The pivotal moments that changed the equestrian world *H&H Plus*

  • From Xenophon to Charlotte Dujardin, the Byerley Turk to artificial insemination, Pippa Cuckson charts equestrianism’s watershed moments

    Circa 431-354BC, Xenophon: the Ancient Greeks — who had already developed shoeing — realised they would do better in battle by developing trust with their horses.

    Turning on a drachma or galloping from a standing start were taught by patience, repetition and reward. They also understood the benefits of balance and light rein contact. Xenophon, a student of Socrates, recorded the system in his seminal tome On Horsemanship.

    Enlightened riding — besides many other things — sunk without trace in the Dark Ages. Xenophon’s philosophy, if not necessarily all his techniques, was revived in the Renaissance, most famously at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, founded in 1565.


    1598, Carlo Ruini’s Anatomia del Cavallo (Anatomy of a Horse) published in Bologna: despite Ruini’s absence of formal training, his Anatomia del Cavallo was a milestone for veterinary knowledge. Its woodcut images were plagiarised for decades.

    A century and a half later, British portrait artist George Stubbs commenced his own programme of equine dissection, a practice far from generally accepted in his lifetime. Over 18 months he peeled away layers, sketching the animals at every angle and every stage.

    Stubbs’ The Anatomy of the Horse, published in 1766, was another ground-breaking contribution to equine science. This systematic study is based on his dissections.

    c1680, Foaling of the Byerley Turk: his birth was quickly followed by those of the Darley Arabian (c1700) and the Godolphin Barb (or Arabian) (c1724), the trio becoming the thoroughbred breed’s founding sires.

    Of likely Persian Arabian descent, the Turk was seized either at the Battle of Buda (Budapest) in 1686, during the “holy wars” of the 17th century, or during the Battle of Vienna. Brought to England, he became the charger of Captain Robert Byerley during King William’s War. They made their name in reconnaissance and were never captured; Byerley “owed his safety to the superior speed of his horse”.

    Many Byerley Turk offspring were, unusually for the modern thoroughbred, black.

    17th and 18th centuries, Inclosure Acts: hundreds of Inclosure Acts divided up and removed the ordinary man’s rights to open common-land in England and Wales. Of course this had seismic social and economic consequences, but also the single most significant change for horses in sport: hunt followers had to teach horses to jump.

    The earliest cross-country riders wagered each other to one-on-one match races over these new-fangled hedges and fence-lines, initially using church steeples as markers — hence “steeplechasing”.

    The first recorded race took place between Buttevant and Doneraile in Co. Cork in 1752. This new sport gained respectability and regulation with the founding of the National Hunt Committee in 1860.

    The Inclosure Acts also set the roadways we 21st century riders take for granted in the countryside — initially 60 feet, halved to 30 feet wide by the start of the 19th century for easier droving of farm animals.

    19th century, the birth of showjumping: France further developed the new fad for obstacle jumping. At public gatherings, spectators complained there was no point just watching riders parade before they took off, unseen, across the country, so organisers clustered the jumps in an arena. This became “lepping”. In 1869, Dublin staged the first international “horse leaping” show. In 1900, the second edition of the modern Olympic Games introduced jumping (dressage and eventing joined in 1912).

    1902, the ‘Caprilli seat’: until the 1900s, riders lent back over fences and “hailed a cab”. In 1902 at Turin show, Captain Federico Caprilli introduced a revolutionary idea enabling horses to jump more freely by leaning forward. Caprilli was promoted to chief riding instructor of the cavalry. His concept soon spread beyond Italy’s shores.

    1914-18 and 1939-1945: Two World Wars saw millions of horses perish on the front line, and as food for starving civilians.

    Unlike Britain, continental Europe had enjoyed state-owned studs for centuries. In peacetime, to recoup the horse shortage, countries at the centre of hostilities recommenced state-sponsored breeding on an unprecedented scale. Germany, France and the Netherlands imported British thoroughbreds to cross with indigenous types — this was the origin of the warmblood sport horse.

    1950s, artificial insemination: apocryphally, artificial insemination (AI) has been around since at least 1322, when an Arab chieftain stole the semen of a rival’s stallion to impregnate his prized mare.

    AI techniques in cattle were pursued in earnest after World War II, to rebuild farming, before filtering into leisure horse breeding. This made bloodlines available around the world and saved stallions from intensive live covering in the spring. Today, the thoroughbred remains the only major studbook to reject AI.

