Cassie Mayer, horse owner, on her first edition of Philip Astley’s System of Equestrian Education.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

CM This is the 1801 first edition and my father sourced it. There’s an inscription from him in the front which is obviously important to me. Then it has these little crude drawings all the way through it of how you do various things on a horse. In a nutshell, it’s beautiful because it represents a collaboration I’ve had with my father and sister for over a decade. I work with horses and study horses and my father works on 19th-century popular drama. Hippodrama, or drama with horses, is one of the most important forms of 19th-century popular drama. 

My father is a quixotic and unusual man and although over 70,  he decided to try out the Mazeppa ride where an actress would lie across the back of a horse and gallop across the stage. He borrowed a horse from a local farmer and he just kept getting bucked off. I wrote to him and told him what I’d have done to desensitise the horse to the unusual position and harness and how I’d have chosen the right horse to do it with. That was when we decided to collaborate on an academic paper. My sister writes comedy and she came on board, so her understanding of drama meets my immediacy with horses and our father’s intellectually rigorous historical work. We presented two papers at New College Oxford, in 2016 and 2022. The last one was about Philip Astley, the author of this book, who is credited with having invented the circus. He and his wife were phenomenally skilled riders. Astley had an amphitheatre on the South Bank that’s mentioned by Dickens and Jane Austen. It was the most popular entertainment in London in its day. But a lot of his real money came from teaching people to ride. This book is his manual about how you train, look after and ride a horse.

GB Is this book for people who just want to ride or for teaching the theatre tricks too?

CM It’s for beginner riders. It was the height of aspiration. The middle classes are just discovering riding and Astley is telling people about riding with a real sense of kindness that you might not have expected at that time, with a real appreciation for the horse. If you change some of the language this is totally recognisable to someone who would read a ‘how to ride’ book today. Astley was a working-class boy, the son of a cabinet maker, but the family fell on hard times and he joined the army. Just by luck he was sent to train at Wilton House in Salisbury with the Earl of Pembroke and what we would now call a dressage instructor. So he learned to ride in a completely different way from most of the army. This is the late 18th Century and radicalism is on the rise but he was very conservative. This book has a lengthy dedication to various royals in the front of it. He was a great poster boy for the old values, in his splendid military coat on a beautiful white horse that he was presented with when he left the army. He was over six feet tall and had a huge booming voice. He looked incredibly noble. He also made a great deal of money from these books.

One of things he had to do was keep people coming back, so in a way he became like a news channel. Within two weeks of the fall of the Bastille he was presenting it with horses in his theatre. Astley’s dramatised many battles from the Seven Years War, many from his own eyewitness accounts while serving on the front line when he returned to the cavalry in his 50’s. . But he also had people singing rude songs and a monkey riding a horse. Whatever it took to entertain people, he would do it. His theatre in London burnt down twice and he would just go off on tour to keep things going. In the course of his military career he carried out many daring rescues thanks to the way he’d been taught to ride. He could weave in and out of the French ranks to steal a standard.

GB Does his heroism make the book more beautiful to you?

CM The beauty of the book is still more related to my dad than to Philip Astley. My dad has this remarkable ability to bring together disparate pieces of information and put them together to see things in a way that other people haven’t. He’s incredibly curious and has the most remarkable memory I’ve ever come across. I like to think that we can make these subjects accessible at quite dry academic occasions. 

GB Is the beauty partly intellectual and partly sentimental because of your family?

CM Yes, and I also love history. I love the parts where history almost disappears. I’m sitting here in 2023 and so much of the advice is the same in a contemporary book on how to ride. Astley was born in 1742 and I can relate to every word he’s written. And if you can understand the horses in the shows it really unlocks a lot of what the 18th-century audience would have seen. It’s amazing how much of the architecture of the time was shaped by horses. And one of the best ways to impress a future partner in 1801 was to ride around in a park looking good on a horse.

GB And Stubbs was painting those incredible horses at the time.

CM Stubbs is actually how we came across the fact that Astley trained at Wilton House. The Earl of Pembroke thought the teaching of riding in the army was terrible, so he hired Domenico Angelo, an Italian fencing and riding master  to come and teach his own recruits. Stubbs was friends with this man and a passing reference to Angeo training recruits set us wondering if Astley was one of them.   I discovered this when I bought a second-hand book on Stubbs. My father, Lise and I wrote a paper called Astley before Astley’s. 

GB Don’t you feel bad for the horses, having to go into battle?

CM Terrible. It’s one of the things I can’t bear to think about. But on the other hand, as the Seven Year War came to an end, Astley employed both the men as actors and their horses. 

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

CM For me, it has to be the emotional attachment. A beautiful object without an emotional attachment is lower down the scale. I also love the fact that this book is 220 years old. And we brought this man to life. For the brief moment we gave this paper I could hear his booming voice.

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