The story of Caprilli - how strategic interests changed the face of horse riding forever


I assume that the majority of you readers of this article have, at some point in your life, witnessed a show jumping competition (at least on TV) and some of you may have even enjoyed practicing this sport. I know for sure I have. However what most people are unaware of is that the elegant sport of the show jumping - and his neighbor cousin, the full competition - arose from a strategic necessity before the start of the First World War and from the pure genius of an Italian officer.

The how and why will be the topics of this article.

I will begin by introducing you to the protagonist of this story: a young Italian cavalry officer named Federico Caprilli. Born in 1868 in Livorno on the west coast of the Italian peninsula, he entered the Military College of Florence at the age of thirteen and was selected to be part of the Military Academy of Modena in the year 1886. Initially deemed unsuitable to serve in the cavalry by the medical authorities nevertheless managed to be selected by the cavalry regiment Royal Piedmont in Saluzzo and follow the courses at the Royal Military Riding School in Pinerolo.

In his regiment he distinguished himself as a talented horseman (challenging the medical authorities who had judged him "unsuitable") and was selected to follow the instructor course at the Pinerolo riding school in 1891 and in October of the same year he was sent to the newly established Military Hippodrome of Tor di Quinto, just outside Rome. This was created with the purpose of improving the poor performance of the cavalry forces in overcoming obstacles in the battlefield. Right here the young lieutenant Caprilli began to stand out.

Before continuing, a brief historical overview is required. As the introduction of modern firearms to the battlefield made heavy armored knights an obsolete tool, the use of horses for military purposes was divided into three branches with distinct (though sometimes overlapping) areas of responsibility. These were mounted infantry, heavy cavalry e light cavalry. In the next paragraphs, I will analyze them one by one, explaining their particularities to better understand the context of our history.

La mounted infantry it was the least prestigious branch - and technically it was not a matter of cavalry as the task of its members was not to fight on horseback (for this reason they were not equipped with sabers or spears). Often dressed in plain uniforms and on horseback of specimens of lower quality than those used by fellow cavalry, their task was to advance quickly and occupy the territory before the enemy (the same role as today's motorized infantry). For this reason, they were often equipped with battle rifles rather than carbines and were trained in infantry tactics.

La heavy cavalry it was considered by many to be the most prestigious branch of the cavalry due to the maintenance and training costs of each unit. This was the flagship weapon of many armies (no different from today's battle tank) and their job was to attack and smash enemy infantry formations - particularly the so-called square formation - once this was weakened by artillery fire. This required strong men on heavy horses, equipped with heavy swords and able to perfectly control their mounts in order to present themselves as a homogeneous front during the attack.

Lastly, the light cavalry it must have been the eyes and ears of the army. Straddled by vigorous specimens, he operated in small groups that had the task of following the movements of the enemies, carrying orders back and forth to the front and carrying out fast and precise attacks on targets of opportunity such as supply caravans or unorganized soldiers fleeing the battlefield.

This required men with wit and survival spirit, light cavalry will later evolve into what is nowadays called reconnaissance group.

At the end of the nineteenth century as our story begins, both branches of the cavalry were still formally existing, yet the lines between them had become increasingly blurred. All cavalry troops had to fill a multitude of roles that included reconnaissance and mounted attacks - particularly against other mounted mounted or infantry units caught in the open. At the same time, metal armor and helmets disappeared for use in the field (except for the French army) and the lavish armor of yesteryear was becoming more and more practical.

However, cavalry was not the only branch of the armies that had evolved during this period ... The average infantry soldier was now equipped with rifles equipped with magazines and capable of rate-of-fire that had never been seen before and they were equipped with tape-fed machine guns with water-cooling systems and hydraulically cushioned, rear-loaded cannons that could fire explosive ammunition equipped with timed devices. This meant that any cavalry attack against a well-prepared enemy - and this was there raison d'etre heavy cavalry - it would have been a suicide attack.

The young Lieutenant Caprilli made this happen and realized that the future of cavalry as a weapon in its own right would be at risk if no steps were taken to ensure that the mounted soldier could remain a relevant figure on the modern battlefield.

The answer to this challenge was simple and brilliant. The cavalry was to transform into the nineteenth-century equivalent of the modern drone, capable of carrying information and striking targets of opportunity anywhere on the battlefield - on any terrain.

