A horse looking across the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral in London from a multistorey stable in the 1920s
A horse looking across the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral in London from a multistorey stable in the 1920s © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

A horse hobbles into a bar. The barman asks: “Why the long face?” The horse replies: “Well, I’m fed up because they just don’t build stables like they used to. Architecturally, horses get a pretty rough deal. I mean, humans are converting and moving into the well-built, older stables. These days, we usually get perfunctory timber sheds. So that makes me quite sad.” And the barman goes back to drying glasses, conceding that his joke had proved lamer than the horse.

For the horse had a point. It was 100 years ago, during the first world war, that the age of magnificent stables slipped away like Pegasus into the night sky. For centuries, they had been among the grandest of buildings, often giving visitors their first impression of the greatest country houses and palaces. More people must have witnessed the grandeur of the stables of Versailles as their first experience of the royal seat of power than saw their own glazed expressions reflected in the royal Galerie des Glaces.

The culture of grand European stables had arisen in the 16th century, after centuries of impermanent timber and plaster stables which have all but vanished. Mantua is an Italian city renowned for its horsiness (its horse and donkey butchers even today savour the creatures). Almost five centuries ago, Mantuans gathered in the Cortile della Cavallerizza, designed for the display and sale of Italian stallions. The animals were more eccentrically celebrated in the Palazzo del Te, designed by the brilliantly inventive architect Giulio Romano in the 1520s for Federico II Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua. Here, fresco character portraits of “Glorioso, Battaglia, and Morel Favorito” and others among the duke’s lauded horses are painted as if they stand on a wall ledge halfway up the Salone dei Cavalli.

In England at this time, the royal coach house and its traffic at Whitehall Palace inspired the nation’s largest stables at the crossroads of London at Charing Cross. The great stables, garrets, barns and hay lofts cost £6,516, 12 shillings and sixpence to build in 1550-6. Within decades came the Hackney carriage, apparently from the French haquenée, an amiable breed of horse endowed with stamina, and thereby saddled with the job of lugging passengers over cobbles.

Riding school in Bois d’Arcy, France, built in 2009
Riding school in Bois d’Arcy, France, built in 2009 © Michel Denancé/B+C Architects

Even then, any decent domestic stabling went beyond the practical needs of a place in which to eat two tons of oats per year. A place was required to nurture stable relationships between owner and horse. In 1565 Thomas Blundeville wrote in The Fower Chiefyst Offices Belonging to Horsemanshippe that good stables were important because “the owner may have a delight to come always thither to see his horse. For according to the olde proverbe that horse is most commonlie fat which is fed with his own master’s eye”. Figuratively charming, literally disgusting.

The relationship between man and horse grew closer still with the advent of the haute école. This strenuously rehearsed balletic dressage was a Renaissance art form that emerged at the same time in Italy, especially Naples, and Vienna under the patronage of the Habsburg monarchy. (The famous Winter Riding School dates from 1729 but had its origins in the 1560s.)

18th-century stable block at Chatsworth House
18th-century stable block at Chatsworth House © Jorge Tutor/Alamy

An indoor arena for equine gymnastics was no horseplay – it transformed the idea of how to represent beautiful, expensive assets of chivalric pursuit. A mark of horse couture was the elegant command of a fine specimen, a show of bravura at the tilt, and the wealth to accommodate such grand beasts in suitable style. So the assumption developed that buildings for horses should be built in the permanent, monumental stuff of brick and stone. The early 17th-century indoor arena was the apogee of this culture. At Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, England, the 17th-century Riding House is every bit as architecturally accomplished as the neo-medieval castle. The movement of horses left its mark when great houses built sweeping drives so that a coach and four could deliver its occupants in comfort and grace. At estates like Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire, ostlers would retire to their lodgings in stables almost as fine as the house, if a tad more pungent.

Yet time outpaces us all, horses included, and by the end of the 18th century a new fashion had emerged – the thoroughbred for racing and hunting. Not everyone was happy about thundering over hedges and fields in pursuit of a wretched fox. Hugo Maynell, dog breeder and Master of the Hounds for the Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire from 1753-1800, spluttered that he had “not had a day’s happiness since the splittercokation pace” had become vogue.

Winter Riding School, Vienna
Winter Riding School, Vienna © Corbis

Horses grew happier as animal welfare caught up with them. Stables gained windows, drainage and air flow, while stalls were traded up to loose boxes 10ft square to give the animals an area for free movement. William Taplin wrote in 1791 on “the present improved state of gentlemen’s stables in every part of the kingdom, where the mode of management is approaching too near a degree of perfection to admit to the aid of instruction”. It seems painful to admit that two years earlier, Olaudah Equiano described packed human slave ships in stark contrast: “The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died.”

The comforts of horses then could be esteemed above that of men, women and children. But a century later, after some of the most beautiful of all stables had been built, the combustion engine was invented: people took to roads and nags could be transported to the glue factory in trucks even as the roses grew thin from lack of manure. And, of course, the house owner needed just a small garage for his trusty charabanc.

Fresco in Palazzo del Te, Mantua
Fresco in Palazzo del Te, Mantua © Corbis

The world had changed, and the 20th century was left with a legacy of monumental stable blocks to service hunting, racing and an ancient Persian pursuit gleaned from the British Empire: polo. Yet what happened to the evolution of equine architecture – what is the cultural environment of polo playing beyond a flat field?

The great majority of today’s equine architecture is not really architecture at all, but structures without aesthetic pretension or permanence. Companies like Equibuild offer wooden palisades around gritted riding surfaces, and framed stabling. They are perfectly functional sheds, but in a couple of centuries their remains will probably be as substantial as the medieval timber and plaster stabling swept away by the era of monumental equine architecture. These grand stable courtyards are now being converted to offer people open-plan, apartment living of a vanishingly rare quality.

The barman checks his watch: “It’s closing time – haven’t you decent homes to go to?”

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

Photographs: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy; Michel Denancé/B+C Architects; Jorge Tutor/Alamy; Corbis

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