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Some Impressions of the Italian Cavalry School at Pinerolo

by Captain P.E. Bowden-Smith, 4th Queen's Own Hussars.

Click to enlarge astonishing picture of man and horse plunging down a cliff.  There is an explanation at the bottom of the page.

The Italian Cavalry School proper is at Pinerolo, a small country town on the edge of the Alps, about 30 kilometres west of Turin, and is commanded by a Brigadier-General. The ordinary course at this School lasts nine months, and all Cavalry Officers are supposed to do the course immediately after joining their regiments from the Military College; but at present they are still working through the officers who joined during the war, and consequently most of the officers now attending the School have several years' service. Between fifty and sixty officers attend each course, and are divided into three sections or rides. A ride, therefore, may consist of as many as twenty officers, but each ride instructor is assisted by at least one, and usually two, assistant instructors. The ride instructors are senior captains, and their assistants are either junior captains or senior lieutenants who have done both courses at Pinerolo and Tor di Quinto. These assistants are normally kept a year and then sent back to their regiments, and are then considered fit to be regimental riding instructors, and the best are marked down as future instructors at Pinerolo.

Each student rides at least four hours a day, does one hour's physical training or fencing, and has at least two lectures a day - all military subjects being taught, as well as riding, training and horse-management. Each student brings two horses to the School and is allotted three School horses – a thoroughbred, a half-bred and a young horse, but only rides four a day.

The two hours' riding in the morning is nearly always done in a riding school, of which they have two. One of these two schools is supposed to be the biggest in the world, and is a very fine school indeed. It is roughly about 78 yards long and about 30 yards wide, and has a very fine glass-fronted gallery, which is divided into three compartments, one of these being strictly reserved for the Commandant and Instructors.

The chief aim of the Italian system of riding and training horses is simplicity. They say that they are not naturally a nation of horsemen and their soldiers only serve for one year, and therefore they cannot aim very high or attempt anything they consider difficult. They have, therefore, eradicated all idea of training their horses to be handy as we understand handiness. They never ride in anything but snaffles; they let the horse find his own natural balance. They practically never ride with the reins in one hand, and merely train their horses to circle and turn freely, willingly and quietly, to stop quickly and quietly but on the freehand and not suddenly, and to canter on a required leg. Changing at a canter is never attempted; in fact, nothing is done which will upset the horse's mind or natural balance. A tremendous amount of jumping is done, and they maintain, and I think quite rightly too, that with their system they will train any horse to be a good safe conveyance over any country and over every imaginable kind of obstacle in a very short time; and that by adopting their seat and position on a horse any man, no matter what his shape or natural abilities, can ride a horse over obstacles or across a country in a very short time. They also maintain that their seat and position is the easiest, both for horse and man, and that our seat and system of balancing a horse more on his hocks puts too much strain on the weakest part of the horse, viz., his loins, and that therefore their horses as a whole will always jump better, higher and more kindly than ours. In support of this I must say that I saw officers of all shapes and sizes jumping hundreds of different kinds of obstacles daily, and I never once saw a horse interfered with to any appreciable extent, either by being touched in the mouth or by the rider losing his balance, and at Pinerolo a refusal is practically unknown. They ride with a very much shorter stirrup than we do. Their rough guide for length of stirrup is to place the heel of the hand on the buckle of the stirrup leather and have them such a length that the bottom of the iron just reaches the arm-pit. However, in spite of this short stirrup, they insist on the rider being well 'enforked,' and by this they mean that he must keep his seat as near the centre of the saddle as possible and force his knee and thigh as far down as possible; and to do this the lower part of the leg must be drawn well back, but by forcing the heel well down they avoid drawing it too far back. The loins are kept well forward, and the back consequently rather hollow. To remain seated in the saddle in this position at a canter, and not stand in the stirrups, requires considerable practice and suppleness of the loins and hips, and a very long period of trotting makes the back muscles ache terribly until one gets used to it.

When jumping, the body is kept well forward with the centre of gravity well over the knees, and the seat, though it should have no weight on the back of the saddle, should not leave the saddle to any appreciable extent. In this picture the rider has brought his body slightly further forward than necessary, but otherwise his position is very good.

Click to enlarge

Jumping is practically their be-all and end-all in riding; they have no polo and they do no skill-at-arms mounted. Show-jumping is their chief sport. Shows are held all over Italy all the spring, summer and autumn, very large money prizes are given, and consequently methods which are successful in training show-jumpers carry as much weight with them as methods which are successful in training polo ponies and hunters do with us. Our ideal troop horse could play polo and so be quick and handy for mounted combat, and see a good hunt. They do not consider that it is necessary to have a horse handy and quick enough for mounted combat, and say that it is beyond their powers to train horses to that extent with their present short service, and that it is unnecessary for modern warfare and, thirdly, that it would spoil their horses for jumping.

