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Harry D. Chamberlin: ‘The Consummate Horseman’

Photo via public domain.

“We are the beneficiaries of Col. Chamberlin’s genius, and horses around the world live far more comfortable and productive lives because of his work.” — Jim Wofford, who compares Chamberlin to Mozart

A graduate of the American, French, and Italian cavalry schools for advanced equitation, Chamberlin (1887-1944) rode in the Olympic Games of 1920, 1928, and 1932, as well as in countless national and international competitions, primarily as an eventer and show jumper. He also wrote two classic and still influential books: Riding and Schooling Horses (1934) and Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks (1937), the former a guide for developing “a good rider,” the latter for educating that rider in “breaking and training the horse.” It is not surprising that Wofford regards Chamberlin as “the leading light of the military horse world for three decades.

Life and Thought

The period between World Wars I and II—the “interwar” years of the 1920s and 1930s—witnessed two closely related developments in mounted warfare and in equestrian competition. First, horse cavalry, particularly in the United States, evolved into mechanized cavalry. Though cavalry officers continued in their principal role as trainers of military horsemen and horses, many also assumed an expected or assigned role as equestrian competitors. Second, elite international equestrian competition, suspended during World War I, exploded in the postwar years. Cavalry officers not only dominated competition, but, at the Olympic level, were the only riders allowed to compete. That context defined Harry Chamberlin, who became its epitome.

Chamberlin was born in 1887 to neither a military nor an equestrian family, as Warren C. Matha points out in his invaluable recent biography, General Chamberlin: America’s Equestrian Genius (a source for many of the facts below). Nonetheless, he entered West Point in 1906 and had a distinguished military career, rising through the ranks to become Colonel of Cavalry in 1939 and Brigadier General, commanding a special Task Force in the Pacific, in 1942. That post was cut short: Chamberlin returned to the United States in 1942 for treatment of cancer; though he remained on active duty, he died in 1944. Otherwise, his wartime service was limited to the Philippine Islands from 1911 to 1914 and the “Punitive Expedition” against Pancho Villa in 1916; he arrived in France in August 1918, three months before the armistice.

Chamberlin’s overall military service, however, comprises a series of important posts, all of them related to his equestrian expertise. Not long after learning to ride “the Army way” at West Point, Chamberlin graduated from the highly competitive Advanced Equitation Course in the U.S. Mounted Service School; he then joined its faculty. He also taught cavalry tactics at West Point and cavalry weapons and horsemanship at the Cavalry School (successor to the Mounted Service School). Following his transformative study in France and Italy in 1922-1924, Chamberlin taught at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth; and, in 1941, he commanded the Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, created to provide recruits with basic training in military horsemanship.

Chamberlin’s career as a competitor easily rivals his career as an officer. He starred on the 7th Cavalry polo team in the Philippines, and then captained both the 8th Cavalry’s polo team and the newly established U.S. Army Horse Show Team in the mid-1920s. He rode in the Military Competition (Three-Day Event), Pairs Jumping Competition, and Individual Jumping Competition in the Inter-Allied Games of 1919 (a substitute for the cancelled 1916 Olympics); rode in the Military Competition, Dressage Competition, and Prix des Nations Jumping Competition in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics; and, following a long list of victories, he ended his competitive career with a Team Gold medal for the Military and an Individual Silver Medal for the Prix des Nations in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

American military riding in the early twentieth century was based on French military equitation: the manual Notes on Equitation and Horse Training, for example, published by the U.S. War Department in 1910, was a translation of the drill regulations in use at the French cavalry school at Saumur. The French military style and seat had emerged from the precise haute école equitation developed by the mid-nineteenth-century master François Baucher and subsequently modified by James Fillis; the bold cross-country equitation developed by Baucher’s rival, Le
Comte d’Aure; and the integration of Baucherist and d’Aurist principles forged by General Alexis-François L’Hotte. The revolutionary theory of “forward riding” developed in the first decade of the twentieth century by the Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli, however, would change everything for U.S. riders.

Chamberlin was an agent of that change. Already a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Advanced Equitation Course, Chamberlin was admitted in 1922 to the French Cavalry’s school for advanced equitation, L’École d’Application de Cavalerie de Saumur, where he steeped himself in French theory and practice and graduated with distinction in 1923. He then was admitted in 1923 to the Italian Cavalry’s school at Pinerolo, and, having distinguished himself in it, gained entrance into the highly selective advanced school for equitation at Tor di Quinto, graduating in 1924. The Italian team had used the Caprilli forward seat to dominate jumping competition in the 1919 Inter-Allied Games, and Chamberlin mastered it at Tor di Quinto. He would combine the lessons learned at Saumur with those learned at Tor di Quinto to produce what the U.S. Army eventually would call “the Chamberlin military seat.”

Photo via public domain.

Published Work

Chamberlin’s legacy lies in his development of a new system of horsemanship based on French and Italian principles. He tested the particulars of this evolving system in articles originally published in military journals, and recently collected by Warren C. Matha in The Chamberlin Reader, a companion volume to Matha’s General Chamberlin. Chamberlin also gave the system full expression in two books concurrent with his articles: Riding and Schooling Horses and Training Hunters Jumpers and Hacks. Their influence endures. William Steinkraus has written, “So often, I think I have come up with an idea of my own, only to find it in one of Chamberlin’s books,” a sentiment shared by Jim Wofford: “I have been riding and teaching for half a century, and can safely say not a day goes by without my quoting from one of Chamberlin’s works, or applying his methods.”

Clearly impressed by the Italian equestrian team in 1919, Chamberlin published “Observations on Riding and Training Jumpers,” in the cavalry school annual, The Rasp, for 1922. In it, he advocated Caprilli’s fundamental principle that a horse (in Chamberlin’s words) “must be so
trained that he will approach and jump an obstacle as nearly as possible as he would do if running riderless and at liberty.” Chamberlin later concluded in “The Italian Cavalry School at Tor di Quinto,” published in The Cavalry Journal in 1924, that “the Italian system of equitation is not, in my opinion, suitable for our cavalry,” because it did not produce the “very ‘handy’ horse” that U.S. cavalry action required. He argued, though, for “an adaptation of our military seat along Italian lines” to improve cross country riding and jumping.

In subsequent articles in The Cavalry Journal, Chamberlin proposed balancing the French “classic seat” and the Italian forward seat primarily through modification of the latter (“The Modern Seat,” 1934); analyzed ideal conformation for event horses (“The Conformation of Three-Day Horses,” 1937); advanced L’Hotte’s precepts for combining manège and cross country training for cavalry horses (“High School for Horses,” 1937); explored effective training of cavalry officers and troopers (“Cavalry Training,” 1940); and prescribed training methods for water (“Crossing Rivers,” 1941). In a final short manual, Breaking, Training and Reclaiming Cavalry Horses (1941), Chamberlin detailed “four simple exercises . . . to break and train all colts and remounts [and to] render older horses obedient and supple for military and all other equestrian purposes.”

Chamberlin made his bones as a theorist, as it were, with Riding and Schooling Horses, a work that reflected yet another general development in military equitation in the interwar years. Since the eighteenth century, cavalry officers had written books almost exclusively for other cavalry officers as guides for training recruits; following World War I, however, cavalry officers—including such apostles of forward riding as Piero Santini, Vladimir Lattauer, Paul Rodzianko, and Chamberlin—began to write for an emerging civilian readership that included riders at widely varying levels of knowledge and skill. As Colonel Edwin M. Sumner noted, for example, Riding and Schooling Horses “was written primarily
for the novice,” but reading it definitely would benefit “the more experienced horseman.”

