Classical Horsemanship and the Dangers of the Emergent Intangible Cultural Heritage Authorised Discourse

Writer : Sarah Sargent
Year : 2016


Tensions remain as to the place that heritage elements with elite European origins should have in intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) makes a definitive break from understandings about heritage as material, monumental and European. The creation of an ICH regime was meant to counteract bias against non-European elements then occurring in recognition of tangible heritage elements. But whether heritage elements with elite European origins should be accepted as intangible heritage, and on what terms, remains unsettled. Additionally, whether a discourse has emerged that is separate from that of tangible heritage has been the source of a great deal of debate and examination. This article considers the nominations of France and Austria to inscribe their respective heritage elements of classical horsemanship. Classical horsemanship has elite European origins. Through this discussion, there is an examination of the extent to which ICH has established its own counter-narrative, and what the implications of such a narrative will be for heritage generally. This article argues that exclusion of elements from ICH inscription on the basis of elite European origins should not be regarded as a positive development. Instead, this would simply repeat the mistakes of bias, rather than allowing for an evaluation of the heritage element in its own right.

A horse is a thing of beauty... none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendour. (Xenophon)

There comes a time when international instruments face a moment of reckoning - some number of years after their coming into force. An evaluation is made of what the instrument has accomplished, where it has fallen short, what achievements can be lauded and what ground is yet to be covered. So it is for the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This Convention, by providing recognition for intangible cultural heritage (ICH) by a variety of means, including inscription on a Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Representative List), was meant to change the contours of what was recognised in the international community as ‘heritage’. Growing from a listing of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage, the idea of recognising ICH with its own Convention gained momentum. The Convention, it was hoped, would provide a counter-narrative to that of material heritage, what Laurajane Smith has called ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’ (AHD).

And it would appear that it has done so, but with consequences that may not have been anticipated, and whose merit is contested. Jacobs, writing in 2014 retrospectively about the first 10 years of the Convention, notes the nascent emergence of this discourse by describing the existence of ‘implicit criteria’ at work in the selection of heritage elements to be inscribed on the Representative List. While commenting on the surprising difficulty for some proposed heritage elements of meeting the five criteria in the Operational Directives adopted by the UNESCO General Assembly, he nevertheless approves of the way in which application of these exclude elements that have elite European origins. The exclusion of elements with perceived elite European origins is the result, Jacobs argues, of these ‘implicit criteria’ embedded in the decision-making of what elements should be inscribed as ‘Representative Heritage’.

That the implicit criteria should have the capacity to exclude heritage elements of elite European origin is not surprising if these are seen as more than that, and instead are seen as constituting a newly emergent authorised intangible cultural heritage discourse; and if the strength of that heritage discourse is also considered.

What to think of such an exclusion is another consideration. Jacobs believes it is important to exclude elements with (at least perceived) elite European origins to preserve the sanctity of the ICH regime. His view is that this somehow protects ICH from the invasion of what has tainted material heritage - forms of elitism with a European origin. In fact, Jacobs praises the ‘implicit criteria’ he has identified for raising the bar for inscription of these elements to nearly impossible heights.

This article challenges the view that this exclusion is either necessary to preserve the sanctity of ICH or a praiseworthy component of the way in which the Convention is interpreted and applied. Rather, to deny recognition of such heritage elements does damage to the ICH regime. Such strict and arbitrary boundaries simply repeat the mistakes that the strict AHD (Authorised Heritage Discourse) made with respect to material heritage. Functioning in this way does not break any new ground. Worse, the exclusion of heritage elements on this basis forecloses the consideration of much that is in fact legitimately heritage. In so doing, it unnecessarily limits what is seen as ICH. What was meant to be an antidote to rigid and arbitrary views of heritage has simply ended up repeating the mistakes of its predecessors. The lines have simply been drawn in a different place.

ICH was established as a counterpoint to purely material-and often heavily Euro-centric-heritage. It was meant to open up the possibilities of recognising heritage outside that circumscribed boundary-and it has done so. But in doing so, it has gone too far, setting up its own set of exclusions and boundaries that mean that deserving elements of heritage are denied inscription because of a backlash against Euro-centric heritage.

Smith notes that the Convention has had little influence on the way in which AHD has delineated the boundaries of what is accepted as heritage at the international level. This is accurate, in that the newly-emergent authorised discourse for intangible heritage is rife with politics and bias towards the origin of the heritage element. There is also no change in the way in which heritage [is] entangled with discourses of nationhood, citizenship and nationalism. What stands apart in the new intangible heritage discourse is a bias against, rather than in favour, of heritage with European origins. The emergent authorised discourse of intangible heritage does not so much challenge AHD as sit alongside it in a complementary fashion. Both operate to exclude heritage on the basis of origin, with each strongly influenced by politics.

