I was originally researching technical aspects of Fiore’s mounted combat, staring at the illustrations, when I suddenly noticed the horses’ legs. The position of the feet does not depict a walk. I quickly went through all four of the extant Fiore manuscripts, and found the same thing. Most scholars seem to think that Fiore’s mounted techniques are done at either a canter or a walk. For example, Ken Mondschein’s “The Knightly Art of Battle” shows a lance illustration: “The artist’s keen eye for detail extends to the horse’s gait; it is easy to see that this technique is being done at a walk.”. Yet, at least some of the horses in the illustrations seemed to be ambling, not walking. Could this be?
Ambling is “any of several four-beat intermediate horse gaits” as Wikipedia tells us. Some modern horse breeds exhibit ambling gaits, such as tölt in Icelandic horses, flat-walk in Tennessee Walkers, rack in American Saddlebred and Paso gaits in Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino. In medieval times, ambling horses were appreciated for their smooth gait, and the term palfrey is thought to describe a horse capable of ambling (this information is referred to in Deb Bennet’s book Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship). The excellent book The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment (ed. John Clark) has a list from William Fitzstephen (died c. 1191) who writes of different horse types listing the first a gradarii – ambler. The same book also tells us of the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales sitting “upon an amblere esily”, and shows an illustration of the same lady from 15th century Ellesmere manuscript, and another picture of the 14th century Queen Mary’s Psalter:
From a later date, there is a mention of ambling in A General System of Horsemanship (1658, by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle) that has a chapter “Of the Movements of a Horse in all his Natural Paces” and this also lists “The Amble: A horse in this action moves both legs on the same side; for example, he moves his two off-legs both before and behind at the same time, while those of the near side are at a stand, and when those two which were in motion before touch the ground, he moves the other side, viz. the fore and hind leg on the near side, and the off-legs are then at rest. Hence a pacing horse moves both legs on one side, and changes the side at each motion, having both legs on the same side in the air, and those of the other side upon the ground at the same time, which motion is a perfect amble.”
Noticeable here is that he speaks of pacing, and pace is actually a lateral two-beat gait. Perhaps the difference between these two was not as distinctive as we today think it is, as an uneven pace is somewhere between a pace and an amble. I haven’t been able to find more precise information on ambling horses in Medieval times, so I would appreciate any help on the subject. A few informative lines about ambling can be found online here: www.algonet.se/~ulrikal/ambler.htm
But, getting back to Fiore. Here are a few examples I just put together, there are plenty more.
– These are not so clear when looking at the gait, why is this?
In these examples, the gait seems to be something other than a walk. Especially the illustrations in Pisani-Dossi and Morgan are very clear. Notice that the front leg moving forward is very high, and already past the other front leg and breast. The horse’s head is high and its weight is over its back legs. In all manuscripts the illustrations are very clear when the horses are in canter, or charging forward. They may be walking in some, but at least a few examples show a clearly different gait than walk. Are these horses ambling?
If you are not familiar with gaits, here are a few nice videos of gaited horses.
Icelandic horses in all gaits, slow motion.
Notice the leg movements but also the overall balance and posture of the horses in different gaits.
In comparison, a relaxed walk, see how the front leg moving forward is not past the other when the back leg hits the ground.
Icelandic horse in speed tölt and other gaits, notice the gait can be slow or very fast. Also notice the riders movement in different gaits. Which is the smoothest one?
From slow tölt to fast tölt. Notice the range of speed in one gait.
So, what would be the benefits of ambling in mounted fencing? I am not a good fencer nor rider, but a few reasons came to my mind. Firstly, an ambling gait can be very slow but also very fast, i.e. acceleration from stop to fast is smooth and no gait changes are required. Slow canter is still a fast gait, and collected canter requires more muscles, collection, and basically more riding, than an ambling gait.
Secondly, ambling reduces the rider’s need to time his actions to the horse’s movement as the horse moves smoothly and in the same way, in all patterns of the gait. This again makes the actual fencing easier. I am most familiar with Icelandic horses, and after quite a few tries in all gaits of the Icelandic horse, I would say tölt is the easiest for any timing one may need to do.
I haven’t done much actual mounted swordplay yet, but in mounted swordsmanship training, and in mounted archery, the canter movement pattern opens an exact action window where there is an optimal moment for executing anything (usually this is the point when all the horse’s feet are in the air). Trotting is very difficult for any timing (with my balance anyway)! Tölt makes the whole movement forward one huge action window where one is able to execute detailed movements without this being restricted by the horse’s movement. This would make ambling more efficient, practical, and easier regarding speed, tempo, balance and timing.
Some research has been done regarding ambling as travelling gait, Mike Loades tested ambling in Icelandic horses in his Channel 4 documentary (about Peasant’s Revolt). He found that “they covered considerably more miles per hour using the ambling horses and with much less fatigue to horse and rider” (See his website).
I have been studying Fiore’s mounted combat only for a short while, and I can only call myself a mediocre rider at best, so my interpretation is very open to change. So I would very much appreciate any input you may have on this subject (already a big thank you to Jürg Gassmann and Guy Windsor for their feedback)!
There was a discussion in Horsy HEMA FaceBook group about the phases of gait in the illustrations perhaps being canter (or something else), and here’s a quick review of this idea.
Most of the illustrations that I used show the diagonal fore leg hitting the ground before the hind leg. In canter the diagonal hind leg and fore leg hit the ground at the same time (this is the definition of a tree beat canter). If you look at the Morgan and Pisani Dossi examples, the hind leg is shown in the air when the diagonal fore is on the ground, so these illustrations cannot show canter. Also the horse might be in a more front weighted posture if this was the diagonal stage of canter, i.e. pushing off with both hind legs (mechanically pushing weight to front from back). The illustrations look more back weighted than this and also seem to depict a shorter movement than canter. I was actually thinking this option (canter) for the Getty images, but you can also see the fore leg is under the breast when the diagonal hind leg is on the ground, which is not the case in canter. The diagonal fore leg should be in front of the breast line when diagonal hind leg is on the ground.
Regarding the tölt/ambling sequence, the point of contact of the hind leg in comparison to the other hind leg depends on the speed of the horse. And the collection. In Icelanders, the most “wanted” phase of tölt is the point where the fore leg is highest ant the hind leg comes off the ground. This means speed, and they are looking for a balanced posture. But slow tölt shows pretty much the same posture as Fiore, Morgan and Pisani-Dossi at least. I’ll compiled a few comparisons to show this:
I have also tried asking about tight turns, lateral movements and shoulder-in possibilities in ambling gaits from people who know more about these horses. These movements enable longer sequences in mounted fencing as the action is not limited to passing each other only. I found out that turning in slow gait is easy, and shoulder-ins etc can be done in ambling gait. Here is one example of a Paso Fino turning in slow gait:
A huge thank you to the people who have given me feedback (especially Arne Koets).