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 A Brief History of The Balanced Seat

by Bob Wood

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More information on The Balanced Seat
Dressage and the Balanced Seat
Reading: The Balanced Seat
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Frederico Caprilli

Up until the end of the 19th century the western world generally rode in what was called the "chair" or “fork" seat. This was a long legged seat based on a military need to use heavy weapons from the saddle. Just after the turn of the 20th century a young  Italian Cavalry Captain named Frederico Caprilli discovered that by shortening the stirrups and riding more forward in the saddle, traveling over the terrain and obstacles required in military riding was made easier. Caprilli called his new seat the “forward seat”.  

For reasons of political alliance the Italian Army choose to open its Cavalry School to officers of friendly armies. In this way the concept of the forward seat was spread around the world.  For example, Harry Chamberlin, as a young US Army officer attended and graduated from the Italian Cavalry School during the period of introduction of the forward seat. Chamberlin went on to become a world class equestrian competitor as well as head of our US Cavalry School at Ft. Riley KS where he authored most of the US Army equitation and mounted training manuals of his time.

As the concept of the forward seat spread through most of the militaries of the western world it was varied, experimented with, and refined. During this period, roughly between 1910 and 1925, this new seat was known by many names. In America the name "Fort Riley Seat" was used. At the French Cavalry school in Saumur it was called the Saumur Seat, which particularly irritated the Italians, who responded by renaming the Forward Seat, the Italian Seat. The Russians, by the way, claimed that their Hussars had always ridden forward and that Caprilli had stolen the concept from them. The Germans, who incidentally managed to start a war with most of the western world during the time when the Forward Seat was introduced, rejected the new seat as a fad, but eventually in 1938 accepted it into their cavalry school.
This period of the early 20th century was also when military officers from many nations began competing regularly in a series of mounted tests. These competitions formed the beginning of what we now know as horse trials and eventing. In the beginning these combined tests were know as “The Military”.  It is not surprising that the Forward Seat, in its many subtle national variations with different names, became more standardized as officers competed against one another, and attended on another’s Cavalry Schools.  By the late 1920’s one name, the “Military Seat” seemed to come into near universal use to describe the new Forward Seat.   

By the 1930’s it was clear that Caprilli’s Forward Seat was no fad, but rather the most effective method for military riding, which required the greatest range of demands on the horse and rider. In short, it kept soldier alive in the most difficult mounted circumstances. It was not long that civilian riders were also intent on learning this new method of riding. Retired cavalry officers traveled the world to found riding schools to teach an eager public to ride in the new Military Seat. As the new seat became the dominant civilian riding method the name went through one more name change, and by 1940 it was almost universally known as the Balanced Seat.
  After WWII America experienced a period of great prosperity. Leisure time became a new industry, and horseback riding was on the rise as a popular sport for everyone. If you began riding in America in the 1950s, as I did, you learned the Balanced Seat, most often from a military trained instructor.  George Morris for example learned from Gordon Wright, a chief instructor at the Ft. Riley Cavalry School.  Sally Swift of Centered Riding fame received her instruction from a military rider, and Susan Harris, author of all the Pony Club Manuals and related books, received very high quality Balanced Seat instruction from military riders.  

In the 1960s in the shadow of the great post war economic boom, George Morris and other well known riders tried to find a way to get more riders jumping and showing quickly to satisfy the huge new interest in riding. They developed a series of methods meant to speed up the learning process. The most well know of these innovations was the crest release. In his August 2005 Practical Horseman column, George Morris wrote that he and others who promoted these innovative techniques never thought that their well intended short cuts would become “endemic”, or that the crest release would “become and end in itself”.  

Like it or not, the innovations of 1960s and 70s started a new direction in American riding away from the Balanced Seat. The digression of the American Hunter Seat Equitation was born, and over the next 30 years it became the dominant method of “English“ riding in the United States. Proponents of the Balanced Seat became ridiculed as “old fashion” as the new American Hunter/Jumper seat was refined into a series of forms that cared little for tradition or practicality outside the show ring. Horse show rider’s new stylized seat dominated the American equestrian landscape.  