One method to achieve this was to transform the horse-rider combination into a real "off-road vehicle" capable of traversing obstacles that previously seemed impossible to cross and therefore being able to strike from unexpected directions. In the Italian context this meant - among other things - being able to jump over stone walls and fences that separated the fields in the countryside and climbing and descending cliffs at speed. This required a completely new approach to riding and Caprilli was the right man for this task.

Old fashioned jump

Show jumping on horseback existed as a discipline well before the arrival of Caprilli, especially in fox hunting circles as it has been illustrated several times in the past, and has already been used by cavalry as a method of escape, with jumping streams or fences. The problem lay in the style of jumping which required the jockey to lean back on the saddle to balance his balance. This forced the horse to land on its hind legs causing discomfort to the animal - this meant that the height and length of the jump were severely limited.

Caprilli first decided to find out what the jumping technique of horses was when they were not impeded by the weight and guidance of the jockey. Using a camera to document his findings, he made the horses jump various obstacles without the jockey (the so-called "free jump") to observe their movements. What he found was that when the horse jumped without a jockey, it used its powerful hind legs to give itself momentum as it used its front legs to land, using a rotational motion - referred to as a “swing” - to balance and overtake the obstacle.

The "Caprilli" style

After establishing the sequences of the natural jump thanks to the photographs, Caprilli determined what should be the best jumping technique with a jockey on the saddle. The simplicity of the answer matched its brilliance. Caprilli shortened the stirrups considerably and moved his seat to the rear of the saddle while keeping his hands on the horse's neck. This allowed him to closely follow the movements and rise up on the stirrups at the moment of the launch and landing, causing less discomfort to the horse during the jump.

Another element that Caprilli changed was the role of the conductor. In the old system the horse was ridden towards the obstacle with the help (lower leg, saddle and reins) of the jockey and was forced to jump at a precise moment - essentially making the jump a jumping exercise. dressage (a term that can be translated as training). Caprilli instead decided to give the horse much more freedom by trusting his innate ability to navigate through obstacles and adjust speed and momentum on his own. In short, he made the horse an "active companion" and not a "slave".

The results of this new approach were spectacular. As the Fosbury Flop in high jump competitions of the late XNUMXs, this new technique allowed horses and jockeys to jump higher and farther, far more than anyone could have imagined.

Caprilli, in 1894, became riding instructor in Tor di Quinto. However, the Italian army was slow to implement his teachings and after returning to Pinerolo in 1895 he was immediately sent to a regiment of lancers in Nola in southern Italy. The cause of this, however, may have been his reputation as a womanizer.

Not discouraged, Caprilli continued to develop his "system", demonstrating its effectiveness by winning show jumping competitions - sometimes employing "mediocre" quality horses to beat opponents who mounted much better horses but who adopted the old style.

He continued to garner supporters for his system and was promoted to captain in June 1902. In 1902 he broke the world record for high jump on horseback with a deadlift of 2.08 meters (following image) and in 1904 he was asked to return to Pinerolo by the school commander.

In 1905 he became the director of the department and began to put together his notes to put his reflections on paper and thus preserve them for posterity. Unfortunately, fate would have it otherwise. On a cold December morning in 1907 his horse slipped and fell on a snow-covered cobblestone in Pinerolo. Captain Caprilli was thrown to the ground and passed out. At the hospital he was diagnosed with a skull fracture and died without ever awakening - taking his brilliant ideas with him to his grave.

Fortunately for all riding students (which includes the show jumping) there were many disciples who were able to carry on the Caprilli torch and in the twenties and thirties Pinerolo and Tor di Quinto were universally considered the Mecca of horseback riding cross country with officers from all over the world who traveled to Italy to learn the Italian style of riding.

The Italian heritage also lives on in the sporting nomenclature of show jumping where the obstacles used for the vertical jump are called "fence" and the small obstacles made up of a single bar are called "stands".

The disaster that was the Second World War put an end to this era, but today the spirit of Caprilli still lives not only in the Italian equestrian scene but in the many jockeys from all over the world who jump obstacles every day using the movements. of their horses and keeping its brilliant heritage alive.

Soren Anker Larsen *

* Lieutenant Colonel Soren Anker Larsen is a Danish Army officer, currently employed as liaison officer at the "Center de planification et de conduite des opérations" (Joint Operational Command) in Paris. In his free time he practices equestrian sports, hunting and the study of military history with particular regard to cavalry. 

The article, originally in English, was translated by Francesco Rugolo.