Another Blast from the Past--Caprilli on Contact

Captain Federico Caprilli of the Italian Cavalry, the originator of the modern jumping seat, left very few writings, just around 22 pages, that introduce us to the thinking of this revolutionary equestrian thinker. It is very easy to read these articles quickly and to sit back and go--oh yes, I know all that, but I find that deeper study has wonderful rewards. All the quotes in this posting are from "The Caprilli Papers" by Capt. Federico Caprilli, trans. by Major Piero Santini. The stuff in parentheses are clarifications that I added. All the riding Caprilli describes was done on contact, loose rein riding was a later introduction to forward seat riding.


Among the novel ideas that Caprilli introduced was the idea that the rider should not interfere with the horse as long as the horse obeyed his rider. To quote from the master "the first rule of good horsemanship should be of reducing, simplifying and even, when possible, altogether eliminating any action on the rider's part." This did not mean letting the horse do what it wants, "...I do not mean that the horse should be allowed to do as he pleases; he should on the contrary, if necessary, be persuaded, with firmness and energy, to conform to the rider's wishes, being left, however, the liberty to do so as he (the horse) thinks best." Central to this idea of the rider's non-interference is "that we must strive to leave the horse as nature fashioned him, with his balance and attitude of head unaltered...".


This required a different type of contact with the bit than what was in use at that time when all cavalry men were required to ride their horses in a collected frame, whether the cavalry man was a good enough rider to do so or not. This new system of contact was developed by Caprilli for cavalry horses going cross-country, for scouting and for the sudden surprise appearance of fighters where the opposing army assumed no enemies would appear.


"...the hands must be held naturally on either side of the withers, always low and ready to advance towards the horse's mouth. The lightest possible contact must however always be preserved between the horse's mouth and the rider's hands. This is the most important and also the most difficult quality to acquire; the instructor must therefore be tireless in inculcating this idea." "The instructor must insist on the reins being held so that the horse's natural attitude of the head and neck is not interfered with and that the pressure on the bars be as light as possible." And yet again, "We should also require that the hands be kept low and quiet, on rather long reins, and always ready to yield and advance whenever the horse need greater liberty of head." This gave the horses great freedom to move, and as long as the riders kept to this contact the horses did not travel in a constricted frame.


Caprilli also writes about giving aids. "The simple use of the hands in turning a horse, and of the legs to make him advance with the required determination and purpose are sufficient aids. If we moreover bring them into play at the right moment and without unnecessary vigor, we shall be supremely successful." "The leg shoud never be brought into play without a corresponding forward movement of the hands...". "The rider should assist his horse without harshness, applying the aids proportionately to every horse's sensibility. The hand should never stiffen but should on the contrary be as relaxed as possible. Especially with nervous horses, all the muscles of the body, particularly those of the legs, should be relaxed and the hands never raised. Should the horse tend to augment his pace (go faster), a diminution (lessening), not an increase in the contact with his mouth will generally be sufficient to re-establish the necessary control."


The yielding of the hand is also discussed. "In riding, to intervene by pulling is easy but often very harmful, it is, on the other hand, very difficult, but always right, not to interfere with the horse and to know how to yield to him under all conditions and in every circumstance. This is what we must learn and teach. If we are capable of yielding the hand, we shall know when, and in what measure to pull." "Yielding (the rein) is not the same as dropping; the rein must not sag although it is better to 'give' too much than too little,...". Caprilli believed that the horse knew best where to put his head to obey his rider's commands, and that it was up to the rider to yield the hand and not interfere with the horse's movements.


There are also warnings on the effects of non-relaxed hands. "Rigidity, in whatever form or in whatever part of the body it may appear, invariably ends by affecting the hand." "The hand should never stiffen," and "the very purpose aimed at, namely of bringing the horse to hand and of always being its master, a result impossible of attainment if the rider's actions are rigid, causing the horse to lean on the hand, to stiffen and frequently to react."


So Caprilli's revolutionary new method of riding horses cross-country required a different type of contact. A relaxed contact, light enough so that the horse moved his head and neck in perfect freedom as long as he was obeying his rider. A contact that never blocked the forward movement of the horse while the horse was advancing cross-country. Hands that easily moved forward, giving the horse enough room to move. Hands that NEVER irritated the horse.


I have been trying to ride Forward Seat for 40 years now. Even now I have to work on my hands, because Caprilli's ideal hands are soft, supple, steady when needed and yielding when the horse asks for his head. It isn't easy for me to keep a good, steady contact with my tremors from MS, but I always keep Caprilli's ideals about hands and contact in mind. Whenever I stiffen my fingers too much I trigger resistances, when I relax my fingers and follow the horse's head movements the resistances tend to disappear. I am amazed that by following Caprilli's ideals of hand and contact I can still keep good contact with the horse's mouth, the horses appreciate the freedom of their heads that I give them, they appreciate my relaxed fingers, and they appreciate my willingness to move my hands forward whenever the horse wants to move his head down and forward. This seems to make up for a lot of my problems with my hands, the tremors and the inaccurate movements, and unless my hands are REALLY bad the horses reach forward willingly and establish contact with my hands, and they stride forward, on contact, with relaxed tongue and lower jaw, often obeying little twitches of my fingers. I could not ride at this level with any other system of contact. If I tried I would be torturing my horses' mouths.


This article is not in any way about dressage riding. Caprilli was opposed to dressage training for the cavalry horses in modern warfare. The development of the maching gun made it very easy to just mow down a mass of charging horses, the use of the cavalry horse had to change to survive modern warfare. However much mechanized transport had changed war, there was still a perceived need for rapidly mobile troops who could cross any terrain quickly. Caprilli developed the Forward Seat to enable this change in the use of the cavalry horse.


Light contact. Yielding hands. Following the horse's head. You know what comes from applying these principles? Happy, relaxed, obedient and free striding horses, and happy, relaxed, and sympathetic riders who ride boldly. True joy.


Have a great ride.







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