The first few parts in this series covered more of the common expressions of classical dressage, including riding, work in-hand, and airs above the ground. This last piece focuses on something we don’t see often anymore, which is the truly martial art side of dressage. In the past, a major goal in dressage was to prepare the horse for combat. As warfare changed, particularly in the mid-1800s, this faded away, almost completely vanishing by the early 1900s. However, there are still a few cavalries that use dressage to prepare for combat, such as the Chilean cavalry regiments.
Some riding schools still work to preserve the old martial art, such as the Fuerstliche Hofreitschule Bueckeburg. There is also a resurgence in recreating these combat techniques in the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Historical European Martial Art Association, though most enthusiasts are in Europe. We are fortunate to have a number of texts and pictures from the Medieval period through the Baroque period that explain much, making the job of recreation much easier than it would be otherwise.
So what are the forms of mounted martial arts? In the classical dressage tradition, there are basically two: fencing with a sword and using a lance. Other weapons from the Medieval time exist, but these are the primary ones. One can include mounted archery, though it is more tied to the early days of dressage and less to Western European traditions. We can add mounted shooting to the list, but not necessarily in the form we see in competitions. Historically, riders showed their prowess with weapons in “master at-arms” demonstrations, primarily using targets. However, riders also demonstrated their prowess with simulated combat. This could include one-on-one or melees.
Mounted fencing is a spectacular martial art demanding a high level of finesse. Fencing on foot is an Olympic sport in itself, and longsword fencing is likewise a competitive sport. Adding a horse to the equation makes it that much more complicated. The horse replaces the fencer’s footwork, requiring a high degree of skill from the rider to control the horse from the seat. The reins are secondary and used lightly, though they keep the horse engaged through the “circle of aids.” The riding fencer has to then maneuver the horse through the steps, maneuvering quickly and in multiple planes of motion. Quite a bit different from Hollywood, which mostly shows charges with cuts! The advanced fencer uses lateral movements, piaffe, low airs such as terre a terre, pirouettes, and various transitions to work out the best angle and change their distance to be effective in sparring or combat. This is where the level and value of dressage becomes extremely high.
Master-at-arms demonstrations often involve catching rings or knocking obstacles off a stand. However, many mounted fencers use a “pell,” which is a pole used as a target for strikes, thrusts, and parrying maneuvers. Fencers can demonstrate tight canter circles around the pell while keeping the sword in contact as well as pirouettes and other turns. While it looks simple, it is not easy!
Sparring is a fascinating demonstration. Fencers take what they’ve learned from the pell and apply it to their opponent. Now, they have to read their opponent to block cuts or divert thrusts while guiding their horse. This is where the lateral work is particularly invaluable. In order to gain the best position as well as protect the horse, fencers must approach in half-pass or retreat in shoulder-in. Once they pass, they can change direction quickly through pirouettes and even reverse pirouettes (around the forehand). They can also keep their opponents engaged in a small circle until someone breaks away. The horse must be able to stay in motion so that they don’t lose momentum. This is where piaffe and terre a terre are valuable to buy time and space without losing energy. Horses have to go from moving on the spot to an extended gait and back with ease, usually at the canter.
Many of the mounted maneuvers with the lance are similar to fencing. The main difference is the size and balance of the weapon. Most people associated mounted lance work with jousting. While jousting is a piece of it, it is not the only aspect. Mounted martial artists spar and make a number of other maneuvers with the lance. Martial artists also use spears, which are lighter and usually have a point at the end. Many maneuvers are similar, but they are two distinct weapons.
Master-at-arms with the lance most famously involves catching rings and striking targets, including a spinning target known as a quintain. Riders practice skills including aiming and timing as well as maneuvering the horse laterally, including pirouettes under the lance. An old subset of this work splintered off on the Iberian peninsula and is now known by its Spanish name: the garrocha. In a way, it is its own art, but many of the techniques mirror the use of the lance.
Most people think of jousting when they think of sparring with a lance. While this is certainly very popular, others still spar in a more freestyle manner. Many will mix weapons, such as lance or spear against sword. There are many specialized techniques to these sparring styles, many recorded in period texts.
Medieval knights also used war hammers in combat, and some riders perform demonstrations with these as well. Clubs often take the place of swords in melee combat, which simulate both swords and hammers. Mounted archery is a very old mounted martial art that has endured in different cultures through the years. However, it is more associated with Steppe cultures, such as in Hungary, Mongolia, Iran, and many others. In its modern form, horse archers show prowess with speed and accuracy, firing so many arrows in so many seconds (and hitting the targets at the same time). Many competitions use a lane, but others demand the horse archer to address scattered targets in specific patterns. Most if not all modern demonstrations use targets; sparring in this case would be too dangerous. Using a pistol is also a historical tradition, but it didn’t see extensive use prior to the mid-1800s because they simply were not accurate and had limited shot capabilities.
Mounted weaponry is a lot of fun, but it also adds a layer of danger. Nowadays, we use simulating weapons, such as nylon wasters instead of steel swords. Sharps are only used with careful consideration against targets, and steel wasters can snap and injure the horse when dropped and stepped on. The primary consideration is safety, particularly that of the horse. Riders, too, need to be careful, and this means that it is best to attain proficiency with the weapon on the ground before adding a horse. Many don’t use safety equipment, such as padded gloves and fencing masks, but these are a good idea of there is any doubt about controlling the weapon. The training of horse and rider needs to be quite advanced as well, at least 3rd level dressage (with reins in one hand).
However, it is always fun to watch this work! We give demonstrations of mounted fencing and garrocha to show off the true value behind dressage.
If you’re looking to learn more, there are excellent videos and resources. Wiktenauer has many original sources translated into English and other modern languages. This is also an excellent video about mounted fencing and its techniques.