François Robichon de La Guérinière – An Insightful Analysis of “L’Ecole de Cavalerie”

François Robichon de La Guérinière – An Insightful Analysis of “L’Ecole de Cavalerie”

(Camins, Laura. “The Art of Equitation.” Glorious Horsemen: Equestrian Art in Europe, 1500 to 1800. Exhibition catalog published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA, 1981. P. 44-45. Excerpt published with the permission of the Springfield Museums.) [Images added here did not accompany the original text. Feature image of La Guérinière by Louis Toque, circa 1750.]

With the accession of Louis XV to the French throne in 1715, François Robichon de La Guérinière was named Ecuyer Ordinaire by royal appointment, and founded a new academy for riding in Paris near the Palais de Luxembourg. In 1730, under the patronage of Charles de Lorraine, Comte d’Armagnac and Grand Ecuyer du Roi, La Guérinière moved his entire operation to the old Manège Royal of the Tuileries. The school in Paris thus coexisted with the Grand Ecurie du Roi at Versailles, directed by Louis Cazeau de Nestier from 1734. It was La Guérinière, however, who was the greatest innovator of the eighteenth century. Although [The Duke of] Newcastle’s teachings at first were generously received upon his return to England, as representing a new perfection of riding technique, they did not really develop in France. La Guérinière is thus the true heir to [Solomon] La Broue and [Antoine de] Pluvinel. His work represents the ultimate refinement of a technique.

La Guérinière wrote L’Ecole de Cavalerie in 1725; it was first published in Paris in 1731, accompanied by engravings by Charles Parrocel. The book offers a clear and cogent explanation of haute école riding at its best in the eighteenth century. La Guérinière’s methods came to be used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, popularized by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (1711-40), and are today also still practiced by the Cadre Noir at Saumur. [The information in the last sentence may now be outdated by changes over time.]

Possibly due to the increasing influence of English cross-country riding in France, La Guérinière  succeeded in developing techniques for riding based on conformation and la just proportion of the horse’s movements. Riding was becoming more natural and less mannered than ever before. La Guérinière firmly rejected the rigid seat of his predecessors. His aim, to attain grace and elegance, is embodied in the beautifully poised seat of the rider, whose movements respond subtly and harmoniously to action of the horse. La Guérinière writes, “Elegance on horseback consists in a free and straight posture, which comes from carefully maintaining a counterbalance, so that the rider can keep his seat with that precision, ease, and freedom for which one is called a handsome horseman.”

La Guérinière’s treatise breaks down the airs into rational and easily distinguishable categories: the alures naturelles, those gaits which exist in nature, and the alures artificielles, movements which must be carefully taught. Many of La Guérinière’s teachings are in direct contradiction to those of Newcastle, whose methods he saw as too difficult to implement properly. He preferred the methods of Pluvinel, particularly with regard to the value of performing exercises at the pillars. His two most important lessons to supple the horse became l’epaule en dedans and the descend de main. The latter technique of training, which allowed the horse to remain entirely free of the bit, originated perhaps with his teacher, Montpoint de Vendeuil. The “shoulder-in” was soon recognized as an important gymnastic exercise to prepare for more demanding lateral school movements.

Artist unknown.

La Guérinière’s bias against artifice and toward naturalism in riding may reflect a changing taste of his period away from virtuoso feats on horseback. It is perhaps also an indication of the excesses to which classic riding had been pushed during the era preceding Louis XIV. From this must have followed a relative rejection of standards of that period. La Guérinière  wrote,

I wonder what my readers may think of these airs above the ground, during which sometimes, ‘the hocks creak.’ To me they are as unattractive as any other extreme physical effort, on the part of either horse or man. These airs, by the way, look better in still pictures than in actuality: the former fail to reveal the strain and violence in the motion. Human beings have an unfortunate propensity to carry anything they undertake beyond the sensible limit and up to the barely possible point of achievement. This is where horses frequently suffer.

La Guérinière seems to have been partial to motion which was both crisp and light. He considered the trot the alure most natural for engendering suppleness in the horse, and the basis for all other work. The eighteenth century saw the decline of such airs as the terre à terre, a galop on two tracks, which La Guérinière claimed had become “very rare as the touchstone by which one sees the science of the horseman and the skill of the horse.”

Illustration from L’Ecole de Cavalerie featuring La Guérinière himself with a student demonstrating L’Epaule de Dedans.

The favorite tour de force of the Baroque, the courbette, so praised by Pluvinel, seems no longer to have been in vogue, though it had been “much used earlier among Officers of the Cavalry, who prided themselves on their having schooled horses, whether at the head of their troop or on parade days.” Pluvinel says that the courbettes served “as much to animate a horse when he slackened the nobility of his stride, as to hold him in submission, and to then give him a more elevated step, lighter and more proud.” We may conclude that La Guérinière was a supreme spokesman for the dressage horse. His pleas for a natural, relaxed mode of riding paved the way for new styles in [eighteenth and] nineteenth-century horsemanship.

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[NOTE: For the exhibition, this author and also the entire exhibition’s guest curator, Laura Camins, took advice from such illustrious equestrians and authorities on equestrian art as Mr. and Mrs. Vladimir Littauer, Mr. and Mrs. Jean Froissard and Walter Liedtke. The exhibition, Glorious Horsemen: Equestrian art in Europe, 1500-1800, ran at the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, September 27 – November 29, 1981, and at the J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, January 11-February 28, 1982.]
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