    The first embryo transfer was performed in rabbits as long ago as 1890. The first successful foaling in Japan in 1970 paved the way for embryo transfer as a 21st-century norm.

    1969, Koninklijk Warmbloed: the Paardenstamboek Nederland (KWPN) launched, formalising the Netherlands’ fragmented studbooks. In just a few decades, the reputation of the Dutch warmblood, and the KWPN’s rigorous testing and selection procedures, left other countries trailing. KWPN pedigrees became a no-brainer for ambitious jumping and dressage riders the world over. Dutch Courage was foaled in 1969, one of the first accepted by KWPN and imported to Britain by a visionary Jennie Loriston-Clarke. Milton (by Marius), Big Star (out of Jolanda) and Valegro (by Negro) all have a KWPN parent.

    1952, female Olympians: women were excluded from pre-war equestrian Olympic Games simply because competitors had to be commissioned military officers. From Helsinki 1952, equestrian Olympics were opened to civilians — and hence women, too. Danish dressage champion Lis Hartel won individual silver at both 1952 and 1956 Games despite partial paralysis from polio. This set equestrian as the one sport in which men and women compete on equal terms. In modern parlance, “gender neutrality” helps equestrian’s case to remain in the Olympic movement against ever-growing pressure from new sports.

    1970, dust-free forage: Devon farmer Mark Westaway consulted his vet about his eventer’s coughing and was told it would continue until someone invented a dust-free forage. Westaway decided to do it himself, developing HorseHage — and a new word. Westaway was awarded a Royal Warrant of Appointment in 1983: The Queen’s favourite horse, Burmese, thrived on HorseHage.

    1980, bute: for decades, countless veterinary papers queried the safety and ethics of anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone (bute). Its use was so acceptable every yard kept some, simply to “take the edge” off after a hard day’s hunting. Bute was openly used the night after cross-country in eventing.

    In 1976, Lucinda Green’s winner Wide Awake dropped dead minutes after the Badminton prize-giving ceremony. Although the cause was unproven, critics of bute seized the moment. In 1980 the FEI caved in, applying a threshold level in competition; some jumpers threatened to leave the FEI in the event of a ban.

    Under the Princess Royal’s FEI presidency, the threshold was further reduced in 1989. Bute was banned completely in 1993. The downside is that anti-inflammatory use then went underground.

    1999, safety focus: nine event rider deaths in a single year — five in Britain — focused attention on safety and resulted in the creation of Lord Hartington’s radical-thinking working group. One member, Sydney 2000 Olympic champion David O’Connor, has made risk-management his life’s work; he now chairs the FEI eventing technical committee. Hartington accelerated development of frangible devices: the wooden-dowel prototype “pin” was devised by Badminton’s Alan Willis. Now there is a globally recognised technical standard.

    2011, ‘horse dancing’: in the noughties, the world was enchanted by Edward Gal’s big-moving Totilas, the first horse to score over 90% in the kür. But their success came amid serious misgivings about the Dutch-promoted rollkur technique, and a public war of words with arch-rivals Germany. So the unforced style of Carl Hester and fellow Brits provided a timely antidote, scooping up both fans and marks — as manifested in Britain’s first dressage team gold at the 2011 Europeans. More team golds followed at London 2012, plus the first of two Olympic titles for Hester’s protégée Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro (with a grand prix Olympic record of 83.784%, which she broke at Rio 2016 with 85.071%). Valegro also inspired a new moniker for dressage from mainstream media — horse dancing.

    Britain actually won the team contest at the first European Championships of 1963, but no medals were awarded because only two countries fielded the minimum three riders.

    2018, WEG woes: unfinished facilities and organisational problems at Tryon’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) compounded concerns about WEG’s future, convincing the FEI that the eight-sports-in-one place format is not viable. For the first time since 1990, there could be single-discipline world championships in 2022.

    Meanwhile, abandonment of the 2018 WEG endurance race shone a light on decades of weak officialdom and the lost ability to adapt to tough conditions. As a result, the global endurance community is deciding whether to “race” or “ride” — the discipline’s biggest decision since 1955, when Wendell Robbie challenged friends to ride 100 miles in a day over the Sierra mountains. That ride, now the Tevis Cup, spawned the classic sport of endurance: a far cry from long-distance flat racing popularised by the UAE.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 20 February 2020