(© Paul Belasik, from “The Songs of Horses,” first published 1999. Reprinted with permission of the author and The Crowood Press. “Louis XV hunting deer in the forest of Saint Germain” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. This story was inspired by the 18th century écuyer to King Louis XV, Louis Cazeau de Nestier, also called The Grand Silence. It is said that the rider on the grey horse on the left side of this painting is Nestier.)
Somewhere in the countryside near Paris, 1735…
It is ironic to say that I had heard of his great horsemanship, since he was known as the Grand Silence. I had seen him hunting near Paris, where I once had lived. I have to say that I thought of him then more as the Great Arrogance or the Great Pomposity. It was through the following twist of fate that I met him.
I was hunting an irascible goshawk in the woods not far from some open country where I knew he was hunting peregrine falcons with a member of the royal family. I had just come out of the thick cover when I heard the bells of a falcon. The bird was flying towards the forest carrying off a grouse. My first thought sprang from arrogance: I felt the Great Pomposity must be a better horseman than falconer. The bird was obviously too thin, and instead of staying with his kill until the falconers could retrieve him and the game, he had stolen off with it.
My smugness was to be short-lived. I let my attention falter for a moment and my own hawk, the larger bird of prey, bolted from my fist at the sight of the two-for-one. The peregrine, weighed down by his kill, was travelling slowly. Within seconds my bird struck the pair hard. Loose feathers swirled and floated free of the impact as the knot of birds hung still in the sky for a second before tumbling and cartwheeling toward the ground.
When I got to the jumble, the peregrine’s talons were locked into the grouse. The goshawk, by luck, had only her hallux (the thickest thumb-like talon) into the peregrine. It took me a whole half hour to sort them out. I kept thinking all the while that the Great Pomposity would ride down upon me and I would be finished. The peregrine must have come a long way with the small grouse because no one from the hunting part came near. No dogs, no horses. No one.
The tension was stiffening my whole body. I covered the falcon with the silk scarf that I kept in my bag. I collected all the broken feathers. Under the dark of the silk he quieted and the cloth protected his plumage from further damage. My own hawk remained in a rage, her feathers raised, as I sorted her out from the middle of this scene of carnage. I returned to my horse and took the birds home.
In the days that followed I bathed the wound of the falcon and repaired fourteen broken feathers. I inserted fine wires into the hollow shafts of the feathers and, matching each piece as carefully as I could, I slid the straw-like shaft of the end onto the wire and cemented it with a special wax. Soon the bird would be able to fly well again instead of having to wait a whole year for a new molt.
The falcon ate well for me from the second day, and within two weeks I decided to return him to the Grand Silence.
I had no intention of riding down into his lair among the royalty at the great stables. At a nearby village, I found out where and when he was next hunting. Without knowing what to expect, I rode up to his party. I got close enough to see his face, and while I was giving some disembodied explanation, I was struck by what I saw. His intense, dark eyes were almost too big for his head. He had an inhuman stare, as if the skin around his eyes held his eyes in focus with a muscled grip. All expression in his face waited for orders from his eyes. He actually looked like a falcon.
I soon found that I had underestimated his reputation. He was far beyond arrogance. In order to be arrogant, one would have to entertain the idea of superiority or inferiority. His look suggested that the object of his gaze, namely me, was totally insignificant. I was beneath the realm of even ranking. At least that was how I felt when he looked at me.
When I left, one of his men came after me. He suggested that my riding needed help and if I wanted instruction, I could join Maître’s riding class at the manège of Monsieur Saumont. I thought then it was his way of thanking me.
That is how I started having riding lessons with the Grand Silence.
The first time I rode into the school and saw him out of his hunting clothes and in his riding attire, prepared to teach, he was an impressive sight. He wore a long sky-blue coat. It was tight across his chest, and had two long tails which were split like a swalllow’s tail lying behind him so as not to interfere with his seat.
The coat was edged in golden trim. His wide sleeves were folded back elegantly to show a rich, red lining. Tucked into the wide sleeves were the gauntlets of his riding gloves. Those gloves were as long as a falconer’s, but they were thin and soft and made from deerskin. They were the yellowy color of butter. He wore a three-cornered hat. His long boots were made of supple, thick, dark leather, and they rose well over his knees.
