Cadre Noir in Saumur is one of the world’s most prestigious equestrian academies “of the French tradition”. With two centuries of teaching elevated to art form status, it was the first teaching in the world in 2011 to join UNESCO’s prestigious list of outstanding examples of intangible heritage.
While its name derives from the traditional, smart uniforms of its riders, with their iconic black jackets and gold braid, it is the horses that remain centre stage at Cadre Noir, while man’s intervention remains the lightest, most discreet touch possible. Inspired by “imitating nature”, the French national riding school is in fact the eternal pursuit of absolute understanding between man and horse, in order for the animal to acquire the natural grace in its movements and attitude similar to a life in the wild.
Founded in 1825 under the direction of Louis XVIII, the Cadre Noir was originally established as a military training academy for the cavalry. The most accomplished riders, or écuyers, from France’s Ancient Regime, whose troops had been decimated during the Napoleonic Wars, were called upon to ensure the exceptional skills associated with the French tradition of horse-riding would be handed down to forthcoming generations.
Cadre Noir has been a public academy since 1972, but has nevertheless maintained a strong military presence among its elite instructors.
Colonel Patrick Teisserenc, 37th écuyer-en-chef of the national riding school explains: “According to tradition, the French National Ministry of Defence assigns seven serving officers from military equestrian sport divisions or the Republican Guards, to join Saumur’s 43 instructors. They remain at the school throughout their post and are then replaced by another group of officers”.
The majority of écuyers come from civilian backgrounds and are recruited through a gruelling, highly selective process. Once selected, they can devote their entire career to the Cadre Noir.
Having already attained the level of instructor from the National riding school, they qualify as écuyer after three intense years of training. It is only at this point that they are able to teach classic equestrian skills and dressage and take part in gala performances.
The Cadre Noir houses horses of many different breeds; Selle Francais stallions are as common as Anglo Arab stallions or Thoroughbreds. The horses require between five to eight years’ daily training to perfectly master the required light, elegant and smooth movements. This form of dressage, which does not resort to stirrups or force of any kind, has remained unchanged since 1825.
Colonel Teisserenc, who has presided over the centre of excellence since 2014, talks about the ethics and guiding principles of the Cadre Noir. “Seeking the perfect relationship between horse and rider is key to the signature “haute-couture” Saumur style.
The spectacular “airs”, which are a series of movements performed at competitions and exhibitions where the horse leaves the ground, such as the courbette, groupade or cabriole, demand an exceptional understanding between man and beast, where elegance is of the utmost importance.”
Today, the riders at Cadre Noir also excel in international equestrian competitions at the highest level, including dressage, cross-country and endurance. Testimony to the fact that tradition and modernity, make a wonderful team.
Lieutenant-colonel Thibaut Vallette, écuyer at the Cadre Noir, won Olympic gold in the team event at Rio de Janeiro 2016. Q & A.
Could you briefly describe your career to date?
I trained at the military academy in Saint-Cyr, and then joined the cavalry in Gap. A passionate horseman, I left the regiment after three years to train to become a riding instructor. Posted to Saumur in 2009, I set my sights on the Cadre Noir, to be able to benefit from their excellent training and to improve my technique.
You are a horseman and soldier, which is not the case for all the riders at Cadre Noir. What difference does this make?
The training, dressage and the way the horses are presented is the same for everyone. Challenge, discipline and rigour are therefore the values common to all, irrespective of the rider’s background. Yet our history is essentially military. It can be modernised and updated, but must not be altered completely. The hierarchical system we have, which has remained the same since 1825, is testimony to this: we all act under the orders of the écuyer-en-chef, who is an army Colonel. The Cadre Noir should never be regarded as some kind of circus or American show; our style is strictly understated and elegant.
You are a high-achieving sportsman, Olympic gold medallist from the Cadre Noir academy. What in your view makes the French school so unique and special?
As graduates of the national riding academy of the French tradition, the majority of instructors at the Cadre Noir have benefited from a unique experience, handed down from generation to generation. The opportunity to improve on a technical and personal level is second to none. People choose this school for its excellent training, which leads in turn to excellent performance levels. This is what makes Saumur so unique. What also sets us apart is the way in which the écuyers live as a community and work as a team. This makes us the only school in the world to be able to enter teams of 8, 10, 12, and even 13 riders! These extremely technical elevated movements require perfect synchronisation and intense training as a team. We train together at the riding school, we practise, we help each other and we perform…