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Federico Caprilli, The Natural System and Forward Riding
The Importance of remembering its military origins

By Dan Gilmore

September 25, 2011

"It is my increasing opinion for reasons easy to understand that the purpose of military equitation is to train men and horses in the shortest amount of time possible, to obtain from them maximum effectiveness and maximum speed in a way that promotes the temperament and physique of both and to do so with less waste of resources.

    Horses above all else must be trained to military purposes as it is the intent that cavalry is to be used in actions of war: both horse and rider must be familiar with rugged terrain and varying conditions so they both can be calm in the face of difficulties. It is therefore appropriate that training exercises are rational and continuous to promote the required boldness in both the horse and rider.

So, the purpose of military riding lies in good performance in the field." ------- Federico Caprilli - from "Per L'Equitazione Di Campagna" (Gilmore Translation)

    When discussing modern forward riding, the name Federico Caprilli is always in the forefront of the discussion. That Caprilli is recognized as ‘The Father of Modern Forward Riding' is an indisputable fact. There are, however, a number of questions as to how true this accolade really is - not in terms of theory but in terms of actual riding as it is practiced today.

    How does modern forward riding differ from the original "Natural System" as intended by Caprilli? This one question alone could fill a library because of the different goals Caprilli had in mind as opposed to the goals of modern competitive riders. To answer this question, we must take a look at the purpose Caprilli had in ‘inventing' his Natural System of forward riding.

    It should be remembered is that Caprilli's Natural System was purely intended to be a military system of equitation for riding in the field, not in the show ring and generally not for the purposes of competitive sports. With the demise of mounted cavalry, there was, of course, a change in the whole ‘game' of riding as it moved from a practical application to one of pure sporting entertainment. This change resulted in the reintroduction to forward riding of methods and theories that Caprilli deemed as 'superfluous' and even 'harmful' to the horse, the rider and to the purposes of riding in the field. Caprilli states in "Per L'Equitazione Di Campagna":

    "The traditional system believes that a soldier is best served by a horse trained by methods which desire to modify the horse’s balance, head position, natural movement of the joints and based upon the concept that a horse must only be balanced on the center of its mass, with head vertical and only articulated in the first vertebrae of the neck. The very fact that there are few horses in the regiments that match this requirement perfectly and other horses that serve them well would demonstrate that the methods suggested by existing rules as applied are too difficult and, at the same time, unnecessary.

    We will see how the rest of so many horses go wrong simply depends upon the desire at any cost to apply them in exactly the same way whether or not those methods lead to good results or produce barriers and other difficulties. . I think instead that we should strive to produce a horse that is in its natural state, with natural balance, with natural head position because if there is a need for some modification of balance we will see how the horse can correct itself when both horse and rider are left the appropriate freedom to do so. . I believe that everyone needs to learn these fundamental ideas of what I believe in terms of principles of military riding because I am convinced that the rider who is natural in terms of position and balance serves the horse well and such a horse easily adapts to being submissive to the will of the human.

    Both rider and horse in the field are, I believe, not united and destroy each other. This happens more in the regiments where the practices of riders and the requirement that horses have been trained for the many derivations relevant to the High School that mediocre results are produced. In fact, all else aside, the regiments are too large and difficult for the soldiers to manage...

    What I call a field horse is one that is good natured, calm and confident in the rider, fast and durable, long accustomed to galloping over any ground, calm and attentive in difficulty, and readily amenable to the will of the rider. This is the field horse and this is the horse soldier.

    Long years of practice and continuous observation have convinced me that the horse acquires the qualities of general effortlessness that I enumerated earlier, and submits to the cavalryman who applies work rationally and continuously, during which the cavalryman studies to make his horse better trained in its actions and not thwart the development of its natural attitudes and energies. This does not mean that we should allow the horse to do what he wants; on the contrary, it must be firmly persuaded and with energy, if needed, to do what the rider wants, however, leaving complete freedom to the horse to use and dispose of itself as best serves his means of balance and energy. This principal is fundamental and constantly informs all of the Riding Rules of Thumb that I shall expound later.

    Thus, free from worry, the horse shall give you all of his attention to do what he should do, and gradually learn to better use its strength and improve its skill. Instead, when the horse is apprehensive of the rider, and as a result of suffering from the rider's apprehension, the horse will constantly look for the pretext and opportunity to escape, as it learns to be in a state of distraction, turning away from any work to be accomplished. We will recall that the horse will submit itself naturally without the rider seeking to limit the horse by use of the force and strength in order to keep it in certain positions and rider imposed balance!".

    One of Caprilli's initial complaints about the existing system of military equitation employed by the Italian Cavalry Arm was it's very "High School" nature. In the field, a cavalryman had to do four things with his horse:

1.) Move forwards and backwards,

2.) Turn right and left,

3.) Travel cross country and pass obstacles, and

4.) Handle weapons and fight from the back of a horse.

