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A tale of two masters

touch-of-eternityXenophon Press in the United States, together with J.A. Allen in England, likely represent the two premier publishers of equestrian titles in English. Xenophon, for example, has published Dom Diogo de Bragança’s Dressage in the French Tradition, and distributes Manuel Jorge de Oliveira’s The Touch of Eternity, the two books discussed below. The authors of these books share much in common: each is Portuguese, and each prizes, trains, and, in Oliveira’s case, breeds Iberian Peninsular horses; each generally follows the teachings of François Baucher, and each studied with the late Nuno Oliveira; each has enjoyed a distinguished career, Bragança primarily in Haute École (High School) dressage, Oliveira primarily in Tauromachic Horsemanship (the application of dressage to mounted bullfighting); and each has much to say. They differ, though, in what they say and how they say it.

Dressage in the French Tradition, by Dom Diogo de Bragança
Portuguese to French translation by René Bacharach – 1975;
French to English translation by Michael L. M. Fletcher. Xenophon Press, 2011.
196pp; RRP $US34.95 available from Amazon or Xenephon Press.
ISBN-10: 0933316216; ISBN-13: 978-0933316218

dressage-french-traditionDressage in the French Tradition offers an erudite historical study of the theory and practice of dressage in France. Blending narrative, analysis, and interpretation, the book unfolds in three movements — the science and art of equitation, systems of horsemanship, and current overview of academic horsemanship. Through these movements, Bragança traces the evolution of Haute École or “academic” dressage from the classical “old school” and its zenith in the late eighteenth century to the “romantic” school of modern dressage engendered by François Baucher in the mid-nineteenth century and carried by his disciples into the twentieth. Though not a technical manual, Bragança’s treatise comprises a highly technical and often polemical discussion from a Baucharist point of view. Richly illustrated with instructive diagrams and photographs, it suffers only from the stiffness of a literal English translation of a French translation of Bragança’s original Portuguese text. The book will both challenge and reward serious readers.

As a body of theory, dressage belongs to intellectual history, and Bragança traces its evolution in France beginning with Antoine de Pluvinal’s introduction of Neapolitan Haute École in his L’Instruction de Roy (1625) and François Robichon de la Guérinière’s seminal École de cavalerie (1733), the defining work in French dressage until Baucher’s Méthode d’équitation (1842) — together with the “second manner” introduced in its 12th edition  (1864) — challenged and displaced de la Guérinière’s methods. Bragança identifies lightness, impulsion, rassembler, and ramener, as salient concepts in this history (the latter two terms, lacking direct English equivalents, refer respectively and roughly to balance in collection and position of the head and poll). Unpacking classical and Baucherist interpretations of these concepts and their dynamic relationships, he examines specifics such as the classical method of gymnastic “general actions” and view of lightness as an effect of flexibility in contrast to the Baucherist method of gymnastic “partial actions” and view of lightness as both a cause and effect of flexibility. For Bragança as for Baucher, lightness is the “essential quality” of dressage, the quality, for example, that “ennobles” rassembler and gives it “the artistic quality that it must have.”

As a system of practices, dressage also belongs to other histories, and Bragança addresses cultural and material forces that affected its evolution, particularly those related to social hierarchies and martial arts. De Pluvinal, de la Guérinière, and other masters counseled royal courts on training and use of the warhorse, and developed principles and movements to fit strategies, tactics, and physical demands of mounted battle. The title écuyer (in English, equerry) evolved from a courtly rank reserved for superior horseman of nobility into a more democratic military rank and civilian designation — with respect to lineage, not to horsemanship. Bragança not only examines technical applications of dressage to battle, but also traces the history that witnessed the closure of the dressage academy at Versailles and the creation of the Military School at Saumur; the decline of classical dressage and ascendance of Baucher’s “new method” at Saumur; and the triumph of Baucherism in the French military through disciples such as Générals Faverot de Kerbrech and Alexis-François L’Hotte (and in the English military, not discussed here, Captain Lewis Edward Nolan.)