Setting out “to present clearly the fundamental principles of equitation and horse training,” Chamberlin first walks his reader through “Italian teachings” on the theory and practice of the forward seat—“a name erroneously applied in the United States to innumerable grotesque postures”—and maintaining it in motion, followed by chapters on equine psychology, the aids and proper use of the hands, and bits and bitting; he concludes with “the objectives and the sequence of training necessary to produce a well-mannered mount for any purpose” and with the essentials of proper jumping. His principles, he notes, are based on those taught at the “French Cavalry School at Saumur and American Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas.”

One recurring motif stands out among the many principles advocated. “As in the case of so many other things,” Chamberlin writes, “the middle course . . . seems the safest, soundest, and surest.” In the case of riding and training, the middle course means combining Italian “principles regarding the seat” with French “principles of training and schooling the horse.” It also means, more broadly, that a horseman must learn to distinguish between fundamentals that never change—“The principles of the seat advanced herein remain the same for all types of riding.”—and particulars that always change: “While the principles governing the use of the aids are unchanging, the application of the aids in carrying out
these principles is rarely the same in any two particular instances.”

Learning that distinction is a prerequisite to developing “tact,” the quality essential for success in both riding and schooling. Chamberlin sometimes uses “tact” to refer to specific technical skills: the development of “educated hands,” for example, “the ability to fix the hand in the necessary place, with a resistance exactly equal to the horse’s resistance, and to yield the exact instant the horse yields.” He also uses it, though, to refer to the knowledge behind those skills—“the ability, first, to analyze each horse’s temperament, faults and defenses; second, to adopt suitable methods in training and riding in order gradually to dominate and control him”—and, equally important, to the judicious use of those methods, “knowing when to compromise, and when to fight it out . . . The moment the horse gives in, admitting defeat, the tactful horseman is prodigal of his rewards.”

Chamberlin refined and augmented those principles in his masterwork, Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks, published three years after Riding and Schooling Horses and judged by Vladimir Littauer, “in its field, the greatest book of the century, not only in the United States
but in the world.” As Chamberlin notes here, his earlier book “contained instructions and information necessary in the education of a good rider,” whereas “the prime objective of this work is to set forth for his use precise descriptions of normal methods for breaking and training the horse.” Like the earlier book, this work also spoke to two audiences: primarily, “the inexperienced amateur who desires to train his own horses,” and secondarily, “more experienced owners” who want to deepen their knowledge.

Based like its predecessor on principles developed at Saumur and adopted at Fort Riley, Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks opens with two chapters on conformation as the primary basis for selection of promising horses, followed by details on specific “beauties and defects of conformation.” Chapter III explores at length “the marks of an educated horse,” a matter “of tremendous importance as a theoretical basis for all equitation.” The remaining chapters treat the fundamentals for training horses for any discipline, but particularly for cross country riding and jumping: understanding equine psychology; demonstrating advanced riding technique; and possessing not only sound judgment, but
also the ability to instill it in the horse.

Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks carries forward some themes, and even specific language, from Riding and Schooling Horses. Though many equestrians, for example, “erroneously consider” suppling and relaxing exercises to be ends in themselves, they are, properly understood, means for “making the horse obedient and clever at his normal work.” The later book also introduces new themes. Since symmetry of form, or sound conformation, together with disposition, determines an equine’s potential ability, attending to “beauty” when selecting a horse is not frivolous. In Chamberlin’s aphorism: “From these facts an axiom is born: never buy a horse which offends the eye at first glance.”

The book’s central theme concerns calmness and boldness. A horse’s willingness to submit implies confidence in its rider, “confidence exhibited by calmness, boldness and relaxation”—the first among “the basic training objectives.” Boldness entails teaching the horse “willing, frank, forward movement,” and calmness entails riding and treating the horse with tact. The “foundation of boldness and calmness” supports the remainder of the training period, its ultimate objective being a horse who, “without having his calmness and boldness destroyed, [will be] completely subordinated to the aids.” When riding cross country and jumping, moreover, such a horse “will be exceedingly clever and brilliant because no excitement will interfere with his cool, experienced judgment.”

That central theme also aligns with the book’s central argument: effective training relies on “proper gymnastic exercises.” Since the head and neck are the horse’s “balancer and rudder,” Chamberlin argues, “the development of a natural, graceful head carriage is of paramount importance.” The extreme collection and flexion of haute école training cause the hunter or jumper to lose “all calmness and value,” so allowing the horse to relax by extending his head and neck is of “vital importance.” Effective training, then, includes advanced, though not haute école, schooling exercises, but it must rely fundamentally on gymnastics that improve “natural balance” if it is to produce horses fit for cross country work, horses who can “handle themselves cleverly when given their heads and left to their own devices.”

General L’Hotte’s genius lay in his combining Baucher’s manège system with d’Aure’s cross country system to produce an effective system for riding and training cavalry horses. Chamberlin’s genius lay in his combining L’Hotte’s French system with Caprilli’s “Italian system” to create the Chamberlin military seat and a distinctively “American” style of riding. Like his contemporary Étienne Beudant, moreover, Chamberlin had another kind of genius: the ability to explain a complex and subtle system in elegant, limpid prose, a testament, as Jim Wofford has put it, to “the power of the simple declarative sentence.” As accomplished a writer as he was a rider, Chamberlin left us two books not only dense with equestrian wisdom, but also pleasurable to read.

Photo via public domain.

A Note on Texts

In 2020, the equestrian publisher Xenophon Press issued four uniformly bound volumes related to Chamberlin: the biography, General Chamberlin, written by Matha; the compilation of primary documents, The Chamberlin Reader, edited and with commentary by Matha; and reprints of Chamberlin’s Riding and Schooling Horses and Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks, each introduced by Matha. Though variable in kind and quality, they collectively represent an important addition to the shelf of modern equestrian literature.

A knowledgeable horseman, Matha is not a professional biographer or editor, so these works have limitations in writing and editing. Constant use of historical present tense, for example, flattens prose and collapses chronology; conflicting principles for selection of material result in idiosyncratic choices; and indiscriminate detailing produces minutiae and redundancy. Matha, however, is a devoted and enthusiastic amateur in the best sense of the word. He knows and loves his subject, Chamberlin’s life in its interwar cavalry and equestrian contexts; he has researched that subject exhaustively; and he has made primary texts (and 150 photographs), otherwise very rare, readily available. In short, Matha has done both Chamberlin and the equestrian community a great service.

So has Xenophon Press. Chamberlin’s Riding and Schooling Horses and Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks, first published in limited editions in the 1930s by Derrydale Press, the storied specialty sporting house, were reprinted in larger editions of cheaply made books in the 1940s and 1950s. Derrydale copies are hard to find and, in good condition, costly; reprinted copies are easier to find and inexpensive, but they are rarely in good condition. The sturdy and affordable Xenophon Press reissues, essentially facsimile editions with text, photographs, and drawings intact, reclaim two of the most influential works of early twentieth-century horsemanship, works that belong in every equestrian’s library.

Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, and the author of Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, published in January 2022 by University Press of Kentucky.

The Literary Jim Wofford: A Review of ‘Still Horse Crazy After All These Years’

Readers of Eventing Nation will know James C. (“Jim”) Wofford as one of the premier three-day event competitors and trainers of event horses and riders of the past half century. A team and individual medalist in Olympic Games and World Championships, Wofford also won the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses. He has coached the Canadian national team, and has taught a stellar roster of students, packed with U. S. Olympic and four-star riders, that comprises a who’s who of elite three-day eventing.

