Image: pitchal frederic / Getty
This horse simulator, crazy as it looks, shares a lineage with the flight simulators of the 90s—which meant it was at the vanguard of the era’s graphical and virtual reality output.
You might look at the above photo and wonder: "In a world full of real, legitimate horses, why do we need a horse simulator?"
Good question, and the answer is simple: training purposes, of course. The Persival, which eventually found a home at the French National Equestrian School, came about as a result of a former French air force pilot's long desire to see the idea through. Jean-Louis Jouffroy received much skepticism over his efforts, but he followed the idea through with the help of the civil aviation space, including the company Thomson-CSF, which was better known for its flight simulators.
(Persival, by the way, is an acronym, standing for "Programme de Recherche de Simulation du Cheval," translating to Research Program on Horse Simulation.)
It makes sense that a flight simulator firm might help produce a horse simulator—because flight simulators can best be seen as one of the earliest forms of virtual reality. Dating back more than a century, early simulators were simply physical training devices that mechanically replicated the feel of an aircraft cockpit, but in the 1970s, things advanced significantly when computer graphics were added to the mix. At first, those graphics were crude, but things quickly got better.
Microsoft, famously,even made a flight simulator for early versions of the IBM PC, though it was nothing compared to the quite-advanced 3D simulators being used by professional pilots. It was, of course, about the mixture of real, physical tools and a computing experience that could recreate the real thing. (NASA, as you might imagine, has a long association with such flight simulators.)
Image: pitchal frederic / Getty
In the 1980s and 1990s, the French firm Thomson-CSF was an absolute giant in the flight-simulation field, representing a fifth of the total market in 1993, after it acquired the flight-sim interests of the company Hughes. The goal of such simulators, generally produced in the UK, was high accuracy, as these devices were often used to train pilots in both military and civil contexts. This meant that these systems were among the earliest to get high-quality 3D graphics. (The flight-simulation business lives on today as a part of the aerospace firm Thales.)
The horse simulation, absurd as it looks, has actually proven hugely helpful in improving our basic understanding of the way that the rider and the horse interact with one another. In a 1999 article for Evolution, Patrick Galloux, head of the French National Equestrian School's research department, noted that the simulator actually played a pretty interesting role in training—despite the fact that actual horses have never been in short supply.
"Mentalities are changing, and there is an increasing demand for simulators," Galloux told the publication. "At first people found it strange, but now they're getting used to it. For example, it helps children gain confidence as they move up to a gallop."