Austrian Art of Riding by Werner Poscharnigg, Published by Xenophon Press, 2015 – Reviewed by Michael Stevens

This book traces the history of horse riding in Austria over a period of five centuries, beginning right back in the age of chivalry when everyone was taught to ride and horses were used in tournaments. It covers both military and school riding and explains how these two branches of equestrianism were linked. It finishes in the 21st century when the need for the cavalry no longer exists, but high school riding is still supported and practised in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School. Riding in Austria had Spanish and Neapolitan origins and the history is closely related to riding in other parts of Europe, making the book of wide-ranging interest.

The content is unique because the author has reviewed recently discovered documents, and has therefore been able to present a more accurate history than was hitherto known. Some misconceptions have been corrected, one example being that the teachings of La Guérinière had much less influence over the training at the Spanish Riding school than had previously been thought.

Werner Poscharnigg examines the works of numerous famous and influential riders and explains their differing approaches to training and the roles they played in keeping the art of riding alive in Austria. It is interesting to see how the posture of the rider changed through the ages, and how different equipment was used at different times, but the author assures us that the key characteristics of Austrian riding — the softly swinging back of the horse and effortless riding with invisible aids — have remained unchanged for centuries.

A review of Grisone’s early book on the rules of riding reveals some rather barbaric practices, but an early Austrian author, by contrast, is shown to be all gentleness and kindness. Werner Poscharnigg discusses notes left by several chief riders of the Spanish Riding school and tells some interesting stories – you can find out which chief rider managed to ride a piaffe while balancing a glass of water on his horse’s croup without spilling a drop!

Instruction was passed down orally, and it seems this left leeway for chief riders to promote their own ideas, so that when changes occurred it is not clear that they were necessarily improvements. In the early days the cavesson was widely used in training. This is well illustrated in a book by Eisenberg who studied under Regenthal at the Spanish Riding School. Later on, the bridoon, unknown in earlier times, was in common use. Originally different coloured Lipizzaners were bred, but suddenly one chief rider decided to focus on breeding white horses. As a result of this evolution it is now generally held that the art of riding peaked in the 18th century. However, the author explains how Austrian riding has spread to other parts of the world and he projects an up-beat feel about the survival of this fine riding tradition.

The book is richly illustrated and it covers how riding has been illustrated in art – pictures by Ludwig Koch depicting correct and incorrect actions being of particular interest here. There are numerous photos of famous riders that have not been seen before, and there is plenty of information about training methods to keep riders interested. I had planned to skim-read the book in order to write this review, but I read every word, and I will certainly be dipping into it again. You can’t really understand the art of riding without studying the background, and this is one of the best sources of information available to date. It also includes references to further reading material. I am certain that anyone with an interest in classical riding will enjoy reading this book and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Michael Stevens, December 2015


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