Many readers also will know Wofford as the author of technical and practical books, such as Training the 3-Day Event Horse and Rider, Gymnastics: Systematic Training of the Jumping Horse, and Cross-Country with Jim Wofford, and as a regular columnist in Practical Horseman. Fewer readers, though, may know Wofford as the writer of two literary works that are primarily but not only about horses: a collection of occasional essays, Take a Good Look Around (2007), and the recent memoir, Still Horse Crazy After All These Years (2021).

Take a Good Look Around

Imagine an equestrian writer not parented by a celebrated horseman and expert horsewoman, as Wofford was, but rather, say, by Mark Twain and Chelsea Handler, and you will have a sense of Take a Good Look Around—a collection of tall tales in the tradition of mild exaggeration and local color, on one side, and in the more current style of wild hyperbole and slightly off-color jokes, on the other. “My attitude,” Wofford repeats often with variations, “is that if it did not really happen the way I tell it, it should have.”

Comparing Take a Good Look to Wofford’s emails, William Steinkraus called it “usually funny in a very original way, often provocative and occasionally poignant.” Reflecting that tonal range, the book takes its title, Wofford notes, from an acerbic local expression for a guest who has drunk too much and won’t be invited back, but it also inevitably recalls Paul McCartney’s more genial plea to his Old English Sheepdog in “Martha My Dear”—a juxtaposition that also reflects Wofford’s ease with references from the folksy to the cosmopolitan, from how cowboys walk, for example, to Keb’ Mo.’

Take a Good Look, Wofford writes, “is about training horses, but it is also about people, and Labradors, and trout, and quail, and ducks, and places I have been, and our interaction with the natural world.” It has three parts: Hooks and Bullets; Mostly Horses; and Verse. Its first part, a sporting travelogue, roams from bird hunting in Texas to duck hunting in the Bayou, from trout fishing in Ireland to salmon fishing in Alaska, spinning tales of adventures and mishaps well-lubricated by “all-purpose brown.” Its brief third part comprises three verses, charming encomia to countryside, dogs, and foals.

The book, though, pivots on horses, “because my whole life has been dedicated to their training and welfare.” It opens with an essay on the Miles City [Montana] Bucking Horse Sale and, for example, its rollicking street bands—”You aren’t going to hear a lot of Cole Porter here, but you will see some fancy two-stepping.” Wofford uses the occasion to amplify his assessment of George Armstrong Custer, who appeared earlier as “an idiot . . . who nails his own horse right between the ears with a .44 slug,” and now as “a glory-hunting egomaniac . . . profligate with the lives of his men.” An entertaining essay, it speaks less specifically to eventers than do the three that follow it.

Those are Wofford’s authoritative “weblogs” posted from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2002 World Championships, and 2004 Athens Olympics. Since standings and scores would have appeared online prior to his reports, he notes, “if I was going to keep people interested . . . it would be because of my commentary, not my reportage.” The articles, consequently, read as polished dispatches, packed with insight, on horses, riders, overall event conditions, and, particularly, cross-country courses and specific rounds made on them. The posts from Athens also dwell on the new “short format,” sure to prompt a controversy about its “rights and wrongs,” a battle that Wofford would join more fully in Still Horse Crazy.

Still Horse Crazy After All These Years

A sustained narrative rather than a collection of essays, Still Horse Crazy is a fully realized literary work at once wry, wistful, and elegiac, like the Paul Simon song echoed in its title. It treats memory, for example, not as a simple instrument, but as a vexed process. Its subtitle and refrain, “if it didn’t happen this way, it should have,” uses a light hand to make a point. Both factual and fanciful, Horse Crazy not only will report the horse world as witnessed by Wofford, but also will explore Wofford’s subjective experience of the horse world—an interplay of public history and private memory, each with its own form of validity, its own set of challenges and rewards, and its own claim on the reader’s attention.

Still Horse Crazy, overall, unfolds Wofford’s life and multiple careers with horses—competitor, trainer, administrator, commentator, and writer—from his childhood in the 1940s and youth in the 1950s to the present day. The book also chronicles the history of Olympic-level three-day eventing, particularly its evolution from a military to a civilian enterprise and its transformations as both institution and sport. In addition to text, the book includes nearly a hundred photographs. Mainly professional action shots of horses and riders over fences, they celebrate three generations of equestrian partnerships.

Wofford, the book begins, has been “horse crazy” his whole life, “obsessed with horses . . . how to ride them, how to train them, how to care for them, how they think, and how we should think about them.” After growing up in a “horse-crazy family,” he married Gail Williams, “horse crazy, too,” and now his wife of over fifty years. Driven by “an instinctive, irresistible power,” he determined when young “to pursue a life that revolved around horses”—a life, he concludes some four hundred pages later, spent “on the back of a horse, complete,” that is, with perhaps a nod to Le Comte d’Aure, a life as a centaur.

Family looms large in this memoir. Wofford’s father, a cavalry officer, rode on the U.S. Army show-jumping team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and was non-riding reserve rider at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; he was a founder and the first president of “the newly formed civilian U.S. Equestrian Team [and] coach of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic show jumping and eventing teams.” His mother bred Olympic level “Thoroughbred sport horses,” including “three of the four horses on the Helsinki eventing team,” and the mare Hollandia, ridden by Wofford’s sister-in-law in the 1960 Rome Olympics. His brothers were Olympians and his wife an avid foxhunter and former MFH; their daughters and grandchildren are all riders.

The military looms equally large. Three-day eventing emerged from cavalry training, and “from the first equestrian Olympics in 1912 until 1948,” Wofford reminds us, “participants were exclusively men in uniform.” Wofford’s boyhood dream was “to be a cavalry officer between 1920 and 1940: I would have been paid to ride, show, steeplechase, play polo, and generally live a horseman’s dream.” Although that option disappeared when the Army dehorsed, “close family friends,” mainly senior Army officers who had ridden with his father, arranged for Wofford to complete his military service in the 1960s by training for Olympic competition and coaching at the U.S. Army Pentathlon Training Center.

The early chapters of Still Horse Crazy, of course, focus on Wofford’s training. Coaches at Gladstone, New Jersey, “the mecca of the U.S. horse world,” emphasized “a different system of riding than I was used to . . . no longer the U.S. Cavalry system, as developed by General Harry Chamberlin,” but one based on controlling “every movement of the horse.” As a result, “I was changing my riding from an Italian system [as modified by Chamberlin] to a German system.” Over time, he would learn to combine them, tutored both by practical experience and the work of classical and modern writers on military equitation, especially Chamberlin, who had taught Wofford’s father and whom Wofford reveres.

That experience and reading had a salient effect. Following the Caprilli revolution, theorists had dismissed dressage as either antithetical or irrelevant to jumping and riding across country. Chamberlin, though, revived the nineteenth-century cavalry’s emphasis on the critical role of dressage in training the cavalry horse and rider—not only for the discipline needed to maneuver in close formation, but also for the suppleness and agility needed to cover ground and jump fences. Not surprisingly, and despite his obvious passion for the cross-country phase, Wofford has advocated consistently for the importance of dressage in training event horses.

Later chapters, and the bulk of the book, focus on Wofford’s career in elite international competition from 1959 to his retirement in 1986. His riding successes were legion: they feature Olympic, World Championship, and National Championship medals, including an individual Silver Medal in the 1980 Alternate Olympics, and two wins at Kentucky: “wire-to-wire” in 1981, and “at my final Classic” in 1986, the latter allowing him to “retire on top.” Likewise his teaching successes: Wofford’s students included all four members of the U.S. Bronze Medal team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three of the four members of the U.S. Gold Medal team at the 2002 WEG, and individual medalists at three Olympic games.

