April 5, 2012 by Jec Ballou
Thoughts of jumping never enter most dressage riders’ minds coming down the center line. For others, though, a combination of jumping and dressage blended together in the same arena represents the perfect cross-training challenge. It also gives riders a peek into our history, to a time when all dressage horses were required to jump in competition. Modern riders can satisfy their penchant for interdisciplinary competition with a relic of our past, the Prix Caprilli tests that have trickled down from the start of U.S. dressage decades ago.
Prix Caprilli appears nowadays mostly in schooling shows, combined training events, and Pony Club rallies, but originally served the more serious purpose of introducing dressage and refining arena skills among American riders as equestrian sports gained a foothold after World War II. The Prix Caprilli tests progress by level, similar to today’s U.S.D.F. tests, with jumps ranging in height from low cross-rails to 2’9” fences. Tests are held in a 20×40 meter arena, with refusals and knockdowns penalized. They derived their name from the Italian cavalry instructor Federico Caprilli, who is credited with inventing the forward style of seat for jumping.
Historically, several levels of Prix Caprilli existed with various arrangements of obstacles. The oldest test archived with the American Horse Show Association (now the USEF) dates back to 1961 and includes cantering over a row of four cavalletti with one stride in between and jumping two 3’ jumps. Test directives call for ‘ordinary trot,’ ‘ordinary canter,’ 20 meter circles, and a rein back. A later test version from the mid-1960s has four jumps in the arena—one on each quarter line and one on each end. Riders were directed to trot over the 18” cross poles and to canter a 2’ picket and a 2’ brush obstacle.
While they might seem out of place with modern riders who want to specialize in dressage, the original purpose of Prix Caprilli mirrored the intent of our current Training and First Levels. The tests also served as a reminder for the emphasis on cross training.
The rule book from AHSA in the early 1960s states:
Purpose: to determine that the correct foundation is being laid for successful training of the riding horse: that the horse moves freely forward in a relaxed manner and with rhythm, both on the flat and over small fences, its spine always parallel to the track of the prescribed movement; that it accepts the bit and obeys simple aids of the rider.
Many would like to see a return of Prix Caprilli along with similar training challenges. Judge and faculty member of the USDF “L” program, Axel Steiner is one of these enthusiasts.
“From a rider’s standpoint, I wish it would re-gain popularity,” said Steiner, who believes that most horses enjoy themselves when jumping and remain “mentally much sounder” when allowed to cross-train. But maybe more importantly, learning to jump creates better dressage riders, Steiner believes.
“Every rider should be able to jump a three-foot fence,” said Steiner recently, noting that jumping and, even in many cases, the use of cavalletti has gradually disappeared from today’s instruction. He would prefer to see this change. Otherwise, young dressage horses are missing out on not only the conditioning benefits but also the “forward-thinking” that comes from jumps. Riders, meanwhile, are only learning to operate in sterile environments.
Grand Prix trainer and F.E.I. vaulting judge Jeff Moore of San Juan Bautista, CA recalls the early days of U.S. dressage when nobody thought twice about jumping. Every dressage horse jumped.
“Back then, everything was different. Things have changed quite a lot,” said Moore, who has been involved with equestrian competitions for 50 years.
All dressage tests from First through Fourth Level in the 1960s and early 1970s required riders to exit the arena after the final salute and then jump an obstacle ranging from 2’6” to 2’9”. This compulsory obedience jump was not given a score but was mandated to demonstrate a horse’s submission and overall training.
“Nobody thought anything about it. Everyone just accepted that’s the way it was,” said Moore.
Since the existence of Prix Caprilli pre-dated the formation of USDF, many of the old tests have not survived. While some clubs write their own, many groups rely on the popular tests created by dressage Olympian Lendon Gray for her annual Youth Dressage Festival in New York and are now available to the public. Gray recalls riding Prix Caprilli tests as a young trainer on the Florida dressage circuit in the mid-1970s and wanted to encourage the combination of dressage mastery with good gymnastic jumping among young riders. Initially, she thought the Prix Caprilli tests might appeal mostly to Hunter and Jumper riders, enticing them to dabble in dressage. Interestingly, the tests have appealed more to her dressage students and encouraged them to incorporate some jumping into their schooling. This pleases Gray.
“It has ended up being a way to encourage these dressage students to jump. It’s sad that today’s students don’t jump and are just doing dressage; that’s too narrow,” said Gray. She prefers to see young riders cross-train more. Many of her students have noticed their horses becoming more supple, responsive, and forward when schooling for the Prix Caprilli tests.
“I can remember when I was a kid and, as an eventer, we would do our dressage on Monday, then show jumping on Tuesday, and so on. It never occurred to us to put the two together in the same arena. But that’s what this does,” Gray said about Prix Caprilli.
