Of Riding Houses

Though this specialty form of luxury equine architecture was falling out of fashion in England by the turn of the nineteenth century, there were still several in place across Britain. In addition, the Prince of Wales had commissioned more than one of them to be built on his properties at the beginning of the new century. Regency authors who include horses and/or extensive stable complexes in their tales of romance may want to take advantage of one of these grand structures for a few scenes in some of their stories.

Riding houses in England through the Regency . . .

Haute école or classical dressage horsemanship had its origins in the methods used to train war horses in the fifteenth century. It must be noted that though it is sometimes stated that this training was done in order to teach war horses how to participate in a battle, scholars of equine culture and history have determined that several of these moves would have placed a horse in great danger on the battlefield, with no advantage to their rider. Rather, this type of training was done in order to develop and improve a horse’s strength, stamina and coordination for the movements they would be expected to execute during a battle. Such training would also strengthen the rapport between horse and rider so that the horse would be thoroughly accustomed to its rider’s commands and would execute them with no delay while in the heat of battle.

By the sixteenth century, the method of training horses for the classical dressage style of riding had been developed and organized into a standard system in Naples. From there, it gradually spread across most of Europe. Initially, this form of riding was practiced out of doors, in a ringed enclosure. Such was the practice in Italy, Spain, Portugal and even southern France. But as this formal horse training method moved further north, into northern France, Austria, the German States and eventually into England, the cooler, damper weather in those regions made working outdoors for long periods rather unpleasant. Therefore, in several northern European capitals, the ruling monarchs directed that a riding academy or riding house be constructed so that this formal training of horses could be conducted under cover and out of the elements.

Many European sovereigns were very keen to have a formal riding house on their grounds, as the haute école style of riding was closely tied in to courtly culture. These equine riding structures were usually designed and built in the fashionable architectural style of the period. In fact, many of them were so richly decorated that they were nearly as elegant as the palaces in which their owners lived. In addition to the appearance of the riding houses, the exhibitions put on by the well-trained horses in these grand and elegant spaces imbued the monarchs with great prestige. It was very common in many European capitals for the local ruler to offer regular demonstrations of classical dressage to the public, in their formal riding houses. These grand spectacles impressed upon those in attendance the power and authority of the sovereign who had sponsored them.

For some unknown reason, royalty in Britain was never as keen on building their own riding houses and sponsoring public demonstrations of classical dressage as were European monarchs. However, by the seventeenth century, several prominent and wealthy members of the English aristocracy were ardent practitioners of classical dressage, also known as manège in French. These men needed an enclosed space in which they could regularly engage in their passion for training in classical dressage. And many of these men had the extensive property and substantial funds which allowed them to build their own private riding houses, a definite luxury. One of the most famous of these wealthy aristocrats, William Cavendish, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, actually built two riding houses. The first was at his family home of Bolsover Castle, the second was constructed at Welbeck Abbey, a property he had inherited from his father. The riding house at Bolsover Castle was badly damaged while Newcastle was in exile in France, after the English Civil War. However, when he returned to England with the Restoration of King Charles II, he rebuilt his riding house. It is believed that the riding house at Welbeck Abbey was the first to be illuminated by gas, which was done during the Regency period. Another nobleman, William Compton, 1st Earl of Northampton, also built two riding houses, one at Castle Ashby and the other at Ludlow Castle. The Earl of Northampton had intended to establish an academy for horsemanship in his riding house at Ludlow Castle, though in the end, he was unable to achieve his goal.

Through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, several wealthy English gentlemen built their own riding houses on the grounds of their country estates, so that they could regularly practice and hone their skills in classical dressage. Raby Castle, Wolfeton House, and Petworth House are all known to have had riding houses as part of their stable complex. The riding house at Petworth was thought to be one of the largest and most elegant in the country. Though riding houses were usually constructed as part of the stable complex of a country estate, there was one great house in London which included a riding house on its grounds. This was Burlington House, which was situated near Piccadilly. When Lord George Cavendish purchased Burlington House and the surrounding grounds, in 1815, he also acquired the riding house. Not long after he completed the Burlington Arcade, in 1819, Lord George Cavendish converted the old riding house and stables on his London grounds into dwellings and built a smaller set of stables, without a riding house, elsewhere on the property.

