We Owe It to the Military

by Barbara Ellin Fox

Modern jumping in America owes its success to the Military; to the United States Cavalry to be specific. From 1923-1933 the US Army sent 15 or 16 horsemen to study the principals of Caprilli’s forward riding at the Italian Cavalry Schools. Generally the men spent one year at the school, although a few attended for 2 years. Harry D. Chamberlin not only attended Tor Di Quinto, the advanced Italian Cavalry School, he also graduated from the French Cavalry School at Saumur.

With the help of other cavalrymen and a wide selection of horses, Harry Chamberlin developed a relationship between the French Cavalry School principals and the Italian Cavalry School (Caprilli) principals resulting in a method of riding that best suited the equestrian activities in America. The method has been called the Fort Riley Seat, the Chamberlin Seat, or the Military Seat. It has also been referred to as the Balanced Seat.

The Cavalry School at Fort Riley began in 1919 and continued until shortly after WWII, when the Cavalry was “dismounted”. It wasn’t until 1929 that a Board of Officers was formed to revise the previous, “Manual of Equitation” and incorporate a seat that was more suitable for cross country, hunting, steeplechase and show jumping. Up until1929 the static, deep seat was taught with very little influence from Caprilli’s forward methods.

It is believed that Maj. Harry D. Chamberlin wrote a large portion of the new manual, but he had lots of help. The Board of Officers that worked on the new manual reads like the “who’s who” of riding. Some of the men who were on the Board were:

Col. Guy V. Henry Jr., team leader and rider for the 1912 Olympic team winning the Bronze Medal in Eventing, graduate of Saumur, future commandant of the U.S.Cavalry School, future Olympic Judge and 2001 inductee into the USDF Hall of Fame.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Lear, member of the 1912 Bronze Medal Three Day Event team
Lt. Col. W.W. West, graduate of the Italian Military School at Tor Di Quinto.
Maj. Harry D Chamberlin, graduate of Tor Di Quinto and Saumur, and multiple time Olympic team member.

In 1935 the Board of Officers produced a unique set of training manuals titled, Horsemanship and Horsemastership”. The 3 volume Horsemanship and Horsemastershipwas the first real American textbook series on riding and horse care. The work teaches a “forward” or “balanced seat” and changed the U.S. military seat for ever, helping to make the Cavalry School at Fort Riley become the best in the world.

In 1934 Lt. Col. Harry D. Chamberlin wrote “Riding and Schooling Horses”, followed by “Training Hunters, Jumpers, and Hacks” in 1938. Where the Cavalry “Horses and Horsemastership” is a little dry because it is written in the style of a military manual, Lt. Col. Chamberlin’s books are written for the general horsemen. He had the books proofed by a novice horsewoman in order to produce the clearest text possible. These three titles; “Horses and Horsemastership”, “Riding and Schooling Horses” and “Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks”, should be part of every serious equestrian library.

For many years, “Horsemanship and Horsemastership” was out of print but it has been recently republished and the volumes are available through the US Cavalry Association at www.uscavalry.org. This web site has many interesting items related riding in America, including US Army training DVDs.

Harry Chamberlin’s books remain out of print but they can be found through google book searches, or Amazon, and through some of the bookstores that sell old horse books, such as Knight Equestrian Books.

So, where does the military seat fit into the modern world of horsemanship and competition? When the Cavalry was dismounted after WWII, many of the Cavalry instructors began to teach the public, consequently the military seat spread into all of the jumping venues . Because the military seat was designed for cross country riding, it was the most secure seat for riding at speed, over obstacles and over undulating ground. It was and still is the perfect seat for fox hunting and is the accepted seat for eventing. Even the current hunter/jumper and hunter seat equitation riders can thank the US Cavalry School for the beginning of their riding method. Hunter Seat Equitation icon, George Morris, has probably had the strongest influence on today’s show ring rider. Pictures from his competitive years show that George Morris rode in the military seat. George Morris was taught by Gordon Wright, who was an instructor at Ft. Riley just before the school was discontinued. Gordon Wright also taught Olympic Silver Medalist, William Steinkraus. Sally Swift is another notable instructor who was taught by an ex Cavalry instructor.

Over time and for multiple reasons, the American riding style has changed. Certainly there is a big difference between the military seat and the way hunters are currently ridden. There is perhaps, less difference between the military seat and today’s eventing rider, but still there have been changes. Even Pony Club, the stronghold of the military seat, has made its own changes in riding and instruction. Later on, I’ll blog on some of these changes because they’re crucial to the history of US Horsemanship, but the starting place is in acknowledging our roots in the military seat.

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