The Riding House

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This month we explore the history of the indoor arena or ‘riding house’ to use its original name. Some might consider that indoor arenas are not necessary in Australia because of our climate, but this would be to overlook the Northern hemisphere influences on equestrianism, including equine architecture. It is also true that those of us in the southern regions benefit from having access to an indoor during our long, cold and wet winters, and those further north benefit from the sun shelter they provide.

There is, however, another loftier reason why we ride in dedicated, properly surfaced and roofed-in spaces. If we situate equitation as both an art form and a sport across the various disciplines, then we need to train in conditions where we can focus and concentrate on each other, and not on the weather or distracting sights and sounds.

Richard Berenger, ‘Gentleman of the Horse’ to George III put it well in 1771 when he wrote that riding houses were needed to ‘awe, guide, and confine the horse’; in other words, [and reading into the richly characterful language of the period], they helped the horse to settle and concentrate.1

Image B on the next pages, a pen and wash drawing in the Paul Mellon collection at Yale Centre for British Art, once thought to be by George Stubbs, but now unattributed, shows a young horse concentrating on being long-lined and learning shoulder-in at Tattersalls Training School, around the middle of the eighteenth century.

Note the gentle morning light coming in through the high set ‘Diocletian’ window, the angled wooden boards along the walls and the tanbark surface.

Historically, dressage has the earliest associations with an indoor ‘hall’ or dedicated indoor space for horse exercise. The ‘cavaliers’ or circle of expert riders around King Charles I of England were the first to build riding houses.

This small group of wealthy aristocrats grew obsessed with high school or ‘haute école’ after learning about it on their ‘Grand Tours’ of France and Naples as young men, but they realised that to continue the dressing (or training) of the ‘great’ or educated horse in freezing England they needed a special interior place; a ‘riding house’.

The cavaliers’ construction of functional yet beautiful riding houses made possible the transmission of Continental dressage theory into England.2 Many cavaliers also employed foreign riding masters to run their establishments. Foremost among the cavaliers was William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, courtier and riding instructor to King Charles II.

Cavendish’s own Riding House, at Bolsover Castle (see Image A on the next page) was completed in 1630 and is one of the finest examples of the indoor arena in the Stuart period.

Designed by Huntingdon Smythson, the Bolsover Riding House was created to be perfectly in-keeping architecturally with the castle, the stables and the grounds, thus creating a seamless unity of appearance.
Built entirely of stone, Bolsover Riding House featured ‘a series of gabled dormer and casement windows, with Classical architraves (the moulded frames, or lintels over doorways or windows), and massive rusticated door frames’. In this, it reflected the latest in architectural fashions of the day.3

Moreover, with the addition of raked seating to create viewing galleries at either end or down the long sides of arenas, the observation of daily exercises in the indoor manège became a social occasion for ladies and gentlemen.

Bolsover was beautiful throughout, with features that became customary in public and private manèges through the Georgian revival of haute école and into the nineteenth century. Arena surfaces were of various types, made either of spent tanbark (leached bark chips or powder; a by-product of tanning factories) or of a clay and sand mix laid two feet deep and well-rammed.

The roof, then as today, was a central design question to be solved. Because of their size and their need to stay up without intermediate supports, riding house roof structures have always held great interest for builders.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no architectural text held any specific instruction for riding house rooves, so architects adapted solutions from churches and other large edifices. The architect Inigo Jones used a king- and queen-post beam structure for his manège in Buckingham House. Other keynote architects of the period used collar beams with scissor braces. A variety of other innovations were developed.4

With such elegant beam work, the next question was whether to plaster the ceiling or leave the beams exposed.

When ceilings were put in, they were often embellished with beautiful plasterwork, gilding, chandeliers and even mural paintings, such in the Winter Hall at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Riding Hall of the Belém Palace in Lisbon, and how can we not mention Jean Aubert’s ‘palace for horses’ – the Great Stables of Chantilly, designed for Louis-Henri de Bourbon, the seventh Prince of Condé, where circular walls are pierced by arches and ‘oeil-de-boeuf’ or ox-eye windows, and massive statues of stags, a symbol of the Prince’s love of the hunt, fill the vast spaces.