Unlike the grand riding houses of Europe, the ridings houses of Britain tended to be large and spacious, but of a much plainer architectural style than was usually seen on the Continent. Some of the larger English riding houses did have galleries for visitors set above the riding floor. However, these viewing galleries were not installed for the use of the public. Rather, the owners of these private riding houses enjoyed giving demonstrations of classical dressage for friends and family on special occasions. Typically, the riding houses in Britain were built as part of a large complex which included ample stables for the horses, a coach house, tack and harness rooms, and often, a blacksmithing forge and farrier’s room as well. Some riding houses also incorporated space in the upper levels for living accommodations for grooms and other stable staff. However, the bulk of stable staff living accommodations tended to be in the upper floors of the stable itself. There is some suggestion that accommodations in the upper floor of a riding house were for the highest ranks and/or most important members of the stable staff.

Riding houses were nearly always rectangular in plan. Most were between 100 to 200 feet in length, by 50 to 75 feet in width. Regardless of their size, the design was executed in such a way as to reduce or even eliminate any columns which created an obstacle on the riding floor. Riding houses tended to be two, to even three, stories in height, often with at least the second storey open, save for the beams and trusses which supported the roof. Perhaps this was done to give an airy, open feel to the space, like the outdoor training rings which were used in southern Europe. It must be noted that, though most riding houses had quite a lot of large windows, those windows were usually set high in the walls, above the heads of the horses and their riders. This was done for two main reasons. One was to prevent the horses and riders from being dazzled by patches of bright sunlight streaming onto the riding floor. The other was to keep the horses, and perhaps their riders, focused on the training at hand, by eliminating any possibility of distraction from what might be happening outside the windows of the riding house. The riding floor of a riding house was typically covered with tan, peat, sawdust or moss, in order to provide a surface which would cushion the horses’ hooves and legs as they executed their complex dressage movements.

Though few British monarchs chose to build riding houses, the military did build several of them. Riding houses were a convenient venue in which to train cavalry officers and their mounts, out of the elements. For example, the Horse Grenadier Guards, who had barracks in the City of Westminster, in central London, built their own riding house on the property for use in training their mounted troops. The barracks and the riding house were both demolished after the Horse Grenadier Guards were disbanded, in 1788. However, the name of that training facility survives in the name of one of the streets which still runs through that area, Riding House Street. Other military regiments, usually those with cavalry troops, also build riding houses near their barracks and stables for use in training their troops. Some of those military riding houses survived into the early nineteenth century.

A riding house was built near the Newmarket race course, for the training of horses in inclement weather. It is not clear how many other race courses had riding houses for use in training horse in bad weather. Though they are no longer extant, it does appear that at least a few of the larger private studs also had riding houses as part of their stable complex. These riding houses could then be used for exercising or training these valuable horses when the weather outdoors was too cold or damp. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, many horsemen were of the opinion that horses should be trained and exercised out of doors, as that was the most healthy environment for them. That well may be another reason, in addition to the dwindling interest in classical dressage, that so few riding houses were built during the Regency.

One member of the British royal family, who would eventually become monarch in his own right, George, Prince of Wales, did build a few riding houses over the course of about three decades. The first appears to have been the riding house which was built on the grounds of his London home, Carlton House. The young prince was enamored of all things military, particularly the cavalry, when he first came into his majority. Therefore, it would have been only natural for him to have wanted his own riding house, where he could practice his riding skills and sponsor demonstrations of military riding. It is recorded that in November of 1803, during a visit of His Excellency, Elfi Bey, the Prince of Wales gave a grand entertainment for his guest. During the evening’s conversation, the Prince claimed that he had a Egyptian horse in his stud which could throw any man who tried to ride him. The Bey requested an opportunity to try the horse and an appointment was made for the following morning in the riding house on the grounds of Carlton House. The horse was brought in, snorting and fighting his handlers, his eyes full of fire. The Bey’s principal officer, Mahomet Aga, walked up to the horse and vaulted onto his back. The horse plunged and bucked with great ferocity. But nothing he did could dislodge the man on his back and within twenty minutes, Mahomet Aga had brought the horse fully under his control. There is no record of whether or not any wagers were laid on this demonstration of determined horsemanship.

