Horsemanship as a Martial Art
If you walk into your nearest stereotypical sports bar and poll the clientele… odds are good that horseback riding isn’t considered a sport. You might even be laughed out the front door.
If you walk into a horse barn, however, the general consensus will probably be that riding is indeed a sport. That consensus will probably include a detailed explanation of how physically demanding and inherently risky the endeavor can be. It may also include vehement assertions that only the toughest of the tough ride horses. I won’t dispute that assertion here.
As we’ll see in a minute, the beginnings of horsemanship come from military needs. The way that riding is taught and learned is much more like an art than a game. Competition between riders and students of the various martial arts is strikingly similar as well. Could “martial art” be a better way to categorize horseback riding as a sport? Is it appropriate to understand horsemanship as a martial art?
Riding… Sport? Or Art?
Despite the differences of opinion, horse-folk and the general public tend to agree that equestrian sports don’t quite fit within the stereotypical understanding of “sport.” Horseback riding isn’t like football or baseball. It isn’t even quite like golf or tennis, or even track and field.
Riding demands athleticism and physical skill from both horse and rider. However, the “riding isn’t a sport” crowd are quick (and probably right) to point out that the horse tends to burn more calories than the rider. Competition tends to be subjectively judged, rather than objectively point-based, although there are exceptions. Equestrian events feature alongside more “traditional” sports in the Olympic Games, and form part of composite events like pentathlon, which would seem to cement riding in general as a sport. However, the debate continues. Alongside these differences between riding and other sports, there is an acknowledged “marketing problem” in getting widespread traditional media exposure to high profile equestrian events, as discussed in this interview via Horse Network.
So, how exactly does horsemanship fit into the wide world of sports?
Horsemanship’s Military Roots
First of all, riding and horsemanship come to us through a strong military history. The first desire of man to swing leg over horse was inspired by the need to cover ground in the name of conquest. Xenophon’s legendary writings on horsemanship were born of the need to train cavalry for imperial expansion and military defense.
While the odds of any of us riding into battle are slim, traces of that military heritage remain. Have you ever wondered why we mount and handle horses from the left side? Imagine mounting from the right with a sword strapped to your left hip. Modern eventing demonstrates the skills of the ideal cavalry mount. Dressage shows us willingness, obedience, and technical skill. The jumping phases demonstrate boldness, speed, and power. The phases demand fitness and endurance from both horse and rider.
Ok, but what about today’s civilian riders?
Formal dressage comes from military riders on dress parade. The haute ecole and the Airs Above the Ground are movements that would have been highly effective to cavalry in close-quarters combat against other cavalry or ground troops. The levade raises a rider above the reach of a foot-soldier’s sword, spear, or bayonet. A well-timed capriole eliminates threats from behind with deadly efficiency. These movements are the formally perfected exercise of crucial battleground skills and tactics.
Into the 20th century, competitive dressage riders often came from military careers. The observer might see Olympic riders competing in military or police uniform well into the 90’s. Klaus Balkenhol is an excellent example, representing Germany and earning team gold in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.
On the surface, Western disciplines appear to be based on the needs and skills of the working American cowboy and rancher, not the soldier. But, when you dig into the history, the true roots run deeper. The Western saddle and seat are derived from those of the Spanish Conquistadores, who brought horses with them to help conquer the New World. Over time, the needs of the Spanish evolved from conquest to colonization, but their horsemanship remained largely unchanged. Without military conquest, there is no NRCHA.
Where the military origins are less obvious or direct, echoes still remain. Today’s endurance rider might have been a long-distance courier centuries ago. Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli pioneered the modern forward-seat jumping style. With the rise of modernity, in which the horse became a luxury, the first civilian sport riders turned to cavalry manuals like this one for practical guidance. The explicit goals of these cavalry manuals was to train capable riders and willing, supple, and strong horses for the battlefield. These are ideals that still apply to today’s civilian rider and sport horse. These military resources trained horsemanship’s modern masters.