This article proceeds as follows. Firstly, it provides a discussion on the nature and origins of classical horsemanship, and provides a discussion on other horse cultures, pointing out similarities and differences that help distinguish distinct communities of horsemanship. The second section discusses the idea of heritage as discourse, examining the Authorised Heritage Discourse as set out by Laurajane Smith. The third section then provides a discourse analysis of the nominations and responses to the nominations of France and Austria to inscribe their respective elements of classical horsemanship on the Representative List. This examination demonstrates the growth of an authorised ICH discourse - one that has developed far beyond the set of tentative implicit criteria suggested by Jacobs. Finally, some concluding thoughts are offered that point out the dangers attendant on this newly emerged authorised intangible heritage discourse.

Classical horsemanship as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Exactly what is meant by ‘classical horsemanship’? It is perhaps a not altogether satisfactory label that has been given to a philosophy and method of training and working with horses that developed in the early modern period, but can trace its roots back to the writings of a Greek general, Xenophon, about 400BC some two thousand years before his writings were rediscovered in the Renaissance period.

Classical horsemanship is perhaps better known to heritage experts, consumers and scholars through the artwork of the Renaissance and early modern period. Horsemanship featured strongly as a factor in the nascent development of national identity, as symbolic of a nation’s character and strength, and it also had strong symbolism about the relationship of government, aristocracy and citizenship. It both influenced, and was influenced by the Renaissance and revival of old knowledge, humanistic approaches to learning and the rise of national identity.

The dawn of ‘classical horsemanship

There was a time when this style of horse riding and training was not classical - but new and innovative. What is now referred to as ‘classical horsemanship’ arose in the early modern period, partly as a result of changes in the way that warfare in Europe was conducted, and also linked to the rise of the nation-state and national identity. In the medieval period, warfare on horseback was conducted largely without gunpowder. Gunpowder gradually became a more prominent feature in warfare, largely changing the patterns of fighting. Prior to the advent of the widespread use of gunpowder, heavily armoured men on equally heavily armoured horses would fight using swords and lances. But the need for these sorts of skills became obsolete when military fighting patterns changed. The Renaissance period also saw a rediscovery of many ancient texts and learning. Among these was the philosophy of horsemanship in Greek antiquity, of a general by the name of Xenophon. Xenophon promoted an approach that exemplified a partnership and cooperation between horse and rider, rather than the use of brute force and compulsion. The re-awakened interest in classical learning had profound effects on horsemanship, and in turn, those changes in horsemanship would have profound effects on the changing and developing European culture - a shift from medieval governance to a sense of nation and a concept of national identity.

What is now called classical horsemanship emerged along with early modern culture - and was spread by an interest in new learning, written treatises, the symbolism of the horse as reflecting nobility and status, and the ability to skilfully ride a spirited horse was seen as reflecting the rider’s abilities to govern and regulate people. The ability to ride a horse well in the intricate movements of the new horsemanship was a necessary part of a gentleman’s education. This represented a transformation of the horse from its purely utilitarian use in military warfare. Horsemanship became an art, a performance, and indeed, scripted balletic performances were given. Elements of this survive in today’s classical horsemanship.

One of the most influential treatises on the new modes of horsemanship was that of Federico Grisone, with his book, The Rules of Riding. Grisone, with the publication and distribution of this treatise, established himself as the father of academic equitation.

The importance and significance of not only Grisone’s knowledge, but its presentation in the form of a written treatise, is a critical component of classical horsemanship:

One has to keep in mind that Grisone lived in a transitional world that was just awaking to the ideas of the Renaissance. He was not the only horse trainer of his time and he does acknowledge his teachers and contemporaries. Grisone learned from his predecessors who thought in the oral tradition; however, the practice of putting the ideas of training horses to paper was not well developed at the time.

The flavour of what Grisone urged in the approach to horse riding is apparent in a translated version of his treatise. For instance, he says:

You must ride and sit upon the horse, not only with great heart without fearing him, but also envisioning that you and he are one as the same body, feelings, and will. He also opines that the horse being an animal so gentle and a friend of man - if now, by means of these rules, one can demonstrate the horse is endowed with valour and obedience as well, and therefore is worthy of no detraction.

These views form the basis of classical horsemanship and its approach to the relationship between the horse and rider. It is this that underlies the heritage that is now embodied in the classical horsemanship that comprised the French and Austrian nominations. [Plate 1]

The new learning about horsemanship also had a vital role to play in the newly emerging idea of national identity. Major comments that horsemanship helped to create a sense of group identity and superiority and that the new books being written on horsemanship reinforced expressions of burgeoning national identity in the seventeenth century, and provided a means of affirming cultural differentiation among states. That is, not only the art of the new horsemanship itself, but its communication through the development of written instructive treatises, played a critical role in shaping the changing European society with its evolving concepts of national identity and the development of the state.

All of this is part of the rich offerings of classical horsemanship today. But none of this was to stand classical horsemanship in good stead in the efforts of France and Austria to inscribe it on the Representative List.

