Becoming a Cavalryman
The Cavalry and the Military Seat
As the world evolved toward the eve of World War 1, the U.S. Cavalry was going through several evolutions of its process of training horsemanship and riding. Between 1900 and 1910 there were continuous changes to the courses offered at Fort Riley, Kansas, the headquarters of the cavalry in the U.S.
A major shift was happening in the world of horsemanship in the early 1900s. Army personnel who rode horses during World War 1 were living through those changes, and a glance at photos show a clear indication of the influence of the old and new schools of thought.
The old school was represented by what was called the “military seat.” Men sat quite upright, but their knees and lower legs were usually in front of their torsos. The high pommel and cantle (front and back) of military saddles held them in place even during the abrupt pace changes and lateral movements of battle using a sabre or lance. Cavalry troopers and all those who rode horses as simple transport (officers not in the cavalry) usually adopted some form of this seat.
Although they were supposed to adopt the military seat, the troopers who rode artillery and supply animal harnessed to vehicles often subsided into a far less military bearing, and the regulations are full of admonitions not to allow the men to slump in their saddles, a posture that put excess weight far back on the horse or mule’s back and invariable led to sore backs (on the part of the animals.)
Cavalry officers were given far more training in equitation (how to ride) than any other soldiers. It was these men who began to be influenced by the new ideas, primarily the philosophy of the French cavalry school at Saumur and by the ideas of Federico Caprilli, an officer in the Italian cavalry in the late 1800s.
Though known as an unorthodox rider, Caprilli eventually became an instructor in the Italian cavalry school at Pinerolo, for he produced horses and men who were fearless riding cross country over obstacles of every kind.
“For riding over fences or cross country, he altered traditional methods of equitation which were used throughout continental Europe. Instead, he devised his idea of the “forward seat.” By 1904, his theory of riding was officially adopted by the Italian cavalry, and cavalry officers from throughout Europe came to Pinerolo to learn his methods.”
Caprilli advocated letting the horse find its natural balance when jumping. For the rider he developed a system whereby the rider bore much of his weight on his thighs, knees and his feet in the stirrups while maintaining a very light contact with the saddle.
Today this is known as riding in “two point” – the two points being the upper leg/knees and the feet, without the seat touching the saddle, or “three point” – when the seat is also in the saddle.
The rider strove to maintain his center of gravity over that of the horse at all times, that is, approximately over the withers. Riders using the forward seat were much further forward over their horse’s backs than those using the traditional military seat.
The forward seat allowed horses greatly increased freedom to use their heads, necks and backs, especially over fences and at faster gaits such as the canter and gallop.
The Italian school emphasized cross-country riding rather than formal parade ground drills or even mounted fighting skills.
Caprilli ranks among the great innovators in the history of equestrian training, with his legacy continuing in the show jumping community and in the twentieth century popularization of both the “Balanced Seat” (the seat the U.S. cavalry eventually evolved toward, with the rider's body slightly more upright than the Forward Seat, with emphasis on strong core muscles and development of independent seat and hands at all gaits and over fences); and the “Hunt Seat,” a somewhat stylized version of the forward seat, with the rider often leaning quite far forward at all gaits and folded almost flat over the neck during jumping, and permitting support from the hands resting on the horse's neck during jumping.
The Caprilli influence was felt at the U.S. Cavalry’s Mounted Service School at Ft. Riley, Kansas as early as 1910. Photos of the U.S. Olympic team in the 1912 Olympics, the entire team made up of cavalry officers, show classic forward seat position.
It is easy to see the difference between this and the older military seat when looking at jumping photos, and it is clear which seat makes the horses more athletic and happier. In 1915 the Cavalry Journal published an extract from General Orders No. 6, Headquarters First Cavalry Brigade, Fort Sam Houston, Texas espousing the ideas of what would become known as the Forward Seat. The body of the rider must be inclined forward when approaching a jump, the reins must be held loosely during jump and landing, and the fallacy of “supporting” the horse with the reins was soundly denounced; “the horse is never “supported” by pulling on his mouth.”2
Riders using the military seat were leaning back, balancing themselves on the reins, forcing the horse’s head up, the mouth wide open, and the back dropped and hollow. Often the horse’s front and even rear legs dangled rather than being folded up to allow clean passage over the fence.
By contrast, horses whose riders were using the forward seat showed a clean and efficient line over the fence, with neck and head extended, mouth closed, and back curved slightly upward in what is known as the bascule – a French word meaning see-saw and referring to the arch of the horse’s back over the jump, which is visualized as the fulcrum in the middle of the see-saw. This seat and its modern variants are still used in all jumping and cross country riding.
The Mounted Service School
By 1906, there was an official recognition that the courses in horsemanship taught by the French at their cavalry school at Saumur were the ideal toward which the U.S. wanted to move. Two officers, Capt. Walter C. Short and Capt. Guy V. Henry, were sent to Saumur. Both held positions in command at Ft. Riley, and Capt. Henry was sent to West Point to take the same form of equitation training there. Guy Henry subsequently became a well-known author and recognized expert in riding and jumping in the mid-twentieth century.
By 1907, the official name of the school at Ft. Riley was changed to “Mounted Service School,” and the courses were focused on riding expertise, cavalry tactics, and horse care. The courses offered included hippology (horse anatomy, diseases, care, habits, and general handling); horseshoeing; equitation; harness and transportation; and cavalry drill.
But this change of curriculum had an unintended effect; by 1908, all subjects not directly related to horses were dropped. Even weaponry was eliminated, though it was reintroduced shortly thereafter.
