Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Historical Horse Tack: Snaffles, Curbs, and Losing Ones Head

      On November 20th 1627, Charles I of England issued a proclamation outlawing snaffles. Youatt, a prolific nineteenth century equine historian, suggested that this law may have been meant to counteract the trends towards favoring light racing horses over the (comparatively) heavier cavalry horse, but as the law specifically exempted racing and hunting this cannot have been the case. Charles I did have a fondness for imported hotbloods, and bred a number of early 'thoroughly-bred' horses, most of which were dispersed under Cromwell.

Charles I

       While it is easy to consider Charles I cruel in suggesting that only 'bitts' (i.e., curbs) be used, it is important to consider both who this law applied to, and the training processes of the time. First, this law was specifically directed at horses "employed for service," i.e. warhorses.* These horses must be managed with one hand, and their swift and precise reaction would determine wether they, their rider, and their companions lived or died. These were not, generally, the heavily armored knight that we think of; the heavy lancer had become ineffective in the face of greater deployment of archers, along with both canons and pistols becoming more accurate, and the bulk of military forces no longer being limited to the elite. Secondly, the introduction of the 'bitt,' or curb, was considered an advanced step in the horse's training in England at that time, more like modern dressage than western riding**. Thomas Blundville's 1580 adaptation of Frederico Grisone's treatise on the training of warhorses is a fascinating and entertaining read on this subject, full of both good advice and startling horrors. Charles I's proclamation may have been an effort to ensure that riders put time and training into their mounts, rather than showing up on a horse that was either green, or used to an entirely different form of riding (as in racing or hunting).

17th century curb bits
Look how tiny the mouthpieces are! I'd love to get a ruler on these.
 The ones I've seen usually look like they're about 4" to 4 1/2"


Charles I was executed in 1649, but his law stood.    

*Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I: 1627-1628 Great Britain. Public Record Office - January 1, 1858 Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, pg 441

**though I hate to draw that particular comparison, as this is the beginning of 'classical' dressage, but it does not have a strong relation to either modern dressage or what modern riders call 'classical' dressage.

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