Caprilli’s Forward System of Equitation in Action – How the Forward Seat was Originally Ridden.

Old School vs. New School

Riding steep descents in the old military style (left) and in Caprilli’s Forward System (right).

One of the interesting questions that I get asked from time to time is how was Caprilli’s original system of forward riding different than ‘modern’ forward riding? Being both a horseman and a historian, there are two ways to answer this question.

My first instinct as a rider is to take the person or persons who ask this question out on a jaunt through the countryside to demonstrate exactly how Caprilli’s “Forward System” is executed (and, depending on the outcome, ‘executed’ might be an apropos term if that person isn’t such a good rider).

As a historian, my other instinct is to find contemporary descriptions of Caprilli’s system of riding. This, by far, is the better way to introduce people to the more advanced attributes of the system. And it beats the hell out of having to say, “hmm, we lose more riders that way…”

One of the best description of the method of riding developed by Caprilli in terms of how it was originally executed (there’s that word again) can be found in the writings of Vladimir Littauer in his book, “The Development of Modern Riding – The Story Of Formal Riding From Renaissance Times To The Present”, Vladimir Littauer; McMillan Publishing Company, a division of McMillian, Inc., 1991;  ppg 187-191. (Originally Published as “Horseman’s Progress”, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.; 1962).

This particular except comes from a chapter on Caprilli’s influence on modern forward riding and how this form of military equitation is the informing source of all modern competitive riding that involves jumping or cross-country riding. It is worth remembering that this type of cross country riding was developed not for competitive purposes, but for military purposes.

While modern cross-country riding does not require the same the nerve and skill that military cross country riding requires, modern riders will benefit from understanding the requirements of real military equitation. When reading the excerpt I have quoted, remember some of the important precepts that Caprilli promoted:

Always train horses to the purpose they are to be ridden.

Train the horse and rider in the environment and conditions in which they will be ridden.

Train the horse in a manner in which the rider and horse trust each other. Develop boldness in both horse and rider.

Teach the horse to carry itself; teach the rider to avoid imposing any artificial balance or frame upon the horse and not to interfere with the horse. This does not in any way imply letting the horse do whatever it wants to do.

Let the horse do it’s job and get out of the horse’s way and let the horse do its job when needed.

The welfare of the horse comes first.

From “The Development of Modern Riding – The Story Of Formal Riding From Renaissance Times To The Present”, Vladimir Littauer; McMillan Publishing Company, a division of McMillian, Inc., 1991;  ppg 187-191. (Originally Published as “Horseman’s Progress”, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.; 1962):

A Russian cavalry officer, P. Krassnoff, who paid a week-long visit to Pinerolo a few months before Caprilli’s death, described the experience in three articles in the 1907 Russian Cavalry Messenger. Krassnoff, with the easy pen with which he later wrote “From the Double Eagle to the Red Flag”, vividly depicted life in the school, portrayed the officers, the soldiers, etc. From all this rich material I shall quote only the parts that are pertinent to our subject, particularly the descriptions of a lesson in the ring and in the training field and of a cross-country ride.
Krassnoff wrote about a class of non-commissioned officers schooling young horses in a large covered ring:

…all the horses were on snaffles. All the riders worked very softly with the reins, never attempting to collect their horses, but following the movements of the horses’ heads with the reins… they rode individually in separate directions, avoiding sharp turns, making no circles at a trot; later, they worked at a canter. The riders aimed — as was obvious from the corrections of the officer — at keeping all the horses moving at the same medium-speed canter . . . and they did not pay any attention to the lead, but looked only for calmness and evenness . . . the gait was not beautiful, but it was wonderfully soft and even, and completely relaxed in the whole class. In the meantime a short log was laid on the ground and the horses individually (not in a class) began to jump over it. After this, the class walked, and one of the attendants brought a small basket of oats and each of the riders in turn approached it and gave their horses a fistful or two of oats…

Krassnoff described the open schooling field a couple of miles away from the school stables:

This field was about three miles in circumference. All of it was thickly overgrown with nut-trees and acacia; among these, three intersecting avenues were cut—up to 600′ wide; along these were placed obstacles. . . . When I trotted to the green clearing with Captain Count Fe d’Ostiani . . . about ten non-commissioned officers were riding there with a young officer. . . . they quietly galloped over the field, jumping the various obstacles. The unusual softness of their hands was striking, as well as the complete yielding of the reins to the point of letting them slide between the fingers. This was refined, sensible riding. Horses were controlled but never interfered with. The refinements of riding could be clearly seen when they jumped in rows of four always perfectly lined up and preserving accurate intervals between the horses.

