[“The Stables Viewed from the Forecourt of the Château de Versailles,” by Jean Baptiste Martin 1688, Grande Ecurie on the left of the two stables]
‘One must agree that if the true principles of the art had not been maintained, with a certain austerity in the royal riding school in Versailles, if they had not been constantly practiced, someday one might be hard pressed to find a way to renew the principles.’ ~ Charles Prosper Claude Chevalier le Vaillant de Saint Denis (1753-1790) Ecuyer du Roi
Wandering through this lovely, pale gold city, up the broad tree-lined Avenue de Paris toward the Château de Versailles, would seduce all but the most hardened traveler to dream of times long past. As the Château’s magnificent edifice comes into view and its buildings seem to go on and on, one can’t help but remember that, designed and created as it was by the finest thinkers and artists of their time to perpetuate knowledge and beauty, the highest cultural values embodied in European civilization at the time were showcased at the Château de Versailles.
In the same way the Manège du Grande Ecurie du Château de Versailles (the Riding School of the Great Stable) came to influence the fine equitation of its age. The stately Grande Ecurie, built with soaring, harmonious proportion and exquisite ornamentation, was constructed in 1683 by Louis XIV to celebrate his passion for elaborate equestrian performances, and to stable the most superb horses in the world.
Here he established a school where academic riding based on lightness and balance, beauty and harmony going back to standards of the ancient worlds was studied and taught. The practices of this renowned school conditioned thought about equitation across Europe, and came to be referred to literally as the School of Versailles. The finest riders (who were noblemen of high order themselves and who included Le Vaillant de Saint-Denis) and school master horses taught royal and noble students who came from all over the world to learn the finest points of an equitation at its zenith of development.
I’ve spent the last several years doing further research into the lives and work of a handful of these fascinating luminary horsemen who devoted their entire lives to the honor of their families, their country and their king, and have book projects revealing brand new information in the channel!
The word classical refers to values that are enduring, recognized year after year, century after century, as serving a standard of excellence characterized by ideals of balance, clarity and moderation. That which is classical transcends time. Simply, classical schooling prioritizes balance, flexibility, agility and obedience. Classical gymnastic exercises help the horse become supple, strong, and attain balance on both sides of his body. Biomechanically, he can support his own weight and carry a rider’s weight correctly, helping him stay sound over his lifetime. A foundation of classical schooling prepares any horse physically, mentally and emotionally for optimum development, and long-term health.
Truly classical schooling and riding approach the horse with sensitivity and respect, compassion and appreciation. The masterful confidence of a classically schooled horse is proof of strength, suppleness, balance, relaxation, pride…with the crowning glory being that Holy Grail of classical horsemanship, lightness born of a correctly balanced horse…collection and self-carriage…and the nobility of true partnership.
At any rate, with the events of history, first the French Revolution followed by other changes, the Grande Ecurie was emptied of horses and for two centuries stood vacant and sleeping.
Resplendent still, the vast stable that was built as a cathedral to the horse and to house the School of Versailles seems to have a life of its own. Visitors walking the smoothly worn oak steps between floors can only imagine the millions of steps taken by long-dead ecuyers, officers, pages, only imagine the clatter of iron-shod hooves in the cobblestoned courtyards, only gaze through its windows of wavering, bubbled glass wondering who has looked through those windows before…a visitor who revels—still—in the continuum of horse, human and horsemanship.
The truth is timeless and in that sense little should have changed in three hundred years.