Bragança also advances and explores a point important to both him and Manuel Jorge de Oliveira: new systems of horsemanship follow new breeds of horses. Haute École dressage, both authors point out, developed with and for the Iberian Peninsular horse, who “possessed within himself the style of the Haute École” and so excelled at it. As Bragança notes: “With a blood horse, if he is not a peninsular horse, the écuyer must prepare the rassembler. With the peninsular horse, he must not undermine the rassembler that the horse is disposed to give him.” Similarly, Baucher’s system took hold, as Bragança explains, largely because it responded to a nineteenth-century French vogue for English thoroughbreds, requiring very different training methods, and to a national need for an efficient, economical, and scalable system for training horses, often inferior in breeding, for military use. With mounted cavalry an anachronism in our time, Bragança concludes, academic dressage continues to evolve — indeed, to exist — only by virtue of the FEI, the bullfight (discussed here with passion), and the amateur dressage enthusiast.

Manuel-Jorge-de-Oliveira

The Touch of Eternity: Riding as a Path into a New Dimension, 
by Manuel Jorge de Oliveira
Translated by Charles Warcup. Wu Wei Verlag, 2013
160pp; RRP $49.95 US available from Amazon or Xenephon Press.
ISBN-10: 0933316364; ISBN-13: 978-0933316362

Manuel Jorge de Oliveira is a master horseman whose book could have served him better. Published by Wu Wei, a specialty German house with a small but good list of equestrian titles, The Touch of Eternity is a handsome, large format book illustrated with over 100 photographs (plus a handful of intentionally crude, but very charming, sketched diagrams). The photographs include striking images of equines, engaging images of Oliveira in the corrida, and instructive full-page studies of Oliveira schooling exceptional horses. Ten full-page, close-up portraits of Oliveira’s face, however, serve no clear purpose, and combine with preening texts by both publisher and author to give the overall project an aura of vanity. The aura does not become a work advocating spiritual selflessness as the prerequisite for horsemen (and bullfighters) who seek to achieve moments of transcendence — “the touch of eternity” — with and through their equine partners.

Master equestrians are not necessarily deep thinkers or subtle writers, any more than deep thinkers and subtle writers are equestrians at all. Many masters, though, have written clear and penetrating treatises and manuals on horsemanship, and often have produced elegant and evocative meditations (Nuno Oliveira’s Reflections on Equestrian Art or Walter Zettl’s The Circle of Trust come to mind). Manuel Jorge de Oliveira, as horseman, conveys deep respect for the discipline of dressage and art of mounted bullfighting, and, as author, owes the same respect to the discipline of formal thought and art of writing, even if he does not reach the same levels of refinement with them. In The Touch of Eternity, a disciplined horseman has given us an undisciplined book, one that, for example, dissolves technical insights on the balance of horizontality and verticality in dressage into gaseous reflections on the equilibrium of the earth’s axes. It will move some readers, to be sure, and will strike others, myself included, as muzzy metaphysics in overwrought prose.

The Touch of Eternity represents an opportunity missed. Difficult to summarize, it elevates harmony in dressage and courage in mounted bullfighting to the mystical plane and equates their achievement with spiritual transcendence. The book has good moments — the extended homage to Nuno Oliveira, for example; less good moments — the treatment of the Lusitano as embodiment of the Portuguese national character rather than as horse; and moments whose titles speak for themselves — Steps to Eternity, All is Nothing, and Nothing is All, Breathing is Life, and so on. Oliveira might have done better to apply his experience and expertise to a different literary end — a more traditional memoir of his work as horseman, bullfighter, or breeder, perhaps, demonstrating concrete effects of his principles rather than pontificating. Or, alternatively, he and a rigorous editor might have shaped this farrago into a muscular, modest, concise essay on his main focus — those perfect moments, elusive and fleeting, sought by subtle masters and rank amateurs alike.

Available for worldwide shipping at www.XenophonPress.com.

 

About the Author

Charles Caramello is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of English at University of Maryland.

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