Comparisons between horsemanship cultures

Given the tension that exists in recognising European forms of intangible heritage, the question naturally arises as to what differences might exist between European forms of horsemanship and those of non-European indigenous communities? What is it that distinguishes one kind of horsemanship culture and heritage from another? As a starting point, it is useful to consider what is meant by the term ‘horsemanship’. It should be clarified here that the term ‘classical horsemanship’ refers to a distinctive set of practices and traditions in training, riding and caring for horses. Classical horsemanship has been described as art for art’s sake, to practise a very difficult, and for its practitioners, satisfying form of equitation.

Horsemanship is an all-encompassing term that refers, generally, to the way in which horses are bred and trained for a particular purpose, how the horse is fed and maintained, and the way in which a rider learns about training, maintaining and riding horses. There are very many different forms of horsemanship across the world, and these cannot all be covered within this article. There are differences in the selection of horses for breeding for particular traits, depending on the way the horse is to be used, in the training given to the horse, again dependent upon the planned usage, and in the position and equipment used by the rider.

Informative comparisons can be drawn between different horse cultures. These comparisons point out some similarities, but also the differences that make the horse culture of a particular community one that is a unique heritage. It would be misleading to suggest, however, that the horse cultures that developed among indigenous communities in the New World were uniform and without distinctions between them. Nevertheless, there are similarities that can be noted, that have to do with the medieval Spanish origins of indigenous horse culture. With respect to indigenous horse cultures, Mitchell notes that: At least in the Americas many such features reflect a common inheritance - of horses and horse riding - from sixteenth century Spanish conquistadores.

It was not only indigenous horse cultures that developed with medieval Spanish influences. Another horse culture was developing parallel in time and place to indigenous horse cultures in the New World: that which has popularly become associated with the American cowboy. But even though indigenous and cowboy horse cultures might have common origins in time and place, differences abound. These differences can mark the boundaries of different horse cultures. For instance, even within what might from the outside be loosely termed ‘cowboy’ culture, there are significant differences. The heavy influence of Spanish culture remains in the tradition of the California vaquero, while a mixture of non-Spanish influences tempered that of the Spanish, resulting in the style popularly associated with the cowboy. This difference is felt keenly even today, and the identification of one style or another is greatly involved with personal and regional identity:

Cowboy styles reflect origins in Texas, the southeast, and Mexico, while buckaroos have adopted, quite remarkably intact, techniques from Spanish and Mexican California. Ranch hands are themselves well aware of these differences, and take pride in holding to a regional tradition - reinforcing it by their selfconsciousness.

There are similarities in the way in which both indigenous groups and Renaissance Europe used the horse in art. The horse in indigenous society became a subject central to Indian expressive culture, whether in the form of objects, or words or music. These continue, with the horse featuring in contemporary American Indian poetry. Present day cowboys, too, have developed a tradition of poetry that includes horses in its subject matter.

Indigenous horse cultures faced pressures for survival that were not shared by cowboys or buckaroos. Indigenous communities were confined to reservations, and in many instances, their horses were taken away in great numbers and destroyed. This was not sufficient, however, to eradicate the importance of the horse. Viola remarks on the importance that is still placed on the horse in contemporary indigenous culture:

… the government could never fully erase their love of horses, and to this day, many of these tribes still consider horses a fundamental part of their culture. To them, a horse will always symbolise freedom, bravery, and generosity. Indeed, as in days past, when a young man would give away a horse he had captured at the risk of his life, many Indians still give them away to friends and loved ones.

This comment highlights another important aspect of horse culture, and that is the way in which the horse is a way to connect the present to the past, carrying on important traditions and customs. One way in which this connection is made is in an inter-generational transfer of knowledge, which is further discussed below.

Some contemporary indigenous communities also notably make use of the horse in working with their youth, to nurture not only practical skills of horsemanship but a sense of belonging and well-being.;

The transmission of knowledge and the community of horse cultures

Knowledge about horsemanship is something that is generally learned from a more experienced person. This is one of the defining boundaries of a particular horse culture - who has knowledge, who transmits it and to whom it is transmitted. Both the French and Austrian schools of classical horsemanship have a highly defined process by which this knowledge is passed down. It would be misleading to think that contemporary knowledge about classical horsemanship is largely derived from the reading of treatises. Instead, this knowledge is passed on orally, from one generation of horse-person to the next.

The Spanish Riding School describes this oral transmission of knowledge as ‘mentoring’. This relationship at the Spanish Riding School is explained:

A cadet’s early years are spent learning proper horse care, maintenance and the correct handling and use of equipment. Experienced riders pass on knowledge to cadets through mentoring. [Plate 2]

The importance of this manner of knowledge transmission about horses within the practices of the Spanish Riding School is highlighted by community members in their comments in support of the inscription:

This important knowledge guides us riders and is passed on from one generation to the next. For me the term ‘classical’ means recognising the tried-and-trusted [system], maintaining and utilising it over and over again and passing it on. (Andreas Hausberger, Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna)


The riders of the Spanish Riding School cherish and practise the High School of Classical Horsemanship in its purest form. This expertise is passed on orally from one generation to the next and ensures that the historical training of horses is continued. (Florian Zimmermann, Assistant Rider of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna)

The nomination of France for the inscription of its classical horsemanship also reflects the inter-generational transfer of knowledge as a key practice of its heritage: [Plate 3]

Aware that they are practising much more than a mere ‘technique of animal training’, the riding masters always seek (individually or through a school) to transmit their knowledge to the next generation. It is not only a duty but a necessity to gain a better understanding and express in words the fleeting and subtle feelings experienced during horse riding. By conceptualising their riding experiences, they transmit them and ensure they subsist.

