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The Rider:
Technique and Tack

© 2000 Maitre R.P. Alvarez, All rights reserved

Richard Alvarez bio


Introduction to Mounted Combat
The Horse: Selection and Training
The Rider: Technique and Tack

Saddle, Lance and Stirrup


"Men often fail to score a hit for lack of sight, poor control of their lances or horses, or lack of determination."

Duarte, King of Portugal, c. 1434

Just as the requirements of combat put unique demands upon the cavalry mount, so too are there special requirements placed upon the rider. It hardly seems necessary to say that the demands of combat, even simulated, require the rider to be physically fit and particularly limber. Keep in mind that cavalry training is not a pleasure ride. The normal hazards of even light equestrian work are magnified by the dangers of combat. These dangers apply not only to the rider but to his horse as well. The rider must understand these risks and assume the responsibility of knowing his or her limits and work diligently to stay in shape. Helmets should be worn at all times and pads for elbows and knees are often a good idea, especially during "Melee" training. As always, seek the advice of your personal physician before starting any new exercise regimen.

This guide is not meant to be a primer for basic riding instruction. There are a number of books available to that end, and many are supplemented by helpful videos.

All riding sessions should be preceded by some stretching exercises. Special attention should be placed on lengthening and strengthening the groin muscles. "Hurdlers" stretches are effective, as are "Runners" warm-up exercises. Upper body strength will be necessary for those riders wearing armor and wielding lances.


The practical skills of the soldier have always been appreciated by their comrades in arms. Gladiatorial combat included reenacting ancient roman battles on land AND sea. The mock combat of jousts and tournaments in the 11th century, gave the general public a chance to view and admire a knight's skill on horseback.

By the mid 1500's those skills had come to be refined and modified into the classical school of "manage" practiced by the Neapolitan riding masters of the era. Carefully trained and bred horses were drilled in choreographed battlefield ballets that were called carrousels. The combats and maneuvers of the early tournaments were now stylized spectacles requiring hours of constant practice and refinement in horse and rider. This eventually led to the modern schools of dressage.

Armor for horse and Man c1533. Note the long shanked bit
and the double reins, as well as the rider's long legged seat.

The new rider is often faced with the choice of acquiring training under a particular school. A casual examination of the different schools of riding available today reveal a plethora of philosophies and systems, each suited to the demands of the sport that it addresses.

The list includes High School dressage, where rider and horse perform intricate maneuvers in a show arena in a choreographed ballet, the point of which is to reveal as little as possible, those command cues given to the horse by the rider. Other schools train the rider for show jumping or cross country riding. Some focus on the Western Sports such as roping, team-penning, or cutting horse competitions.

Each of these schools approaches their sport with the goal of training the horse and rider to their special ends. For this reason, English is not "better" than Western, and it is always good advice to learn what you can of the different schools. Fashion also dictates the rider's seat and appearance in the arena, with particular clothes and postures being dictated by the predominant winning school. Successful winners in these show competitions are judged by how closely horse and rider approach a particular ideal.

The success of the skill of the cavalry horse and rider however, is judged on their effective killing ability. Horses on the march were sometimes confiscated out of pulling harness and forced into battle a few days later, with little time for classical schooling. For this reason the "Cavalry" school of riding is often considered the "lowest" school.

Cavalry Seat is perhaps best compared with those western schools which demand the horse and rider to work as a team to accomplish a task such as roping or cutting. These sports require the rider to split his attention between the commands he gives the horse and the task of throwing the rope accurately. In the case of a cavalry trooper, he might be jumping a fence and shooting an attacking sentry or parrying a lance or sword thrust. Those riders and ponies experienced at the game of Polo will also make a smooth transition to combat.

Rider focuses his attention on his opponent as the horse jumps the fence.

This is the crux of cavalry training. The rider must be sufficiently comfortable with his equestrian skills to shift his focus to the martial skills he is practicing. Those skills might include firing a bow or pistol, or wielding a lance, shield or sword.

"This is of such importance that it is safe to say that a good rider who is a weak swordsman would have the advantage over a good swordsman who is a poor rider."
Provisional Regulations for Saber Exercise, U.S. ARMY 1907

A confident seat allows the rider free range of motion in combat, even at a gallop.

