The long and the short of it, or Why Federico Caprilli Got Fired.

Cradle Stirrup used by British Light Cavalry from late 18th century until the Boer Wars

Stirrups were invented by the Chinese, then copied by everyone else.

Makes a change, that, but it was a long time ago. Just as well China was a sleeping giant, as Napoleon observed, otherwise patent lawsuits might have been flying back and forth like arrows at Agincourt. Or is it Azincourt?

But I digress.

Stirrups made riders more secure in the saddle. Cavalrymen could lean to one side with less likelihood of falling off when using bow, sword or spear, And as we know, a rider on the ground is just…well, an infantryman, with all the disadvantages in battle that brings. Lack of speed, lack of height and let’s face it, lack of class. Actually the latter was often true. Only the relatively wealthy could afford a horse. So the Roman cavalry, for example, were their gentry. But they didn’t have stirrups.

Anyway, despite having stirrups, just about everyone rode with a really long leg position, and I suppose there were a lot of reasons why. Few individuals were taught to ride, and an armchair-type seat seems comfortable to the novice. Long stirrups make it fairly easy to mount if you have no servant to ‘leg’ you into the saddle and saddles tended to be built up front and rear anyway, which helped you keep your seat. And a long-legged position was comfortable to ride in over long distances, a thing quite common at the time which we find difficult to grasp today.

By the beginning of the 19th century cavalry officers in particular had turned this style of riding into something approaching an art form, sitting almost straight-legged with only the tips of their toes in the irons. This was not strictly to the letter of army regulations, which, admittedly, did advocate long stirrups, but it had the effect of showing off their fine boots and breeches. Spurs were even fitted to the boot heel rather than the ankle so they didn’t spoil the line of the leg.  Because a trim, shapely thigh might easily turn a young lady’s head…

A shapely thigh...

But there were disadvantages. You couldn’t rise, or post, to the trot. This wasn’t usually a problem on home duty, but once cavalry went abroad on campaign long marches, the often indifferent treatment and irregular feeding of horses, and their consequent loss of condition, let to a huge increase in sore backs. Imagine being dog-tired, hungry and saddle-sore, riding a similar horse. You’re going to flop about in the saddle and make the poor animal’s sufferings far worse.

The other disadvantage of this style of riding was its limitation as a weapons platform. If you’re toting a huge lance and wearing armour so heavy it’s difficult to keep the damned weapon horizontal, then fine – have long stirrups and a deep seat. But riding with a slightly bent knee gave much more positional flexibility and, more importantly, reach when using a sabre or lance. And a shorter stirrup didn’t compromise stability – you could still use your carbine, for example. Though smoothbore firearms were so inaccurate you couldn’t expect to hit anything more than fifty yards away even if you were lying on the ground using a rest.

So many far-sighted officers began to shorten their stirrups. Some even went so far as to use two different lengths, very long for parades and pulled up a couple of holes for going into action. Maybe that’s why General John Slade took so long deciding the correct length to use against French cavalry at Mayorga that his Divisional Commander, Lord Paget, sent a subordinate to lead Slade’s brigade into the attack.

Still, it wasn’t until very late in the century that anyone really thought about using short stirrups to ride across country. That man was Lieutenant Federico Caprilli, an Italian cavalry officer and equitation instructor.

Caprilli made a detailed investigation into the way horses jumped. That’s him in the picture with the wicked moustache.

It had been believed for centuries that horses needed to land over a jump on their hind legs, the forelegs being too weak to take the weight of horse plus rider. That’s why horses were ridden into fences with their heads hauled up as high as possible and with the rider leaning far back in the saddle. Sounds completely barmy to us nowadays, but people once believed the world was flat.

Anyway, Caprilli developed what was the original ‘forward seat’ and was fired from his teaching position at the cavalry school for his pains. Not madly surprising, really: the ‘arme blanche’ has tended to stick with ideas rooted firmly in the time of Frederick the Great, don’t you know. Especially the British.

That’s why, in the Boer and First World Wars, no-one considered mounted cavalry attacking entrenched machine guns without artillery support a daft idea, even though Marshal Ney had made the same mistake a hundred years before at Waterloo (okay – Ney was attacking infantry squares but the principle’s the same). And it’s why the ‘perfect’ British cavalry sword wasn’t issued until 1908, when mechanisation was only a few years away. Perfect planning, eh?

Sorry – digressing again.

Caprilli jumping a cart

Caprilli eventually got his job back once the Italian top brass had tried out his theories themselves and found they really did work. And the rest is history, as they say, because without him no modern horse sport would have got off the ground (no pun intended). Except racing, maybe, but look what difference Todd Sloan’s over-the-withers style made to that.

So next time your knees are giving you gyp after a ride, just remember you’ve got Caprilli to thank…for saving your horse’s back!


~ by cavalrytales on December 29, 2011.

2 Responses to “The long and the short of it, or Why Federico Caprilli Got Fired.”

  1. love your blog…always do
    What I think stirrups offered early on was allowing the knight to stand in his stirrups because of all the weight pressing down on his crotch. Not a comfortable idea I don’t imagine. This would of course keep him off balance and easy to knock out of the saddle so the armchair style would have helped here. I don’t know if armchair fits here tho.
    Very interesting…the history of stirrups


  2. I liked the idea of the West copying a Chinese idea instead of vice-versa!
    And of course I often ride with long stirrups to show off my shapely legs. Not.


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