When he rode, it was a revelation. He was the consummate athlete, artist, dancer. Over the roughest ground his great legs kept him steady. In the school, he was all grace, power and delicacy. His students learned by imitation because, above all, he was silent. He was insistent, though, that we learn with our hearts, not just with our eyes.
Someone once suggested that the lessons at Monseiur Saumont’s were not on the same level as those when Maître was working near the palace. I found out this was not so. He was totally incapable of changing his working style. There was not a duplicitous bone in his whole body. He had only one standard for riding, and it was the highest flag on the pole.
It was difficult to know what he was watching for in the practices because he frequently rode in the classes, training one horse or another. He would often stop and watch a single rider and then ride on again. It became painfully obvious to us all, at one time or another, that there was no hope in trying to guess what he wanted to see, or of pleasing him, especially if under his eyes you lost your attention in your own work or your problem at hand. If such a thing happened, he would immediately pick up the reins and ride on.
The first steps of his wordless ride would be the equivalent of a screaming exclamation or a mere muttering. No matter where he was positioned in the school, he would turn away from you, and when his eyes broke from you, it seemed there was a perceptible cracking sound. Invariably, he would then execute some of his most brilliant riding. It was as if only the highest form of riding could purify the air from the stench of this ungodly mediocrity, created by these impossible students.
Anyone who thought a pirouette was a pirouette was a pirouette never felt or saw the Maître turn away from an aggravating student. His turns could convey every minute degree of emotion. His horse might simply revolve in a walk, and effortless engage into a trot or a canter. That might mean mild approval. His horse might also turn on the deepest set haunches, fast, high in front, exploding into a caprioling kind of canter—a turn that could not be executed quickly enough to rid his eyes of a most revolting sight of some groveling pupil. As long as you yourself weren’t the object of his silent comments, these incidents were fascinating to watch.
I think he must have hated words; and if he did, he especially hated words that suggested limitation, and he reserved his greatest disgust for the world ‘impossible’. The last thing you ever wanted to do, no matter how much trouble you might be in during a movement or practice, was to suggest that the movement was impossible, or worse, that the horse was incapable of it.
For he would then ride your horse, in front of you and whoever else might be in the school at the time. He would begin to work on your problem and always he would fix it. It would happen so smoothly, so seemingly effortlessly, so quickly and with such ease. The more he got the impression that you thought something was impossible, the greater the ease with which he finished off your tiny protests. At these moments, you didn’t know what to do. You would at once wallow in your own self-pity, feeling hopeless, realizing the size of the gulf between your own skill and his, and also be mesmerized with inspiration by his incredible gifts.
Sometimes certain students would be wise to the fact that he would ride their problems away if they looked confused. To whine for his attention was a very big gamble. It was almost always a big mistake as he had unbelievable peripheral perception and he would be in the middle of some cyclone of problems when his eye would catch you resting or in a bad position. He was always aware if you were having trouble. Some of us came to realize that it was a compliment if he let you struggle, as long as your struggle didn’t demean the horse.
On the other hand, if he once categorized you as a slacker, he would patronize you imperceptibly and the course of your instruction would never be of the same standard again. It was practically, if not totally, impossible to break out of this category once you walked yourself into it. I think he took it as a personal insult. It was as if he wasn’t a good enough horseman to know what you and your horse were capable of.
Of all the horses he rode, one really stuck out. The great Florido. Florido was a Spanish stallion – white with a translucent softness of marble. There was a glassine quality to his coat, and in different light it could refract like prisms, making him look blue. He was average in size, with a thick mane and tail. He was feline in his disposition. He was at times quiet, almost lazy, and when he intended action, he could be so fast you had to remember his movement. What was most amazing was his almost human intelligence. Together they were a team. It seemed that only on a horse like Florido could the Grand Silence use up all his skill.
Louis Cazeau de Nestier, écuyer ordinaire de la grande écurie du Roy, riding Le Florido.
Oddly, it was an incident that had nothing to do with their riding together that showed me how connected they were. One of the royal nephews had attempted a courbette on a young stallion. The inexperienced horse bolted with the even more inexperienced rider. In a moment the horse was at full speed rounding the short end of the school. The Grand Silence and Florido were working at the other end. In less than a second, the man slowed Florido and without stopping, he swung his outside leg high over the sinking haunches of his horse. The tails of his blue coat were caught behind his leg as he spun in a dismount, stepping from his other stirrup to the ground. The blue coat spread out in a cool blue fan above the blue horse.