The Balanced Seat continued as the preferred method of riding in fox hunting, polo and combined training (eventing), These sports were unaffected by the “progress" of the show ring influences, probably because they are dangerous and require a very practical secure seat.  Pony Club also remained unchanged in its teaching and became the last bastion of the Balanced Seat for new young riders.  

Now we see an extraordinary increase of interest in eventing. This interest creates an interesting challenge for new or unsophisticated riders. They often assume in ignorance that “English” disciplines are all alike and therefore that any “English” riding instructor is qualified to teach them to ride in preparation for eventing. It is in this circumstance that the inadequacies of the Hunter/Jumper show seat become very apparent.  Just as figure skating lessons would be dangerously adequate preparation for ice hockey, instruction in the contemporary Hunter/Jumper show is inadequate for eventing, or for that matter any equestrian sport outside the confines of a flat fenced arena with evenly groomed footing.  

While Hunter/Jumper barns and instructors often use the term “balanced seat” to describe their method, decades of stylized form and short cuts have moved the Hunter/Jumper seat outside the realm of the original Balanced Seat and its trademark effectiveness and military tradition. The true Balanced Seat is a method of riding that was developed as eventing took form, and this method remains today as the most effective in dealing with all the challenges of combined training with its slopes, uneven footing, solid obstacles and grueling distances. This is in sharp contrast to the Hunter/Jumper seat which is designed only for impressing judges for a few minutes in a show ring. The two seats are, to say the least, quite different in terms of effectiveness and should not be confused, particularly by eventing hopefuls.  

If there are no qualified Balanced Seat instructors in your area, I suggest traveling or inviting instructors to you area for Balanced Seat clinics. Balanced Seat riders tend to be either trained by military riders (these are getting older and harder to find), are European event or fox hunt riders (because the American h/j influence did not reach Europe with any strength), or are Pony Club trained riders (hopefully with a “B” rating or above). Accept no substitutions. Red flags from instructors purporting to teach the Balanced Seat are excessive interest in horse shows, use of the crest release, knee gripping, counting strides, an other impractical methods. A primary focus on “form” is a dead giveaway.

Dressage & the Balanced Seat

More information on English seats: Seat Comparison

The Balanced Seat is historically tied to dressage. At the French Cavalry School at Saumur, military equestrian training was divided into two parts,  dressage academique (high school dressage) and dressage sportif (dressage applied to campaign or field riding). The French Cavalry curriculum is one example of the strong connection between the Balanced Seat and traditional dressage. Therefore, another way to begin to ride in preparation for eventing is basic dressage.I do have one word of caution here.For some dressage instructors it is a great challenge to view their dressage discipline as merely one component of Combined Training. Instruction from purists of this nature can be counter productive in developing a true Balanced Seat. However, there are many dressage instructors who enthusiastically teach eventers, fox hunters and others with great pleasure, knowing their dressage skills will be applied to a broader spectrum of equestrian sport.   In the final analysis, the Balanced Seat is the ability to ride equally well from a deep seat in the saddle (dressage) and from the irons. Mastery of the Balanced Seat lies in maintaining seamless unity with one’s horse in the transitions between the two, seat and irons, without the aid of leaning on the neck or other short cuts, which effectively destroy the desired unity.   

Reading: the Balanced Seat

The Pony Club Manuals are wonderful and easy to follow.

Sally Swift’s books, while not focused in a particular seat are in my opinion excellent as well.

"Cavalry Manual of Horsemanship & Horsemastership” by Gordon Wright is a good place to start.

Harry Chamberlin’s books, “Training Hunters Jumpers and Hacks” and Riding and Schooling Horses” are classics, as are many books by Army Officers such as Beudant, Geoffrey Brooke, Noel Jackson, de Souza, S.G. Goldschmidt, Paul Holmelund, Vladimir Littauer, McTaggart, Santini, Timmis, and countless others. A student of the Balanced Seat will find that in equestrian literature the Balanced Seat is second only to dressage as the most written about seat in history.

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Bob Wood    941 Longs Gap Road    Carlisle PA  17013    717/243-8178    triplecreekfarm@gmail.com

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