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The American Military Seat, circa 1850-1920
The State of American Military Equitation before the "Fort Riley Seat"

By Dan Gilmore

Revised, November 23, 2012

(Author's note: This article was revised for clarity and relevance in terms of historical and technical clarity.)

The American Military Seat

Those seriously pursuing cavalry re-enacting strive to achieve a great amount of detail aimed at accuracy in terms of uniforms, tack, equipment and various other accouterments. The accuracy achieved by the best of re-enactors (mostly of the Civil War genre)is often astounding. Some reenactors go to the extent of reproducing the actual method or system of riding used by various cavalry organizations they portray. The obsolete (and I cannot over-stress "obsolete") version of the “Military Seat” to be discussed in this article is part of a an extinct system of riding that was specifically created for the purpose of mounted combat using a specific type of saddle (the McClellan).

It should be noted at this point that this method of riding is obsolete when it comes to jumping obstacles. In fact, it would be a dangerous affair in a modern jumping saddle designed for the forward seat.

By the mid-1920's this obsolete version of the "Military Seat" (circa 1850-1920) was replaced with a variant of Federico Caprilli's infinitely more efficient "Forward Seat" later to become commonly known as the "Ft. Riley Seat" (part of a system largely based upon Caprilli's "Natural System" of forward equitation. Caprilli's "Natural System" will be described in detail in a series of future articles.)

This seat as will be described was part of the Military System of Riding used by the US Army until the mid-1920's and was designed with several conditions to be considered. Those considerations developed into a system of riding that could be quickly and easily taught to riders and horses; would work with tack and equipment specifically designed for military purposes; and produced a stable platform for mounted combat.

McClellan saddles and associated tack, variants and standard military saddle designs of the day were designed to pack sufficient amounts of equipment as the trooper would need in the field. In reading cavalry manuals of the day one finds that this left the rider with very little latitude in terms of movement in the saddle and a diminished ability to use inside leg (rifles generally being stowed in a sheath under the near-side leg. In particular, the American Military Seat  was essentially a Classical Centered Seat (of the day) but with shorter stirrups, more forward leg position. The rider is seated firmly on the seat-bones, close to the saddle at all gaits. Stirrup hangers being position to facilitate standing in the stirrups securely when engaged in close combat.

The advantages of this obsolete version of the military seat was in the relative comfort and stability of the rider, the efficient carrying of equipment, in combination with some (but not much) consideration for the durability of the horse in a combat environment. The McClellan saddle used by the troopers was largely made to one specific configuration with minimal variations of proportions in terms of seat size, bars, length and angles of contact with the horse’s back to accommodate the often very large variations in the size and conformation of both horse and rider.

This required the practice of the remount program to purchase horses that met very specific qualities in terms of conformation. It was easier to find horses that fit the saddle than to fit every saddle to individual horses. It was also in keeping with the military mind-set and practical considerations that everything must conform to a specific set of parameters including not only the size and weight of the trooper but also in tack design.

Practicality and efficiency were required and horses were considered expendable - the average useful ‘life-span’ of a cavalry horse being about 30 days continuous service in the field under combat conditions. Refined riding was not a consideration and under combat conditions as any pretense of refined riding was quickly abandoned when a melee ensued - the control and schooling of horses and riders was elementary at best for combat purposes for the average trooper (with the exception being officers and officers' mounts of which the requirements demanded more specific training).

If anything can be said for the system of riding used by the US Army Cavalry, it is in terms of the level of collection (or rather lack of collection) used by riders in the field. The level of collection (if any in the field) that was employed is best described as ‘semi-collection’ as employed in Littauer’s ‘System of Forward Riding’, Carpilli’s “Natural System of Forward Equitation’ or General Chamberlain’s ‘Fort Reily Seat’. This semi-collection, or rather lack of collection in the field was a departure from most contemporary European military riding systems that were based upon Haute Ecole systems of riding (in which collection or constant use of a centered seat under all conditions was prevalent despite being entirely antithetical to forward and efficient motion while traversing uneven terrain and when traveling long distances).

Old Military Jumping Technique One of the defects of the military seat is it’s reliance on the saddle as a means of stabilizing the rider generally resulting in riding off the cantle, even when jumping. Military riding of this era (and riding in general) prior to Caprilli's "Natural System of Forward Equitation" resulted in horribly inefficient and jumping techniques to be considered horrendous by any modern standards. With the modernization of cavalry tactics and requirements of the early 20th Century, there came a change in saddle design (the advent of the modern 'forward seat' or jumping saddle) to suit forward seat riding systems being adopted by military organizations at that time.

