“DuPaty de Clam (1744-1782): A compass and ruler approach to equitation” by Frédéric Magnin

“DuPaty de Clam (1744-1782): A compass and ruler approach to equitation” by Frédéric Magnin

(Reprinted from ‘La Revue des Amis du Cadre Noir’ (Issue No. 89, 2016) with the permission of author Frédéric Magnin and the permission of M. Ludovic de Villèle, President of the Association Les Amis du Cadre Noir de Saumur. My deep gratitude for the opportunity to share this wonderful piece.)

Today it would seem that the history of French equitation can be written without mentioning Dupaty de Clam. Yet such an omission was unthinkable a short time ago, so great an influence did this “Ecuyer of the Enlightenment” have on equitation in parts of Europe right up to the 20th century. At times accused of being “a chamber écuyer”, at others considered to be one of our best equestrian writers, recognized in any event as “the first to write about Equitation, according to the principles of Physics”; put simply, he was “a thinking écuyer.”

Feature photo: Fig. 1. – Don Francisco Cerdá y Rico presents his adaptation of Dupaty de Clam’s “La science et l’art de l’équitation” to King Carlos IV of Spain. On a page of the half-opened book we can read “PATY”. Dupaty and Bohan had a strong influence on the Spanish equestrian literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (Frontispiece of the book by Cerdá y Rico that was never finished. Detail of an engraving by Carmona from a drawing by Carnicero (between 1797 and 1799). Coll. Biblioteca Nacional de España.)

The peaceful epic of the grey musketeer

The Mercier Dupaty family had made their fortune from sugar in Saint-Domingue where they had a large plantation. Returning to La Rochelle in 1722, Charles Jean-Baptiste, the father of Dupaty de Clam, completed his studies, married in 1744, and was appointed Treasurer of France in the Finance Office. Louis Charles Mercier Dupaty – the future Dupaty de Clam – was born on 4th December 1744 at La Rochelle. A second boy followed on 9th May 1746: Charles Marguerite Jean-Baptiste Mercier Dupaty, the future “President Dupaty” whose talent and ambition overshadowed those of his elder brother.

Dupaty senior invested considerable money and energy in his estates in Aunis and Saintonge, including the Seigneurie de Clam. His goal was to enable both his sons to live nobly with equitable assets, and he left them a sizeable inheritance at his death on 21st March 1767. He was determined to give his eldest son – the future écuyer – a military career so that he might become Chevalier d’Honneur at the Finance Office, the most prestigious position in La Rochelle. Louis Charles Mercier Dupaty joined the 1st Company of horseback musketeers on 29 May 1762, at the end of the Seven Years’ War when the king’s military household was in decline. The “grey musketeers” had their quarters in Paris, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Louis-Charles served under two captain-lieutenants: First the Marquis de Jumilhac, then in 1767 the Comte de La Chèze. He left the army on 1st December 1769 having bought the sought-after appointment, which he held up to his death; as it was not an arduous function, it enabled him to combine office work with riding.

From Riding Academy to Science Academy

Dupaty de Clam translated Xenophon into French and wrote three books about equitation as a science, raising the question about where he gained his extensive knowledge. If his father intended him to become Chevalier d’Honneur at the Finance Offce, one can assume that he sent him to the Dormans-Beauvais College, where many magistrates sent their children. In that case, one need look no further to explain the quality of his education and his ability to translate Xenophon from the Latin.

Dupaty de Clam received a different type of education with the musketeers, essentially equestrian and organized at the time in a rational manner. Equestrian training was part of a movement that began in 1744 with the creation of the chevau-léger (light cavalry) riding school, but then accelerated following the disasters of the Seven Years’ War. The musketeers were the next to organize their own riding school. The captain-lieutenants of the two companies sent experienced musketeers to train as future instructors, either

in the centres set up to take in detachments of cavalry and dragoon corps, or in riding academies. In this way, Dupaty de Clam spent several periods at the Caen Academy run by the Chevalier de la Pleignière: first from 5th September to 14th October 1765, and then two further periods in 1767and 1768.

In 1765, Pierre Amable Hébert de la Pleignière, a nephew through marriage of La Guérinière, was appointed écuyer. A former musketeer, then an officer in the King’s cavalry regiment, he had been trained at the Versailles manège. This excellent écuyer and outstanding polymath was a member of Caen’s Academy of Sciences, Arts and Literature, and was much admired by Dupaty de Clam who was undoubtedly inspired by the originality, intelligence and skill of this learned master whose practical instruction, based on observation, made use of anatomy specimens and machines of his own invention.