In working in the School tremendous stress is laid on the importance of making men and horses work individually and not too much as a ride. Most of the work was done a volontà, each officer turning or circling his horse as he pleased in the centre of the school.

Mounting is always done without stirrups, and I believe even the soldiers in full marching order have to mount without stirrups, though I never had an opportunity of seeing it done. Each horse was only worked for an hour in the school, but work during that hour was pretty strenuous, and at the end of an hour each officer and horse was sweating pretty profusely and quite ready for a rest. During the first week most of the time was spent in getting officers into the correct seat, and acquiring this seat made everyone's back muscles ache pretty considerably. Jumping, however, was soon started, and once started went on unceasingly. One started by trotting and cantering in single file over a pole on the ground, which was raised very gradually and never put more than 2 feet 6 inches high in the first three weeks.

While working in the School, the Instructor was never mounted. Any necessary demonstrations were given by his assistants, who usually led the ride or were detailed to point out various faults to individuals while the work was going on. The Instructor was then able to concentrate the whole of his attention on his ride, and was never disturbed by his own horse.

The two hours' riding in the afternoon was nearly always done out of doors, and if the School was used at all it was only used for one hour. Outdoor work in the afternoon was usually done in what they called the ‘Campo Ostacoli.’ This was a large circular plot of ground round the outside of which was a sandy exercising track about half a mile round. Inside this track and near the entrance was a large circular sandy manége, and in the centre of this manége were three permanent jumps arranged thus:-

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2005 ‘A' was a brick wall. 'B' and 'C ' were two pole jumps, both capable of being raised or lowered to any height, and made fixed, or so that they could be knocked down. A tremendous amount of the training of show jumpers was done in this manége.

The rest of the ground outside the manége and inside the exercising track was a mass of sandy tracks and grass rides running and crossing in every direction, and in these rides and tracks one found obstacles of every conceivable sort and kind, but all quite small, the largest and most formidable being a stone wall about 3 feet 9 inches to 4 feet high. The procedure in the Campo Ostacoli was usually as follows:-

  1. Get horses' backs down and going quietly and smoothly and officers in a good position, either by a good steady trot and canter round the track or by work in the manége.

  2. Get the officers sitting properly over one of the jumps in the centre of the manége.

  3. A small parcours over the fences outside the manéges, either in groups of five or six behind the instructor or one of his assistants, or singly, each officer being told what route to take.

Occasionally, for a change in the afternoon, instead of working in the Campo Ostacoli, we were taken for a ride in the hills round Pinerolo; these usually took the form of a quiet hack along the roads up and down fairly steep hills, simply to exercise and muscle up the horses and give the ride a change of scenery; but occasionally, when any suitable steep banks were found, we were made to ride up and down them to strengthen the riders' seats and give them confidence. One of these rides, however, remains very clearly impressed on my memory, and I will try and describe it.

We left barracks in single file, and proceeded through the town, the streets of which were paved with small, round, slippery cobbles. Presently we turned up a narrow alley which went up a steep hill. The hill got steeper and steeper, and there was a good deal of noise, clattering and slipping, and sparks flying from the horses' shoes. The hill eventually became so steep that the alley had to be made into a series of broad shallow steps; this, however, made the going easier except when one's horse put his foot on the edge of a step and slipped off. Eventually, amidst sighs of relief, we reached the top; but after turning one or two corners, to our dismay, we proceeded to go down a similar hill, and this was an even more nerve-wracking performance than going up. We then proceeded to ride up to the church, which is situated on the top of an isolated pinnacle, and the road up to it has to make several hair-pin turns. On arriving at the church, the Instructor rode through a narrow gateway into a stone passage, which turned sharp to the right with the church on one side and a wall on the other. I was rear file of the ride, and had not the least idea what was round the corner, but heard a considerable amount of noise and wondered why my horse was getting so excited, but I was not left in doubt long, for my turn soon arrived and my horse made one wild plunge through the gate, whipped round the corner to the right, nearly slipping up in the effort, and proceeded to charge up a flight of about fifty stone steps. The Instructor stood at the top shouting ‘Adajio’  at me, but nothing in the world would have made my horse go slower till he was at the top. We then proceeded to ride down a very steep grass slope, ending in a sheer drop of 5 or 6 feet into the road quite close to one of the hair-pin turns, so that if one's horse jumped out too wildly into the road, before he could stop himself he went straight on down another short, steep slope, and over a very much worse drop into the next bit of road. After this we were taken along a very narrow footpath, with a stream on one side and the road on the other, which gradually fell further and further away from the path. When the drop was about 6 feet, the Instructor turned his horse quickly and jumped down, and we all followed in single file and jumped down in turn at the same place. On a willing horse which would turn and go straight down without hesitating it was quite easy, but a nervous jockey on an unwilling horse was practically certain to go backwards into the stream. After this we were taken down two more steep grass slopes and then home.