What then, is the proper seat for a cavalry soldier? The answer depends on whether the rider is a "heavy" or "light" cavalryman.

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.

Illustration of the classical seat of the 17th century

This places the rider's seat well back in the saddle, with the cantle felt against the rider's buttocks. The rider would "Sit the Trot" in this position. The saddles of the era practically dictate this seat, with padded thigh rolls in front and back of the leg. This saddle exists to day in the form of the Iberian Saddles of Spain and Portugal. This long-legged seat was well suited to the flat fields of combat and the arenas of the classical manage show schools. It was brought to America along with the horse by the conquistadors, and can still be found in the deep, long legged seat of the Western school of horsemanship.

Napoleonic cavalry had to face withering firepower of massed infantry and grape shot of cannon. The long slow charge over level ground, so typical of medieval cavalry, was now converted to a breakneck race over fields broken by hedges or low walls. The massed charges in fact were becoming less effective as a whole, and the role of cavalry as mounted messengers and reconnaissance troops was more and more important. The "Light Horse" cavalry returned to the European front.

The light horse had never left the eastern cultures, where mounted archers "rode short". The short stirrup leathers of the eastern horsemen allowed the archers to rise up in the saddle with their lower legs drawn back behind the vertical. They could use both hands to deliver an accurate shot, while isolating their bodies from the movement of the horse as they stood. It is no surprise that the premiere light horsemen of the Napoleonic Era were the "Hussars" and "Uhlans" of eastern Europe.


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 school of cavalry seat. Here, the best principals of the "Light Horse" cavalry of the eastern cultures and the "Heavy Horse" cavalry of the west merge to form the basis of modern cavalry schooling. This style took a while to be accepted, but finally, some fifty years after Caprilli's death, led to the development of the Toptanni jumping saddle.

The forward seat allows for better balance over jumps as well as added stability for weapons handling.

The modern trooper or re-enactor must decide what style of seat to adopt. To a certain extent, this is dictated by the type of saddle and armor employed. The long seat is historically correct for the earlier periods, especially the heavy joust on Great Horse in full plate. The shorter stirrups and riding "a la jennete" would be more accurate for an impression of eastern cavalry.

Today's police trooper or re-enactor should adapt his seat to the requirements of the field. Shorter stirrups, and a slightly forward seat give the rider the option to post or sit the trot and adapt to the demands of the melee. It places him in a position to jump small obstacles, and maneuver in all directions.

To insure a secure seat, and allow your body to pivot freely at the waist, thrust your feet "well home" through the irons. Polo players place the irons under the arches, rather than just behind the toes. This helps prevent the loss of the stirrups when shifting your weight all the way to one side to make a stroke. At no time should the top of the irons touch the top of your instep.

The author utilizes a modern cavalry seat while lancing rings.
Notice the shorter stirrups, the forward seat, and the bridle hand well forward.

Most people learn to ride with one rein in both hands. Because mounted combat requires the use of the right hand to fight, troopers must learn to ride "left handed". This is true with either a single or double pair of reins.

A horse that is ridden with one hand consequently must be trained to "neck rein". Here is where western training proves most effective for horse and rider. The horse must respond to the pressure of the rein against its neck, turning away from the side to which the pressure is applied. For example, if you wish to turn the horse to the right, move your hand directly to the right, forcing the left rein against the left side of the horse's neck. This should encourage the horse to swing its head, neck and the front part of its body to the right. If the horse is properly trained, the right rein will not be used in this turn.

For those horses that normally direct rein, a simultaneous light tug on the right rein will aid the horse in following through. This can be accomplished first with the aid of the free hand. When the horse begins to respond correctly, usually a slight twist of the rein hand will apply a light "pull" to the rein in the direction of the turn.

Neck reining tends to steer only the front half of the horse. The use of the legs as steering aids seems to have been unkown to Xenophon and the Greeks, which may have been the reason for employing such severe bits.

In modern riding, leg pressure is added on the opposite side of the girth to encourage the horse to move around. Thus in a left handed turn, draw your hand to the left, and push the horse's flank with your right leg. Extra leg work can be necessary when the horse is armored or thickly caparisoned. Seventeenth century manuals encourage, in addition to the right leg in the left hand turn above, a left ankle pressure well back of the horse's girth, to aid in turning a horse sharply in place.