Krassnoff could hardly forget the time when he was given a horse, and in the company of Italian officers, rode across country:

“Imagine,” Lieutenant Starita said to me, “that  we represent a scouting party, that the enemy is all around us, and all the roads are occupied by him. From that hill,” Starita pointed to a high, rocky hill overgrown with thick woods, “we would be able to see all of the surrounding country, and to count every one of the enemy’s men. And it would not occur to anyone that there, on the summit, there could be a mounted man. But we can get there, only if unobserved. Let us try it.”
We plunged into a fresh thicket of acacia and at a soft, calm trot crossed the copse, disregarding the prickly branches that struck us. The cover led to a stony stream bed below. This channel could hide us well. “Head your horse straight across” another officer, Acerba, who rode at my side said, “and drop the reins, the mare knows what to do.” We stood at the granite facing of the brook which was some eight feet high, descending at a 65 degree angle into the swift water of the stream. “This is the way to do it.” And turning his horse straight at the drop, Acerba squeezed with his legs; his horse lined up its front legs and began quickly to slide down… My Gorilla, left to herself, did the same. Stringing along single-file, we rode into the water among the huge boulders of the stream.

Later, Krassnoff tells how in the course of this ride they:

were galloping fast for a while across a field. At the end of the field we approached a hill overgrown with trees. Up the hill led a path, which I ascended with great difficulties later when dismounted, helping myself by catching hold of branches and grass. Along this path, like goats, large thoroughbreds and halfbreds were now moving. Only when the path would make a too risky turn above the precipice, Acerba, riding ahead, would shout to me, “drop the reins, be quiet.” But I already trusted the good animal. Holding her head low, with hurried, but sure steps, breathing easily, Gorilla climbed the mountain…

“And now let us assume,” said Starita, “that we are observed. We must get away.” Frankly… I thought that we would be looking for another path winding around this rock. But not so. The same “drop the reins” — and we are descending through the scrub with a slow, but sure walk. But soon the bushes are behind. In front of us drops a 60 degree slope at least 1800′ long, which ends in a perpendicular wall, about 1 ½ ‘ high, separating us from the road. “Keep your horse straight” shout the officers, and, one after another, we roll down . . . small stones, jumping and hopping, fly ahead of us—here is the stone wall—my horse jumps and we are on the road.

There were other similar situations during this ride which I omit for fear of being repetitious. This ride Krassnoff called the “Italian High School.”

Krassnoff thus summarized the teaching at Pinerolo:

All the riding is done entirely on a snaffle. Only in cases of particularly difficult horses is it permitted to use a mild curb, and then for a short time only.

Particular attention is paid by all the teachers to the hand and reins. The hand must follow the reins, the reins should follow the horse’s mouth…

The horses are always worked mounted and never in class formation. The lunge is used in jumping in exceptional cases only—and jumping in a corral is permitted solely in cases of unable horses. If the rider does not interfere with the horse, say the Italians, he will jump as well under the rider as without him.

They begin a young horse’s work in the ring, but do not force him into corners, avoiding turns and any kind of bending in the ribs; they work on almost loose reins.

Jumping is begun in the ring over low but solid obstacles – at the height of the season every horse jumps forty obstacles during a lesson. As the horse progresses he is worked more and more often in the field.
It all ends with swimming. In July examinations are held… the schooling examination consists of work in the ring, work in the training field and, finally, in a cross-country ride similar to the one that I described.

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