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My Equestrian Activities

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (a.k.a. Timothy on Beau and Athon), 1984.

I took up riding in 1984 specifically to investigate and experience the techniques of the Middle Ages. I had a friend who had horses she was happy for me to ride along with a couple of others who also wanted to try historical equestrianism. Neither the horses nor the owner were intensively schooled in modern equestrian doctrines, and the owner was quite relaxed abut the things we planned to try, which left us free to look at and experiment with historical techniques without prejudice. The wide open spaces of rural Australia and the generally more relaxed outlook also meant we had to be less concerned about the reactions of other people.

My horses

With no formal equestrian training, almost all of what I learned about riding was taught to me by horses. Call me naïve and romantic if you will, but I always thought the relationship should be one of enthusiastic cooperation, rather than a struggle for dominance, and that view was largely borne out. The first horse I rode (not strictly “mine”) was Beau, a white, late cut gelding. (His son, still a stallion, was also in the stable, so it occasionally got a bit exciting if we allowed them to come too close!) Energetic and unflappable, he gently tried me out until he had my measure and then took quite happily to archaic mayhem. However, as a fairly unschooled fellow himself, there was a limit to what I could learn from him once he had taught me the basics of how to stay on.
In 1985 I embarked on on a business venture to create a historical display and education company using the name “Living History”, which was not widely used in Australia at the time. That required my own stable, so I acquired three horses. Of Salahudin (Named for a different historical person from Salah-ad-din), a fifteen hand, lackadaisical dapple grey gelding (not shown in any of these pictures), there is little to said. He did what was asked of him without demur or enthusiasm. It turned out also that he had a heart condition, and he died in his field in late 1986.
Fahise (Turkish, pronounced like Farshuh) was a 14 hand pedigree half Arab mare, who had won mane and tail competitions in her prior life. A very responsive mount, she ran and steered well with no rein contact and so was ideal for archery. She was also ideal for “Bush-hat-khazi” (see below) as I could easily pick a small item off the ground without having to dismount. A slight demerit she had lay in being unreasonably intelligent. She worked out that the Parthian Shot was the big finale of a display and tried to do it first so she could go home!
The horse I rode most, and who taught me the most about control by shift of weight and seat in more stressful situations, was Sojo, a 15 hand dun gelding. Sojo had been trained for Polocrosse, and, I am told, by someone versed in American practices. The result of the latter was that rather than trot he would “rack”, a gait at the speed of a trot, but with the gait of a canter. The consequences of the former were various and more useful for historical activities. The aspect that took me some getting used to was that his two usual gaits were walk, and go-like-the-clappers! And in the latter mode could be very reluctant to stop. Polocrosse training is the perfect background for a medieval warhorse. I have not yet found out whether it was a pure re-invention, or a revival by someone versed in History, but it closely resembles an ancient game which originated in Persia (Tzu–chan), was adopted in Byzantion (Tzykanion). Whereas in polo all the focus and stick action is downwards and outwards to wherever the ball is headed, in polocrosse the ball is carried by the active rider in his net while his competitors try to cause him to drop it by belabouring him with their sticks! Hence, the position is physically close and the focus and stick action is around head height — just like fighting. Sojo was trained to take a position close in at the offside rear of any rider I was pursuing. It was deeply unfair to anyone else in a melée as all I had to do was lean casually across and tap them on the back with my weapon to make the point that I could have killed them at any time!
When I moved on after Living History folded I sold Fahişe but took Sojo back to Melbourne. Sojo had turned out to be a much older fellow than I had been led to believe when I bought him, so once back in Melbourne I eased him down into a retirement which he richly deserved, but, I suspect, did not really want! Steve Nicol had also returned to Victoria and passed his mount, Helena, on to me. A lazy and uncooperative animal with a habit of baulking at even the most distant sight of a white truck, she was nothing like a replacement for Sojo. I sold her when I once again moved North to do my PhD, and have not owned a horse since. The horses I have ridden in England have ranged from malicious to outstanding, but there is nothing to compare with a long term relationship, and I look forward to being able to have one again in future.

My Riding

Looking at medieval source material immediately suggested that the practices of European riders in that era were quite different from the dominant elite customs of modern Britain which had been transmitted to similar riding milieux in Australia. In the medieval mode, stirrup leathers were long and the legs were thrust forward, pushing the seat back against the high cantle of the saddle, with the rider plainly sitting to every gait. I was never very comfortable with short stirrups, and trying to rise to any gait with the added weight of armour only made the discomfort worse. Hence the medieval mode made ample sense to me. Further research revealed that the shorter stirrup riding style was a fashion imported from Eastern Europe and only embraced by the British elite in the eighteenth century. The older form survived in the practices of the stockmen of the Australian Outback and the cowboys of the American West.

