses explains one of the keys to his success with them. With horses, as with all subjects ‘familiaretye breedes Contemte’, so the method Newcastle advises Charles to adopt with his militia, nobles and common people is the same as that he uses on his horses:

I Shoulde wishes your Majestie to Governe by both Love and feare mixte together

as ocation serves –   having the power which Is forse and never to use

Itt butt uppon nesesetye.[vi]

With the horse he believes that, ‘Love is not so sure a Hold, for there I Depend upon his Will; but when he Fears me, he depends upon Mine’ (1667: p. 196). He echoes this in advising Charles against allowing undue familiarity, even amongst those closest to him, declaring ‘iff theye doe nott mende putt them oute’.[vii] This is particularly interesting when compared with the natural equine behaviour whereby a presumptuous young colt risks being driven out of the herd to fend for itself. Newcastle clearly understands that surviving without the favour of the king is equally difficult for the courtier. He also understands the nature of challenge implicit in over-familiarity which, allowed to pass, can only suggest weakness. His rules for fair and effective government are along the same lines and his precedent for this approach is consistent throughout the advice book and the horsemanship texts.

The ‘little book’ declares, in words close to those found in both manuals:

thatt kinge that can nott punishe, & rewarde In juste time can nott Governe, for ther Is no more to Governe this worlde butt by Rewarde & punishmente, - & Itt muste bee don In the verye nick off time or Else Itt Is to no purpose, - Wee knowe no more [than] that God Almightye hath butt Rewarde & Punishmente both for this worlde & the nexte.

The reference to ‘the verye nick of time’ is especially interesting, for he advises that as soon as the horse obeys, the rider should dismount and ‘cherish him’, while with pleasing courtiers the king must ‘Cale them to you & cherishe them for they deserve itt’. This astute understanding of the nature of hierarchy, is equally applicable to horse and human: neither rider nor king can be ‘well Setled In your Sadle’ unless the relationship with the human or equine subject be clearly defined.[viii]

To Newcastle the herd-nature of humans parallels that of horses to such an extent that the riding house becomes a suitable training ground for the future monarch. The essence of his New Method is to ‘Make the Horse follow my Wayes’ As man against God and the people against the king, the horse may rebel against that hierarchy, as ‘nor doth the Horse love Subjection, nor any other Creature’(1667: p. 200). However, while ‘They will strive all the Wayes possibly they can, to be Free, and not Subjected [...]when they see it will not be’ and that they can live at ease by accepting, ‘all Yeeld and Render themselves at last’. This ultimate submission ‘willingly, for the most part’ (1667: p. 43) is crucial and a moment of lasting change in the process of training.

Much of this approach to training and understanding the mind of both the horse and the courtier uncovers Newcastle’s personal needs in life. An unpublished poem ‘On the best of kings’ in his own hand declares ‘Wee all doe love thee, yett we feare they rodd,/Nott love for feare, butt feare for love, like Godd’. This suggests a need for the benign domination of God or the monarch which reflects exactly the natural instinct of a horse for strong leadership in order to be at ease in relation not only to its herd, but also to its personal space. Therefore, that Newcastle himself took on that leadership role when riding his horses, placed him in the precise position to them that he desired for himself. His poem to Charles continues, ‘Live for thy owne sake, live for ours, for thyne,/Oh live, for God’s sake, universe, and myne’. [ix]  There is something close to desperation in this plea that parallels the fear a horse would experience when separated from the herd through which it gains its safety and comfort.

Newcastle’s understanding of the mind of the horse seems to derive from recognition, though it seems unlikely that he would have perceived this himself. But evidence of his behaviour towards his monarch, his family, his servants and his horses all suggests a consistent approach of respect within the understanding of hierarchy, so that there is no gratuitous violence or self-elevation through the domination of others. He seems to have been fully aware of the quality of ‘passive leadership’, which is not, in fact, passive at all but denotes a supreme confidence in the ability and right to lead, which inspires others to accept and follow. While this is an idea very familiar to the modern mind, it was foreign in Newcastle’s own time, and not one he ever put into words, yet which can be identified in his horse training methods and in his role as nobleman.

While not the first to consider the horse’s mind as active and intelligent, Newcastle takes a great step forward in his close analysis of the way that mind works. While Pluvinel observes ‘anger, despair and cowardice’, all very negative and human emotions, in his horses, and seeks to overcome them by ‘coolness of mind’,[x] Newcastle’s training is based on the belief that his Spanish horses are ‘strangely wise’ (1667: p. 49). Pluvinel knows that a frightened horse is a dangerous horse and rather than frighten it further with violence, he aims to calm and reassure it by a more gentle approach. He sometimes even rides them blindfolded because ‘horses learn better when they cannot see and are […] less inclined to be distracted’.[xi] This suggests a highly excitable and unpredictable creature, not yet able to stand or work quietly without the denial of a sense. There are no blinkered horses in New­castle’s manuals at all and his advice on rendering them calm and tractable begins when they are weanlings, with a system of casual handling whereby they should be moved in and out from grazing to stable and treated ‘like the Older Horses’. This ensures regular contact with human handlers, so that by the time they are old enough to begin training ‘they will Lead, and be as quiet as any Horse’ (1667: p. 94). As a thinking creature, the young horse learns that man will not harm him, which eases the training process to avoid what Pluvinel describes as ‘the extravagancies of an unreasonable animal’. There is a suggestion that while Pluvinel’s approach is quiet and gentle, the early rides on a young horse may well resemble a rodeo. In time, this wildness will be overcome as the horse realises the man is persistent, but this approach involves considerable ‘perils’ to both horse and rider.[xii]