Despite those successes, however, Still Horse Crazy shies neither from Wofford’s failure, at times, to make teams, win competitions, or accrue championships, nor from the riding mistakes that caused the missed opportunities, nor from the frustrated ambitions that followed them. In a slump in the late 1970s, for example, Wofford “had ridden in the Olympics twice . . . but hadn’t been on a Team of any sort for five years [and] had not won any competition above Preliminary level since 1972.” While that would change for the better with the 1980 Olympics and a ranking of “number three in the world . . . I was still unsatisfied. I wanted to be the best event rider in the world before I retired.”

In the early 1980s, in any case, and while still competing, Wofford began looking toward “the next chapter in my life, a life that would not revolve around competitions.” He became immersed in “the world of horse politics . . . what Gail called the alphabets (AHSA, USCTA, USET, FEI, USOC, IOC),” a commitment that occupied him through 2004. He served as “an officer in all three associations responsible for my sport—the USET, the USCTA, and the AHSA.” With a brother and sister-in-law holding similar positions in England, “we were responsible for about 150,000 riders.” Like much in his life, in a word, this service too was a “Wofford family affair.”

As noted earlier, the essentially bifocal Still Horse Crazy chronicles the world of U.S. eventing as closely as it does Wofford’s journey through it. Eventers in the 1960s, for example, were “a small, disorganized group of people who wanted to gallop at speed over solid obstacles and then party like hell that night.” By the early 1970s, however, “USCTA [subsequently USEA] had grown from several hundred members to more than a thousand.” Likewise event horses. In 1966, “the U.S. eventing team . . . assembled every conceivably qualified horse in the country . . . and it wasn’t an impressive list”; by 1984, horses had to compete to qualify. Even so, Wofford sums up, “opportunities [taken] for granted . . . today simply did not exist in eventing in 1984.”

Growth in numbers aside, the change from “classic” to short form in the early 2000s, in Wofford’s view, changed everything: horse breeding and training, rider strategy and tactics, and, of course, scoring. While classic events “were usually decided by the speed and endurance test,” the short form weights dressage. Neither format is a cake walk, but Wofford’s preference rings clear: “I have enjoyed both the psychic payoff from success in an upper-level, big-time short format event—and the ecstatic joy one feels after completing a Classic. They are not even close. There is no sensation like completing a Classic cross-country phase. And when your horse has come out on top of the placings? Indescribable.”

That brings us, finally, to the not-so-secret heroes of Still Horse Crazy: horses. Without a fit, bold, and superbly trained animal as a partner, Wofford makes clear, no rider, no matter how expert, can achieve excellence at the highest levels. While the perfect equine partners for success arrive reasonably soon for some riders, such as Prince Panache for Karen O’Connor or Custom Made for David O’Connor, others turn up later, such as Three Magic Beans for Nina Fout or Donner for Lynn Symansky. In the meantime, such outstanding riders must bide their time and endure the frustration of deferred dreams.

Counting himself among them, Wofford did not lack for good horses, but he still had not found, by the 1970s, “a horse with talent to match my dreams.” He soon would. Following Kilkenny (Henry), “a young man’s ride [who] disliked dressage,” and Castlewellan (Paddy), who excelled in dressage and could have won either classic or short form events, Carawich (Pop) “found” Wofford, as he puts it. Thus began a “partnership with the best horse I would ever ride . . . I rode him for four years, and there was never a time when I did not feel that he could read my mind.” Perfectly matched, the partners excelled in the 1978 World Championships, 1980 Olympics, and 1981 Kentucky Three-Day.

As should be obvious, any eventing competitor or spectator will find Still Horse Crazy After All These Years a highly instructive and rewarding read—a tour through the recent history of the sport with an expert guide who experienced it first-hand. Readers also will enjoy the book’s literary quality. As a youth without TV, Wofford devoured literary classics; later, as an undergraduate, he studied them formally. He appreciates good prose, in short, so he takes lessons in writing, as well as in riding, from models like Harry Chamberlin, whose “literary work reminds us of the power of the simple declarative sentence.” Along with Chamberlin, Jim Wofford belongs to the select group of horsemen and horsewomen who, over the centuries, have both ridden with tact and written with finesse.

Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, and the author of Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, forthcoming in January 2022 from University Press of Kentucky.

Still Horse Crazy After All These Years, by Jim Wofford, is available in print and eBook from Horse and Rider Books here

Revisiting Piero Santini, Apostle of Forward Riding – Part 2

Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia and kindly submitted the following essay on Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionized cross-country riding and jumping circa 1904-06, and his star student, the cavalry officer Piero Santini. This is a remarkable account of the evolution of the “forward seat” over fences that is so natural to riders today. To read part one of this essay, click here. Enjoy!

Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood.

Posthumous Santini

Following Santini’s death in 1960, Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood, a highly versatile and distinguished horsewoman, author of four books on equestrian subjects, and Santini’s “lifelong friend and collaborator,” published Santini’s and her collaborative project, The Horseman’s Dictionary.5Some years later, Bloodgood also played a hand in the serial publication in the U.S. of Santini’s translation and edition of Caprilli’s notes on equitation, and on their subsequent book publication as The Caprilli Papers. While The Horseman’s Dictionary is an anomaly, in both subject and format, among Santini’s works, The Caprilli Papers is a fitting and almost inevitable capstone to them.

The Horseman’s Dictionary (1963)

The dust wrapper of The Horseman’s Dictionary described it as “a dictionary, not an encyclopedia. It confines itself to the precise meaning, or variety of meanings, of equine terms.” It offers brief definitions, in short, not long explanations, and it contains, by my count, some 3,000 separate entries.6As Lieut.-Col. C.E.G. Hope notes in his Foreword, “the special idioms and linguistic usage” that evolve in “every sport or occupation” are “more complex” in horsemanship “because every brand of horsy activity seems to have its own language.” Reflecting this diversity of activities and Babel of tongues, The Horseman’s Dictionary ranges across almost all disciplines.7

Bloodgood and Santini likely intended their dictionary to be read, and not only consulted. Most definitions, that is, are simply useful, such as Equitation: “The art of riding in all its branches; not as sometimes supposed, limited only to dressage and high school.” And so are most distinctions, such as between Horseman and Horsemaster. Many definitions, however, also are colorful, such as for Leaping powder; Jumping powder: “Strong drink taken to induce courage before a hunt or race.” And many terms are charming if only because arcane, such as Singular: “A boar upwards of four years; usually one that, having left the sounder or herd, travels alone and is accompanied by a young boar called its esquire.’

Santini employs his wit here as in previous works, in other words, both to delight and to instruct (likewise the equally sharp-witted Bloodgood). In addition to being colorful, definitions are accurate, informed, and concise, and a large majority of the words defined are still in use; they augment and sharpen a reader’s working equestrian vocabulary. The many words no longer in use, often pertaining to carriages and other conveyances for the Road, open windows onto the past; they enhance a reader’s knowledge of equestrian history. And since most amateur equestrians practice one discipline, the range of terms broadens a reader’s disciplinary perspective.

The Dictionary, finally, offers two noteworthy homages. In one, Santini again defends his Master: Prix Caprilli: “Dressage test at International competitions and Olympic games. Mis-named after the famous Italian cavalry officer, Federico Caprilli, who first evolved the Italian forward system of riding entirely opposed to dressage.” And in the other, Bloodgood honors her collaborator: Santini, Major Piero: “Famous Italian Cavalry officer who . . . introduced the Italian forward seat to the English-speaking world. His works now being a standard on this subject.” The entry carries a footnote: “The above entry re Major Piero Santini was made by the Co-Author, L.F.B. after his death on August 28th, 1960, in Rome.”

Caprilli demonstrates forward seat over a chair.

