While dressage has its roots in ancient Greece, it was in the seemingly magical displays of horsemanship in Italy and France of the 16th to 19th centuries that haute ècole, or high school dressage and riding to music developed. Northern Italy was the center of equestrian arts in Renaissance Europe during the late 16th century and it was here that what would become the musical freestyle in competitive dressage was born. Not in Pignatelli’s school in Naples which is one of the most famous but in the schools of Fiaschi and Fredirico Grisone music became intimately connected to dressage. Both men wrote early treatises on dressage and included the use of music. While Pignatelli is known for being the first to train horses in pillars, bringing a new aesthetic to training a horse, it is the musical displays that have lasted and made it into international competition.
In Italy in the 1500s, music was introduced to the equestrian arts first to teach rhythm and tempo to riders, and soon after to accompany the lavish horse ballets. Grisone encouraged the use of the voice to help the horse’s tempo. He wrote a treatise in 1550 which was soon translated into French and German. Fiaschi included in his 1556 treatise short musical tunes corresponding to a horse’s gaits and movements. Thus, the first musical vocabulary for dressage was put onto paper. Fiaschi encouraged his riders to learn music well enough to sing while riding and to ride as if he were playing rare and excellent music.
As early as 1548 in Lyons France costumed chevaliers amazed audiences with their horses leaping, turning, and jumping to the sound of small bells attached to the horses: “So pleasantly resonate that the harmony of their sweet sound did not tickle the spirits of the astonished people any less than the flash of the gleaming gems dazzled their eyes so that those watching did not know if they dreamt or lived.” By 1602 La Broue wrote that without musical sensibilities one could never have the sensitivity to the horse’s beat and tempo necessary to ride well.
In a spectacular feat, Pluvinel, who re-introduced the gentle horse training techniques of xenophon, created a horse ballet in 1612 to honor the engagement of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria. The ballet was but a few minutes in a long day and evening of a lavish parade, jousting, and a carrousel. Pluvinel stole the show when the horses of the spectacularly costumed riders leapt and danced and circled and jumped, captivating the audience.
While dressage shares a long history with music, musical displays were absent from the competitive arena until fairly recently. From the early 1900s competitive dressage drew more on its military roots than the roots of entertainment. In the 1980s horses once again seemed to dance in the arena when organizers brought the musical freestyle to international competitive dressage, aiming to bring spectators to what was often seen as a fairly boring event. The 1996 Atlanta Games were the first Olympics that added the freestyle to the format and today musical freestyles attract large crowds to see the dancing horses.