The earliest saddles were simple cloths or pads with breast-plates and cruppers attached. Ancient drawings and sculptures depict mounted warriors with pads and harness beneath them. The Scythians used a stuffed saddle pad which elevated the rider slightly from the horse's back. This early saddle style was "re-discovered" or "re-invented" by the American Plains Indians, who were not introduced to the horse until probably the mid 17th century. The resemblance between Indian saddle pads and those of an Ancient Eastern nomadic society proves the adage "Necessity is the mother of invention."

Another early horse culture, the Sarmatians, are credited with building the first "Hard" saddle designed with a wooden tree. This wooden tree with high pommel and cantle and no stirrups, allowed the heavy mounted cavalry to employ long heavy lances. The Greeks referred to these lances not as spears, but as the "barge poles" they resembled. It is possible that the Sarmatians were employing "shock tactics" with couched lance rather than throwing their lances like javelins.

Illustration of various medieval and renaissance war saddles.

These early pads and saddles had no stirrups attached to them. It remained for the fierce nomadic horse tribes of Mongolia, led by Attila the Hun, to bring this improvement to the west. Scholars place this important technological development around the middle of the fourth to fifth century AD. The Arabs record the use of wooden stirrups by the seventh century, and by the eighth century, it had reached Western Europe.

Period saddles are extremely rare, and expensive if found. Medieval saddles of course can only be found in museums and are in no condition for use. Even saddles from the American civil war can cost as much as 4 to 5 thousand dollars if they are in good condition.

Modern reproductions of medieval saddles are difficult to acquire and the re-enactor must sometimes make do with a hybrid saddle. The author has seen western saddles fitted with metal pommel and cantle plates (called `saddle steels') which look convincingly like a medieval saddle when the knight is in it. Of course, the western cut at the waist of the saddle allows for the proper deep, long legged seat.

Western saddle fitted with "saddle steels" on pommel.

The Selle Royale of the famous Lippizanner School is a direct descendant of the medieval saddle, with the elongated hip and thigh rolls. The beautiful saddles still made and used for bullfighting in Spain and Portugal are also close cousins to the medieval saddle. Even the modern Australian stock saddle, with the large front thigh rolls or "wings" owes its lineage to the seventeenth century English saddles. The saddle "horn" as we know it on the western saddle made its appearance in the seventeenth century. At that time it tended to be more oblong in shape and projected forward, rather than upward from the pommel forks. Saddles of the English Civil war period are depicted with and without this addition.

Modern Australian stock saddles resemble their 17th century cousins

English Civil War saddle

Perhaps the best saddle for training the cavalry seat is the McClellan saddle, introduced in the U.S. by Captain George McClellan. He claims to have designed it after studying the European, specifically Hungarian, saddles then in use by the continental cavalries. In fact it owed a great deal in its design to the Grimsley, Campbell and Hope saddles which it replaced. The McClellan saddle was first manufactured in 1858 and remained in service with slight alterations in design until 1940. The last official design designation being the 1928 model. The later versions can still be found for sale.

Military issue McClellan on medieval mount

It is an extremely light saddle, and simple in design. A wooden tree covered with rawhide and stretched leather, and hung with stirrups. It leaves the slot in the tree open to allow for air circulation, and ease of fitting. It should be remembered that cavalry mounts in America often had long forced marches and would lose weight drastically, thereby altering the fit of the saddle.

Although easy on the horse, the McClellan was tough on the rider. It had no padding in the seat, and many versions had no fender to protect the rider from chaffing. It is comfortable only to experienced riders. Modern reproductions can be had for a reasonable price, though their construction is not as sturdy as the original government issues.

Author's McClellan, recovered in new leather,
without the "saddle bow" attached to the pommel

The period McClellans may not fit the current crop of quarterhorses, which tend to be bred a little "broader" than 19th century horses. Care should be taken when fitting any saddle to a horse, as an improper fit will cause bruising, galling and if continued, serious lameness.

McClellan trees are sufficiently "exotic" looking to fool the eye of most observers who would recognize an English or Western Saddle. Their very basic universal shape can be recovered and decorated to look like fantasy, or medieval saddles. When covered with an ornamental shabraque, it will pass for a Napoleonic era saddle.