From these comments it is apparent that intergenerational transfer of knowledge is a critically important part of the classical horsemanship heritage of both France and Austria.

Heritage as discourse

By now it is a well-rehearsed recital that the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was meant to change the face of heritage safeguarding - to open the doors to the recognition of non-material heritage, thus altering the view of heritage as solely European and monumental to include elements that are folkloric and performative.

This move was a direct challenge to what Laurajane Smith has identified as ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’ that privileges Euro-centric, Western, material views of heritage. It should be noted that the AHD was first written about by Smith at a time when the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage had not yet come into effect. Thus her focus was on the material cultural milieu that had predominated up until that point in time.

Smith offers a succinct explanation for the different facets and functions of heritage, that it is a culturally directed process of intense emotional power, that is both a personal and social act of making sense of, and understanding, the past and the present.

AHD examines heritage as ‘discourse’, as presenting a powerful narrative that categorises some things as acceptable as ‘heritage’ and others as not. Smith explains the insight that can come from discourse analysis. She states critical discourse analysis is not simply an analysis of discourse but also an analysis of the social and political context of that discourse and an analysis of the social effects that a discourse has. Critical discourse analysis is a constructivist concept, in that it views discourse as both reflective of and constitutive of social practices. AHD forms a sort of meta-narrative that permeates and controls heritage at local, state and international levels. This is because heritage is inseparably linked to other processes that matter to the state, such as the creation and control of collective and national identities.

Heritage is seen as a potent political tool, one that can advance the interests and identity of states. The way in which heritage is presented can also create ‘an Other’ - those groups which may be ‘marginal[ised] and exclude[ed]’ from the ‘collective self-identity’ present in the heritage discourse. This view of heritage suggests it is part of the creation, sometimes deliberately, of collective self-identity. The result of this can be to silence some aspects of heritage, leaving some groups feeling left out of the identity that is created. So it is clear that there are significant links between heritage and memory. Understanding heritage as discourse is not only about a consideration of what heritage is seen as legitimate by a dominant discourse that determines what heritage is authorised. The discourse around the element itself is important.

A discourse analysis of classical horsemanship can also, then, consider the strong symbolism of a person riding a spirited horse - symbolism that originated in early modern Europe. This discourse strongly communicates the idea of the horse as dividing classes, of the superiority and power of those who had mastered riding a horse. One scholar explains this discourse: In symbolic discourse, the concept of transcendence has consistently been associated with the uplifting surge of power over oneself and others, identified with mounting and riding a horse.

So potent was this physical imagery in expressing ideas of elite class distinction and supremacy that the newly formed United States chose to distance itself from overt displays of governance by an aristocratic class, and in this way, to distinguish itself from imperial Europe. Nostalgia as a reaction linked to heritage is a ‘safe’ feeling, as Smith notes, pointing out the strong emotional content that heritage can have. Some heritage can create emotions that are more disturbing, stirring up present day concerns and uneasiness about events and symbols of the past. Classical horsemanship seems an unlikely candidate for heritage which might create negative emotions - but the spectre of imperialist Europe does indeed seem to be something which might be at the root of the adverse reactions to the classical horsemanship nominations.

Nominations to inscribe classical horsemanship on the Representative List

This section discusses the nominations submitted by France and Austria to have equitation-based elements of heritage inscribed on the Representative List and provides a brief discourse analysis of their respective nominations and the responses and decisions made about them.

Representative heritage must meet the general definition of intangible heritage, as found in Article 2 of the Convention as well as meet five additional criteria that are set out through Operational Directives. A nomination is first considered by a subsidiary body, which then makes a recommendation to the full committee as to whether or not a nomination should be approved for inscription. The full committee renders its own, and final, decision, on whether an element of heritage will be inscribed on the Representative List.

Five criteria must be satisfied for approval of inscription on the Representative List, and which form the basis of discussion on the nominations of France and Austria. It is also within these that Jacobs argues that ‘implicit criteria’ are present that make it difficult to satisfy them, belying their seemingly straightforward appearance. It is through the application of these that the emerging discourse on intangible cultural heritage becomes visible - and that the discourse has strengthened its stance against elements with perceived elite European origins in the time from the 2011 French nomination to the 2013 Austrian nomination.

