Santini’s first foray: Riding Reflections

Santini divides the equestrian world into civilians (amateurs) and officers of the “mounted arms” (professionals).
Santini divides the equestrian world into civilians (amateurs) and officers of the “mounted arms” (professionals).

Piero Santini. Riding Reflections. New York: Derrydale Press, 1932. Revised edition, London: Country Life, 1950. Out-of-print.

Piero Santini (1881-1960), disciple of Federico Caprilli and a major in the Italian cavalry, produced a trilogy of books in English, circa the 1930s, advancing Caprilli’s revolutionary system of equitazione naturaleRiding Reflections (1932), The Forward Impulse (1936), and Learning to Ride (1941) (the last was reissued in 1952 as The Riding Instructor). Xenophon Press has reprinted The Forward Impulse and Learning to Ride; Riding Reflections, unfortunately, remains long out of print and available only on the secondary book market.

Though the three volumes share subject, they differ in emphasis and audience. Santini opens The Forward Impulse on this note: “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.” The book offers 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). As Santini notes, it is “obviously meant for horsemen of mature experience.”

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

Learning to Ride, by contrast, sets out to “crystalize the principles” advanced in Riding Reflections and The Forward Impulse in order to establish the “minimum that … beginners should know on these lines before taking any active part in field or ring.” While Riding Reflections and The Forward Impulse introduce, explicate, and promote the Italian Method and forward seat to experienced ridersLearning to Ride aims to introduce the seat to neophyte riders and to provide their instructors a guide for teaching it. Even more pointedly than its predecessors, it focuses on the “tuition of the rider” rather than the “instruction of the horse.”

Santini’s first volume, Riding Reflections, wastes no time — or diplomacy — in defining an 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.”

In 1932, “well-organized cavalry schools” still trained officers who were becoming military anachronisms but were dominating international equestrian competition.
In 1932, “well-organized cavalry schools” still trained officers who were becoming military anachronisms but were dominating international equestrian competition.

Riding Reflections addresses civilians (or amateurs) in the third and perhaps second categories: it aims to correct “current defects and misconceptions regarding riding position in those 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 were dominating international equestrian competition. That distinction would fade by 1936, in The Forward Impulse, and all but disappear by 1942,in Learning to Ride.

Riding Reflections comprises 11 chapters. Excepting Chapter II, Geometry of the Forward Seat, they number a few pages each. The book also includes six “figures” or instructional drawings (plus several illustrative drawings), four diagrams more technical in content, and 42 photographic plates of high quality and good size in both editions. Visually arresting as well as edifying, the plates do not simply illustrate Santini’s points, but generally serve as their bases. Typically, they juxtapose shots of military professionals with those of civilian amateurs — the latter “principally instructive [in showing] what should not be done.”

Santini gives little background in this volume to the development of the Italian Method or its foundational “Italian seat”  (subsequently known as “forward seat”) — at least in comparison with The Forward Impulse. In the opening chapter of Riding Reflections, 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 14 topics ranging from misconceptions; through angles, arms, fingers, and wrists; to perfection, instinct, and simplicity. Some points introduced in this chapter and repeated subsequently include Santini’s dictum that the Italian seat, contrary to popular misconception, “is not based on the short leather”; his opinion that writing on“overcoming, rather than correcting, the defects of the horse … would be better employed in studying the defects … of the horseman”; and his conviction 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. In Riding Reflections, this theme takes the form of an extended paean to hunting with hounds. Cross-country riding, briefly put, 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. The emphasis on hunting over mounted warfare may seem paradoxical, given Santini’s opening distinction between military professionals and civilian amateurs, but it has a historical logic.

Piero Santini

Santini’s encomium 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 the chase as training for mounted warfare. Modern Anglophone contributors to the tradition include Lewis Edward Nolan, whose Cavalry: History and Tactics (1853) argues that military horses and riders likely benefit more from hunting than from dressage; E. A. H. Alderson, whose Pink and Scarlet, or Hunting as a School for Soldiering (1900) offers a treatise on its titular subject; and Siegfried Sassoon, whose Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) foreshadows and pairs with his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

In addition to reflecting that tradition, Santini’s trilogy also reflects the flux and uncertainty of the entre deuxguerres moments that Sassoon and Santini shared. Clearly meant to extend beyond the boundaries of equitation per se, Santini’s writings shadow an evolution in European culture and politics of the period from nostalgia to aggression to guarded hope. The Forward Impulse deploys the strident bombast of a manifesto from start to finish; Learning to Ride merges the pedagogy of a guidebook with the passion of an equestrian gospel for the next generation; and the first foray, Riding Reflections, transcends the condescension of its preface and approaches the reflectiveness of an elegy.

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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