In terms of this obsolete form of the Military Seat and how it is used, and why, is best left to the words of
contemporary practitioners of the Military System of Riding. Here is an excerpt from Horses, Saddles and Bridles by General William H. Carter, United States Army (Lord Baltimore Press, The Friedenwald Company; Baltimore MD; 1906 edition; ppg 148-159) that describes in detail the ‘Military Seat’, its purpose and method of instruction:

“In the military seat (figure 64) the rider should sit in the middle of the saddle, taking his weight upon his buttocks equally; the body and head erect and square to the front, with shoulders well back and the chest pushed slightly forward; the forearm of the bridle hand horizontal, and the elbow close to the body without pressing against it; the right arm hanging naturally, with the hand behind the thigh; the inner surface of the thighs in close contact with the horse and saddle from the knees to the buttocks, the direction of the thighs being about parallel to the horse's shoulders; the lower part of the legs, from the knees. down, should fall naturally, and be completely under the control of the rider for use as aids in directing the horse. The stirrups should be adapted to the seat, and the stirrup leathers should be of such length that when the ball of the foot rests on the tread of the stirrup the heel will be slightly lower than the toes, and both leathers of exactly the same length.

Stirrups should not be worn so long as to render the tread on them insecure, nor so short as to cramp the legs. In either case the rider is to some extent deprived of the proper use of his legs as aids, and is not able to maintain a correct seat. The position of the foot giving the greatest satisfaction is that which requires no muscular effort to prevent the toe from turning out, and in which the sole remains firmly upon the tread of the stirrup when the horse trots”       

“With the military seat as described, the rider should be able to bend the body forward, backward, or to either side without disturbing the grasp of the thighs or moving the feet. He should also be able to move the legs below the knee with entire freedom without altering his seat or disturbing the carriage of the body. The toes should not be turned out, as it causes the calves of the legs to grip the horse, and involves unintentional spurring every time the horses crowd in ranks. By keeping the feet nearly or quite parallel to the side of the horse the rider is enabled to move the lower part of his legs so as to indicate through them, in conjunction with his hands, what movement the horse is desired to execute. The rider also avoids contracting the very bad habit, peculiar to Indians and Oriental nations, of continually pounding the horse with his heels.

While the rider should sit erect, all appearance of stiffness should be avoided, for rigidity of the rider is incompatible with the supple action of the trained saddle horse in motion.

When mounted bareback, or with the blanket and surcingle, the trooper sits in the middle of the horse's back with the same seat practically except as to the feet. While these are kept parallel to the sides of the horse, the toes are lower than the heels, and point in a natural way forwards and downwards. It will be apparent at a glance that to keep the heel lower than the toes without a stirrup would involve much unnatural constraint, which, instead of adding security to flee seat, would seriously impair its stability.

In long-continued trotting exercises on the ring or in the riding hall, without saddles, the tendency of the rider is to gradually work forward to the withers. In such cases the rider should place his hand or hands on the withers of the horse and move his body back to its proper place, for the rider feels less of the roughness of the trotting gait at the middle of the back than when seated near the animal's withers.

For military riding much uniformity is demanded at all times and this circumscribes the variations of seat allowed to very narrow limits. The best way to secure this uniformity, which is desired not for the sake of appearances' but for the cavalryman's legitimate performance of duty, is to arrange the saddle and stirrups so that the average recruit, when fairly instructed, will find it easier to sit properly than any other way.

The cavalry soldier is often compelled to stand in his stirrups in order to make effective use of his arms. It is therefore necessary to place the stirrups so that when the trooper rises he can do so without constraint to himself or disturbance to the equilibrium of the horse. This condition is best secured when the stirrups are placed only a short distance in front of the center of the saddle, for then the rider in rising does not have to move forward and can resume his seat with ease. Furthermore, no muscular action is required to keep the stirrups in position, since they support the legs in their natural fall.

When the military seat is once acquired the rider has better control of the horse than through any other seat which can be do vised. If through fear or temper the horse swerves, the rides instinctively grasps the animal with his thighs, and the stirrups being directly below the seat, balance is not lost. If the horse stops suddenly there is no tendency to shoot over his head, as when the feet are stuck forward and the legs straight. If the horse rears, no time is lost in bringing back the feet and counteracting the tendency to slip off over the cantle. In fact, every sudden or unexpected movement of the horse is better provided for in the correct military seat than any other, and the rider, appreciating the security afforded by it, is less likely to degenerate into dependence upon reins and stirrups.

The military seat described contains all the elements essential to successful riding, either for pleasure or service. It varies but little in the regular cavalry of all military nations, and the trooper marching upon active service, fully equipped, with a sure prospect of hard work and scanty provender, cannot vary this seat with the same impunity as the casual rider seeking recreation and exercise. With steel stirrups, such as are used by British and European troopers, the stirrup leathers must be worn short, so that the sole of the foot will not lose contact with the tread.

Confidence in the saddle depends much upon the first lessons. As soon as the stirrups are crossed, or the recruit mounted on the blanket and surcingle for the very prosaic operation of being shaken into a good seat, everything possible should be done to eliminate faults. Small, gentle horses, with easy gaits should be selected at first, but when sufficient confidence has been acquired to perform the mounted exercises prescribed for recruits, horses should be changed daily. Care should always be taken to avoid having beginners hurt or frightened by horses that fall over backwards, bolt or kick; such things are not easily forgotten. Many a good jockey has been ruined by the mental impression left after witnessing a bad fall, and any one who has personally suffered from an accident seldom recovers his courage for difficult riding.