2011 nomination by France: ‘Equitation in the French Tradition’

In 2011, ‘Equitation in the French Tradition’ was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. But its placement there was far from a straightforward and non-controversial decision. As shown by the debates in the subsidiary committee’s draft decision and the comments of the Committee on the nomination, there was a great deal of apprehension and even misunderstanding about equitation as an example of intangible cultural heritage, rather than just as a sport, and perhaps an elite sport at that. In keeping with the observations about resistance to forms of heritage that have European elite facets, the resistance to the French nomination should not have come as a surprise. [Plate 4]

Despite the prominence of Austria’s Spanish Riding School within the world of classical horsemanship, it was the French tradition that was first put up for consideration to be inscribed on the Representative List. The school of French classical horsemanship is the famed Cadre Noir, which is housed in the town of Saumur - which name has become synonymous with this school of French classical horsemanship. The Cadre Noir has a long and illustrious history, with links to imperial France, serving as the body which provided instructors to the French cavalry. In this way it differs from the Spanish Riding School which has no direct military past. Despite the changes to the use of mechanised rather than horse warfare, the Cadre Noir has survived into the modern era, keeping intact its traditions and ties to its military and classical horsemanship past. Performances and keeping up the tradition of the French school of classical horsemanship are vital functions of the Cadre Noir:

What has remained in its original form are the collective displays of the Cadre Noir. While instruction of the basic equestrian skills constituted one part of the Cadre’s task, upholding by practical example the French doctrine of equitation has been of equal importance. This has been done in two ways: the Cadre Noir has given group displays and the riders have participated individually in all kinds of equestrian events. [Plate 5]

The nomination made by France was first reviewed by the subsidiary committee that makes recommendations on whether the nomination should be approved for inscription. Notably, the subsidiary committee was not able to reach any kind of consensus on the nomination on French equitation. It could neither reach a position to recommend inscription nor could it reach a position not to recommend inscription. There was agreement that the nomination met the criteria R2, R4 and R5, but no agreement was reached on R1 and R3.

The inability to reach a consensus on these two criteria might be seen as Jacob’s claims of ‘implicit criteria’ at work. Or, it might be seen as the operation of the then-developing authorised ICH discourse, struggling to articulate the basis on which elements with elite European origins could be kept out through the application of the five criteria. Following the nomination submitted by France, the emerging authorised ICH discourse gained clarity on its position over the criteria and its resistance to the inscription of elite European culture. By the time that the Austrian nomination was examined two years later, there was little equivocation as to whether it met the requirements to be inscribed on the Representative List. The difference in only two years is striking - and suggestive therefore of a discourse that was still being developed in 2011, but had a much stronger and more defined narrative as rapidly as 2013.

R1 is a very essential criterion - that the element proposed in fact meets the definition of ‘intangible cultural heritage’. The subsidiary committee decision notes that more information was needed as to the contemporary social functions for its community and on its transmission methods of the French nomination. These same concerns were echoed in the 2013 rejection of the Austria nomination.

The subsidiary committee’s decision with respect to R3 (safeguarding) points out its scepticism that equitation was cultural heritage and surmises that it was in fact a sport: Further information is needed to demonstrate that the main objective of the proposed measures is safeguarding intangible cultural heritage as prescribed by the Convention rather than diffusing the sport of French equitation.

This comment from the subsidiary committee points out the difficulty in demonstrating that equitation-related activities are more than sport - and the need to link the element to not only its past history but to its present day functions. It is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the links of equine activity to broader aspects of cultural heritage. The subsidiary committee recommended that the nomination be returned to France, and that France should resubmit the nomination with the requested information. Nevertheless, the nomination proceeded to be considered by the full Committee, with the notation that the subsidiary committee was unable to produce a recommendation on the inscription of French equitation one way or the other. The failure of the subsidiary committee to reach any kind of recommendation is in itself notable, given that with respect to every other application but one that it considered, it was able to provide either a favourable or an unfavourable recommendation, or that the applying state withdrew its nomination.

The position of the subsidiary committee is summarised:

Those members saw the efforts as promoting and diffusing an elite sport rather than the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, and worried that this nomination might open the door to many other forms of professional sports. Despite lengthy debate, the Body was unable to reach consensus and therefore decided to offer this split opinion to the Committee.

France made an effort to counter the allegation that what it had proposed was only a sport and therefore not appropriate for inscription. Its response emphasised the philosophy that is an integral part of classical horsemanship:

The delegation of France remarked that ‘equitation’ in French had a different meaning than in English, and could not be translated as ‘horse-riding’, adding that the riding school was not a sports club; sport was only one minor aspect. With regard to R.3, the nomination did not seek to promote a French sport, but rather the values that underpinned a respect for horses, as well as aesthetic values and skills promoted by the community.

A comment from the full committee points out the disparity with the way in which the French nomination was being judged in comparison to other nominations. Just why it was seen as failing to fulfil criterion R1, and why an elite origin should serve to disqualify it were raised:

With regard to R.1, the delegation of Japan wondered why some of the Body’s members had requested more information on the larger social function in this case and not in other files where it was similarly underplayed. Additionally, the characterisation of the element as an ‘elite sport’ in R.3 brought consternation from some Committee members, not least because some elements around the world had an aristocratic background and should not be excluded on that basis.