The Caprilli Papers (1967)

A very different kind of book, The Caprilli Papers is a slim and elegant volume that derives its considerable importance from the rarity of its contents: Caprilli’s words. Like “his spiritual ancestor Pignatelli,” Santini had written in The Forward Impulse, “Caprilli had an antipathy to writing only second to his dislike for walking.” As a result of that antipathy and a short lifespan, Caprilli published very little writing—astonishingly little, given his eventual reputation as arguably peer to Federico Grisone in originality and influence.

Lieut.-Col. C.E.G. Hope, who also wrote the Foreword for this volume, notes that “the failure of Caprilli, himself no pen-man, to put his ideas on paper was corrected by the work of his devoted pupil and friend, Piero Santini, who became the Master’s intermediary and interpreter.” The Caprilli Papers, indeed, comprises substantial passages from Caprilli interleaved with frequently acerbic glosses by Santini. Here as in other works, put differently, Santini stands as Caprilli’s “intermediary and interpreter.”8If this has allowed generations of horsemen to hear Caprilli, it also has required them, in effect, to hear Caprilli through Santini.

Following a citation of sources, Santini devotes his Introduction to Caprilli’s sanctification.9He has undertaken this work to give Caprilli’s “epoch-making maxims . . . and their creator the place to which they have a right in the annals of world equitation”—a right earned by Caprilli’s rejecting “extreme collection,” the basis of horsemanship since the 16th century, and supplanting it with “unfetted [sic] extension”: the “rider’s forward poise is nothing more or less than its logical complement.” Not surprisingly, Santini dismisses tout court an American commentator’s association of Caprilli with Baucher and Fillis—“high priests of an equitation in extreme antithesis to the Caprilli concepts.”

Consistency of position throughout changes of balance. The pianoforte at Tor di Quinto Cavalry School.

The text of the Papers comprises five short chapters. In the first and most trenchant, Caprilli lays out his principles for horse and rider “to get across a country with safety and dispatch . . . and with the minimum possible wear and tear”—the goal of both military and sporting equitation. The “fundamental, constant and unvarying principle” among these tenets is that a horse should “be persuaded, with firmness and energy, to conform to the rider’s wishes, being left, however, the liberty to do so as he thinks best.” Since the “greatest possible mistake,” moreover, is to form a horse “differently from the way nature fashioned him, with an artificially modified balance and forehand,” it follows that “manège and cross-country equitation are . . . antagonistic: one excludes and destroys the other.”

On that basis, Caprilli contends that the Italian Method of forward riding is the only correct method for instructing cavalrymen and training their mounts: “any other method is harmful and teaches artificial action, in direct opposition to the horse’s natural mechanics.” This leads to the corollary principle that “jumping is not an end unto itself but a means by which to apply practically the fundamental principles of our method.” As Caprilli later explains, “when the rider is capable, throughout the entire course of a jump, of smoothly conforming to the movement of his horse, he will have developed more than sufficient dexterity not to disturb him in anything else he may do.” Forward riding, in short, enables correct jumping, and correct jumping improves forward riding.

Though all of Santini’s works were illustrated, the plates in The Caprilli Papers, due in part to the brevity of Caprilli’s text, accrue importance and, in fact, do much of the work. In addition to a frontispiece portraying Caprilli on “Pouff,” the volume includes “40 illustrations from old and rare photographs collected by Major Santini.” Not simply “illustrative” (and numbering 26 pages to the text’s 40 pages), they constitute a coherent visual narrative that documents three periods in the development of the Italian forward seat: Pre-Caprilli Period (13 photographs), Transition Period (also 13), and Post-Caprilli Period: The Italian seat in its hey-day (14 photographs).10

The first two groupings tell the story of Caprilli’s development of the forward seat.11The third grouping, documenting the fully evolved seat in use, is the most visually arresting. It includes several shots of cavalry officers, in the forward seat, negotiating the formidable Tor di Quinto “slide,” including an image of the Cavalry School’s “last comandante, Colonel Francesco Forquet going down the ‘slide’ with his hands off the reins”—well forward and in control. This grouping also includes photographs from subsequent years of a number of officers, on magnificent horses, using the forward seat to attack huge jumps. It closes, fittingly, on a photograph of Piero Santini jumping “at the Salonika Front in the Great War, 1914-18.”

Major Piero Santini jumping at the Salonika Front in the Great War, 1914-18

Why Read Santini?

Federico Caprilli revolutionized cross-country riding and jumping. Piero Santini, his apostle, studied, translated, interpreted, and disseminated Caprilli’s words and proselytized his vision and method. He is worth reading on that basis alone. Santini, however, also offers much more. A distinguished horseman who possessed a wealth of both theoretical and practical knowledge, he also was an impressive literary craftsman who conveyed that knowledge in elegant and limpid prose. Instructive and pleasurable, his work is well worth reading on its own terms.

Dressage and military equitation, moreover, have been intertwined for centuries, as have foxhunting and cavalry service, predominantly though not exclusively in Great Britain. More specifically, and more to the point of Eventing Nation, three-day eventing, originally called “le militaire,” evolved directly from cavalry training of horse and rider. Cavalry officers and chargers, troopers and troop mounts, defined and developed the skills subsequently honed by eventers. Mounted cavalry, as practiced by Santini, may be an anachronism, but its traditions, as advanced by him, are very much with us.12

5Bloodgood’s books include (as Lida L. Fleitmann), Comments on Hacks and Hunters New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921), and The Horse in Art (London: The Medici Society, 1931); and (as Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood), Hoofs in the Distance (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1953), and The Saddle of Queens (London: J. A. Allen, 1959).

6While many of the entries simply cross-reference terms, many others, with sub-entries, define multiple terms (the entry on Pelham bit, for example, defines 16 types, and that on Hunting jumps 35 types).

7To cite the title page, the Dictionary includes “over 3,500 words used on the Turf, in the Hunting field, Show-ring, Manège, on the Road, Trotting-track, Polo field, Ranch, and in the Stable or Stud.”

8Hope adds that “it was through [Santini] that he [Hope] “was privileged to publish in Light Horse in 1951 for the first time in English the only written précis of his theories left by Caprilli”—a précis that became “these ‘Caprilli papers.’”

9Santini writes that “in the compilation of the ‘Papers’ I have drawn on three sources,” namely two published pieces by Caprilli together with “the Notes which were to serve for a treatise on his system.”

10The volumes in Santini’s trilogy include numerous photographic plates (~42 in each of the first two volumes, ~30 in the third), plus diagrams, figures, and sketches. Though less cohesive as sequences than in The Caprilli Papers, the photographs often serve as points of departure rather than as illustrations of points. Photographs in Riding Reflections, for example, often juxtapose shots of military professionals with those of civilian amateurs—the latter shots “principally instructive [in showing] what should not be done.”

11The first grouping shows several horses being jumped in the “classical” style, with riders upright or leaning back and pulling on the reins; it closes with three photos of officers, in pre-Caprilli position, negotiating the “slide” at the Tor di Quinto Cavalry School. The second grouping follows a shot of Caprilli at the “birth of the forward seat” (1904) with four shots of him at a subsequent stage of its evolution and refinement (1906); it closes with further images of the seat in evolution, including an instructive pair comparing “the French Cavalry Officer de Lessard before and after he adopted the Caprilli position.”

12This essay revises and combines four blogs posted on Horse Talk ( in 2016-17.

Charles Caramello
John H. Daniels Fellow
National Sporting Library and Museum
Middleburg, Virginia

Revisiting Piero Santini, Apostle of Forward Riding – Part 1

Charles Caramello is John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia and kindly submitted the following essay on Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionized cross-country riding and jumping circa 1904-06, and his star student, the cavalry officer Piero Santini, who published an important trilogy of books in the first half of the 20th century on Caprilli’s Italian School of “forward riding”. This is a remarkable account of the evolution of the “forward seat” over fences that is so natural to riders today. Enjoy!