Equine sports conditioning experts agree that dressage horses should include gymnastic jumping in their training to enhance performance and prevent injury. Small jumps require the dressage horse to repeat eccentric-concentric contractions of the extensor muscles in the hindquarters, which are the same kinds of contractions we need in highly collected movements. It is also argued that jumping creates suppleness in the horse’s vertebral column due to how these exercises encourage the horse to arch his neck and back.
In her authoritative book Conditioning Sport Horses, professor and researcher Dr. Hilary Clayton states “Gymnastic jumping has a place in training dressage horses, especially up to the medium level. The fences do not need to be large, in fact smaller fences are more effective.”
Today’s riders can choose from Prix Caprilli Introductory level, Training Level, or First Level. Aside from working over jumps, the tests closely resemble the USDF tests for each level. The Prix Caprilli First Level test, for example, includes lengthening within trot and canter, leg-yield, and a 20 meter stretching circle in trot rising. Riders are asked to jump a small fence several times throughout the test– while on a large circle, when crossing the diagonal, and after a leg-yield from the rail.
Admittedly, Prix Caprilli can be tricky for judges. Dressage pioneer and long-time judge Peter Lert of Scotts Valley, CA recalls judging Prix Caprilli when the tests were a regular part of dressage competitions in the late 1950s and 1960s.
“As a judge, I found them quite difficult to score,” said Lert, adding that he wasn’t always sure what to give more weight—the submission and accuracy or the roundness and quality of movement in the dressage portions. Lert saw Prix Caprilli as a way to introduce dressage to Americans. The new discipline could attract existing jumper riders to the burgeoning sport of dressage slowly making its way here from Europe in the 1950s.
After the U.S. Cavalry disbanded in 1948, the focus of dressage for military purposes—the only form of its existence in the U.S. until then—shifted to civilian sport. As many dedicated European immigrants came over to help Americans learn the sport, Prix Caprilli tests came with them. As dressage matured here and the USDF formed, regular dressage tests became more specific in their movements and Prix Caprilli eventually disappeared. By the late 1970s, they were no longer offered at shows.
Today, they still appear in Pony Club rallies and schooling shows at dressage clubs around the country, including the Alaska Dressage Association, Nebraska Dressage Association, Oregon Dressage Society, and dozens of combined training groups.
Many cross-training advocates believe if Prix Caprilli re-gained popularity, dressage riders would be encouraged to take a more inter-disciplinary approach to their training. This would lead to freer moving, more forward mounts.
Gymnastic jumping over low raised poles can free up a horse’s shoulders and create more active hind leg movement, said Gina Miles, Olympic Three-day Eventing Silver medalist. She has noticed better dressage performance results from using cavalletti and small jumps to reduce boredom and dullness.
“It also encourages more suspension,” said Miles. This in turn leads to the horse bearing more weight behind.
For Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona, owner and director of Los Alamos Dressage Center, the first school of dressage in the U.S., modern riders should use the concept of Prix Caprilli in their everyday schooling. A huge proponent of cross-training, Hoff-Carmona believes better equine athletes can be made by combining jumping with dressage. She remembers entering her first dressage competitions in the early 1970s and, in order to do so, needing to prepare her horse to jump.
“The form didn’t matter so much. It was just the idea that a horse could jump as well as do dressage, which is something I really believe in,” said Hoff-Carmona, who to this day schools with cavalletti and gymnastic jumps on a weekly basis. All of her dressage horses, including the F.E.I. mounts, are required to jump at least small obstacles.
Hoff-Carmona clarified that different objectives can be met for each discipline by adjusting jump spacing. In dressage, we should not seek to ‘open’ the horse’s stride as much as jumping trainers might with their horses. We are using jumps to achieve a different frame, namely to help the horse compress and collect his posture. This is, after all, the whole purpose of cross training, rather than how high or fast the horse jumps.
“We ride the horse to bring himself much more under from behind than to jump particular obstacles,” she said. Vice versa, dressage can help cross-train jumping horses by bringing them more onto the aids, relaxing them, and improving their balance. The two disciplines really do seem to belong together, given how much one improves the other.
Trainer Karen Rohlf of Florida, echoes this symbiotic relationship of dressage and jumping. Rohlf, who represented the U.S. four times as a Young Rider and passed her USDF ‘L’ judge test with distinction finds herself addressing dressage challenges by getting outside of the box.
“We have an opportunity to let the obstacles do the work for us! I am always looking for ways outside of dressage that will build my horse’s skills inside dressage,” said Rohlf. With gymnastic jumping, riders can create a situation where the horse is offering to work harder but not because of stronger aids. Before riders know it, their dressage has become easier.
“It is a way to work smarter, not harder,” said Rohlf. With a smile, she reminds riders that they might have a little fun along the way, too.