My first replica medieval saddle based upon the Bayeaux Embroidery. Late 1984.

It was clear that the techniques of medieval riding were intimately connected to the equipment, so I lost no time embarking upon the construction of replica saddlery built from scratch. Working up from the horse’s back was the only way to go. My first saddle based upon the Bayeaux Embroidery worked reasonably well, and later models better still. (See below for the twelfth century example) These were made with sling seats, rather than the solid seat which seems to be the Western norm, and perhaps that goes some way towards explaining just how comfortable they are. Certainly their military utility is manifest with the high pommel and cantle making for a much more more secure seat, even when stirrups go astray (see below on Roman), in addition to the protection provided to unarmoured parts of the body. Later, I tried the simpler expedient of building medieval styled superstructures onto the modern steel arch military saddle. (See the quintain picture below for a example of that construction)

Our circle was certainly interested in Eastern equestrian practices. Our version of the Turkmen game buzkhazi, where horsemen wrestle to gain and maintain possession of the carcass of a goat, was “Bush-hat-khazi”, in which a piece of headgear was substituted for the goat. This often played at speed down woodland trails — the very same bush trails where we knew other riders had come seriously to grief! The Ottoman custom of wrestling on horseback never really worked, seeming to require very specifically trained horses. What we did take up with great enjoyment was the javelin game, known in Antiquity as Hippikon Gymnasion, and in more recent Turkish as cirit (pronounced ‘jirid’). Our weapon of choice for that was a length of bamboo tapering down from 25mm with a rubber chair leg stopper on the larger end. This produced a projectile that was well enough balanced and aerodynamic that it could be thrown accurately over good distances, but which had no great impact when it arrived. We found that any cast made with any degree of accuracy at the rider never came any where near the horse. It is enormous fun, but like polo and polocrosse, it has to be played in limited bouts with the horses given a good time to cool down in between!

Those javelin skills were not solely ancient or Eastern customs. The popularly conceived prototype of cavalry for the English-speaking world, the knights of the Norman Conquest of England, engaged the Saxon shield wall by casting spears at it. Couched spear came later, and I rapidly moved on to the techniques to master it. I now know that tilting at rings is a modern method, but it was an easy place to start, and start I did, with what I could easily get — 50 millimetre inside diameter curtain rings! A real accuracy challenge!
We also built quintains, both counterweight and sprung head types. One thing we disproved beyond doubt was that the popular notion that if a rider struck a counterweight quintain wrongly the weight would fly around and strike him back. No combination of weight size or type and suspension form or length ever brought the weight into a threatening trajectory. In reality the counterweight is just there to cause the target to provide some resistance when struck.

The Parthian Shot. Not hard, really. On Fahişe in a Living History show, late 1985.

I was not out of arrows – it was just time for the mace! From a Living History show, late 1985.

I took up mounted archery with some dedication. Most people in our circle, including me, had already converted from English finger draw to thumb draw, so that aspect of the transition was done. The fourteenth–century Mamluk Furusiyya manuscript in the British Library (Off site link) showed the at-first-sight odd practice of carrying a mace tucked under the right stirrup leather with no other means of support. It turned out to work brilliantly, with the weight on the stirrup being enough to hold the mace in place even during intricate maneuovring until I needed to use it. Many other techniques shown in that source turned out to be outstandingly functional as well, such as the practice of holding the pommel of a single edged sword sloped on the shoulder while shooting the bow.

In early 1985 I took advantage of a government business start up program to launch historical display company under the name “Living History” (not widely used in Australia at the time). Unfortunately we could not find a venue for equestrian displays that was sufficiently accessible to ensure the long term success of the business, but for much of a year we staged displays for the public and schools on a gymkhana field in the Blue Mountains. The equestrian portions of the show was built around the Norman Conquest, and contrasting East and West in the context of the First Crusade. (The archery pictures above were take during one such show.)

Other activities of the 1980s

Looking for a new direction following the Living History experiment, in 1988 I took a university course starting first year at the University of New England at Armidale in the rural wilds of Northern New South Wales. Wanting to keep in practice, I advertised in the university newsletter for the loan of a horse ... and was offered dozens! So I picked the handsomest, a golden cob. As my major was Classical Studies, I decided to look earlier than previous activity, ancient Greece. Xenophon remarked that nothing made for a more secure seat than the grip of a bare thigh on a sweaty flank. The truth of that became obvious quickly, although my conclusion was that my leg hair just matted with the horses pelt! Those wonderfully realistic vase paintings the Classical Greeks loved so much showed a particular riding style consistently. The horseman sat well forward with his legs turned out as far as possible from the hips and feet pointed very acutely downward. This posture works muscles you might never know you had! Or, at least, works them in ways you never thought possible. Yet, on a horse of the right size, it results in the heels being locked into the hollows where the horse’s front legs meet the body, which did indeed create a solid bond even during rapid manoeuvring.