In the same motion, his gloved hand dropped the reins on top of the neck of Florido. Then, they stepped away from each other. The Grand Silence strode without running, without a word, slicing the distance, cutting off his prey. As the young stallion rounded the corner and began to gallop down the long wall, the Grand Silence was there. Florido stepped in the other direction until man and horse were positioned amost exactly opposite one another on either side of the manège. The Grand Silence stood still, his legs slightly spread, his hands resting at his sides. Florido nickered. It was odd: the man silent, the horse talking.
When the young stallion made the turn heading toward the Grand Silence, it had a choice. Long before it had to face the Grand Silence, it veered toward Florido. Then it began to circle Florido as if it were being lunged by the older stallion. Florido nickered again, and the young stallion stopped and carefully approached him, arching his neck like a cautious swan. He never noticed the Grand Silence approaching.
Just before the young stallion was about to touch noses with Florido, the gloved hand of the Grand Silence closed its fingers around the rein and held it tight. The gloved hand was raised in the air. Quiet and strong, the way it is offered as a perch for a falcon. The stallion was subdued. It was as if the Grand Silence would never let this impudent renegade actually touch the great Spanish horse.
There was a ride performed by the Grand Silence on Florido which comes to mind as the greatest sustained piece of riding I have ever seen. It is something that I do not say lightly because I have seen some exquisite pieces of horsemanship which may have equaled this event in brilliance or ingenuity, style or power. But there was no equal to that ride as a complete moment. The evening I saw that ride was the first time in my life that I saw a man alter linear time. The man and his horse defeated the science of his day. They went beyond time. No one that I talked to afterwards, even months later, could remember just how long in time this event had taken. Was it an hour? Half an hour? No one took their eyes off man or horse until the Grand Silence and Florido stopped.
This demonstration ride was to take place at a royal party, an occasion which was to feature a heavy equestrian flavor. There was the usual list of socialite guests, but there were also quite a few noted horsemen and women. As his riders, the Grand Silence expected us all to work. For all intents and purposes we were, in addition to our riding duties, to serve as waiters for the cognoscenti. It was important to the Grand Silence that the horse people were looked after properly.
The longer I had been around him, the more I admired him. However, I could never understand how he functioned in such a strangling political atmosphere. Was he so socially crafty? How, without words, did he stay ahead of a seemingly a million jealous écuyers? Maybe he hunted so much and rode so much to stay out of the suffocating tent of gossip and intrigue. He must have had skills outside his riding that we never saw. (Of course, he had political skills we never saw—he had subtle riding skills we never saw!)
He seemed indefatigable and yet I wondered what a toll all of this was taking internally. Maybe the brilliance of his riding was the release. One never knew. He was not easy to figure out. Looking back on that evening, I have always felt that the cause behind what turned out to be brilliance but at first seemed like disaster, was sparked by stupidity or jealousy. In that high atmosphere a prank can seem like sedition. I later found out that was how it was treated.
The gala evening had been proceeding as a great success. There were hundreds and hundreds of guests, and several performances of the quadrille. Part of the evening’s program was a solo ride by Maître on Florido, accompanied by a muscial arrangement. The musicians were situated across the riding area, facing the guests, so as to achieve the best acoustics since they were some distance from their audience. I knew this ride would be near perfection. I also knew that Maître would not upstage anyone, so I was sure the performance would be gracious and short.
Somehow, though I never found out how, the music stopped in the middle of his ride. There seemed to be considerable confusion. I swear I could see the hawk glare of his eyes from where I was near the wall. As can happen with crowds, their collective rhythm stopped, murmurs of conversation quieted, glasses stopped tinkling and faces seemed to wince in irritation. I am sure he felt some embarrassment that the party might lose its ambiance.
Then, from the middle of the hall, he began a passage with Florido that was so exquisite in its cadence that it brought smiles back to the guests. He continued, however, to escalate the rhythm and the height of the steps until the peoples’ expressions clearly changed to amazement. He did not stop and the passage became even higher. It became so high and so cadenced it almost began to frighten some of the guests because it looked as if he were to leave the ground. There were many members of the audience who could not handle the tension. They did not know what might happen to their minds if he did leave the ground. It was all so surreal.
