The Medieval Art of Riding: King Duarte’s Advice on Horsemanship

The Medieval Art of Riding: King Duarte’s Advice on Horsemanship

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By Minjie Su

If you have read my recent article on The Royal Counsellor, Duarte I, King of Portugal, must be a familiar name. Although he only reigned Portugal for five years (1433-1438), he had been deeply involved in state governing and Portuguese politics from an early age, to the extent that the works even made him depressed for three years. On the bright side, however, the experience of depression gives Duarte a lot of time to ponder over life and life-style, and to realise at an early stage of his life how important it is to keep a work-life balance.

One major part of Duarte’s life is spent on horseback: whether it is for campaigns and warfare, or for hunting and pleasure, it is one of Duarte’s duties as the crown prince to become a well-trained horseman. As in the case of The Royal Counsellor, which Duarte composed in the hope of sharing his experience and thoughts on mental health, he wishes to do the same with riding.

The result is Livro de Cavalgar, The Book of Horsemanship, which shares the same manuscript with The Royal Counsellor and boasts to be the first detailed treatise on horsemanship from the medieval West. It is divided into three parts. The first two parts, intended as preambles, address two questions: why you should want to learn horsemanship (and, therefore, want to read this book), and why anyone can become a good horseman. The third part deals with the necessary skills and useful knowledge, in the form of 16 ‘recommendations’: strength (not just of the rider and the horse, but also of his riding gears), fearlessness, confidence, steadiness, soltura (a term that implies bodily relaxation – basically the rider’s ability of moving with the horse’s motion), use of the spurs and rod, controlling reins, hazards, terrain, judiciousness, elegance, endurance, horses’ mouths and bits, how to deal with the horses’ faults, how to foster horses’ virtues, and how to evaluate horses.

Clearly, structure-wise, Duarte moves from the rider’s physical and mental condition to practical skills, then to the horse. It is possible that he originally planned to write a separate section on horse psychology, since it is hardly believable for any rider as well-trained as Duarte to fail to understand the bond between horse and horseman. Nevertheless, as unfinished as it is, the Livro’s focus on psychology already makes it quite unique. It is particularly valuable that Duarte acknowledges and addresses the rider’s fears, which falls in with The Loyal Counsellor.

Below are a few tips that Duarte offers in the Livro. Not only practical for those who wish to hone their equestrian skills, they also give us a glimpse into Duarte’s mind and the medieval art of riding at large.

Sit upright

First thing first. How do you sit on a horse? Always upright, Duarte warns us, no matter what the horse does. To sit upright certainly helps with the appearance – you’d look tall, handsome, confident, and imposing, but there is more to it: to keep your upper body straight reduces the risk of being thrown off saddle. There are only four directions towards which the mount can throw the rider: forward, backward, left, or right, therefore to stay in the centre is the best way to stay balanced. The key is to keep calm and remain control; direct the horse’s movement, do not let the horse’s movement direct ours.

Plus, there is a moral lesson to it: in life, we all encounter matters that will throw us into some extreme emotions. Think them as the horses and take God as the centre to coordinate the movement of our thoughts and actions: staying upright in posture keeps one on the horse, while staying upright in faith keeps one on the highways of virtue.

Be confident

According to Duarte, there are four factors that lead to confidence: nature, presupposition, practice, and reason; and five signals of lack of confidence: fearing to do something, doing it hastily, doing it disorderly and awkwardly, being slow and reluctant in doing what one should, and putting too much effort into doing it. Unfortunately, there is no short cut; you just have to keep practising with these principles in mind.

However, confidence can be shown by ‘artful displays’, which not only better the appearance but also help with the building-up of that confidence: if you make others believe you are good at it, chances are that you really become good at it in the end. These displays include showing cheerful comportment (though not too much, then people will tell that you are just faking it); casually lifting your hand to adjust your hood or whichever part of your clothing, as if you do not care about riding at all; talk to someone while riding.

Again, the key is to remain calm and in control. Whatever the horse does, ‘always making it appear that we neither notice it nor let it perturb us, any more than if we were at a walk’.


Since we have learnt to ride a horse confidently, it won’t hurt to fast-forward a bit to the part that everyone loves: jousting. Duarte identifies four things a good jouster should pay attention to. First, you must test your reins yourself, instead of just being led by your squire into the arena. This must be done unarmoured to achieve better and more accurate assessment. Find the place where the tension is the best in the bit, tie a knot, and try it on the horse. If it works, hold your reins there during joust. Second, choose a bit that is best for your hands and for your horse. The third is similar to the first: find the place where the cords that come from the horse’s face or girths have the best tension, tie a knot, and stick hold them in that place while armoured. Fourth, to make a good and powerful encounter with your opponent, always turn your horse’s face into that direction and come toward the tilt (i.e. the barrier between the two riders) as much as possible.


However good you may be in a tournament, it counts as nothing if you cannot do well in real fighting. Duarte focuses on two weapons: spear and sword. To throw a spear well, one must first practice it on foot, then on a canter. While throwing spears on horseback, the rider must pay careful attention the horse’s motion and borrow its forward force to make the spear travel further.

As for sword fight, Duarte specifies four ways: a horizontal forehand cut, a backhand cut, a vertical cut form high to low, and with a thrust; the first two are deemed the best. To deliver the perfect blow, the rider must again harmonise the arm’s movement with the horse’s. If you find yourself in a melee, do not stop or turn back to check on the person you just cut down, but keep riding on. In this way you can maximise the horse’s impetus and throw your enemy into fear and chaos.

You can read the king’s treatise on riding in The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Top Image: 15th century manuscript showing horse and rider – BAV Pal.lat. 413 Speculam humane salvacionis fol. 041v

Watch the video: GoPro Horse Riding - Fast Run (July 2022).


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  4. Grojar

    It is interesting to read in theoretical terms.

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