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Centaur or fop? How horsemanship


made the Englishman a man
Monica Mattfeld is an assistant professor
of English and history at the University of
Northern British Columbia in Canada.
She is the author of Becoming Centaur:
Eighteenth-Century Masculinity and
English Horsemanship (2017).

1,100 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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F or much of human history, horses have been our travelling companions,
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our weapons of war, our industrial machines, our shoe leather, and our
dog food. ey have influenced human society around the world, including
what it meant to be a man during the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time,
Britain was known for the English Civil Wars and the rise of the British
Empire. It was also an age in which, for many men, horses were indivisible
from their masculinity, their ability to govern successfully and their personal
identity. While the practice of horsemanship changes over the period,
equestrian skill and the ability to present oneself as a unified being with a
mount was a central component, for many, of what it meant to be a man. 

When people viewed horsemen and came to interpret the masculinity on


display, they tended to view the horse and rider as one unit. During the 17th
and 18th centuries, those deemed worthy of the appellation ‘horseman’ were
of the upper classes, and had developed a close partnership with their
horses. As Richard Berenger, Gentleman of the Horse to King George III,
argued in 1771: ‘ e Centaur is the symbol of horsemanship, and explains
its meaning as soon as it is beheld.’ For Berenger, because of the close
communication between rider and horse that develops over time, a rider and
his horse were ‘almost in a literal sense … one creature’. Becoming such a
centaur required a lifetime of effort, practice, patience, rational control of the
self, and in many cases natural ability by both man and horse. To become a
centaur meant, for men of the upper classes and for those who wished to join
their social ranks, perfection in classical dressage (known as the manège),
including clear and nuanced communication between horse and human at
all times. It meant that they performed together, and appeared as one being.
ese centaurs were the ones whom the public and fellow riders understood
as manly, ideal figures of masculine prowess, secure in their status as masters
of the equestrian arts.

However, working with a horse and striving towards centaur status did not
always go according to plan. Henry William Bunbury, equerry to the Duke of
York, illustrated the connection between horses and men. Dubbed ‘the
Raphael of caricaturists’, and the artist responsible for one of the first comic
strips, Bunbury spent his life capturing the follies and fools of his age,
especially false horsemen. He published two books of caricature dedicated to
the subject. Intended as mock-manuals of horsemanship, Bunbury’s An
Academy for Grown Horsemen (1787) and his subsequent Annals of
Horsemanship (1791) won rave reviews but were published pseudonymously
under the name ‘Geoffrey Gambado, Esq’. A person of dubious equestrian
connections, a follower of radical politics, and a man of questionable
masculinity, Gambado is a prime example of how important skill in
horsemanship was to 18th-century men.

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Gambado was described as the son of a Devonshire tailor. is lineage was a


direct reference to the stereotype of failed horsemanship and masculinity
popular throughout the 18th century. Tailors were indispensable to that era’s
fascination with fashion, but a tailor’s link to clothing and to conspicuous
consumption, immediately made his masculinity suspect. Popular opinion
routinely lamented that tailors had more interest in the shape of a
gentleman’s lapel or a lady’s stays than in being useful to the nation. And
tailors certainly didn’t spend their time learning to ride. As the popular
circus act ‘ e Taylor Riding to Brentford’, which played at Astley’s
Amphitheatre in London well into the 19th century, made clear, tailors were
‘equally singular in their dress and bad horsemanship’. Famously effeminate,
selfish and civically or militarily useless, tailors were seen as a leading cause
of social corruption in the period. While in theory able to pass criticism, in
the streets – as Bunbury and the circus made clear – their poor handling of
their horses dramatised their emasculation.

Popular 18th-century wisdom held that horses were powerful agents of truth.
While near them or on their backs, nothing their riders did could be hidden
from onlookers. In the circus, this equine agency was expressed through the
acting abilities of Formidable Jack, a horse who had ‘been trained so as to
withstand every horseman dressed in the garb of a tailor’. Formidable Jack
would chase the tailor, playing the role of failed masculinity and rampant
effeminacy, by biting and kicking at him, and doing everything in his power
to destroy the respectability and rational governing abilities necessary to
period masculinity. ese actions contrasted with his response when faced
with a true horseman, of masculine virtues, before whom Formidable Jack
proved respectful, ‘gentle and governable’. From chivalry and honour in the
17th century, to politeness and sentiment during the 18th century,
horsemanship dramatised a man’s worth. A man properly educated in
horsemanship knew how to communicate with and train his mount; the
behaviour of his horse rewarded his efforts.

Gambado was not rewarded for his equestrian efforts – he was said to have
died en route to Venice, clutching his saddle as an ineffective flotation device.
As a tailor, he was dangerous to society, and as a tailor pretending to be a
horseman, he was potentially disastrous. Britons of the 17th and 18th
centuries understood horsemanship, or the governing of horse and human,
as the embodiment of proper masculinity, and by extension, the
embodiment of the man’s ability to govern the world around him.
Horsemanship was political, and in this understanding the man represented
the ruling monarchy (the father), and the horse the nation (the rest of his
household). How well the two interacted, and how well the rider governed
the horse as centaur, illustrated the man’s ability to be the patriarch of the
house and the nation. Horses and riders were essential to the kingdom
because they were the means of ensuring a properly functioning civil society.
With emasculated figures such as Gambado, however, the continued
prosperity of Britain was in doubt. Tailors could destroy everything because
of their effeminate lack of equestrian skill.

For many men of the early modern period, regardless of whether their efforts
at achieving centaur status went according to plan, horses were essential
partners to their gendered identities. Masculinity was not an individual
pursuit; instead, horsemen believed that horses and humans needed to work
together to get it right.

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