In the early 20th century, a revolution took place that would change the way we rode forever.
Captain Federico Caprilli, an Italian cavalry officer, earned the hostility of the Italian army by challenging the conventions of classical riding and was transfered to a different regiment. It was this “rebellion” that initiated the invention of a new style of riding.
Whenever you use a jump position, light seat, or two-point position you have Caprilli to thank.
Classical riding was based around different aims to Caprilli, and had a very different seat. Classical riders told the horse what to do and how to do it; Caprilli believed the rider should just tell the horse what to do and then allow the horse’s way of doing it. Unlike classical riders, Caprilli thought horses were able to balance themselves with a rider rather than needing to told how to do it.
There is a natural difference between the horse’s and rider’s centres of gravity. The rider’s centre of gravity is further back than the horse’s, and this difference needed to be reduced to keep balance.
For most of history, classical riders had taught collection.They tried to narrow the gap between the horse’s and rider’s centres of gravity by moving the horse’s centre of gravity backwards. Collection engages the horse’s hindquarters, causing the horse’s centre of gravity to move backwards, and it was around this concept that classical riding was based.
The problem was that as the horse’s pace increases, their centre of gravity moves forward. The classical riding seat wasn’t as effective riding at speed, across country, or when jumping. When jumping, instead of leaning forwards as we do now, classical riders leant backwards and stuck their lower leg forwards. This position came from the knights of ye olde days, and is not suited for jumping. Classical riders claimed that by leaning back they spared their horse’s forelegs, but Caprilli disagreed.
The old jumping seat was uncomfortable for the horse, and as classical riders tried to make the horse land hindlegs first (thinking this would further spare the forelegs) went completely against the horse’s natural way of jumping. By leaning backwards, the rider got left behind the movement and unbalanced. They also pulled on the reins, which was painful for the horse. As a result, horses found jumping difficult and many disliked it.
After watching horses free jump without a rider or tack, Caprilli discovered something that was fundamentally wrong about the old jumping seat – horses always landed on their forelegs. He photographed their shape over jumps and began to develop what we now take for granted as our jump position.
Caprilli’s theory was that the rider’s position over the fence should not interfere the horse’s natural jumping movement. He realised that the rider should shorten their stirrups and lean forwards to move their centre of gravity forwards to meet the horse’s. By taking their weight out the saddle they allowed the horse freedom to use their back, as well as helping the rider keep a secure position. Most importantly, the contact should be light and the rider should give with their hands.
Our modern jumping position was created.
As with all new ideas, not everyone was happy with Caprilli’s “forward seat”. It angered many people and caused him trouble in the army. However, it was so effective that the benefits could not be denied. Before long he was made chief instructor at the Italian army’s cavalry school, where all new students learned Caprilli’s technique. The Italian cavalry began to dominate international competition, and riders came from all over the world to learn from him.
Caprilli died in 1907, aged 39, during a riding accident. The year before he’d had this opportunity to demonstrate his technique to the world in the 1906 Olympic Games. Interest increased throughout the 20th century, and now Caprilli’s forward seat is widely accepted as the correct jump position.
Classical riding hasn’t been entirely replaced by Caprilli’s techniques. Horse riding as it is now taught uses the best of each method, while ignoring other aspects. A forward seat is used when jumping or galloping, but not when riding on the flat as Caprilli did. Collection is still used, and dressage in particular uses a classical riding position, but jumping has changed drastically.
Caprilli’s position has improved the level of show jumping. At the beginning of the 20th century international show jumps were about 4’6″. Now they are over 6′ and in much trickier courses. While a forward jumping position is still used, experienced riders no longer leave everything to the horse, instead altering the horse’s stride to meet these more difficult fences in the right place.
Caprilli’s legacy is simple but innovative. He’s responsible for radically improving jumping standards for both horses and riders.
Next time you jump, just remember it’s thanks to Caprilli!
Horse Daydreamer xxx
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