Major Piero Santini jumping at the Salonika Front in the Great War, 1914-18

Caprilli and Santini

At the turn of the last century, the Italian cavalry officer Captain Federico Caprilli (1868-1907) developed a radically new system for riding across country and jumping fences—a system originally known as the Italian School or Method and later, and more commonly, as the “forward seat.” It spurred a revolution in military equitation and in the civilian equitation that, in a few short decades, would supplant it. Caprilli’s achievement may not have equaled in magnitude those of his contemporaries Einstein and Picasso, but it did equal theirs in originality.

Caprilli based the Italian system on his observation that the horse naturally tends to bascule while free jumping and on his critical insight that the rider, to achieve maximum preservation of the horse and effectiveness in the field, must facilitate that tendency rather than impede it: the rider, in short, accommodates the horse, not just vice versa. A gifted rider as well as visionary horseman, Caprilli not only developed the concept and refined the techniques of “forward riding,” but he also practiced those techniques, to judge from photographs, with near perfection.

Federico Caprilli.

Caprilli died prematurely at age forty, leaving behind him precious little writing on “Il Sistema.” Like masters in many fields, however, he had the good fortune to be survived by brilliant students (and students of students) who not only proselytized his system, but also, in their own writings, fleshed out its details and implications. Caprilli’s early direct and indirect followers included, among others, four international cavalry officers of considerable subsequent influence: Piero Santini, Paul Rodzianko, Harry Chamberlin, and Vladimir Littauer.

Major Piero Santini (1881-1960) was Caprilli’s most ardent and influential disciple and a tireless advocate for his system in the English-speaking world. Perfectly bilingual in English and Italian, Santini published a seminal trilogy of books in the U.S. and England advancing the principles of forward riding: Riding Reflections (1932), The Forward Impulse (1936), and Learning to Ride (1941); he also played important roles in two posthumously published books: The Horseman’s Dictionary (1963) and The Caprilli Papers (1967).1

Caprilli and Santini are joined at the hip in the history of modern outdoor equitation: it is virtually impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. It is also fitting, but still ironic, that Caprilli and at least his basic principles are widely known, while Santini enjoys far less renown. More important, Santini’s works—representing both Caprilli’s and Santini’s thinking—are now largely inaccessible and unknown, or at least unread, though they once were readily available and widely known and read. The following essay is meant as an introduction to those works.2

Piero Santini.

Santini’s Trilogy

Though the three volumes of Santini’s trilogy share subject, they differ in emphasis and audience. Riding Reflections surveys the theory and application of the Italian Method, and primarily addresses civilians who have not served in military “mounted arms.” More technical in orientation, The Forward Impulse focuses on using the Method to support and benefit from “the natural forward balance of the horse,” and was written for advanced equestrians. Learning to Ride, by contrast, was intended as a primer in “forward riding” for amateur riders—particularly young riders—and those who instruct them.

Riding Reflections (1932)

Riding Reflections, wastes no time—or diplomacy—in defining its audience. Santini divides the equestrian world into civilians (amateurs) and officers of the “mounted arms” (professionals). Since the civilian “in countries where compulsory military service does not exist,” moreover, “is generally an unalloyed dilettante [lacking] the opportunity for systematic and thorough instruction,” Santini refines his taxonomy into three categories: active or reserve officers in “cavalry or field- or horse-artillery”; civilians who have done compulsory service in those arms; and “civilians with no military service to their credit.”

Riding Reflections addresses civilians (or amateurs) in the third, and, to some extent, the second categories: it aims to correct “current defects and misconceptions regarding riding position in those [riders] past the tyro stage and therefore not in need of primary instruction.” In 1932, Santini could posit his underlying distinction between military riders as professionals and civilian riders as amateurs, because “well-organized cavalry schools” still trained officers who were becoming military anachronisms but also were dominating international equestrian competition. That distinction would start to fade by 1936, in The Forward Impulse, and all but disappear by 1941, in Learning to Ride.

Riding Reflections comprises eleven chapters. Santini gives little historical background in them to the development of the Italian Method or its foundational “Italian” or “forward” seat”—at least in comparison with his subsequent Forward Impulse. In the opening chapter, he briefly invokes Caprilli as the founder of a system of horsemanship based on “the principles that a horse should be interfered with as little as possible and that . . . he should move with the freedom and natural balance of a riderless animal.” Santini also introduces a signal theme of his trilogy: the Italian seat is not a “jumping formula,” but “a complete and distinct method of equitation.”

Santini then dissects the Geometry of the Forward Seat in topics ranging from misconceptions to perfection, instinct, and simplicity. Some points introduced here and repeated later include Santini’s dictum that the Italian seat, contrary to popular misconception, “is not based on the short leather”; his opinion that writings on “overcoming, rather than correcting, the defects of the horse . . . would be better employed in studying the defects . . . of the horseman”; and his belief that horse shows not only corrupt Caprilli’s system, but also, “with rare exceptions, contribute nothing to the improvement of breeding and very little to that of horsemanship.”

Santini’s animus toward the show ring introduces a second signal theme of his trilogy: the forward seat is fundamentally a cross-country seat—and only, as an “afterthought,” a show jumping seat. Here, the theme takes shape in a discussion of hunting with hounds. Briefly put, cross-country riding is “the only bona fide sport . . . in which man and horse associate”; hunting is the oldest expression and the epitome of cross-country riding; and the forward seat is “supremely adapted” to hunting. This emphasis on hunting may seem paradoxical, given Santini’s opening distinction between military professionals and civilian amateurs, but it has a historical logic.

Santini’s paean to the hunt, together with his comment that “war and the chase have gone hand in hand through the centuries,” reflect a literary tradition, dating to Xenophon, that treats hunting as training for warfare. Modern Anglophone contributors to the tradition include Lewis Edward Nolan, whose Cavalry: History and Tactics (1853) argues that military horses and riders may gain more from hunting than from manège training; E. A. H. Alderson, whose Pink and Scarlet, or Hunting as a School for Soldiering (1900) offers an extended narrative illustration; and Siegfried Sassoon, whose Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) pairs with his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

The birth of the forward seat-Captain Caprilli in 1904.

The Forward Impulse (1936)

The Forward Impulse turns the themes of Riding Reflections to matters of technique: “The main subject of this, my second book on the Italian Method of Equitation,” Santini writes, “is the action of the hand and its relation to the natural forward balance of the horse—the ‘impulso in avanti’ typical of the modern Italian School.” Santini then fleshes out his subject with clear guidelines on “how to balance the horse through engagement of the haunches, enlightened use of the seat, and conscientious elasticity of the rein contact.”3 This book, Santini notes, is “obviously meant for horsemen of mature experience.”

The book is also obviously meant for polemical ends. Shifting from a measured opening into a more passionate and aggressive tone reminiscent of the manifestos of vanguard art movements—especially Italian Futurism—The Forward Impulse advances an agenda consistent with the zeitgeist. Noticeably nationalistic, the book intends 1) to celebrate Caprilli as founder of the Italian school of equitation, 2) to proclaim the school and its methods a revolution, 3) to portray the revolution as a scientific system, 4) to identify the principles of that system, and 5) to rescue those principles from corruption.

The ratios of The Forward Impulse align with that agenda: Chapter I, The Forward Impulse, takes almost half the book, and Chapter I together with Chapter III, Cross-Country on Italian Principles, take far more than half. The remainder comprises five short chapters, two of them “subsidiary chapters . . . on polo and on the side-saddle” likely to prick current readers who identify the former with skilled riding or the latter with Masterpiece Theater: Santini regards polo as “one of the last strongholds of haphazard riding,” and the forward side-saddle as demanding “a technique different in detail but not in essentials” from the cross-saddle.