Within this paragraph, the influence of an emerging ICH discourse is evident. Firstly, the differential way in which this nomination was being considered was pointed out by Japan - of questioning the relevance of classical horsemanship as heritage and its present day functions when such objections had not been uniformly raised in other nominations which likewise might not have fully explained the social function of a heritage element. Secondly, the way in which the nomination was singled out for criticism of being ‘elite’ shows the ICH discourse at work. Perhaps not yet fully accepted, as shown by the comment above offered by Japan, nevertheless, its potency at working to exclude an element of heritage which does not fit its parameters is clear.

The chairperson of the subsidiary committee continued to raise objections to the approval of this nomination during the discussion at the full committee. Nevertheless, the full committee, after discussion, voted to approve the inscription of equitation in the French tradition onto the Representative List. Jacobs sums up the result by saying that Diplomatic power play and eloquence were necessary to help the Intergovernmental Committee overcome their reservations and inscribe it on the list. That is, it was possible to override the ICH discourse through a considerable use of politics and persuasion. The French element of classical horsemanship was ultimately approved to be inscribed on the Representative List. This may have seemed like a triumph for classical horsemanship - that its place within ICH had now been cemented. However, the opposite was true, as shown by the reception of the Austrian nomination. Having allowed the French element into the ICH Representative List, the ICH regime and its discourse were bolstered against another such nominationdetermined perhaps to ensure that the French element of classical horsemanship would be the only one to make it to inscription on the List.

2013 nomination by Austria: ‘Classical Horsemanship and the High School of the Spanish Riding School’

While equitation in the French style is remarkable for riding in a way that encourages lightness and eagerness in the horse, the Spanish Riding School, although coming from the same classical horsemanship tradition, has its own distinct attributes. It is famous for the white Lipizzaner stallions who still perform the airs above the ground. The Spanish Riding School was created as a non-military riding school, emphasising the partnership between horse and rider that permits the execution of such intricate manoeuvres. This is explained in the nomination of the Spanish Riding School for inscription on the Representative List, highlighting the origins in the works of Xenophon:

Classical Horsemanship is the traditional art and practice of breeding, keeping, training and riding Lipizzaner horses. It has been practised at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna for more than 400 years. Classical Horsemanship at the Spanish Riding School is based on kindness and reward between human being and horse. It evolved in ancient Greece by the general and philosopher Xenophon and has been culturally widespread to other countries.

The nomination explains why this is ICH and not just a sport with a very long history:

Daily work and life of the practitioners of the Spanish Riding School is marked by various social practices and culturally-shaped rituals and ceremonies. Nowadays the Spanish Riding School Vienna tends not only to cultivate the baroque Lipizzaner horse but as well safeguards the practice of a living cultural tradition. [Plate 6]

This commentary in the nomination was perhaps in anticipation of the problems that France had experienced with criterion R3, and an attempt to ward off objections.

But despite the veneration of the Spanish Riding School in equestrian circles, the nomination was to be turned down. Perhaps this should have been expected, following the difficulty with which the French nomination was met. Jacobs is of the opinion that the 2013 nomination that was lodged set itself up for failure by repeatedly calling attention to its elite European origins:

Austria seemed to do its best to test all the unwritten boundaries and limits and to present it as an elite, even imperial court tradition that was still valued in the highest circles.

The 2013 nomination was denied on the basis that the Spanish Riding School did not fit two of the 5 criteria needed for approval to be inscribed on the Representative List. The Committee commented that:

… the nomination does not satisfy the following criteria for inscription on the Representative List:

R.1: Although classical horsemanship and the Spanish Riding School Vienna have long histories, the nomination does not adequately explain the nature or scope of the element nor does it describe its social functions or cultural meanings;

R.2: Given that the nature and scope of the element are not clearly defined, its inscription on the Representative List would not contribute to enhancing the visibility of intangible cultural heritage; moreover, the nomination does not clearly explain how it would contribute to encouraging dialogue among communities and promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

Just as the French nomination met with difficulty in satisfying the R1 criterion, here too, the Spanish Riding School nomination ran into the question of whether classical horsemanship is really ‘heritage’.

Both the nominations of France and Austria faced challenges on criterion R1. R1 requires that the element proposed for inscription meets the definition of intangible cultural heritage in Article 2 of the Convention. The definition put forward in Article 2 is far from straightforward, comprising several parts. Firstly it is defined as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills - as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith - that communities and groups and, in some cases, individuals, recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

The second part of the definition - speaking to a constant recreation of cultural heritage through transgenerational transmission - suggests that cultural heritage elements should not be thought of in terms of their past, but in terms of their present construction. This seems particularly apt when thinking about classical horsemanship. It is true that it has origins in an elite section of early modern European society - but it is also true that society has changed beyond recognition, and what survives as classical horsemanship now occupies a new place in a social order radically changed from early modern Europe. To deny that classical horsemanship is ICH on the basis of its origins is to disregard this important aspect of the Article 2 definition - that the transmission of the element across generations to the present day is an inherently important part of what is ICH.