It has been the custom in the American army to teach recruits to ride bareback, or with a blanket and surcingle, before allowing the use of a saddle. Inasmuch as the most difficult thing to attain is balance, and the stirrup was devised for the purpose of assisting in acquiring and maintaining it, it would seem not unreasonable to first teach the correct seat in the saddle and afterwards perfect it by riding without a saddle. For teaching a firm, close seat, and giving the recruit confidence in himself, nothing is as good as the trot without stirrups.

After acquiring a good seat recruits will be ready to take their changes in the ranks; however, timid men should not be forced too fast or made to mount vicious horses, but left for time and their own ambition to overcome their fears.

If necessary to put men in the ranks for active service before preliminary instruction is completed, special attention must be paid to them, else they will become confirmed in their faults and resent later instruction because of having participated in a campaign.

The herding of the troop horses in the field is of great assistance in making bold cross-country riders of many otherwise timid men. If a recruit can be given enough confidence in his seat and horse to enable him to stay with a stampeded herd until the horses have recovered their senses sufficiently to be rounded up, there need be no fear of his not learning to ride.

A trooper whose seat is insecure almost invariably makes it manifest in the horse, which then becomes nervous and uneasy in ranks. The insecure seat causes the rider to constantly jerk or pull on the reins. When this fault continues it is often necessary to have the rider sit with folded arms, while another trooper, mounted, leads the horse at a trot around the hall or riding-ring for prolonged periods. This will compel the offender to learn to ride without depending upon the horse's mouth for support.

There is a vast difference between good riders and accomplished horsemen. Many of the former possess such secure seats that the meanest of brutes cannot dislodge them from the saddle, and
yet they may be unable to train or to appreciate a well-trained saddle horse. It is not merely the ability to stick on which should characterize the cavalryman. He should by all means be an expert horseman, and the more accomplished he becomes in that line the more valuable he will be as an example to others; increase of pride and self-respect will urge him on to perfection when he discovers his ability is recognized.

The average trooper requires a great deal of individual instruction to prevent him from contracting habits which spoil horses. It is a most noticeable fact that when a beginner gets tired and irritable he almost invariably jerks his horse to punish him for his roughness. If the horse stumbles he is given a vicious jerk long after any possibility of sustaining him has passed. If the squad be at a trot the horse is jerked to make him change his gait while the instructor's back is turned.

If the troop is ordered to trot, there will always be one or two men who will purposely keep their horses so excited that they will not trot. The only remedy is to put such men on steady old horses, that are well established in all the gaits, and punish there for any repetition of the offense.

There is a very common and unsightly fault which requires constant attention. This is the habit of curving the back ant sitting on the lower part of the spine. This is usually accompanied by a drawing in of the chest and rounding of the shoulders This position is utterly incompatible with proper military riding and no effort should be spared to correct it. If it becomes ap parent that ordinary admonition has no effect, it may be corrected by causing the trooper to hold a flat stick passed behind hi! shoulders, the ends being held by the hands, opposite the shoulders backs to the rear. This of course necessitates the horse being led by another trooper. Hump-backed riders, with insecure seats, not only detract from the appearance of an organization, but are an actual detriment on the drill ground and the battlefield.

The military seat is prescribed with minuteness of detail, and while it may be impossible for all men to conform exactly thereto, it should be insisted upon in the cavalry as closely as possible. Many men after acquiring bad habits in riding, through ignorance or stubbornness, are quite apt to imagine that they cannot do what is desired of them.

It is not possible, under the conditions surrounding the remount system of the American cavalry, to perfect the training of all horses before assignment, as is done in some European armies, and therefore the necessity for making good riders of the men becomes paramount. In any event, after a single raid or battle, many remounts must be obtained, and if a trooper has to depend upon being supplied with a gentle, well-trained animal, he may prove a detriment rather than a valuable factor in his squad and troop. A good, firm seat should be demanded, and any trooper who cannot acquire it should be transferred to a dismounted arm of the service.

On the other hand, any horse which persistently refuses to perform his work in a gentle and reasonable way under the guidance of careful and selected troopers should be cast out. A horse with many blemishes and defects which will do his work honestly in ranks will render more efficient service under careful treatment than a sound and well-bred horse which keeps a trooper always engaged in trying to keep him quiet, and to preserve his own seat. In addition to worrying his rider, a nervous horse will annoy all the men and horses in his vicinity, and distract their attention from the performance of their legitimate duties. A horse should not be condemned, however, until it is assured that this nervousness is not caused by the insecure seat of the rider. Men who cannot ride, and horses which cannot be ridden and properly trained, are useless and expensive members of any cavalry organization”

Copyright ©2011, 2012, Dan Gilmore, all rights reserved


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