All riders have heard of the “forward seat”, also known as the “Caprilli Method” of riding and we have an Italian cavalry rider to thank for revolutionizing the way we all ride and jump today. Back in the bad old days of the 1800s and before, riders rode with long stirrups and this was the accepted way world wide. Enter our saviour Federico Caprilli who was born in 1868 and was a cadet in the Military College in Florence at the age of 14 with no prior riding experience. He left the academy with the rank of Lieutenant and a riding rating of “poor”, but with a great interest in equitation he was assigned to the Cavalry Regiment ‘Royal Piemont’. This was the time when guns like the Gatling Gun made their way into the battlefield and these multi barrelled weapons left the poor horses and riders at a huge disadvantage. Another job had to be found for the cavalry equines so the idea of training horses to negotiate unheard of terrain to carry messages and information as well as creating surprise attacks was devised.
At this time all horses – jumpers, hunters and steeplechasers – were ridden in, what we would consider today, an almost barbaric frame: they were collected and severely restricted going into and over the jumps, the riders sitting upright or tilting back putting their weight behind the horses centre of gravity with the reins held tight. A sure way to create back aches and pains for the horse! The reason behind this method was the belief that in jumping this way, the shock to the horse’s “fragile forehand” would be eliminated or reduced. Riders encouraged their horses to land on all four legs or at least on the two hind legs.
At the ‘Royal Piedmont’, Caprilli watched over and over as horses refused to jump as their mouths were jabbed while also noting that when horses jumped freely, they landed on their forehand and were none the worse for it. He also watched films, a new fangled invention, and saw that his beliefs were founded. He concluded that riders should merely be passengers allowing the horse to jump unimpeded without yanking on the reins in a rounded bascule saying, “the first rule of good horsemanship is to reduce, simplify and, if possible, eliminate the rider’s intervention.” Sadly for Caprilli, the powers that be did not like his changes to the ‘status quo’ and sent him to the south of Italy as punishment for daring to change what was accepted. Years later, however an Italian Military Chief tried his methods and saw that they worked. Eureka! Caprilli was reinstated to the northern schools at Pinerolo and Tor di Quinto and within a year the results amazed everybody. He was made chief riding instructor and he began to train soldiers from all over the world.
Horses were now willing to jump and Caprilli, then known as the “Flying Knight”, rode and jumped horses with and without tack over bicycles, horses and carriages while also using photographs to further demonstrate the correct “look” over fences and jumps. He was also very forward thinking in that he wanted riders to allow the horses to think for themselves. He promoted a different style of saddle and a more forward position at all times with shortened stirrups to allow the thigh and lower leg to provide support while horse and rider were jumping or negotiating banks, hills and ditches.
Not everybody warmed to his idea and even after the disastrous results from the Germans at the Turin Trials of 1902, Rittmaster Arnold von Gunther refused to consider this outlandish way of riding and jumping. Ironically, when he finally gave it a try eight years later, he was so successful that he became one of Germany’s top jumpers for that era. However, even in 1912 when new army regulations were created, the German army still persisted in using the old upright method, but the winds of change were rolling in. At the 1928 Olympic Games the Germans took gold medals in both team and individual dressage but lagged far behind in the jumping. Hippologist Gustav Rau finally saw what countless other had seen for years and promoted the forward seat across the board while also suggesting a specialized riding school be established.
Caprilli died in 1907 in Pinerolo when his horse slipped on icy cobblestones and fell. On his tombstone, this simple epitaph reads
1868 – 1907
Master of Horsemen
1868 – 1907)
Show Jumping Timeline
- 1868: The first horse show featuring ‘leaping competitions’ was held in Dublin and was for hunters. The stone wall competitors jumped a 6 foot wall.
- 1869 was the year ‘horse leaping’ became really popular. There was the high leap over hurdles trimmed with gorse; the wall jump over a loose stone wall of progressive height not exceeding 6 feet; and the wide leap over 2 ½ ft gorse-filled hurdle with 12 ft of water on the far side. Horses just had to get over the jumps to the judge’s satisfaction.
• 1870: The Concours Hippique was held in Paris, followed by many more all over France.
• 1875: Show jumping events took place in Vienna followed a few years later by shows in Holland, Belgium and Italy and finally in Germany.
• 1900: The International Jumping Trials were held as part of the World Exhibition in Paris, followed two years later by trials in Turin which lasted for ten days.147 riders from six nations took part. Caprilli and his Italians were brilliant and he set a high jump record of 2.08metres with his horse Melopo, and a new long jump record of 7.40 metres.
• 1902: Caprilli’s high jump record created a huge fan base and his new style was called the “Caprilli Revolution”