The school during the years immediately prior to World War 1 “suffered much discouragement. Lack of conception in the service generally as to the real object of the School, distrust as to the practical utility among the troops of its principles and methods, opposition among older officers who clung tenaciously and jealously to the old ways and customs, lack of funds, personnel, stables, riding halls, and quarters, - all these things (were) overcome only through patience, tact, and much compromise, during which, however, it was highly essential to keep in mind the ultimate goal in view.”3 During that period Capt. (later Colonel) George H. Cameron guided the School and made it into a solid and well-functioning organization.
By 1915 the U.S. Cavalry Journal reported very favorably on the school and its equitation training: "The young officers who make up the class are very intelligent and fit and at present are largely comparatively recent graduates of the military academy [West Point]. It goes without saying that they “know how to ride,” most of them fearlessly and competently. Some of them look well on horseback and some do not; and generally it is purely a coincidence if any two ride alike. It is difficult to fix on any one inept feature obviously common to all, but perhaps it is a sense of antagonism between horse and rider, more or less in evidence, the horse bearing his burden under protest and the rider too alert; an antagonism more conspicuous among civilian riders and reaching a climax with the cruel methods of the cow-boy.
“Whether this impression is substantial or merely fanciful, does not essentially matter because in a few weeks a change has taken place gradually and become clearly discernible not only in the student officer’s riding, but in his whole attitude toward a horse: i.e., toward any horse given him to ride, however undesirable the mount….confidential relations have somehow been established between man and horse.”4
But when the U.S. went to war in 1917, all of the instructional personnel at the School were ordered to the battlefield. Thus, at a time when they could have been most useful in training army personnel in all things related to horses, they were disbursed to various other duties. Graduates of the Mounted Service School were highly desired for their horse management expertise, but there were no more graduates until after the war.
Only one cavalry unit saw action in France, and it was very brief. Most of the cavalry troopers who went to France were put to work in stable management positions – a good use of their skills, but a disappointment to the men who had been trained to fight and instead were in the rear lines brushing horses and mucking out stalls!
What Skills Made A Man A Cavalryman?
The Cavalry Drill Regulations of 1916 summed up the prior decade of experimentation and transition. Four periods of training were described in detail for the training of a cavalry trooper.
Reading these regulations is like experiencing a classic English riding lesson of the old school. Troopers were expected to develop skills that would stand them in good stead in open country, not in a show ring. They changed horses from time to time during each lesson, and during rest periods they answered questions about what they had learned.
The Drill Regulations were very clear about what standard was required of troopers:
"To be a good military horseman each trooper should:
- Have a strong seat.
- Be able to apply correctly the aids by which a horse is controlled.
- Be capable of covering long distances on horseback with the least possible fatigue to his horse and to himself.
- Be able to use his horse to the utmost advantage in a mounted fight.
- Be capable of riding cross country.
- Under proper directions, be able to train an unbroken horse in garrison and in the field, understand how to detect and treat minor ailments to which the horse is liable, and be a good groom.
All officers, in addition to being good military horsemen and instructors in riding, must be able to train remounts and to direct their training."5
Troopers started at the very beginning. One of the lessons in the First Period of training was how to fold a saddle blanket. This was followed by how to put on and take off a blanket with surcingle, bridle, and saddle; how to lead horse, and how to mount and dismount, including how to vault onto the horse. Spurs were not worn and saddles did not have stirrups on them. All lessons were in an enclosed area, either an indoor riding hall or an outdoor ring.
Period Two taught riding at the walk, trot, and canter (sometimes called the gallop, though technically the two are quite different gaits), how to ask the horse to move forward, and how to control the horse and get it to hold to a straight line and at a fixed distance from other horses.Changes of gait and direction, posting to the trot, and suppling exercises for the rider while mounted were all covered in Period Two. Care of the horse and of saddlery, and the use of arms while mounted were also covered.
Period Three introduced riding with two sets of reins, though at this phase both of the bits were snaffle bits. Serpentines, figure eights, circles, half turns, backing, counter-canter, and jumping all were introduced. The skills of working the horse from the ground using the longe line and long lines were also part of Period Three.Cross country work over varied ground tested the troopers and how well they had mastered the lessons learned in the ring.At the end of Period Three, the double bridle with curb bit and bradoon was introduced.
Period Four introduced the concept of working "on the bit," that is, with a constant light contact into which the horse eagerly seeks the connection to the rider's hand. A double bridle with curb and snaffle (bit and bradoon) were used during Period Four, and the normal method of holding all four reins was in the left hand - which left the right hand free to use sabre or gun. All the exercises of Period Three were repeated with the double bridle during Period Four. At the end of this period the trooper was required to demonstrate his proficiency, and if he met the standard, he could be assigned to train remounts.
But the trooper's education really never ended, in the ideals of the 1916 manual. Older troopers were to be given prolonged work without stirrups at the slow trot and gallop (canter). They were also to be exercised in cross country riding over varied terrain and at rapid gaits, and had to practice the use of arms on dummies, all of this "to make of them fearless horsemen confident in their ability to defeat the enemy in mounted combat."
The manual concludes the section on training the trooper by saying, "The individual worth of each trooper, together with his feeling of invincibility, gives to the organization the confidence and audacity which enables the leader to undertake the most daring enterprises."6
- Journal of the U.S. Cavalry Association, Vol XXV, No. 106, April 1915, p. 718.
- The Rasp, 1921, p. 27.
- Cavalry Journal, April 1915, p. 572.
- Cavalry Drill Regulations, 1916. Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1916. p. 64.
- Ibid, p. 65-117.