Keeping Helena in training, 1991.

A C12th—13th style saddle. 1992.

After first year, I transferred my studies back to Melbourne, back to my own horses and back to the Middle Ages. I was not inclined to revisit the Norman Conquest and moved on to the heyday of European chivalry, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The addition of mail chausses (leggings) to the panoply proved to have benefits beyond protection. The weight moved the centre of balance down and made the sitting-to-all-gaits riding style easier. Other equipment developments also improved with the later period. The Bayeaux Embroidery shows the knights holding thier shields in the same way as infantry, thereby gaining less protection and largely losing control of the reins. It is possible to carry a Bayeaux Embroidery kite shield in way that allows rein control, but I am unaware of any evidence for it in the historical sources. The twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources, however, clearly show a more sophisticated method.

With my degree completed I took a sabbatical, heading overseas with two companions, one of them Sean McBride, who had been the other main rider in the Living History displays, the other James Sunter, a member of the Brisbane Crusader re-enactment group, Company of Knights Bachelor. We began in Cairo in October 1993. Our hope of riding though the Holy Land was dashed, but we did get some riding in, taking a journey across the desert from Giza to the step pyramid at Saqqara. On the trip back we got a little bored, so with branches plucked from trees in passing for swords, we engaged in a bit of the skirmishing we were used to from Australia. Our guide evidently felt that seeing foreigners indulging in such activities challenged his Bedouin heritage and tried to join in. He fell off twice, and the second time we had to catch his horse for him!

Back in Australia from late 1994, the later nineties and my five year return to the University of New England to do a PhD from 1998 saw a continuation of historical equestrian activity. The physical side was less intensive than previously, while the research, especially into equestrian military equipment, was more intensive, with the results that can be seen on other pages of this website, and in my various paper publications.

Other Activities of the 1990s

The Twenty-first Century

Adrift once again in 2003 after completing my doctorate, I came to Europe initially to visit friends, and was lured to England to edit Medieval History Magazine, a project of woefully short duration due to no fault of anyone in Britain at the time.

Battle of Hastings re-enactment, 2005.

Battle of Hastings re-enactment, 2006.

For various reasons I have never done as much riding in England as I would like, but there have been some highlights. I rode at two Battle of Hastings re-enactments. The smaller one in 2005 (left) and the last really big one in 2006 (right). In both pictures I can be recognised by the red shield bearing a yellow cross and blued helmet with brass brow band. The 2006 event was a magnificent occasion. There were 94 horses on the battlefield, and even no more than a quarter of the number went up the hill in anyone assault, it still produced a thunder of hooves that cold be felt as well as heard! In each of these years I rode on my Bayeaux-style military saddle conversion, which I still use.

fifteenth-century rider A bit of relaxed fifteenth-century hacking at a Battle of Blore Heath re-enactment event.

cavalry re-enactment Awaiting our moment. Festival of History, 2007.

I also flirted with the possibility of joining Destrier through 2006, attending a few of their training sessions. But I just could not be enthusiastic about the fifteenth century, or the fifteenth — sixteenth-century pastiche jousting shows that have long been a feature of English historical equestrian entertainments.

The one thing I have always most wanted to do is to participate in an accurate recreation of a twelfth-century style tournament. In those days it was proper battle practice. There was no tourney field, rather there were fenced off safe areas for the spectators and the rest of the countryside belonged to knights. Furthermore, a baron or knight of sufficient means could take an infantry retinue onto the field with whom he could take refuge if he needed a rest, or things got too fraught! Such an event has never yet happened anywhere, nor does it seem likely, so failing that, I have set out to take part in any twelfth– and thirteenth-century events I could get into. Thus, in July 2007 I supplemented the numbers of the Conroy in a twelfth century battle at English Heritage’s premiere event, Festival of History. The excitement of the battle on Saturday was significantly increased when my mount chose to bolt ... twice! I was not having that, however, and he saw out the duration of the battle on the field. Sunday’s mount (illustrated at left) was a bit more cooperative. Mine is the shield bearing a yellow border on a blue field.

Valencia pageantThe Valencia pageant, 2008.

