The Academy of Equestrian Show installed in the Grande Ecurie du Castle of Versailles, offers breathtaking shows, against a backdrop of baroque music from the time of Versailles. All this thanks to Louis XIV who built the Royal Stables circa 1680. Let us return to this showcase of the horses of the kingdom.
The royal stables
In the 1560s, the very mobile court roamed France requiring more than 10,000 horses. These equines were essential to the king and to gentlemen, but also for coaches and wagons. The number of horses and staff varies according to the large houses, but also according to the needs for hunting and major festivals, such as carousels. By 1620 there were already 250 horses, 40 squires and 20 coaches in Paris, plus the necessary personnel. We can therefore see the usefulness of royal stables.
Among the first works to embellish his father's castle, Louis XIV had stables built, the first at Versailles in 1662, in the building to the right of the forecourt, for around 50 horses. The lack of space, they were moved to the city of Versailles and 200 boarders were reached; still insufficient, Jules Hardouin Mansart was delegated to find another land and build stables worthy of the king. He chooses and negotiates the plots of land on the site of the private mansions of Noailles and Guitry-Lauzun.
The king wanted them majestic, serving for his representation, in order to mark his power and his prestige. They therefore concentrated the resources and men proving their values by founding the School of Versailles, a melting pot of equestrian art, whose riders made the pages, the privileged riders, the king and members of his family work; the stables were to be the showcase of the kingdom's horses, a model for Europe and with good reason, we speak nowadays of the Royal Stables but never of the Republican Stables!
The king installed there horses often of foreign origin: for hunting, he favored those of England and Ireland; for the riding school, those from Spain and North Africa, as Jean François Félibien noted in 1703 “an admirable elite of horses from England, Poland, Denmark, Prussia, Spain, Africa, from Persia and various other distant countries, not to mention those of France ”.
The big and the little stable
The royal stables were built between 1679 and 1680, facing the Place d'Armes, in an arc, at the top of the crow's feet formed by the avenues of Paris in the center, Saint Cloud on the left and Sceaux on the right . With your back to the castle, there are two large, practically twin buildings, separated by the Avenue de Paris. Identical in appearance on the front, the rear is different.
The Great Stables on the left receive the horses for riding, hunting, war and the training of pages and squires. There were saddle horses, merry-go-round horses, including the 30 beasts of the king, some 300 hunting horses, a few team horses and mourning coaches, all under the leadership of the grand squire nicknamed "Mr. Grand 'who had a very comfortable apartment. The next pavilion on the left was reserved for the page school, the dormitories, the classrooms, the chapel and the prison.
The horses were installed in stalls (the boxes do not yet exist) classified by breed and coat color.
The stables opened onto the large, rectangular, covered arena. On these grounds, one also reached five interior courtyards, including in particular the dependences and the hay. Basically, we arrived at the quarry to work the horses outside or present the carousels.
The saddlery was sumptuous, paneled with carpentry, equipped with large cupboards, grouping together the harnesses of the horses of the princes, the squires, the dauphin and the king. These cabinets protected the shoe covers, the boot covers, the scabbards, the pistol custodes. Around, we discovered the saddle racks where everyone had the horse's saddle and his name inscribed on a plaque. Above were the bridles, set in gold and silver. In the chests around, there were pompoms, ribbons, cockades of all colors.
It was in the large stables that Louis XIV's horses were trained. There was therefore a multitude of staff which often reached 1000 individuals: pages, squires, valets, grooms ... not to mention the surgeon, the apothecary for the medicinal preparations of the equines, the musicians for the carousel (Lully owned an apartment there ), merry-go-round sprinklers. They also had space for wild boars in order to get the horses used to the smell of these animals!
Around 1814, the School of Versailles transformed into the National School of Riding, was transferred to Saumur. The Cadre Noir de Saumur, initially with a military vocation, has evolved into a modern sporting horsemanship, but is the worthy heir of the School of Versailles. Nowadays, the merry-go-round of the large stable houses the Academy of Equestrian Show and its 40 horses, as well as the museum of coaches.
The small stables, located on the right, were used for ordinary horses loaned to certain gentlemen, for carriage horses, also accommodating carriages and small coaches. The merry-go-round is circular; the buildings included three galleries furnished with stalls and all the necessary fittings for horses. This is where the first squire "Monsieur le Premier" lived. The smaller and less majestic saddlery, however, received all the equipment necessary for the coupling, the harnessing of the horses and the supplies for the carriages.
These stables were important: around 1750, 2,200 horses resided there. In 1790, there were still 1,200. The royal stables tried to survive the Revolution, but were forced to close and the horses dispersed or confiscated. The squires either went into exile or suffered a brutal end.
Since the Second World War, the small stable has housed administrations.
The main professions
Under the Ancien Régime, in the field of horses, the supreme honor was to accede to the office of grand squire, nicknamed "Monsieur le Grand", responsible for squires and pages. These three highly sought-after places which were often passed down through families would be nothing without the grooms, the lowest but essential level.