Dupaty de Clam was a musketeer for seven and a half years but did not take part in a single campaign. In early summer 1769, he published Pratique de l’équitation, ou l’Art de l’équitation réduit en principes, with a dedication to the Comte de La Chèze in which he described the “very particular case” of the study of equitation and his emulation of the great man. As the book came off the press, La Chèze was busy building an indoor school, an outdoor arena andstables – on his own initiative and out of his own funds. The work was completed in January 1770. Meanwhile, Dupaty de Clam had left the army and from being a member of a riding academy also became a member of a science academy.

Dupaty de Clam then moved back and forth between practice and theory, between the riding school and his office: “In this way, Equitation occupies me in my office, and as it has become a science for me, if some accident prevents me from riding, I will still be able to make new discoveries.”

However, for the Mercier Dupaty family, being a member of an academy of sciences, arts and literature – where the elite met to socialize rather than to study science – came more naturally than to frequent an equestrian academy. While Dupaty de Clam remained a musketeer for some months more, he had been appointed Chevalier d’Honneur the previous year, and on the strength of his newly published first book, on 6th August 1769 he was elected as corresponding member at the Académie de Bordeaux – which was in another class from that of La Rochelle. The enthusiasm of the newly inducted member was at its zenith.

Fig. 2. – Extract of a letter from Dupaty de Clam to the Académie des Sciences in Bordeaux announcing his recent translation of Xenophon’s Treatise on Horsemanship (15th October 1770). Coll. Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, classication no. Ms 828/021 (017)

Hardly had Dupaty entered the academy than he submitted a manuscript to its members on the relationship between equitation and mechanics, in all likelihood the text of the future Essais sur la théorie de l’Équitation. He expected not only the approval of this venerable institution but also the privileges granted to it. In October 1770, Dupaty de Clam completed the translation of the Traité de la cavalerie de Xénophon, which comprised the first part of the work, eventually published under the title Traités sur l’équitation. He was then without news of the book and began to lose patience, no longer knowing how to gain the favours of the Academy. But it seemed that the Bordeaux Academy was deaf or indifferent to the requests of its ebullient recruit. Dupaty de Clam therefore had his translation of Xenophon and the Essais sur la théorie de l’équitation published in 1771, without the approval or privileges of his fellow academicians, but taking care to mention his title of member of the Academy of Sciences of Bordeaux and inserting his acceptance speech, a clever way of compensating for the institution’s shortcomings. He renewed the process in 1776 for La science et l’art de l’équitation, preceding it this time with a report from the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris.

Fig. 3. – “Three bones in the skeleton, the coccyx and the two ischial tuberosities, are the support points of the human body.” Mottin de La Balme was the first of a long list of authors to identify this anatomical error. In spite of Dupaty’s affirmations, we can wonder whether this illustration is not just a reproduction of his ideas (based on his feelings as a rider), rather than an objective representation of a scientific object. La Science et l’art de l’équitation. Paris: Fr. Amb. Didot, 1776 – Private collection

In fact, Dupaty de Clam was more active in the La Rochelle Academy where he was accepted on 13th December 1775, shortly after his marriage in 1774 to Marie Anne Françoise Jouault de La Favrière, the daughter of a former president-treasurer at the Poitiers Finance Office. His academic works, of which only the list and some brief summaries remain, were nearly all devoted to literature. Only two out of eight concern the sciences: a dissertation on Le fluide lumineux, l’électricité et le phlogistique aérien (Luminous fluid, electricity and the aerial phlogiston theory) (1778) – a very topical issue at the time – and another on Les différentes parties de l’équitation (The different parts of equitation) (1781). Earlier, in 1779, he had published in La Rochelle a small work (Mémoire sur l’art de la sellerie et description d’une selle inventée, par Monsieur Dupaty de ClamDissertation on the art of saddlery and description of an invented saddle, by Mr Dupaty de Clam) where his talents as an inventor emulated those of his master from Caen.

On 14th May 1783, an elegy to Dupaty de Clam was read during a public assembly of the Royal Academy of La Rochelle, following his death in Paris on12th December 1782, aged only 38.

Making a science of equitation or “making science” with equitation?