My disinterest in the fifteenth century did not stop me from leaping at the chance to be amongst the party taken in October 2008 to Valencia in Spain by Griffin Historical to ride in an enormous historical pageant, a re-enactment of the Jaime I memorial parade of 1428. The last moments before the parade were somewhat chaotic. The horses had failed to be delivered in time for us to try out, so we had to chose a mount and go. My choice was very fortunate, proving to be steady and sure footed. At one point we had to cross a square paved with polished stone made all the more slippery by rain. Horses were falling everywhere, but mine was certain as one could wish for. We did nothing but ramble ceremoniously through the town, yet at the same time I felt that she and I could have had a lot of fun together had we had the chance to something more energetic and ambitious. The comment has been made that I look a bit glum in this picture. Somehow the photographer has managed to capture probably the only moment when I was not grinning like an idiot! (Although I think the picture does make me look very Spanish!) It was magical.

In my quest to find employment befitting my skills and knowledge, I have applied for many a job with the Royal Armouries Museum. They have interviewed me several times, but the best was to get a trial and interview for a mounted interpreter position at the Leeds Museum, in the lost and lamented days when that institution had a working stable. The assessors complimented me on my weapon handling, and I was ranked third highest out of the six candidates. I thought that result quite gratifying for someone with no formal equestrian training, and I could hardly fault their choice when the position was filled by Arne Koetz, whose riding skills well merit all respect.

A few quieter years followed before things took a much brighter turn from the beginning of 2014. Sara Parkes and Mark Fox kindly invited me to ride out of their stable a little outside Leeds, and then drew me into the company putting preparing for an event based upon the Arthurian legend of the Battle of Mount Badon that was held at Old Sarum on the August Bank Holiday of 2014. The preparations and event were recorded and turned into a program, ‘Arthur: Battle of Legend’, in the series Weekend Warriors shown on the British TV channel, ‘Yesterday’. Between trying a Roman four horned saddle on display at Tullie House Museum, and again briefly on a horse with Sara and Mark at an event at Murton Park outside York, I had been quite looking forward to trying some serious work on a Roman saddle. And I am certainly a convert now! They are brilliant, giving the same sort of stability I had found in the medieval saddles I had been building for years. I found the event excellent, and it was a great shame that English August Bank holiday weather prevailed and the second day was washed out. John Doran has made an outstanding suite of photographs of this event available on Flikr (off site link in a new window).

cavalry re-enactment,,Group training for ‘Arthur: Battle of Legend’ at Mark Atkins’ stable, 2014.

Brunswick hussarsBrunswick Hussars in training, January 2015.

cavalry re-enactment, Battle of Evesham After the battle. Evesham, August 2015.

In late 2014 the re-enactment group known as Crusade embarked on an intensive campaign to create a cavalry arm pertaining to its traditional dominant area of the twelfth century, and to its newer realm of the Napoleonic Brunswick Battalion. With the plan to ride at the Battle of Waterloo bicentenary scuppered by malign Napoleonic re–enactment politics, Crusade cavalry’s first major outing became the Battle of Evesham re-enactment in early August 2015. I came off the substitution bench for the Sunday battle. It gave me the chance to use thirteenth-century equipment that had been hanging around untouched for years! It was an excellent weekend, and it did much to roll back my disenchantment with re-enactment in England.

Roman cavalry re-enactmentThe Lamellar Lads. With Nadeem Ahmad. ARC at Prestatyn Roman Day, May 2015. Photograph by Eilidh Gilmour.

Roman cavalry re-enactment, Corbridge,ARC Corbridge display, September 2015. Photograph by Eilidh Gilmour.

In 2015 the scratch group that had done the Old Sarum display coalesced into a more long term, albeit still nebulous, entity calling itself Autonomous Re-enactor Collective dedicated to doing more equestrian displays. To begin with I used the cavalry equipment I had from my main area of past activity, the middle Byzantine period (above left). For ARC’s second major outing for the year, at the Corbridge Roman site in September, I took the field in the first fruits of the project reflecting my recent interest, the transitional period at the end of Late Antiquity when the Romans adopted much from the mounted barbarians who knocked over the Western provinces, as well from their sibling empire of Persia (above right).

At the end of 2015 I decided it was time I returned to saddle-making. This has been a steadily burgeoning field for me, and greeted with considerable interest and enthusiasm in the historical recreation area. The fruits to date of this enterprise can be seen on my commercial websites, Seats of Empire and Sièges d’Empire

medieval knightThe distance from Lincoln Castle to the cathedral is very short, but riding it as part of the Battle of Lincoln Fair pageant was nevertheless a great experience.

a Roman eques in actionPerforming with Romanorum at the Ribchester Roman Festival 2017.

The Future

I am definitely well overdue to make a saddle and a lamellar horse armour to complete my middle Byzantine katafraktos presentation.

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