Similarities Between Horsemanship and Organized Martial Arts
From the perspective of training and competition, equestrian sport shares much with martial arts.
Although there is no formal “belt” system, training of the rider is progressive. Compare this to football, or to basketball, where youth leagues are playing the same game as Tom Brady or LeBron James. Not with the same strength or finesse, but certainly using the same rules, goals, and techniques. In martial arts and horsemanship, there are skills that the masters have attained that are vastly beyond the scope of the novice. Training is progressive, each lesson building upon the foundation of earlier lessons, and forming another layer upon which to build.
Because of the progressive nature of study, some activities and equipment are always reserved for higher level practitioners. A karate instructor won’t hand a set of nunchucks to a white belt. A rider won’t be permitted to ride with spurs if she can’t maintain a stable and effective leg. The development of a jumper’s release is another example of the difference in technique between a novice and a skilled rider. When the student does not have the skill or experience to use tools safely or effectively, the result is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst.
In both cases, there is a journey to mastery. There is an underlying idea that there is always more to learn, some more subtle nuance to understand. Even the idea of mastery itself is elusive. Even Olympic-level riders have coaches and trainers. The masters of horsemanship, ancient and modern, tend to consider themselves students. This mindset will be familiar to anyone with even a passing exposure to martial arts. Similarly, many horse enthusiasts find their purpose in the journey of the eternal student.
Most competitive martial arts and riding events are judged subjectively. Style counts, and the ends don’t justify the means. Technique has weight in the final score, even beyond the degree to which correct technique makes execution more functionally successful. In kickboxing, the two contenders may land an equal number of strikes, but the bout will go to the fighter with the better form and technical ability. Many equestrian events emphasize rider technique and equitation with a dedicated portion of the overall score for a class or round.
Once again, compare this to other popular sports. In football, as long as the ball makes it to the end zone, barring very specific codified penalties, it doesn’t matter how the team gets it there as far as the score is concerned. Form and strategy follow the function of how best to score a goal within the rules.
Additionally, the structure of competition is generally independent and piecemeal in both horsemanship and martial arts. There are larger national associations and governing bodies, but also thousands of small clubs and independent events. This feature makes riding and martial arts competition highly accessible. No rule says that to compete you must be involved with USEF, or push toward national level tournaments. Those things are there if that is your aspiration, but there are also smaller, more local, and more affordable alternatives for the amateur and hobbyist.
A Matter of Philosophy
Good horsemanship and traditional martial arts share a root philosophy in the idea that the same things that allow one to succeed at the sport also allow one to succeed in life. The skills are profoundly transferrable.
Additionally, horsemanship and martial arts often agree on what these specific skills and strategies are. Concepts like soft eyes, responding instead of reacting, and maintaining balance around the center are equally at home in the arena or the dojo. Mark Rashid explains his moment of profound connection between the “going with” an aggressor’s energy in akido, and “going with” the horse’s motion and energy in the saddle in his book “Horsemanship Through Life.”
Many riders, like Mark Rashid, turn to martial arts as a way to improve their riding. Yoga, tai chi, akido, karate, muay tai kickboxing, fencing… all promote the same strength, balance, body awareness, focus, and control that we seek in the saddle.
Horsemanship IS A Martial Art
Understanding riding and horsemanship as a martial art answers the questions that make defining it as a sport difficult. According to Wikipedia, “Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.”
Horsemanship’s heritage and traditions are rooted in combat and defense. The mental and spiritual development aspects have come more to the foreground in recent decades. The entertainment and cultural value of riding and equestrian competition and exhibition are indisputable. By all of these metrics, riding is a martial art.
What do you think? Are you a rider who cross-trains in a martial art? Have you considered taking up a martial art to supplement your riding? Why or why not? Share your story in the comments, or give a shout-out by email. And remember, you should be riding!