In the title chapter, “The Forward Impulse,” Santini defines “forward riding as a complete method for both man and horse . . . based on a theory of the horse’s balance and the horseman’s action of the hand [that are] both entirely new.” The method depends on the true “forward seat”—not simply bending forward, but “leaning the torso forward proportionally to pace and effort.” This forward seat, in turn, depends “on what the Italian Cavalry Regulations term the ‘forward impulse,’ and vice versa.” Consequently, Santini argues, “the true forward method must . . . be accepted in its entirely, and not applied piecemeal, or grafted on to other systems.”

Caprilli’s student, Ruggero Ubertalli.

Santini then honors Federico Caprilli as the creative force behind that integrated and indivisible scientific method of riding. A keen technician of equitation but “an even greater student of the horse’s psychology,” Caprilli led a “revolution” whose tenets are now so widely accepted “that we have forgotten their original source.” Based on “a conception of equitation entirely opposed to the so-called ‘classic’ school” and its principle of collection,” Caprilli’s revolution repudiated “all haute école theories . . . as contrary to its own conception of out-of-door horsemanship”: a “natural equitation,” based on “the horse’s natural equilibrium,” that “differentiates Italian equitation from all others.”4

In “Cross-Country on Italian Principles,” Santini elaborates the true use—and false misuse—of the Italian method. The Italian seat, he writes,” is “the antithesis of  . . . indoor equitation” and is “par excellence not only a jumping but an outdoor seat.” Importing that outdoor seat into the show ring, particularly for “high jumping,” produced “mannerisms” and “exaggerations” that corrupted Caprilli’s vision. But the corruption, in turn, also provoked the “wholesome reaction against jumping purely for jumping’s sake [marked by] the increase of steeplechases and ‘cross-countries’ [in] our Cavalry School”—a cleansing return to origins.

Basically reversing the premise of Riding Reflections, Santini argues here that  “nowadays, the true sporting outdoor horse and the military horse are practically one . . . , military and sporting equitation are basically one . . . , hence the military and sporting (cross-country) seat . . . should . . . be identical.” Thus, reclaiming the seat that enables “forward riding over the enormous drops and almost perpendicular slides of Tor di Quinto,” and purifying it through a Cavalry School “finishing course consisting almost entirely of cross-country work, obligatory hunting . . . , and steeplechasing,” serves not only military riders, but also their civilian counterparts. This point foreshadows the theme of Learning to Ride.

The Slide at Tor di Quinto.

Learning to Ride (1941)

Santini describes Learning to Ride, in its opening pages, as an effort to “crystalize the principles” advanced in Riding Reflections and The Forward Impulse and to establish the “minimum that . . . beginners should know on these lines before taking any active part in field or ring.” Its subject is the “tuition of the rider,” rather than the “instruction of the horse.” One could say that Riding Reflections and The Forward Impulse introduced the forward seat to otherwise experienced riders, while Learning to Ride introduces the seat to neophyte riders and provides their instructors a guide for teaching it.

Learning to Ride rests on two latent premises that explain its departure from its source books as well as its lengthy proposal of “rules for a riding competition” for young riders: 1) civilian riders were ready for “field or ring” only if and when properly trained in the forward seat, whether otherwise experienced riders being retrained or beginning riders being trained; and 2) civilian riders were a fast growing community (and market) of amateurs requiring constant rejuvenation through recruitment and training of young riders and through competitions whose rules did not place forward young riders at a disadvantage.

Santini’s sacred mission to convert nonbelievers to the truth of forward riding, put differently, merged with his more secular goal of advancing vital amateur equestrian sports in a world losing its professional mounted cavalry. He sought “to produce civilian cross-country riders and not troopers,” and to help those riders realize “the possibility of enjoying the greatest sport of all in the certainty that their mounts will enjoy it with them”—“the ultimate aim of all good horsemen.” This focus on riders for the well being of horses—“keeping horses calm and saving unnecessary wear and tear”—clearly echoes Caprilli.

Caprilli’s student Harry Chamberlin.

Not surprisingly, simplicity and economy emerge here as Santini’s principal themes. “Simplicity [is] the motto of our method,” Santini writes, sometimes expressing simplicity as economy of means—“all that is necessary, but no more than is necessary”—and sometimes as what we now might call mindfulness: “that economy of physical and nervous energy which is one of the basic principles of our method,” an economy that enables “good riding—in the sense of comfort and freedom for horse and man and saving of nervous and muscular energy.”

Together with those themes, also not surprisingly, Santini declares any school of dressage comprising “exercises based on avowedly artificial balance’’ as irrelevant, indeed antithetical, to “a system”—forward riding—“devised solely for cross-country purposes.” Insistent on that purpose, Santini regards “any training not directly and continuously aimed at open air activities of some kind not only useless but deleterious to both horse and rider,” and so cautions instructors, archly, that there is “not much sense . . . in imparting even the most elementary instruction under any roof but that of the sky.”

Santini’s archness, in general, can be harsh: here, he disparages grooms who “shorten cheek pieces until the poor animal’s facial expression is one of grinning idiocy,” and advises course designers that a ditch should not “resemble the handiwork of grave diggers.” But it also can be gentle: children under ten should not show, but rather should ride ponies (“or even a donkey”) bareback in fields:  “A few slight falls, and corresponding bruises, under these conditions, not only will fail to affect the nerve of an ordinary child no matter how young, but if he is at all ‘game’ make him all the keener.” Only helicopter parents could take offense.

In the end, Santini’s trilogy extends beyond equitation per se, reflecting not only the flux and uncertainty of the entre deux guerres moment, but also the evolution in European culture over that extended moment from nostalgia to aggression to guarded hope. Riding Reflections, only fourteen years after the Great War of 1914-1918, approaches the reflectiveness of an elegy; The Forward Impulse, in the heart of a politically tumultuous decade, deploys the bombast of a manifesto; and Learning to Ride, confronting a new and still nascent war, merges the pedagogy of a guidebook with the passion of an equestrian gospel for the next generation.


1Santini’s trilogy comprises Riding Reflections. New York: Derrydale Press, 1932. Revised edition, London: Country Life, 1950; The Forward Impulse. New York: Huntington Press, 1936. Revised edition, London: Country Life, 1951; and Learning to Ride. New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1941. Revised and retitled The Riding Instructor. Country Life: 1952. His posthumous works are Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood and Piero Santini, The Horseman’s Dictionary. London: Pelham Books, 1963; and Captain Federico Caprilli, The Caprilli Papers: Principles of Outdoor Equitation. Translated and edited by Major Piero Santini. London: J.A. Allen, 1967. Xenophon Press reissued The Forward Impulse and Learning to Ride in 2016; the other titles are long out of print, but copies can be found on the specialty book market. In addition to books, Santini published numerous articles, letters to the editor, and other short pieces, many of them in The Chronicle of the Horse.

2In the service of accurately representing Santini’s thinking and of conveying his distinctive voice, the essay quotes liberally from his works.

3Frances A. Williams. “Editor’s Preface.” The Forward Impulse (Franktown, VA: Xenophon Press, 1916), p. i.

4The method “requires a natural horse,” whose muscles and senses are developed “by exercise, not exercises, in the open,” as well as a rider with neither an “agitated” nor “rigid” hand—the latter an error of those who “practise forward riding without . . . the forward impulse in their minds.”