Author's McClellan fitted with front saddle bow.

Modern Troopers will find the standard issue British Military saddle quite suitable for long hours of duty. Essentially a beefed up version of the English Saddle, it has a higher cantle and more padding. Endurance saddles also prove popular with police forces. The Western cut is designed for a deep comfortable seat, and they usually have harness rings for attaching extra gear. Some models are made in lightweight fiberglass and covered with washable nylon for ease of maintenance and exposure to the rain. They usually come without the horn.

Modern trooper equipped with an endurance saddle, ready for duty
Courtesy HPD MP


The earliest depictions of horse bits are of a snaffle style. As horses were fed on grain and grew larger, the need for more control in battle became greater. The next step was a straight "bar bit", sometimes roughened or with spiked rollers to exert more influence on the horse's mouth. The Greek Xenephon spoke of easing the type of bit once the horse begins to accept it. A philosophy that should be followed today.

The curb bit as we know it was probably introduced in the 4th century by the Celts of Gaul. It grew to dominate the western school of horsemanship. The addition of long shanks allowed for incredible mechanical advantage, and corresponding pressure/pain on the horse's mouth. These bits are often seen in depictions of later, heavy medieval cavalry.

The historical re-enactor may want to bridle his mount under accurate military bit and headstall. This often includes the double bridle employing the curb bit and snaffle (referred to as the bradoon), with double reins. This system evolved from the early use of a thin, straight "flying trench" bit, in addition to the curb in the horse's mouth. A false rein was attached to the nose band or "cavesson". Eventually the false rein would be attached to the flying trench, or the upper portion of the curb bit.

The modern Pelham is used to simulate the action of the double bridle, while employing a single mouth piece. The upper rein, or bradoon rein, imitates the action of the bradoon, working against the corners of the horse's mouth. This snaffle rein is usually wider than the lower one. The lower, or curb rein, gives the action of the curb against the lower jaw. While all four reins are held in one hand, they should be separated by the fingers to give subtle control over the choice of pressure on the bit. This requires small twists of the wrist, and pulls of the fingers. These bits are very popular with Polo players.

Because of the difficulty in manipulating the four reins correctly with one hand, (especially while holding a shield) I recommend the adoption of a single rein bridle. The choice of bit should suit the horse. While there is an old saying that "Only a fool" hunts in a snaffle, there is no reason for a rider trained in modern equitation to fear loss of control in a properly trained mount. The best principal is to gradually increase the severity of the bit until just enough control is achieved to manage the horse under melee conditions. For some this will be a twisted snaffle. Others may require a high port, long shank curb.

The reins should be gripped "over hand" by the rider. That is, with the nails facing downward while at rest. Pass the right rein between first finger and second finger. Pass the left rein between the little finger and third finger. Finally, bring the reins out of the grip to the right, across the pads of the first three fingers and grasp them firmly between the thumb and first finger. This grip allows the rider to feel the reins on either side of the horse's mouth, with a gentle lateral twist of the wrist.

View of the "forward bridle hand" gripping reins.

Grip the reins well forward on the horse's neck. This is to insure plenty of "brake pedal" while under combat. Nothing is more disconcerting than to be engaged in attack and find the reins up in your chest when you need to stop. Since the rigors of combat may require the rider to drop the reins, I recommended they be of the continuous or buckled type. Split reins should be tied together, and the knot placed in the exact spot where the rider's grip lies. This will aid you in finding the grip while wearing a helm, or looking about in the heat of battle.

Another view of the bridle hand

While the modern rider may have a desire or need to re-create the specific tack or equipment of a by-gone era; there is no excuse for re-creating the inhumane or brutal treatment exercised by old schools. Gone are the days when the principal philosophy of training was "breaking" the horse. There is no need to pressure a horse into combat with severe spurs or harsh bits. The modern trooper can enjoy the fruits of "scientific" equitation while mastering the skills of the ancient warriors.

"Mas vale caballo que caudal - A horse is worth more than riches"
Ancient Spanish Proverb


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This file was last modified Sunday, Mar 26 2006, 17:15:13 EST