To illustrate his methods of training, Newcastle frequently draws an analogy with the teaching of a school-boy, primarily in relation those who make unrealistic demands on the young horse, demanding, ‘I would fain ask such stupid people, whether, by beating a boy, they could teach him to read, without first showing him his alphabet?’ (1743: p. 11).  The likening of the horse to the boy illuminates Newcastle’s perception of the horse’s reasoning ability as being like that of a young mind, full of  natural potential but requiring training. His years of experience taught him that horses learn much as a child does and his nature was not to despise that but to work with it as a resource. His approach suggests an observant, relaxed and liberal nature, as evidenced in other aspects of his life so it was perhaps as much his character as his philosophies that suited him for innovations in the understanding and training of horses. In studies of his life and interactions with other people he is widely described as affable, liberal towards all classes and generous with his servants. He was a loving husband and father, who encouraged his daughters and his second wife to pursue their aspirations as writers, while never being seen as anything other than their natural leader. His unconventional approach suggests that while he frequently felt insecure at court, within the extended family encompassed by his estates, he felt at ease. His treatment of his horses may then be seen as an aspect of his patriarchy, which extended to everything living under his command. This is not to suggest that he treated his horses like children, but rather that as willing and obedient subjects, they received the benefits of his relaxed rule. Thus the ability of the horse to recognise its place in the hierarchy becomes not only a measure of its own reasoning capacity, but also evidence of its master’s patriarchal power.

In the classical tradition, the horse is far beyond the unthinking machine suggested by Descartes, or the brute perceived by early humanists to be overcome by force. Artists were fully aware of the imposing picture made by a man, especially a king, on horseback and Newcastle asks his reader frequently, ‘As for Pleasure and State, What Prince looks more Princely or more Enthroned than Upon a Beautiful Horse […]?’ (1667: p. 13). Far more effective surely, to be so gloriously mounted upon a creature of intelligence than an unreasoning brute. He therefore reclaims the classical imagery of the horse as a noble partner, whose intelligence offered the opportunity to transcend the violence of the battlefield while still asserting the qualities of the refined soldier. Newcastle writes from practice, his readers could apply or reject his ideas also through practice: clearly it is often easier and more appealing to latent human aggression to dominate a creature though force. But to rise above that to a greater refinement and intellectual reasoning not only recognises the thinking capacity of the horse, but reveals the human also, so that ultimately man’s treatment of the animal becomes a mirror through which he sees himself.

Newcastle’s contribution to the discussion on animals in the mid-seventeenth century was grounded in his personal experience of the horse as a creature that learns and remembers. The way in which he used that experience was based on his Royalist belief in hierarchy and the promptings of his own nature. That his understanding of the horse’s mind anticipated developments we consider recent innovations may at first come as a surprise. His legacy is more readily recognised elsewhere: any rider today who works a horse from a lunging cavesson is using equipment Newcastle designed, or who rides their horse in a ‘shoulder-in’ uses an exercise that has hardly changed since he created it. His methods for working with the horse’s mind are based on his observation of the horse itself, an approach we are re-discovering, which is why they resonate with our modern understanding. Moving away from the human desire for dominance at any price, they focus on the more reasonable and equally human desire for co-operation with a worthy partner whose nature may by the discerning rider be recognised as ‘Wise, beyond any Man’s imagination’ (1667: p. 49). 

[i] All quotations from Newcastle’s first manual of 1658 are taken from the English translation which forms Vol.1 of John Brindley’s A General System of Horsemanship (London: 1743). A facsimile reprint of this edition was published by J. A. Allen in 2000, using Brindley’s title, and includes all the engraved plates of the 1658 manual.

[ii] A New Method, and Extraordinary Invention, to Dress Horses (London: Thomas Milbourn, 1667), p.4. Further references to Newcastle’s manuals will be included in the text using the date of publication, followed by the page number.

[iii] Blundeville, III, sig. D.i.v

[iv] The Maneige Royal, trans. Hilda Nelson (London: J. A. Allen, 1989), p. 43.

[v] MS Clarendon 109; subsequent references are from the transcription included in A Catalogue of Letters […] at Welbeck Abbey, compiled by S. Arthur Strong (London: John Murray, 1903), Appendix 1. pp.173-236, abbreviated to Letters.

[vi] Letters, pp. 182, 201, 203

[vii] Ibid. p. 211

[viii] Ibid. p. 221; 1658 sig. f; 1667 p.198; Letters, p. 213, 211.

[ix] Portland Collection, PwV23-26

[x] Maneige Royal, p. ix.

[xi] Ibid. p. 102

[xii] Ibid. p. ix

Dr. Elaine Walker is a freelance writer and occasional lecturer for the University of Wales and Open University.

Her book, Horse, is published by Reaktion Books (2008) as part of the Animal series, and she has a novel, coincidentally called The Horses, due in May 2010 from Cinnamon Press.

Her profile may be found on the Writers of Wales Database

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