Dupaty de Clam’s three main works differ markedly because they correspond to different contexts and objectives. But they also record how the author’s ideas developed through the books he was reading. In Pratique de l’équitation (1769), we can already see the seeds of an idea that the rules of equitation can readily be found in geometry, anatomy and mechanics. However, this little book demonstrates first the author’s debt to La Pleignière whose principles he sets out, and secondly his experience as instructor in a cavalry corps – it is an equitation manual written by a musketeer for musketeers. At the same time, it is a way for a regular visitor of the Champ de Mars to enter the “sanctuary of the Muses.” Traités sur l’équitation (1771) is a composite work for a totally different audience. As he was writing it, Dupaty de Clam observed that he was constantly seeking to fulfil his obligations to the academy that had just admitted him.

Fig. 4. – Posición del hombre a caballo (esqueleto). This engraving, also part of the project assigned to Cerdá y Rico, is clearly inspired by Dupaty de Clam. Was the anatomical error of the latter deliberately corrected? More likely, it was the adoption of a position “on the fork” that put the rider on the two seat bones here. Engraving by Vásquez from a drawing by Cosme de Acuña, 1797. Coll. Biblioteca Nacional de España.

The “mechanical demonstrations” from Essais sur la théorie de l’équitation were intended to demonstrate (rather excessively) the author’s scientific qualities. And if the author precedes his essay with the Xenophon treatise, it is not to distract the reader from “the attention that the rest of the work demands”, but rather to show that he excels in literature too and that consequently he is worthy of the honour made to him. In the écuyer’s major work, La science et l’art de l’équitation (1776), the need to “produce scientific knowledge” is less of an imperative. Dupaty de Clam might also have taken account of Buffon’s criticism of a Cartesian biological mechanism that was too often reduced to the laws of ordinary mechanics. Completed in 1774, this book was profoundly influenced by the publication, two years earlier, of the monumental Cours d’hippiatrique by Lafosse; Dupaty even used its illustrator, Harguiniez, who also illustrated the Encyclopédie. Anatomy also takes a preeminent place in the work, to the extent that the three eminent rapporteurs designated by the Academy of Sciences judged it solely on the undeniable contribution of the anatomical knowledge. Moving beyond strict anatomy and returning to his first work, Dupaty devoted a whole chapter to the “sense of the horse”, describing broadly the role of intellect in an animal that is always guided by its feelings – which is the basis of the use of aids, as well as its attention and willingness.

How can Dupaty de Clam’s intention be summarized? “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own reason! That is the motto of the Enlightenment” wrote Kant. That was also Dupaty’s rule: “it is only by allowing oneself to think, that it is possible to combine new ideas with the knowledge of other Ecuyers.”

Fig. 5. – The true method of sitting on a horse mathematically delineated. [Note from KM: Spoof alert.] The academic art of riding was never very popular in England, particularly “mathematical riding” Engraving by T. Rowlandson in the Annals of Sporting by Caleb Quizem Esq. and his Various Correspondents. London: omas Tegg, 1809 – Private collection

For Dupaty de Clam, the starting point lay in this untenable paradox: while the study of nature reveals the existence of constant and universal laws, equitation – until then only subject to feelings – was characterized by the diversity of principles, systems and Schools. It was therefore necessary to draw closer to the scientific method of physico-mathematical disciplines, achieved through the study of the laws of motion. Consequently, Dupaty was caught between a strictly mechanical view (“Equitation is the product of combined strengths”) and the need to take into account the faculties specific to animated bodies (“the senses of the horse”). He was faced with the limits and frustrations of establishing models, like all those who study complex biological systems. He was aware that “equitation is dependent on a great number of sciences” and willingly adopted a systemic approach. But wanting to make a science of horse riding, on the same level as physics, requires a simplifying condition: “In order to calculate accurately, we momentarily disregard the animal’s willingness, without which no action takes place.” This condition no longer satisfied the écuyer on his return to the arena: “Theory embraces few subjects. Practice offers endless varieties which are impossible to describe.”

As an example, let us take the action of the rider’s legs and first examine how Dupaty de Clam analysed this action in his most theoretical work (Essais sur la théorie de l’Équitation). Here is his demonstration in mechanical terms. First a simplification: he disregards the faculties involved in life and common to all living creatures. Once pared down in this manner, the horse’s movements obey the same laws as inanimate bodies. This inanimate horse is mobile, in other words disposed for movement (it can always be seen that it is the rider who makes the horse move). It is the amount of power (forces aimed at producing motion) applied by the rider that elicits the motion. The action of the legs (touching, tapping etc.) falls within the realm of the laws of impact. As the properties of impact vary in part according to the quality of the bodies impacted, one must distinguish between horses with perfect and imperfect elasticity. In the horse with perfect elasticity, the part touched contracts but yields to the leg at a speed proportional to its force. The “sensation” is then conveyed throughout the body. The horse’s obedience should finally be proportional to the force employed by the rider, and the point touched by the leg must be where obedience begins. It can be seen here how this mechanistic demonstration has reached its limits: at a certain point, it becomes impossible to escape from concepts related to physiology (feeling) and perhaps psychology (obedience). Furthermore, physiology reappears throughout the demonstration and, even if the fibres, the nervous fluid, the lifeblood, the temperament etc. are alluded to in as much as they confer to the muscles their mechanical properties, this seriously stretches the initial point.