Under Louis XIV, the groom was "a stooge", almost a slave, sleeping on straw in the stable. His work was essential, he had to scrape the ice from the drinking troughs in winter, he waded in the mud in the spring and spent his time rubbing, cleaning, removing the dung.
Over time, the situation of these servants has changed. It is the man the horse sees and hears first, who knows whether the animal is doing well or is rather sick. He carefully watches over the animals and the installations, the stalls, the stables, the drinking troughs (essential element as well as the gasoline pump nowadays), the horse not liking dirty water at all. It becomes a precious auxiliary for the rider, preparing the mount for him and often making it work.
Young people from old noble families entered the school of Versailles at the age of 15, after having presented their nobility quarters for admission. They all aspired to become a squire or a cavalry officer. The fifty or so elected received general education and riding lessons for four years. The most motivated then reached the rank of squire student. The best becoming "cavalcadours" could help with the lessons given to the new pages and help the riders in the training of the horses.
Proud and happy, they were allowed to accompany the king when he traveled in a coach or on horseback. For night trips, four pages of the Little Stable illuminated all around the royal coach and two other pages were available for each subsequent vehicle. During times of war, the pages served as aides-de-camp. When there was hunting, each lady riding a horse from the Little Stable was accompanied by a page from the Little Stable.
Squire, Mr. Premier
The student squire followed a three or four year apprenticeship before obtaining the rank of "ordinary squire". The very strict selection admitted three or four laureates. At this stage, they were already in their thirties, received permission to teach new people, train young horses and put them to work.
The best were interested in equestrian art, based on three principles "bring it together, drive, balance". The squire had to feel any change in the animal, the goal being to become one with him: a status which promoted respect and which made people envious.
The first squire ran the Little King's stable and commanded the so-called ordinary squires, the pages and the valets. He had to be present at the rising and setting of the King, in order to know whether the monarch wanted to ride a horse or decided on a hunt. Depending on the case, he would prepare his boots for him and put his spurs on him.
One of his functions was to help the king: to get into a coach, to pick up an object that the monarch drops to the ground, to put on his breastplate and to give him his weapons on days of battle, like an aide-de-camp.
The great squire, Mr. the Great
The office of Grand Ecuyer dates back to the days of the old Capetian warlords, when kings showed a more particular interest in horses. At the beginning of the 15th century, it was a full court service. The Grand Ecuyer was already leading 200 horses and around 1500, we began to talk about modern riding, the first great squire being Galéas de San Severino.
Monsieur le Grand always came from a large family, was very well paid and this financially interesting position was always a pretext for favors since he was very close to the king. From Louis XIV, this charge will remain in the “Lorraine” family until the Revolution.
The grand squire had significant advantages, such as his pavilion on the edge of the rue de Paris, in the large stables, 72 rooms on 3 floors, including garrets for the servants.
The grand squire reigned over the staff, supervised the pages and other officers of the stable as well as the musicians, doctors, surgeons; close to the king, he attended the rising, had an important place during the ceremonies by walking alongside the monarch, being invited like the king and having the right to get into the royal coach; when entering the cities, the great squire on horseback and carrying the royal sword in a blue velvet scabbard, strewn with golden fleur-de-lis preceded the king. In times of war, he lodged next to the monarch, ready to provide him with the necessary horses.
But he had other responsibilities, including the supervision of the royal stud farms, the choice of the stallions and the control of the academies. In addition, he managed the funds intended for the liveries of the personnel of the two stables and of certain corps of officers of the king's household.
Some great squires
Let us now take a look at some of the great riders who marked the history of the royal stables and the School of Versailles by developing the art of equestrianism up to current modern riding.
Antoine de Pluvinel
He is the true precursor and undisputed first master of the French riding school. Protected by Henri III and Henri IV, this first great squire introduced Louis XIII to horseback riding and supplanted the Italian masters who officiated until then, by developing equestrian techniques.
Born in the Valentinois in 1555, he moved to Italy at the age of ten to learn horse riding under the leadership of Pignatelli until around 1572. Mr. de Sourdis, first squire of Charles IX, brought him back to France to be appointed first squire of the Duke of Anjou, the future Henri III. Among the gentlemen accompanying Henry III in Poland, he was one of those with whom the young king left the country in a hurry to ascend the throne of France in 1574. In 1589, on the accession of Henry IV, Pluvinel kept his duties and income of chamberlain, under governor of the dauphin, tutor of the duke of Vendôme. Five years later, as the first ordinary squire, he founded an equestrian academy, on the site of the current Place des Pyramides.
It was from this moment that he revolutionized horse riding becoming the art of equestrianism, according to its two principles: the horse should be considered as a sensitive and intelligent being and his psychology should not be neglected. He wants the well-being of the horse. First of all, he recommends simple jaws, with broken barrels so as not to hit the horse's mouth; then he abolished brutal procedures and insisted on gentle methods "one must be stingy with blows and lavish caresses in order, as I would always say, to force the horse to obey and handle more for the playir than for the evil".
