Santini redux: Caprilli’s disciple and the forward riding revolution

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The Forward Impulse, by Piero Santini. Rpt. 1936. Xenophon Press, 2016. vii + 110 pp. RRP $US24.

Piero Santini (1881-1960), a major in the Italian cavalry and disciple of Federico Caprilli, wrote four books proselytizing “forward riding” to the Anglophone world: Riding Reflections (1932), The Forward Impulse (1936), Learning to Ride (1941), and The Riding Instructor (1952). Xenophon Press reissued Learning to Ride in its Classics series early in 2016 and now has complemented it with a reissue of The Forward Impulse.

Though Santini’s works all focus on the fundamentals of “forward riding,” they differ in emphasis, audience, and tone. Learning to Ride, for example, as I wrote on Horsetalk.co.nz in September 2016, sets out to “crystalize the principles” advanced in its predecessors and “to establish the ‘minimum that … beginners should know on these lines before taking any active part in field or ring’.” Targeted toward civilian riders new to equitation and/or forward equitation, Learning to Ride employs the measured tone of an instructional manual for both students and instructors.

Santini opens The Forward Impulse with an equally measured tone: “The main subject of this, my second book on the Italian Method of Equitation, 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.” As promised, Santini then proceeds to offer clear technical guidelines on “how to balance the horse through engagement of the haunches, enlightened use of the seat, and conscientious elasticity of the rein contact” (to cite the editor’s preface). This book, Santini notes, is “obviously meant for horsemen of mature experience.”

The book is also obviously meant for polemical ends. Shifting after the opening into a more passionate and aggressive tone that recalls the manifestos of vanguard art movements of the early 20th century — especially Italian Futurism — The Forward Impulse advances an agenda consistent with its 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.

Captain Federico Caprilli

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 goad readers who identify one with skilled riding or the other 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 entirety, and not applied piecemeal, or grafted on to other systems.”

Captain Federico Caprilli

Santini then honors Federico Caprilli as the creative force behind that integrated and indivisible scientific method of riding. Caprilli the technician of equitation, moreover, “was an even greater student of the horse’s psychology than he was of seats, balance, and centres of gravity” — a trainer whose system for “instructing” (not “breaking) a horse was “profoundly intuitive in its dissection of equine mentality.” Santini credits Caprilli, in sum, with a training method for rider and horse that constituted a “revolution,” one 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.” The 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.”

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 (Santini’s bête noir), 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 return to origins.

That last point foreshadows the theme of Learning to Ride. “Nowadays,” Santini argues in The Forward Impulse, “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.” If so, then reclaiming the seat that enables “forward riding over the enormous drops and almost perpendicular slides of Tor di Quinto,” 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.

At just over a hundred pages that include, in addition to Santini’s text, 43 photographic illustrations, seven instructional diagrams, and six whimsical sketches by Paul Brown, The Forward Impulse packs a wealth of knowledge into a very slim volume. Spirited in its commitment to excellence, elegant in its clarity and conciseness, it will reward any reader who studies the history of modern equitation or who enjoys the pursuit of cross-country riding.

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Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and a John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, for academic year 2017-18.

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