    Anything that did not promote and develop these four basic goals was considered a waste of time and resources(and by 'resources' Caprilli meant 'horses' and 'soldiers') that burdened both horses and riders with superfluous requirements that had no practical application in the field. The evolutions and maneuvers of the 'High School', especially the aspect of collection, is antithetical to efficiency in equine locomotion. Caprilli viewed collection as a waste of energy mainly because the horse expends valuable energy in vertical motion rather than in forward motion where it was most required. There was also the consideration that given the short terms of enlistment in the peace time army it was nearly impossible to produce riders who were capable and effective horsemen in the field.

    Caprilli found it imperative that a horse be allowed to move in as natural a way as possible with the rider imposing as little balance and frame as possible:

"A horse can make much better use of its impulses, instincts and natural balance if it is required to perform natural work in the field and not the artificial work of the manege. The exercise in the field and the work performed there will enhance its natural balance. It will be the case and it will naturally follow that with any intervening action on the part of the rider progress cannot be made with a horse that is unfit and uncomfortable."

    This naturally resulted in a very simplified, easy to teach and extremely effective system of military equitation that was far superior to anything that came before it. No longer was a rider required to learn useless school riding that had no real application in the field nor was a horse forced to move in an unnatural way. The rider was then free to ride without having to worry about the various superfluous rules and methods of the 'High School'. The horses and riders were now free to perform their respective and dependent jobs with as much comfort and efficiency as possible.

    Caprilli considered the jump not as an end unto itself but rather a tool for teaching his cavalrymen not to pull on the horse's mouth under any circumstances and to not interfere with nor attempt to assist the horse in any way that causes the horse to resist the rider's hands or other aides. This is an important point to consider when understanding jumping and the military context of the "Natural System." It is especially important to consider this in the light that Caprilli did not intend for his Natural System of forward riding to become a system of equitation for competitive riding. Caprilli's principles for jumping, and riding in general can be distilled to these six general items:

1.) The horse must be given the freedom to use his instincts in approaching the obstacle and freedom from being guided or restrained by the reins, legs, body weight of the rider or any 'assistance' from the rider

2.) The horse is allowed the greatest freedom to use his neck to balance, and the rider's upper body and hands must accompany the forward motion of the horse's head, neck and mouth in the execution of the jump

3.) The horse's spine and back must be freed from the weight of the rider, and especially in the lower back at the kidneys where that weight would impinge upon the ability of the horse's hind end to propel the horse over the jump.

4.) The rider should be up out of the saddle on the approach to the jump as well when passing over the jump

5.) All this must be done by with as little interference with the natural balance and motion of the horse and without restricting the natural range of movement of the horse's legs.

6.) Any attempt by the rider to 'assist' the horse in jumping by either timing the jump, counting strides or otherwise attempting to 'help' the horse while in the air is useless and generally harmful.

    Caprilli was probably the first equestrian to actually take into consideration the nature and conformation of the horse, the rider, and the combination of both. He realized that the uniformity of system and style employed by the military equitation of the day limited the number of suitable horses and riders. Caprilli believed that all horses and riders were of different temperaments, physiques and abilities. By simplifying the system and reducing it to just the elements that were required for the task at hand, he created a system that greatly expanded the number of horses and riders that could perform satisfactorily in the field. This concept of accommodating horses and riders that departed from the narrow band of the 'norm' conserved resources in the form of horses and riders. Horses that did not perform to High School Standards could perform better in the field (having never been trained for collection) than their well-bred brothers.

    In the 1920's, early proponents of the Natural System in the US such as General Harry Chamberlain developed a variation of the "Forward System" later known as "The Fort Riley Seat" and often referred to as "The Military Seat." After competing in the 1920 Olympics and having the opportunity of watching practitioners of the "Italian System' or 'Natural System', Chamberlain was sent to study at the French Cavalry School at Saumur and the Italian Cavalry School in Tor di Quinto. The resulting synthesis of seat he taught to the 1928 Olympic Team eventers and jumpers was referred to as the 'Chamberlain Seat'. The influence of the Saumur school reintroduced a number of elements that would have been seen as 'superfluous' by Caprilli.

    Today, military riding is best represented in the "Fort Riley Seat" and "The Balanced Seat." Both seats are direct descendants of the forward seat developed by Caprilli for use in his "Natural System" of Forward Riding. General Harry Chamberlain developed the "Fort Riley"/"Balanced Seat" directly from the Italian Cavalry Schools at Tor di Quinto and Pinerolo by combining it with the modifications to Caprilli's "Natural System" used at the French Cavalry School at Saumur. Both the Italian and French (which was a direct copy in most aspects of Caprilli's system) schools were nearly identical in method and practice with the exception that the Italian system largely shunned 'collection' as superfluous in the field.

All contents and original translations Copyright ©2011, Dan Gilmore, all rights reserved

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