At times, Dupaty combines and blends the language of physicists and common usage, to such an extent that one no longer knows which of the two is the more metaphorical: “the horse with imperfect elasticity is one that we would accurately call a slack horse with no soul, a true nag, indeed a sluggish mass upon which the driving force does not act very efficiently…”. This confusion of styles, blurring the lines between the vocabulary of science and the everyday language of the arena, is frequent. At the same time, despite the ruse of “playing at science”, the “feeling” écuyer never manages to disappear completely behind the “thinking” physicist, any more than the horse can succeed in remaining within the boundaries of an inanimate body with elastic properties. Thus the force of inertia of the horse as a solid body is often confused with the inertia felt by the rider, and the resistance of this body with resistance in terms of riding. It is also possible, thanks to this semantic shift, to find, with the art of the écuyer and the willingness of the horse, the property of dressage to increase mobility by decreasing inertia.

Fig. 6. – Nature as seen by the écuyer. “e fourth [attitude of the head] is the one that every well-positioned horse should have, […] the one that the art adopts, because it is favoured by nature, and because it contributes to the balance of the horse…” La Science et l’art de l’équitation. Paris: Fr. Amb. Didot, 1776 Private collection

In La science et l’art de l’équitation, looking again at the action of the legs, Dupaty does not abandon his theory of mechanics. But it hardly shows, hidden by anatomy, physiology and the practice of equestrian art: “Search therefore in the leg and thigh muscles for a degree of pressure which might be such that the horse does not react against it and yields at its approach: you will be charmed by its obedience. Once you have achieved this, you will experience the real pleasures of riding. By these means you will succeed in giving the horse a sensitivity that will improve radically, to the point that the slightest pressure of the thigh or the knee is enough to make it respond.” This is how the écuyer gets us to taste the fruits of a gentler method of instruction.

With regard to Dupaty’s experience, everybody seems to agree on the finesse of his riding and the accuracy of his views on many points. But what about his theoretical pronouncements? The examples given above, the confusions and approximations that litter his books, reveal that – as a provincial academician – he was more of an enlightened amateur than a scholar. Representing him as the introducer of Newtonianism to equitation would be an exaggeration: Newtonian theory was already widespread. There is no doubt, however, that Dupaty de Clam was the first to make such use of the principles of physics in equitation. But he is not the absolute pioneer he claims to be, though the few sources he refers to might lead us to think he really is. He seems to have well and truly studied the Encyclopédie, but also the Cours de mathématique by Camus, the Principes sur le mouvement et l’équilibre by Trabaud, and evidently the works on hippiatrics and equitation. However, the Premier mémoire (and the only one published) of the Nouveau système de cavalerie (1760) by Bourgelat seems to have been a profound influence. In this pioneering work on the different gaits of the horse, Bourgelat was responding to an objection from Borelli and Desaguliers regarding the existence of a diagonal basis for the walk and the trot, arguing that the feeling of vacillation perceived by the horse required it to continue the walk, and to accelerate in proportion to the instability experienced. It is from this publication that the mechanism of the progression of the horse is drawn in large part, as described by Dupaty de Clam in the Essais sur la théorie de l’Équitation, in which he considers that the horse, when walking, displaces its centre of gravity with a resulting side-to-side motion so as to avoid falling.

In sum, did Dupaty de Clam succeed in turning equitation into a science and get it accepted in scientific assemblies? One might say that academic science has largely ignored his work but that equitation has not been exactly the same as a result. He has left us today, despite the many errors, a masterful corpus in which there is much to learn and much to think about.


About the Author: Frédéric MAGNIN is a researcher at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique | French National Center for Scientific Research). His work focuses on the history of Mediterranean environments. He has published in parallel various studies on the history of equestrian culture. Many of his articles deal with the art and science of riding in the Age of Enlightenment and the Modern Era. In 2006 he received the Pegasus Prize from the National School of Riding.


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