In order to understand how past masters of equitation rode, we have to understand the saddles they rode upon. The method of riding was based upon the saddle used.
The seat of the rider, particularly the position of the lower leg was affected by the saddle. In our own day, when we ride on an English saddle, the stirrup bars are set some distance behind the pommel. On French saddles of the 18th century, and still today on modern Portuguese and Spanish saddles, the stirrup bar is placed just behind the pommel and front arch of the saddle. This places the rider in what can be called the chair seat, referred to in the 18th century as the natural seat- i.e the seat you adopt when riding bar back, with the lower leg hanging more of less vertically from the knee. When riding in such a saddle, the leg can be drawn back under the rider to obtain the classical seat with the line of hips to ankle, but the position is not natural or relaxed, and makes the inner thigh muscles contract, and the rider to grip with the inner thigh which can cause the rider to become unbalanced and not absorb the horses movement through the lower back. In forcibly drawing the lower leg back, the knee grips up, and the heel is raised. Having ridden on reconstructed saddles from the early 18th century one finds that in order to have a secure seat, the large pommel to a degree locks the riders kneed in place, it keeps the knee down and stops gripping up. The Selle Francaise with its large cantle, that envelops the riders buttocks and thigh, holds the thigh forward- the pommel and cantle literally placing the riders leg. We need to merely look at the work of Newcastle from the second half of the 17th century to see how the saddle places the rider, and holds the leg in place. Medieval illustrations show the rider in deep saddles with long stirrups, extended so far that the rider is almost standing up. This had a practical place in medieval combat. By bracing himself with long legs against the high cantle, the rider is better prepared for the shock of the lance impact. (Although the stirrups aid in this, they are not necessary for effective shock combat). And by standing slightly in the stirrups, he is able to isolate himself from the motion of the horse and deliver the point with greater accuracy.
This long seat was still advocated in 1624, as illustrated by “L’Art de Monter `a Cheval” by Pluvinel. This seat was enhanced by the fact that the stirrups were placed well to the front of the tree. Modern English riders would be surprised to see the legs flexed out long, with the knees ridged. The toe of the rider’s foot is well forward toward the horse’s shoulder, but the heels are still down, turned slightly out.
The Selle Raise, which has no cantle what so ever, encourages the rider to rider on their fork, the upper thigh and groin area being against the pommel- balancing as it were against the pommel. The lack of a cantle and any shape to the back of the seat, makes one feel as if you are going to go ‘out the back door’ any minute, as we are used to having some degree of cantle behind us as riders. This action also causes the pelvis to rotate, so the rider is sat on their fork, rather than sat on seat bones. It does allow the rider to engage the driving aids of the seat. The chair seat places the rider’s weight on the back of the saddle and behind the motion of the horse. The seat bones are in a constant active position. This is uncomfortable for the horse, which then hollows its back and raises its head. It cannot relax or round its back or move freely forward on the aids. Again, effectiveness of the rider’s seat and legs is lost.
Also effecting the seat was the horse. The horse of the 18th century of the great masters was a very different horse to the warm bloods of today. Riding systems developed as best suited to the horses and equipment of the time. “Every time that a new type of horse characterised by its conformation and temperament – a new breed- starts to be used or a new way of utilising the horse, a new system of Equitation appears.” D. Diogo de Bragança
The method of Baucher appears with Thoroughbreds and other horses of hot blood like the pure -bred Arab, which were breeds of horses that performed a different work from the work of the Old School of the 18th century. In the nineteenth century the Aires Above the Ground were not the principal objective of Equitation, so the degree of collection (rassembler) needed was not so high. Also the lengthening of the gaits started to be considered desirable, in order that “the schooling of the horse” could be considered complete.
An Italian Cavalry officer, Captain Fredrico Caprilli, revolutionized the cavalry school of riding by advocating what we now refer to as the “Forward Seat”. He shunned the old Manage system and proposed that the rider could achieve a more natural balance over field and fence by shortening the stirrups. His “Principi di Equitazione di Compagna” published in 1901 was a landmark work. Caprilli’s book marks the beginning of the modern classical seat Caprilli emphasised that the three point seat replaced the reliance of the fork seat, and begins with the rider sitting on the triangle of ischial tuberosities [seat bones] and crotch. This allowed for the modern seat with the heel drawn under the pelvis.
Thus in order to ride like Pluvinal and other great masters we must ride in the saddles they used. To this end, we champion the use of period correct saddles in desiring to teach classical equitation and military equitation of the 18th century and early 19th century.