The reaction to the Austrian nomination for its classical horsemanship as exemplified by the Spanish Riding School might suggest that the discourse has strengthened since 2011, that having let one such element in the door it was unlikely to be receptive to another. This is the opposite of the reaction that would be expected, if one was not familiar with the development of the ICH discourse and the way in which heritage discourse works. Austria might have thought that France had paved the way towards an acceptance of not only classical horsemanship, but of cultural elements that have elite European origins, even if not elite in the present day, as ICH.

But this is not so. Its nomination for inscription was denied on the basis that it did not fit two of the five ICH criteria. There is a remark about the ‘long histories’ of the Spanish Riding School and classical horsemanship in Austria, but that there is a failure in the nomination relating to its social functions or cultural meanings. In analysing this response, the reference to the long history of this classical horsemanship element speaks volumes. The fact of its European elite origin cannot be forgotten. The nomination is chastened, its history is to be held against it, its relevance in the present day not established. The fact of this history is the reason, according to the ICH discourse, why it cannot be accepted for inscription. Having failed once, in permitting French equitation in the door, the discourse has hardened its position about European elite cultural heritage. The French approval-rather than opening the door for more elements of classical horsemanship to be inscribed - apparently, at least for a time, had the opposite effect, with the development of a discourse now more able to speak against the intrusion of not only classical horsemanship, but of other elite European culture into its realm.

However, Austria tried again, submitting another nomination for the inscription of the ‘Classical Horsemanship and the High School of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna’ in 2015. The results of this nomination, and a discourse analysis of the decision, particularly on those criteria that had proven problematic in its prior nomination and in the French nomination, do much to show the relative position of the AHD and a counter ICH discourse.

In the decisions on both nominations there had been a strong focus on criterion R1, finding that the nominations fall short on this measure. This is a clear statement that these elements fundamentally and unequivocally are not ICH as envisioned by the international community. Questioning the present-day relevance of elements, of their ability to contribute meaningfully to culture, is to see the authorised ICH discourse powerfully at work rejecting elite European influences.

If it seemed that, in the face of this decision, the ICH discourse was gaining strength and was displacing the AHD, particularly in the application of criterion R1, the result for the 2015 Austrian nomination came as a surprise. The draft decision, which recommended inscription, was adopted verbatim by the full committee. There was no equivocation about whether this element was indeed heritage.

The criteria that had been problematic in the prior nomination, R1 and R2, did not seem to present the same obstacles that they had in the past. With respect to criterion R1, the decision states:

R.1: The groups of riders, students, grooms, breeders, craftspeople and other specialists involved in the classical horsemanship and the High School of the Spanish Riding School Vienna continue a long history of interrelationship between rural and urban centres of breeding and horsemanship, which provides them with a sense of identity and continuity; today’s ways of transmission and the social functions and cultural meanings of the element are demonstrated, although less so in reference to husbandry; [Plate 7]

The decision points to a large community of people who are involved with the Spanish Riding School and horsemanship, and the ways in which information about this heritage are communicated. Nothing is said that challenges whether in fact this is an element of heritage. This stands in contrast to the stinging commentary from the prior decision which said the nomination had failed to explain the social or cultural dimensions of this element that would make it ‘heritage’. The 2015 commentary instead notes that the social functions and cultural meanings are demonstrated-which read in comparison to the 2013 denial shows that a challenge to classical horsemanship as not really being ‘heritage’ lacked strength. It might be that the authorised ICH discourse had reached its zenith in 2013, and that the AHD was again asserting itself within the realm of ICH. It appears to be less problematic than before to inscribe an element with elite European origins. R2 was the other criterion that had been problematic in the previous nomination. The 2015 approval stated that:

Inscription of the element could raise awareness of the importance of intangible cultural heritage that incorporates the close relations between humans and animals, promotes respect for cultural and biological diversity, contributes to intercultural dialogue particularly between equestrians from various countries and regions, and creates more balanced gender relations in elements traditionally dominated by men;

The denial in 2013 indicated that the problems with criterion R2 flowed from problems with R1, about exactly what the element seeking inscription was. Apparently an acceptance of classical horsemanship at R1 as ‘heritage’ renders the R2 criterion easy to meet. It seems then, that much hinges on whether or not the element is accepted as ‘heritage’ within whatever discourse is drawing the boundaries on what is and is not acceptable as heritage.

This result was not one that was necessarily wise to anticipate or even obvious from the discussions that had preceded this nomination on classical horsemanship. But the question of whether it was really heritage does not appear, at least in the draft and final decisions that were adopted.


An examination of the nominations made to inscribe classical horsemanship reveal that something very profound has occurred since the inception of the 2003 Convention. There is a formation of a strong narrative - a counterweight to the Euro-centric AHD of material heritage - which is more than simply resistant to the AHD. It has set up a narrative in its own right, strongly staking out the boundaries of authorised ICH as distinct from that of the AHD, stamping out as it were, the creeping fescue of Euro-centric AHD into the realm of ICH.

