At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Federico Caprilli - equestrian pioneer

Study of horses revolutionised jumping techniques


Federico Caprilli in his cavalry uniform
Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionised the way horse riders jump fences, was born on this day in 1868 in Livorno.

One of four children born to Enrico Caprilli and his wife, Elvira, Federico was bent on an army career from an early age. He enrolled as a cadet at military college in Florence at 13 years old, subsequently transferring to Rome and then Modena. He had no riding experience at the start, and when he graduated with the rank of lieutenant, though an excellent gymnast and proficient fencer, his horsemanship was marked as ‘poor’.

Nonetheless, he was assigned to the Royal Piedmont cavalry regiment, where his job, at a time when the introduction of weapons such as the Gatling Gun was negating any battlefield advantage a soldier had from being mounted, was to train horses for new combat roles, such as springing surprise attacks in difficult terrain.

It was there that he observed the way horses jumped obstacles and concluded that conventional beliefs about the way a horse should be ridden over jumps were entirely wrong.

Until Caprilli came along, it was accepted that the rider should use long stirrups and approach a fence leaning back in the saddle, legs stretched almost straight.  A sharp pull on the horse’s head was seen as the way to launch the jump.

This antique hunting scene shows a rider in typical  jumping position, leaning backwards
This antique hunting scene shows a rider in typical
jumping position, leaning backwards
Antique prints of hunting scenes inevitably show the rider in this position, leaning backwards in the saddle and appearing to jump fences in hope rather than any expectation of making a safe landing.

No one questioned this, even though the riding position was essentially the same as was employed in the middle ages, when heavy suits of armour compelled the rider to sit bolt upright.  The accepted wisdom, too, was that landing on its front legs was bad for the horse, especially carrying the additional weight of a rider, and that it should be encouraged to land on its hind legs, or at least on all four legs.

In fact, horses often injured themselves as a result of this flawed technique, either through catching the obstacle with their trailing hind legs or developing back problems.  What’s more, the jab in the mouth as the rider yanked on the reins often caused them to refuse to jump.

Caprilli, who used the relatively new device of photography to underline his findings, observed that when they jumped freely, with no rider, horses always landed on their front legs and were none the worse for it.

As a result, he devised a technique whereby the rider adopted a forward position, slightly out of the saddle, his upper body in line with the horse’s neck, his centre of gravity directly over the horse’s, and with no pressure applied to the animal’s mouth.  Caprilli also instructed his riders to allow the horse to think for itself about how it approached an obstacle and when it took off.

Caprilli's technique is demonstrated perfectly by this rider at Badminton in 2008
Caprilli's technique is demonstrated perfectly
by this rider at Badminton in 2008
The results were startling. Horses were suddenly much more willing to jump obstacles and were able to negotiate banks and ditches much more nimbly than before.  In short, they were ready to operate in terrain that would previously have been off limits.

Yet far from being congratulated, Caprilli received a frosty response from his superiors, who did not take kindly to their faith in the old methods being exposed as foolish.  Rumours, which it is suspected were false, began to circulate about his private life, of romantic entanglements with aristocratic wives, and he was posted to the south of Italy, out of harm’s way.

However, he continued to hone his techniques and when word of his excellent results in equestrian competitions reached his old regiment’s headquarters in Pinerolo in Piedmont, he was summoned back.

He was made chief instructor at the Cavalry School of Pinerolo as well as its subsidiary in Tor di Quinto (near Rome). After a year of training, riders who attended the schools were able to negotiate the jumps and obstacles of the training circuit even without reins.

Soon, as the Italian cavalry began to dominate international competition, riders came from countries around the world to study Caprilli's system and it became the new standard for any form of equestrian pursuit that involved jumping.

Caprilli died in slightly mysterious circumstances in 1907, when his body was found on a cobbled path in Pinerolo.  It was suggested that he had been attacked by a jealous husband or a resentful superior but there were no obvious signs that he had met his death in that way and it was concluded that his mount must have slipped on some ice, throwing him off, and that he had hit his head on the cobbles.

The duomo in Piazza San Donato in Pinerolo
The duomo in Piazza San Donato in Pinerolo
Travel tip:

Pinerolo is a beautiful town in the shadow of the alps, some 50km (31 miles) south-west of Turin.  It has a charming main square, the Piazza San Donato, overlooked by the cathedral of the same name, which dates back to the ninth century and which has a Romanesque bell tower and a Gothic façade. The church of Santa Croce, in Vicolo Barone, is another picturesque sight.

The commemorative plaque outside 115 Viale Italia
The commemorative plaque outside 115 Viale Italia
Travel tip:

In Livorno, where Caprilli was born, a commem- orative plaque marks the family home in Viale Italia, at number 115.  He was honoured in 1937 when the local horse racing track was renamed Ippodromo Federico Caprilli. At one time it boasted a fully illuminated track and could accommodate crowds of up to 10,000 spectators but it closed in 2016 after the company that owned it went out of business.

More reading:


Frankie Dettori - Milan-born jockey among all-time greats

The traditional horse race, the Palio di Siena

Luigi Beccali - Italy's first Olympic track gold medallist


Also on this day:


1848: The death of operatic genius Gaetano Donizetti


(Picture credits: Horse jumping by Henry Bucklow; Pinerolo duomo by Mattana; plaque by Piergiuliano Chesi; via Wikimedia Commons)








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