Originally founded in a grand riding hall built by the Sun King Louis XIV, the Palace of Versailles’ Academy of Equestrian Arts harks back to a time when riding wasn’t so much a sport or leisure activity as a highly revered form of art.
Photography TINE HARDEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
The magnificent Palace of Versailles in Paris provides the perfect setting for the unique riding school the Academy of Equestrian Arts. During the reign of Louis XIV, riding in France became a highly developed skill because of the Sun King’s efforts to raise equestrianism to the same level as the other performing arts popular in his court: Singing, dancing and playing music. This was made possible by a handful of riding masters whose legacy lives on in the Academy to this day.
Founded by the flamboyant horseman Bartabas in 2003, the modern-day Academy is situated in the Royal Stables of the Château de Versailles, and is based on Bartabas’ interpretation of Louis XIV’s ideas that to become an equestrian artist it is necessary to develop an aesthetic sensibility. This involves learning various other artistic disciplines such as dancing, singing, fencing and archery. In less than 10 years, the Academy has become an equestrian corps de ballet where the students train like professional dancers, singers or musicians. There are usually between 10 and 12 attending, most of them women.
“My dream was to create an exceptional troupe in which each performer could reveal their talent and surpass themselves in original and unusual artistic scenarios,” explains Bartabas, who has been riding and training horses since he was a teenager. He made a name for himself in France with his spectacular horse shows, and he produced and directed the equestrian film Mazeppa, which was shown at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Technical Grand Prize.
“But the Academy’s students will never achieve true perfection,” he says. “There is simply no such thing as a perfect rider. When you find the subtle balance between equestrian technique and artistic showmanship, you might become a great rider – but never a perfect rider. There is always more to be learned and perfected.”
Louis XIV loved the equestrian arts. He ordered two sets of stables to be built near the Palace of Versailles large enough to house the court’s 600 horses; he enjoyed watching dressage and would participate enthusiastically in carrousels, as the royal tournaments of the era were called. More than three centuries later, the historic stables of Versailles are still occupied: It’s where the Academy’s 45 horses live. The majority of these are baroque Lusitanians, but there are also a couple of Argentinian Criollos, a Portuguese Sorraia and some American Quarters. They have all been chosen for their ability to do classical dressage, and for their colouring: They are all a delicate shade of cream with beautiful blue eyes. “This colouring takes the light well when we do the shows,” says Bartabas, “and they were the favourite horses of Louis XIV, so it’s a way of connecting with history.”
But Bartabas is not interested in simply making an historical re-creation of the stables as they were in the time of the Sun King. “This is not a museum,” he says. “It is all about the spirit of the artistic work with the horses.” Indeed the look of the Academy is very contemporary: The riders’ costumes have been created by the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, the saddles are handmade by Hermès and the lights used during the shows and in the training hall are made by the French glassmaker Jean Lautrey using Murano glass from Venice.
Bartabas has persuaded several notable equestrian personalities to be ambassadors for his Academy, among them the Brazilian showjumping legend Nelson Pesoa. “Nelson agreed to be a godfather to the Academy at the beginning,” Bartabas explains, “and his support is more in terms of morale than in specific help.”
The Academy is funded by Regional Cultural Affairs Department for the Île de France region, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Yvelines’ departmental council, the Île de France council and the town of Versailles. So Bartabas is not the only one who thinks the Academy has a cultural and artistic importance – not only for France but for the global equestrian community. The French government has funded the Academy with $2.5 million to renovate the aged riding facilities among other things providing modern classrooms for the students as well as new boxes and facilities for the 45 horses. The French architect Patrick Bouchain has recreated facilities like the manège, or horse training arena, which occupies a large 17th-century hall. Bouchain has covered the walls with pine and mirrors, the sandy area is lit by 15 chandeliers, and there are bleachers with room for some 600 spectators.
“For me, riding is artistic,” says Bartabas. “It is an art, so you have to develop a feeling for it. When you ride a horse, you want the horse to be confident in you as you are confident in yourself. It´s as simple and difficult as that.”
In addition to the performance La Voie de l’écuyer which is staged every weekend at the Royal Stable at Palace Versailles, the Academy will present a show in this year’s European capital of culture, Maribor in Slovenia, from 12th to 14th June. The Academy also teamed up with Hermès in March for Hermès’ equestrian fashion show “Saut Hermès” at the Grand Palais in Paris. •
How to join the company: The Academy of Equestrian Arts recruits all year round through a process of auditions. Candidates must be 22 or over, have good Haute École dressage skills, and be willing to learn other artistic disciplines in order to participate in the Academy’s shows and progress within the company. To apply, please send a covering letter, CV and horse-riding video to: Manège de la Grande Écurie du Château de Versailles, Avenue Rockfeller, 78000 Versailles. For more information phone +33 (0)1 39 02 62 70