Besides the Campo Ostacoli, there was another large plot of ground in the middle of the town which belonged to the School, which was used as a Sports Ground and one end of it kept as a show-jumping ground, and here their show-jumpers were schooled two or three times over the exact course before going away to compete in any shows.

In addition to this, about 3 miles from the School there was a large bit of land known as Baudenasca, which corresponded to the Vervie at Saumur. Baudenasca was a large acacia wood, round the outside of which was a broad grass gallop about 3 kilometres round. Branching off through the wood from this track were many other grass rides, and branching from these grass rides were many little, narrow twisted tracks. On the main gallop round the edge of the wood there were no fences, but down the rides and tracks one met obstacles of every kind and sort. In the middle of the wood there was a large clearing, and this was divided up into several paddocks, and some old farm buildings had been made into loose boxes. These boxes and paddocks were used for horses requiring a rest for any length of time. Baudenasca is not used at all at the beginning of a course, and I saw no work being done there, but I shall never forget a ride I had there the day before I left to go on to Tor di Quinto. The Chief Instructor, the Instructor of my ride, and other Instructors, a Swiss officer and myself, were driven out one afternoon to a place about 3 miles from the School, where the country was wild and uncultivated. Here we found horses waiting for us, and, having mounted, proceeded to gallop across country. The going in most places was very rough and rather stony, and full of small bushes and trees, and was rather like bits of country one meets occasionally whilst pig-sticking in India, but in this case we had no wild and savage boar in front to urge one on and distract one's attention from the unpleasantness of the going; and at the beginning, riding very short in a snaffle on a horse that was pulling a bit, dodging trees and bushes, I was far from happy, but after a mile or so one learnt to sit more easily and leave one's horse alone. With the exception of one short halt to give the horses a blow and occasional short trots over a stony river bed or through a wood, we must have galloped for quite 5 miles and finished up at Baudenasca. Here we gave our horses another short breather and then started off, playing follow-my-leader up and down and in and out of the rides and tracks, and some of the obstacles which we came across very suddenly and unexpectedly gave one's nervous system a considerable shock, but one's horse negotiated them all with the utmost ease, and one soon ceased to worry about what was coming next. After about five minutes of this, the horses, as one can imagine, were pretty weary, and we halted in the open space in the middle, where we found a fresh lot of horses waiting for us. A short halt for a cigarette and then up again, and I was told my new mount was a 'patent safety.' He certainly was, or the chances are I wouldn't be writing this now. Off we went again, the Chief Instructor leading, followed by myself, the Swiss officer behind me and the two Instructors behind him, and now the fun started in real earnest. We galloped and twisted and turned and jumped till the horses began to show signs of distress, and I was sweating at every pore and very weary. We then halted for a minute or two and then suddenly, without a word of warning, off went the little Chief again, but followed only by the Swiss officer and myself, the other two having had enough. This time we did not twist about in the various rides for long, and soon came out into the open space in the middle, and I began to let out my reins, make much of my horse, and to chat to the Swiss-when, to my amazement, I saw the little Chief, sitting down, riding at a post and rails round one of the paddocks; and off we went again in and out of all the paddocks, and if we jumped one rail we must have jumped over twenty, all over 4 feet, and one, which we jumped three or four times, a good 4 feet 6 inches. My horse certainly proved himself a 'patent safety,' for he never put a foot wrong or touched a fence, except the very last rail, when he was so tired that my chief surprise was that he was able to get over it at all, especially as he was a bad whistler. And so ended a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon, and a most enjoyable, instructive and interesting three weeks at Pinerolo, where one was greeted like a very old friend, and cheery evenings in the Mess are not unknown.

Click to enlarge

NOTE:  This is a photograph of a descent known as the descent of Mombrone. This descent was done more as a test of nerve than anything else, and in pre-war days every officer had to go down it before he left the School; but accidents were not unknown and occasionally rather serious, and the practice has rather died out since the war.   Mombrone is an old ruined castle about 3 miles from Pinerolo, and the descent is made from what was once a window about 20 feet from the ground, but earth is piled up a little at the bottom and now the drop is only about 15 feet.

As can be seen in the photograph, there is a slight bump on to which the horse can put his fore feet and just steady himself a second while he gets his hind legs off the ledge, so that he can slide. If this bump was not there, the horse would simply have to jump from top to bottom, and horses which do this almost invariably fall.

I was taken to see the place and told I must go down when I returned to Pinerolo on my way back to England from Rome. I did not call at Pinerolo on my way home.

In a future number Tor di Quinto will be described.

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