Part two of this essay discusses works published after Santini’s death including The Horseman’s Dictionary and The Caprilli Papers. Stay tuned!

Perks of Being a Dressage Scribe

Jimmie Schramm and Bellamy. Photo by Leslie Wylie. Jimmie Schramm and Bellamy. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive historical dictionary of the English language, dates the first use of the noun scribe to 1377, and its first use for someone who “writes at another’s dictation” to 1513. Though reference to the first use of the term scribe in dressage eludes me, I would guess that it dates to the Olympics of 1912 and simply merits no special mention in equestrian history.

In any event, current USEF Requirements for Dressage Competition Management provide regulations on Scribes (DR126); the USDF Guide for Scribes provides five pages of detailed guidelines for scribes; and USEF/USEA licensure requirements mandate scribing as a prerequisites to becoming an “r” judge. Many blogs offer personal accounts of scribing for dressage.

Scribes occupy a low niche in the dressage hierarchy — far lower than judges, though perhaps higher than bit-checkers. That status simply confirms the basic principle: a scribe takes dictation — no more and no less. As one upper level judge succinctly puts it: “A scribe’s opinion on the competitors does not matter.”

So why scribe? Why volunteer for what appears to be a purely mechanical task? The most obvious reasons are to serve the equestrian community, to gain insight on horsemanship, and, in theory, to enjoy an excellent vantage on tests being performed (in practice, a scribe might glance up from the score sheet to confirm a movement).

A less obvious reason, though a critical one, is that scribes typically also ride, and riders typically revere the art of dressage and want to help, in however small a way, to preserve it.

Whatever a scribe’s motive, his or her charge is to work, not to talk or tan — or, more precisely, to support the judge’s work. And though the rigorous protocols for the training and licensure of judges ensure a high level of competence, judges themselves vary in seasoning.

In my experience, veteran judges confident in their eye and knowledge speak crisply, clearly, and authoritatively and rarely second-guess their scores. They set and sustain a clear rhythm, and they want a scribe to follow it, listen closely, and record accurately.

Novice judges still growing in professional confidence occasionally ramble, mumble, hesitate, or revisit scores, resulting in an erratic rhythm. They sometimes want a scribe to act as sounding board, and often need one to serve as editor. Whether veteran or novice, however, all judges with whom I’ve worked have been consistent and evenhanded scorers, as well as knowledgeable and gracious individuals who enjoy horse talk.

Since dressage is integral to eventing, horse trials need scribes. Anyone scribing at USEA Area II horse trials — particularly in the Southern Pennsylvania-Maryland-Northern Virginia latitude — enjoys an enviable boon: the ubiquity of Olympic, four-star, and other top-tier event horses and riders.

You can’t swing a cat at an Area II horse trial without hitting a Phillip Dutton or Sharon White, one of Boyd Martin’s or Colleen Rutledge’s multiple entries, or the latest young human or equine phenom. Not surprisingly, the quality of judges is commensurately high, whether veterans with decades of judging (and training and competing) behind them, or novices ascending the ranks of judging (and training and competition), and looking toward decades of judging ahead of them. Top horses under top riders before top judges — Area II is scribe’s heaven.

I began scribing at Pony Club rallies and local schooling shows many years ago, and now volunteer mainly for recognized horse trials at Waredaca, the eventing venue in Maryland where I board. While continuing to scribe for the dressage phase at these horse trials, I’ve more recently also been scribing for conformation judging in the USEA Young Event Horse and Future Event Horse competitions.

Both types of assignment are rewarding, but scribing for YEH and FEH conformation can be at once more demanding than for dressage, because of the nature of the judging, but also more charming, because of the nature of the judged — I refer particularly to FEH classes and the flighty behavior of equine youngsters asked to perform away from their homes and buddies.

Earl McFall and Simple Dreams DF. Photo courtesy of Sherry Stewart.

Earl McFall and Simple Dreams DF. Photo courtesy of Sherry Stewart.

YEH and FEH Competition

What exactly is YEH and FEH competition? USEA characterizes its well-established YEH Series as an “equine talent search” to identify horses with the potential to excel at the highest levels of international eventing. In YEH, four- and five-year-olds compete in three phases, each phase judged and scribed: 1) conformation and type, 2) dressage, and 3) jumping test/gallop/general impression.

USEA more recently established the FEH Series as a “pre-cursor” to YEH with the same goal of identifying upper level event prospects. In FEH, yearlings and two- and three-year-olds compete and are judged in one phase only: conformation (for type) and correctness of gaits. (A third competition, the New Event Horse, repurposes the YEH format as an introduction to eventing “for horse and rider.”) Full details on the three “young horse programs” are given here.

USEA prescribes the conformation test for FEH in some detail. It comprises four distinct steps: the horse walks a 15-meter triangle and trots a 30-meter triangle (the first triangle is set within the second to form a shared apex, where the judge stands); the horse also stands for “inspection” prior to the walk and again for “final review” following the trot.

The judge provides evaluations and scores for each of the four steps, and can ask handlers to repeat the walk or trot steps in part or whole, or can prolong the standing steps. USEA guidelines for the conformation phase of YEH competitions indicate that handlers will walk and trot horses “in a straight line for soundness and correctness.”

Judges at Waredaca (and I presume elsewhere) typically offer handlers in YEH classes the choice of walking and trotting a simple out-and-back line or the lines of the FEH triangles (since they’re already set up) Handlers, to show their horses to maximum advantage, generally choose the latter.

YEH and FEH Series conformation tests differ in exact scoring criteria, but they share two basic challenges for a scribe — one to listening, the other to recording. First, the judge needs to walk around the horse to inspect it and move around the judging area to evaluate the walk and trot, so the scribe, at least for some judges, must manage simultaneously to remain within earshot, record comments, and not distract horse or handler, and not invite a kick from an unruly youngster.

Second, the judge needs to employ anatomical and not easily abbreviated terms to address the test criteria accurately, so the scribe, again varying by judge, must know this vocabulary in advance in order to record the judge’s comments quickly and not waste time puzzling over their intended meaning.

A judge’s particular style in approaching the test, put differently, largely determines a scribe’s particular challenges. Here are two judges — actually composites of judges for whom I’ve scribed — with very different styles. One judge comments continuously, and in great detail, throughout each step of the test, and across all four steps, requiring her scribe to write nonstop, while in motion, and to squeeze lengthy comments legibly into small spaces on a score sheet.

The other judge holds her comments until all four steps are completed, and also uses broader strokes, making her scribe’s listening and recording tasks easier, though perhaps less instructive. While these judges differ in style, however, they both provide invaluable information to the handler and owner, and, most important, for the horse.

In any case, the scribe’s role is to adapt to judging styles, not to advise on them, and if you are lucky, as I have been, you will be scribing for knowledgeable, exacting, and diplomatic judges and will be responding only to differences in kind, not in quality.

Because scribing for YEH and NEH conformation is so close-up, it offers two signal rewards: 1) the opportunity to encounter, with a tutor, not only a few stunning upper level event prospects—the equine stars of the future—but also many horses destined for fine careers in lower levels or in other disciplines; and 2) the opportunity to learn, from that tutor, about conformation, a singularly important and very nuanced area of horsemanship.

Scribing also provides the opportunity to observe an equine professional managing both horses and horse people. Given the nature of young horses, entries might behave calmly, obstreperously, or both, and USEA, with some understatement, cautions judges not to mark them down for “displaying a little exuberance.”

Given the goals of the competition, most handlers are composed and practiced professionals, but many are nervous first-time amateurs. And given the close quarters of the testing, handlers of either type are often within earshot of the judge. A good YEH or FEH judge, like a good rider, must have patience and tact to spare. A good scribe borrows the surplus.