Posthumous Santini: Horseman’s Dictionary and Caprilli Papers

From The Caprilli Papers: “Consistency of position throughout changes of balance” – The pianoforte – at Tor di Quinto Cavalry School.

The Horseman’s Dictionary; by Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood and Piero Santini. London: Pelham Books, 1963. Out of print.

The Caprilli Papers: Principles of Outdoor Equitationby Captain Federico Caprilli. Trans. and ed. by Major Piero Santini. London: J.A. Allen, 1967. Out of print.

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 both military and civilian equitation. Though Caprilli died prematurely at age 40 and left precious little writing on “Il sistema” behind him, he had trained many brilliant students who carried its principles forward.

Major Piero Santini
Major Piero Santini

Major Piero Santini (1881-1960), Caprilli’s most ardent disciple and a tireless advocate for his system in the English-speaking world, published an influential trilogy of books advancing the principles of forward riding: Riding Reflections (1932), The Forward Impulse (1936), and Learning to Ride (1942). Santini also played important roles in two posthumously published books: The Horseman’s Dictionary (1963) and The Caprilli Papers (1967). Having published three essays on Santini’s trilogy on, I would like to round out the series with a comment on his posthumous works.

Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood
Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood

Lida Fleitmann Bloodgood, a distinguished equestrian and author and Santini’s “lifelong friend and collaborator,” joined him in compiling The Horseman’s Dictionary. Its dust wrapper describes 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 3000 separate entries. While many of these 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).

The numbers are neither surprising nor untoward. Lieut.-Col. C.E.G. Hope notes in his Foreword that “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 widely across disciplines. To cite its title page, it includes “over 3500 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.” Literally multi-disciplinary, the Dictionary is also metaphorically “multi-lingual.”

Though dictionaries, as reference works, mean to be consulted, not read, dictionaries in special fields often reward reading. The Horseman’s Dictionary is one of them. First, the 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. Second, the words no longer in use, many pertaining to carriages and other conveyances for the Road, open windows onto the past; they enhance a reader’s knowledge of equestrian history. And third, most amateur equestrians practice one discipline, and may have little knowledge of others; this book broadens a reader’s disciplinary perspective.

Not simply a book that teaches, though, The Horseman’s Dictionary also delights. Some definitions 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”; as are some distinctions, such as between Horseman and Horsemaster. Many terms defined are colorful, such as Leaping Powder; Jumping powder: “Strong drink taken to induce courage before a hunt or race.” And some are wonderfully 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.’

The Dictionary, finally, includes two noteworthy hommages. 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 (1881-1960): “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.”

"Calling a cab", defined by Bloodgood and Santini as a "once common but now fortunately almost obsolete habit".
“Calling a cab”, defined by Bloodgood and Santini as a “once common but now fortunately almost obsolete habit”.

A very different kind of book in both form and content, The Caprilli Papers is a large but slim 8vo — an elegant piece of bookmaking comprising only 40 pages of text plus 26 pages of photographs. The text derives its 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 life, as noted above, Caprilli published very little writing — astonishingly little, given his eventual reputation as Grisone’s peer in genius and influence.

Captain Federico Caprilli
Captain Federico Caprilli

Lieut.-Col. C.E.G. Hope notes in his Foreword 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.” Hope then adds that “it was through [Santini] that he “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” — the précis that formed the basis for “these ‘Caprilli papers’.”

Santini notes in his Introduction 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.” The “papers” comprise substantial passages from Caprilli occasionally interleaved with explanative (or interpretative) glosses, often acerbic, from Santini. Put differently, here as in other works, Santini stands as Caprilli’s “intermediary and interpreter” (to use Hope’s terms). If this has allowed generations of horsemen to hear Caprilli, it has also required them, in effect, to hear Caprilli through the medium of Santini.

The rest of the Introduction is an encomium. Santini has undertaken this précis to give Caprilli’s “epoch-making maxims … and their creator the place to which they have a right in the annals of world equitation.” Caprilli has earned that exalted place by 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, then, 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.”

Captain Caprilli demonstrating the forward seat.
Captain Caprilli demonstrating the forward seat.

In the first and most trenchant of five short chapters, 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. Since the “greatest possible mistake” when seeking this goal is to try 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 establishes his “fundamental, constant and unvarying principle”: 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.”

An instructor of officers and of officers as instructors, Caprilli contends that forward riding is the only correct method, because “any other method is harmful and teaches artificial action, in direct opposition to the horse’s natural mechanics.” An important corollary is 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.

Caprilli's student Ruggero Ubertalli.
Caprilli’s student Ruggero Ubertalli.

In addition to the frontispiece — a handsome photographic portrait of Caprilli on “Pouff” — The Caprilli Papers includes “40 illustrations from old and rare photographs collected by Major Santini,” to cite the title page. They command as much attention as does the text. Not simply “illustrative,” they in fact constitute a coherent, edifying, and engaging 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).

The first two groupings tell a clear story. The first 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 formidable vertical “slide” at the Tor di Quinto Cavalry School. The second grouping then 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.”

The 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 “slide,” including an impressive image of “Tor di Quinto’s last comandante, Colonel Francesco Forquet going down the ‘slide’ with his hands off the reins” — well forward in his seat and in compete 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 Santini jumping “at the Salonika Front in the Great War, 1914-18.”

Long out of print, The Horseman’s Dictionary and The Caprilli Papers are currently available in neither reprint nor print-on-demand formats. Scarce copies can be found on the specialty book market, however, with the former title, generally the worse for wear, in the $15-25 range, and the latter title, when well preserved, in the $150-250 range. They are worth searching out.

The slide at Tor di Quinto.
The slide at Tor di Quinto.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

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