It transforms the teaching of dressage, by making work "the brain more than the kidneys and the legs" of the horse. The flexibility of the horse is important and must be worked around the pillars for the movement and positioning of the hips, a method still current in Vienna in the Spanish school. Pluvinel is totally against abuse and beatings "may kindness prevail over severity ... you should only beat a horse if its disobedience is the result of laziness". His writings will be published in 1623 three years after his death. The “royal manege” was carried out in the form of an interview for the attention of Louis XIII when he was his riding master. Revamped a little later, it will bear the title of "Instruction of the king in the exercise of riding", embellished with illustrations by Crispin de Pas.
Antoine de Pluvinel trained in war riding, knew how to develop it into pleasure riding. He can be called the "father of modern riding". These principles will be taken up and perfected a century later by La Guérinière.
François Robichon de La Guérinière
Born in 1688, spent his youth in Normandy where his brother was director of the Caen Riding Academy. Squire to the king in 1715, he ran the riding academy in Paris, at the Tuileries riding school. In fifteen years, he made a great reputation until being named in 1731 ordinary squire by the Grand Ecuyer Charles of Lorraine, Count of Armagnac.
Based on the writings of Pluvinel, but above all on those of Salomon de La Broue, regular squire of the King's Great Stable under Henri III, La Guérinière wanted a simpler, more natural riding school and above all more suited to the abilities of the horse "knowledge of the naturalness of a horse is one of the first foundations of the art of riding it, and every man on horseback should make it his main study".
He emphasizes two capital points, the relaxation and conditioning of the horse with the shoulder inward and the lowering of the hand, "this lesson produces so many good effects at the same time that I regard it as the first. and the last of all those which one can give to the horse to make him take full flexibility and a perfect freedom in all its parts ”. His writings “School of Cavalry” around 1731/1733, embellished with Parrocel boards, are recognized by all the great riding schools.
Louise Julie Constance de Rohan
Madame de Brionne was Grand Squire of King Louis XV. Daughter of Charles de Rohan, she was born in 1734. On the death of Grand Ecuyer Charles de Lorraine in 1751, her responsibility fell to her grand nephew, the Count de Brionne, husband of Louise Julie. Recently married, she gave him that same year a first son, then two daughters and a last boy. Due to this charge of Grand Ecuyer, they live in the apartment in the large stables that Louise Julie has renovated and transformed to her taste. The Grand Squire's day is exhausting: as soon as he gets up at 5 a.m., he supervises the grooming of the horses, then the pages wake up at 6 a.m., attends the king's rising at 8 a.m., is present in the open space, takes part in hunting days; he takes care of the administration of the stables and meetings with his assistants; he has to return to the chateau for supper and it is often past midnight when his day ends.
The day the Comte de Brionne fell ill in 1760, his eldest son was only 9 years old; in any case, he can not pass his charge to his son before the heir is 25 years old. He then asks the king to entrust the post to his wife while waiting for the boy to come of age. Never seen ! The king hesitates for a long time, seeing badly a woman in such a position, but promises that the son will become a grand squire. A year later, the Comte de Brionne died. His young wife does not let herself be defeated, she wants above all to keep the superb apartment as well as the income and benefits of her husband. Helped by her friends, she wrote a memoir addressed to the king, showing that in history, several women had held men's offices and recently the Countess of Toulouse had held the office of admiral of France during the minority of the Duke of Penthièvre. Finally, the chamber of accounts accepted in September 1761.
For 10 years, she reigned over the Great Stables, riding admirably and holding her rank in major ceremonies. Excellent administrator, she oversees the maintenance and repair of buildings, looks at the school of pages, noting their qualities and their faults, while having some problems with the First Master of the small stables, who wanted to take precedence. on the great squire since he was a woman. She educates her son perfectly until he comes of age. Having to reluctantly leave the large stables, she bought the Château de Limours, renovated it and organized balls and shows. In 1789, she retired to Austria, where she died at the age of 81 in 1815.
Comte d'Aure, born in 1799, second lieutenant in 1815, was seconded to the Manège de Versailles to quickly become a cavalcadour squire of Louis XVIII in 1817. The School of Versailles being abolished in 1830, the Comte d'Aure successively opened three riding schools in the heart of Paris. He aspires to make French breeding better known, to teach outdoor riding in quarries and to encourage hunts and races. Chief Squire in Saumur in 1847, he was appointed commander of the stables of Napoleon III and Inspector General of Studs in 1861, until his death in 1863.
The Comte d'Aure, one of the best riders, showed throughout his life qualities of attitude and dexterity "think about the movement you want to perform, and you will see that it will go by itself", as well as a great daring on horseback, going to break young horses himself.
The “Riding Treaty” in 1834 and the “Reflections on a New Riding Method” of 1842 will remain famous.