This is an unfortunate result. It is unfortunate for both ICH and for any changes that might have been brought to AHD. This new rigid structure only exacerbates old problems of limiting what can be acceptable as heritage, thus making ICH not a fresh new innovative way of doing things, but only so much ‘old wine in new bottles’. It leaves the world of heritage rife with regional politics that stifle and limit what is seen as having legitimate claims to heritage. Thus, in itself, it presents a possible danger to safeguarding heritage. But perhaps with regard to the politics of heritage, whether tangible or intangible, it was ever thus - seeing how bound up heritage is with national identity and pride. The result of the ICH discourse, as demonstrated by the reception of nominations of classical horsemanship, may be continued resistance to ‘inclusivity’ and ‘broadening of heritage’.

Jacobs argues that there are implicit criteria at work in the interpretation of the Convention and Operational Directive requirements for Representative List inscription approval. But what is in operation has far more force than that. There is, in fact, a fully developed authorised ICH discourse in place. An examination of the positions taken and decisions reached across two years on the classical horsemanship nominations of France and Austria demonstrates the emergence and growing potency of this discourse. Over the course of those two years, the discourse has defined its position to more effectively prevent elements with perceived elite European origins from being approved for inscription on the Representative List.

The ICH regime was created in part to overcome the problems of arbitrary rather than merit-based exclusivity and rigidity of the material heritage regime. Given the AHD that privileges Euro-centric heritage, it is perhaps no surprise that the ICH discourse represents a severe backlash against European heritage that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have elite origins or be representative of the noble class. But this also suggests that no lessons were learned about the detrimental effects of decisions that are based on pre-determined templates. Both regimes are focused on the elite European origins of an element - one to include on that basis, the other to exclude.

The straightforward rejection of Austria’s 2013 nomination, in comparison to the struggle to reject that of France in 2011, which was ultimately approved - indicates that the ICH discourse has strengthened its position and its narrative content-and that it is no longer possible to override it with diplomatic power plays and eloquence to which Jacobs attributes the eventual approval of the French nomination. That the objections to the French nomination were overridden in such a fashion suggests a less than wholly established narrative. That two years on, in 2013, the Austrian nomination was rejected without the confusion that seemed to surround the French nomination demonstrates a maturing, potent ICH discourse.

Smith has called for a new understanding of heritage that is able to ‘challenge’ and ‘modify’ that contained in AHD. Whatever hope or expectation that there may have been for a fully established authorised discourse on intangible heritage to do this, has proven thus far to be unmet. On the other hand, the authorised discourse on intangible heritage has also failed to alter other dimensions of the AHD, in that it has not provided a framework that privileges the community/sub-national orientation of intangible heritage. It has only determinedly set itself against the recognition of European-based heritage.

No gains will be made by having a rigid and arbitrary heritage discourse for ICH, a discourse that highlights the politics that surround heritage selection, a process riven by politics and devoid of merit. This cannot be to the benefit of any heritage regime. Jacobs writes that he hopes that what he recognises as ‘implicit criteria’ will become a full-blown heritage discourse. An examination of the classical horsemanship nominations of France and Austria, and the decisions rendered on these, suggests that the high point of establishing another heritage discourse, one for ICH that rejected the AHD that spoke of European imperialism and elitism, has passed.

The resistance to the AHD may have collapsed, the momentum that had been established in the ambivalent approval of French classical horsemanship had gained strength, demonstrating that the AHD had a foothold in ICH, and that the counter narrative had been overpowered. The lack of resistance to establishing this latest classical horsemanship nomination as ‘heritage’ under criterion R1 suggests that the ICH authorised discourse counter-narrative is losing strength.

But this does not mean that an authorised ICH discourse that would have been different from AHD has been silenced or is gone. There is no whole-hearted embrace of the AHD evident in the Austrian 2015 approval. The approval of the Spanish Riding School nomination suggests instead that tensions remain between AHD and an authorised ICH discourse. Resistance, or at least ambivalence towards, elements with an elite European origin remains.

What is not clear is how these two discourses will continue in the future with respect to the inscription of representative intangible cultural heritage. Will a resistance to the AHD be continued? What can be said is that this uncertainty itself demonstrates that what discourse will define ICH is far from settled. The place that elements with elite European origins should have has not been determined. The eventual success of the Spanish Riding School in gaining approval for inscription does not suggest the end of an ICH discourse that tries to distinguish itself from the AHD. Jacob’s claim of ‘implicit criteria’ remains but the strength that such criteria have in keeping elite European elements out - and whether the ICH discourse will gain strength or vanish to be subsumed by the AHD-remain to be seen. Further research on commentary and response to criterion R1 on nominations for elements with elite European origins will reveal the position and strength, and indeed, whether there is a continued existence, of an ICH authorised discourse that stands in contrast to the AHD.