Riding Houses had functional attributes as well. For natural light, windows were placed high up on the wall so that horses weren’t dazzled. Lower down along the walls, wood panelling – often placed at slant was provided along the sides to protect riders’ legs from getting crushed.

The final addition would have been the installation of a pair of pillars. Their introduction has been accredited to Antoine de Pluvinel (1552-1620). Pillars were a stabilising tool used for teaching the highest levels of collected work to the horse and sometimes the rider as well. They have a similar but more intensive function to side reins. We rarely see these today, except – topped by flags – at the Spanish Riding Schools of Vienna and Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

During the Golden Age of haute école and later, riding houses were built in a vast range of sizes, however the proportions of 3:1 or even 2:1 generally remained consistent.

For private use, the eighteenth century equitation handbook author Strickland Freeman recommended that a 120ft x 40ft arena was quite large enough; in metric that is approximately 40m by 12.5m, and much smaller than what we’re used to now. In fact, the standardisation of the arena at 60x20m and the formal introduction of arena markers did not occur until the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Few eighteenth century riding houses exceeded Freeman’s dimensions as he warned that it was ‘too fatiguing for the horse when doing exercises that required it to hold its haunches while crossing the riding house’.5 Freeman also designed an arena with one rounded end for lunging that never caught on.

One particularly strange shaped indoor dressage arena in Paris (it was ten times as long as it was wide), witnessed the birth of the nation-state, and changed the political history of the world.

The famous Salle de Manège in the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris was appropriated by the Assembly in 1789 and, despite its poor acoustics, it became the spatial centre of a newly democratic France. Thus, the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution can justly be said to have been organised and run from a dressage arena.

In England after its Stuart heyday, haute ècole and its architectural appurtenances sadly declined during the Civil War, with Cromwell’s Puritans not being admirers of the art. However, it arose again in the Restoration period, 1660-1785, and then again in the nineteenth century, with dressage master James Fillis, the appearance of women riders or écuyères, and the demand for indoor or ‘town’ riding schools for the military and the aspiring upper middle classes to master the equestrian arts.

In the twenty-first century, haute ècole, that is, ‘high’ school, or what we now call modern dressage, is again on the rise, and along with it, the need for good indoor arena design. In modern Australia utility often wins out over aesthetics but not always.

The sense of a ‘cathedral’ for riding finds a 500 year old echo in the designs of Luke Jones, director of awarding-winning firm C4 Architecture. Jones, a popular South Australian eventing rider recently designed this indoor arena (see main image on page 17) for the University of Ballarat. Here, we can clearly see him paying homage to Bolsover, and to the aesthetics of the Stuart period in the creation of a ‘place of worship’ for the art of riding. Form follows function and Jones notes that ‘the shape of the roof allows for a spacious interior which gives good air movement along with timber being a totally sustainable material.  Timber also adds a feeling of softness and warmth relative to the typical steel structure which is used for longer spans’.

Another Australian echo of the notion of a ‘seamless unity of appearance’ between home and riding hall can be seen in NSW’s Willinga Park Equestrian Centre, by Cox architects, where a modernist, rather than a Classical aesthetic, unites the house, stables and arenas, with the  inclusion of high-tech utilitarian functions (for example, underground arena watering systems) and a consistent design ethic using dramatic angles.

Thus, we see a lengthy history informing the culture and construction of the ‘riding house’ and how it has been a fascinating litmus test of the popularity of riding as an art.

For those readers who dream of building their own riding house, be bold, be visionary, be part of history!
Note: To see a film of Classical dressage performed in the Bolsover Riding House, English Heritage have made a short video for YouTube. ‘The Art of the Mannage’ for English Heritage at Bolsover Castle.

References:

  1. Giles Worsley, The British Stable, Yale University Press New Haven and London 2004, p 61.
  2. Giles Worsley, ibid. p 61.
  3. Worsley, ibid. p 86.
  4. Worsley, ibid. p. 168-9.
  5. Worsley, ibid. p 161 -168.
Dr Georgina Downey

An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.

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