The stable and riding house complex at Carlton House became commonly known as the Carlton Ride. Initially, the Prince rode there regularly and often hosted demonstrations of horsemanship there as well. As he got older, and put on more and more weight, the Regent did not spend as much time on horseback in Carlton Ride. Instead, it became a convenient place in which to store the furniture which had to be removed from Carlton House, or for the storage of temporary furniture and fixtures, whenever the Prince Regent was hosting a grand celebration at his London mansion. In 1826, prior to the demolition of Carlton House, the riding house on the grounds was used as a temporary furniture store, until the disposition of each piece could be decided. Even after Carlton House was demolished, the riding house remained on the grounds, converted for the storage of an overflow of public records. The structure was eventually demolished, in 1861. After the demolition, some of the materials were employed in the construction of stables on the grounds of Marlborough House, the first home of the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This Prince of Wales would become King Edward VII.

In about 1803, the Prince of Wales commissioned the construction of a grand stable block, including a large riding house, on the grounds of his property in Brighton. The Prince’s stable building, inspired by the Corn Market in Paris, was circular in plan, crowned with a vast central dome and could easily house more than sixty horses. The royal Riding House was built next to the stables and was rectangualr in shape, 165 feet in length by 54 feet in width. When it was finished, in 1808, the Riding House was furnished with a Royal Box, from which the Prince could view the classical dressage demonstrations which would be put on there for his pleasure. By the time he had become Regent, he occassionally invited guests there for classical dressage demonstrations. But he was more likely to use the Brighton riding house as he did the riding house in London, as a way to ride a horse in private, away from the public eye. Due to his increasing weight, he was no longer the graceful rider he had been in his youth. In addition, his often outrageous behaviour meant that many of his subjects were more likely to mock or jeer him than cheer him when he appeared in public. The Prince Regent eventually commissioned the design and construction of riding houses at both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. As he became more and more of a recluse, it seems he used each of his riding houses as a place to ride, or sometimes drive a carriage, in private, where he could not be seen or harrassed by members of the public.

A few of the more ornate European riding houses still survive. The most well-known is probably the famous Spanish Riding School, in Vienna, where the magnificent Lipizzan stallions perform classical dressage movements to this day. The great riding house in which they perform was constructed in 1729, and is a fine example of an eighteenth century European riding house. Though it is a bit too grand, architecturally, to serve as an example of an English riding house, it will give one some idea of what the inside of a riding house looked like during the Regency. There are other specialized riding schools across Europe where fine horses perform a wide range of classical dressage movements to the delight of the public.

Though there is no permanent riding school offering public performances of classical dressage in Britain, the Duke of Newcastle’s extant riding house at Bolsover Castle does offer occassional exhibitions of horsemanship. These exhibitions are based on the Duke of Newcastle’s own books on manège or classical dressage. Anyone who is interested in seeing a display of seventeenth-century classical horsemanship will enjoy the exhibitions at Bolsover Castle. More information, including a calendar of dates, can be found here.

Dear Regency Authors, might you set one or more of your scenes in an upcoming story of romance in an English riding house? Perhaps the hero is a talented and experience cavalry officer who is responsible for training young officers. Will he give those lessons in the riding house in the stable complex of his regiment’s barracks? Might the heroine visit and get a chance to see him at work, watching from the viewing gallery? Then again, might a young couple, fleeing angry parents as they are eloping, take shelter in an abandoned riding house on an apparently abandoned country estate. They can hide their team and carriage on the riding floor, and use the living accomodations on the upper floor for a much needed night’s rest. Is this estate as quiet as it appears, or will they encounter some adventure while they seek refuge in the riding house? Or, perhaps the heroine is keen on classical dressage and takes advantage of a riding house on a neighbor’s property to work with her prize horse. A friend of her father’s, the stable manager, has given her permission to use the riding house, since the family no longer uses it. But what will happen when the elderly owner passes away and the new heir comes to see the property, naturally, while the heroine is putting her horse through his paces in the riding house? How else might a riding house feature in a scene or two in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Of Riding Houses

  1. I am hoping to take photos on our trip to Brighton; I understand there was an underground passage from the pavilion to the riding dome.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Based on my research, the stables for the horses at Brighton was a circular building with a dome. The riding house, which was built nearby, was rectangular in shape. It will be interesting to know if the underground passage is just between the Pavilion and the stables, or if there is also an underground passage between the stable and the riding house.



  2. gordon759 says:

    I am pleased to say that the Riding House at Wolfeton Manor has recently been fully restored, and can be visited on special occasions.

  3. Fascinating article and food for thought on Riding Houses in our novels. Thank you. Sandra Masters

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure. I know when I was writing historical fiction, I was always seeking historically accurate places and objects to add some verisimilitude to the story. One of my favorite things when reading historical fiction was to learn about people, places, objects and customs from the past.

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment.



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