I don’t know if Florido was so excited that his coat began to glisten with moisture, but it was as if a beam of moonlight had fixated on him, turning his coat into vibrant silver.
The passage was drum-like. Some of the Spanish men stood up taller, as if about to break into a dance. The Maître then settled the passage down and, in turn, brought it closer to one group of people after another. There he placed the great horse in a piaffe and raised it to brilliance before moving on. He turned the passage, curved it, circled it, changed its rhythm and intensity. He let the people almost feel the horse. Without one musical note, he began his own concert of motion.
Just when the guests were almost drunk with his powerful cadences and hard lines, he would drop into delicate side-passes and voltes. This amazed me. I knew him as a hunter, as the man’s man. Yet he and the stallion moved with as much freshness and femininity as a week-old filly. From there, Maître went off into gallops so fast and powerful that the audience backed away from the riding area. It was astounding on so many levels.
This remarkable ride was completely commanding yet not at all boastful. I knew he hated showing off. Many times during practices, if someone held a horse in levade too long, the old écuyers, who were his lieutenants, would quickly intervene in an effort to shield the student from the Grand Silence. They knew if he saw such a demonstration, the rebuke would be severe. ‘Did you think the old écuyers were going blind? Did you think we needed to see you work a little longer? Perhaps the old men are going deaf so your riding should shout at them!’ The old écuyers would remind the riders that humility and modesty of movement showed reverence for your horse. Knowledgeable horsemen could see good work without excessive trappings and flair. Flamboyance has no place among true riders.
The Grand Silence continued to move, it seemed, without effort. He was inventing new movements and patterns that none of us had ever seen before. Sometimes the man and the horse were as a war chant, sometimes a love song. It seemed he was taking movement to such a high form that it trivialized the music that was absent. It is hard to believe but I think that was what he was doing.
With silent passion, he was excited by his own anger, but he controlled it. He burned it up like a fuel for his actions. Wherever the ferocity of his energy came from, he somehow got the horse to find it too. Then he married them until there was a motion unlike anything either a man or a horse would be capable of on their own.
For good measure, maybe obsessive control or perhaps the pure love of art, he controlled the flame. This flame was the sound, the tempo, the rhythm, the visual juxtapositions. He had taken the simple idea of moving in space on a flat plane from one place to another, and turned motion into emotion. He could make you feel what he was trying to show. This process, this manipulation, of space in space, was his art.
That night, when the music stopped, he was forced to stand up his art and let everyone who wished, see it – naked, amoral, brilliant.
And when he stopped the stallion before the king and saluted, the place went crazy. The party exploded with cheers. I watched him intensely as he accepted the bravos, then politely and tactfully made his way back toward a couple of his lieutenants. I forced my way through the crowd. I wanted to see him closer, to see and hear what he might say to the people.
I got near and heard one of his trusted aides say to him, ‘That was some exhibition!’ He looked at his aide with a stern face and said, ‘That was not an exhibition. I am not an exhibitionist. That was a lesson.’
During the next week, I saw more parts of that lesson, for it was not over. Several familiar faces close to him were no longer to be seen. If he could not trust someone, the cut was made quickly and sharply.
As time went on, and I went travelling, I would often hear the strangest remarks about him. I heard people say that he ran the bloodiest manège in all of France. It was the stupidest, most ignorant of criticisms. He never struck a confused horse or rider. It was not necessary. Wilful riders appeared, but none were a match for his technique and skills. He could dispense with them almost effortlessly.
The longer I knew him, the more the force of his character grew, and I saw the gifts of his reflexes from softness to firmness get better and better. Yet there were many fools who would watch and try to imitate him and his riding without any apparent regard for its difficulty, so some self-destructed. He wasn’t going to stop them. Neither would he defend or explain himself. His riding would speak for him. Those who were too ignorant or arrogant to know what he was about, what he was doing, were just that. And he would not tell them otherwise.
I also began to long for some explanation of what he did and when and why. All one ever heard about was his great strength. But I knew enough to know that he was not about riding with strength. How did he know how to shift his intentions? What told him? Why did he pick one course of action over another? How could I learn to understand his vocabulary of motion?
This yearning would not subside. I felt I had to search somewhere else. Feeling like a traitor, I left France and went away from him.
I had already found my own lord.