A Chat in the Saddle

THIS is in all ways a very attractive book.1 It is beautifully printed, the illustrations are interesting, and the subject is discussed in a sensible and very agreeable manner. Such treatment is well deserved, for there is no form of exercise which is at all equal to riding on horseback. There is nothing moreover which is so valuable to a people for the development of manly qualities of mind and body, and which ought therefore to be so thoroughly cultivated. We of the East in this country are natural lovers of the horse, but our attention has been given wholly to the trotting variety of the noble animal, and the far finer and better art of horsemanship has sunk into neglect. Within a few years, however, the tide has turned, and riding is becoming every day more popular and more generally practiced. Colonel Dodge’s volume indeed is in itself the best proof of this encouraging fact. Fifteen or even ten years ago the author of Patroclus and Penelope would have been like one crying in the wilderness. Now we hope and believe that his readers will be counted by the hundred. The last part of the book is devoted to instructions to a beginner which in the main are sound and judicious. Colonel Dodge has a real love for a horse, which is not so common a quality as might be supposed, and all that he says as to kind treatment and abundant caresses may be read with profit by all, even by those persons who think that the last word on riding is known to them. He speaks very modestly of his own performances, but we are sorry to say that we fear there are very few amateurs among us who have done nearly as well. Colonel Dodge has studied the French system of training, a sealed book to most of our horsemen, and on this he of course, and very wisely, founds his teaching. He makes, however, one or two singular mistakes. For instance, he directs his pupil to use the right leg in order to make the horse lead with the left shoulder at a gallop. If the gallop were a diagonal movement this would be correct. But the gallop is a lateral movement, that is, the legs of the horse on the same side move together, which is, of course, the reverse of the trot or walk. In order, therefore, to make the horse lead to the left, the left hind-leg must be set in motion, and that is done by the left leg of the rider. Colonel Dodge falls into this error, it would seem, from not having sufficiently analyzed the movements of the horse, and from not laying enough stress on the suppling of the hind-legs which furnish all the propelling power. Control those, and everything else follows. The suppling of the fore-hand comes next in importance, but the motive power is behind the saddle and not in front of it. The fault of the Baucher system is in giving too much attention to the fore-hand, neck, and mouth, and too little to the loins and hind-legs. The first thing in horsemanship is to be able to move the horse forward, and that must be done by the rider’s command of the animal’s hind-legs. Establish your current of movement first, and then regulate and control it. The modern French method, under the disciples of Baucher, has made precisely this change of system, and with the best results. The gaits have been stimulated, the stride lengthened, the forward movement quickened, and yet the suppling of the forehand and the neck has not been diminished. In order, however, to control the hind-legs of the horse, and obtain these results, the rider must use his own legs, and this again is a point which Colonel Dodge does not emphasize enough. He seems in writing, although certainly not in his own practice, to mix up seat and legs and stirrups. Stirrups, in the first place, have nothing to do with seat, for a really first-rate seat can in fact only be made by riding without them, as Colonel Dodge certainly knows from experience. Yet, very surprisingly, he never tells his pupil, and he nowhere says that the best, if not the only way to make a good seat is by constantly riding a sharptrotting horse without stirrups, in accordance with the advice of Whyte Melville, and indeed of all other masters of the art. In the second place, the seat ought to be wholly distinct from the legs below the knee, which should be perfectly free to produce the effects necessary to control and manage the horse with any degree of delicacy or force. But this perfect and essential freedom of the lower leg can only be obtained by the steady work without stirrups. There are other points on which we disagree with Colonel Dodge, as, for example, in regard to the rack and singlefoot, the use of which he defends and even advocates. These are at best but bastard and false gaits, which can only be cultivated at the expense of the true gaits, and the best course is to abandon them altogether. There may be conditions under which they have their uses, but these conditions certainly do not exist in this part of the world.

It is not necessary, however, even if we had space, to discuss here the technical details of horsemanship. In the main, as we have said, Colonel Dodge’s instructions are sound and good, and can be read with profit by all horsemen and even, we venture to think, by many of our fox-hunters. The chief merit of the book is that it calls attention to the fact that there is a great deal in riding besides being carried by a horse and sticking on him somehow or other. Colonel Dodge, in a word, shows that the true art stretches far beyond those restricted limits. He teaches the important lesson, so very much needed here at this time, that there is a deal of fine riding outside of the hunt-clubs of this country, and even of England as well. The following sentence indeed should be written up in the premises of every huntclub, country-club, and jockey-club in the United States. “ It is the general impression among men who ride to hounds, and still more among men who pretend to do so, that leaping is the ultima thule of equestrianism ; and that a man who can sit a horse over a fourfoot hurdle has graduated in the art of horsemanship. The corollary to this error is also an article of faith among men who hunt, that is, that no other class of riders can leap their horses boldly and well. But both ideas are as strange as they are mistaken.” In one word, this book teaches us to be liberal in our ideas, and to realize that the riding of an English groom is not the ne plus ultra of horsemanship. The noble and manly art of riding is just beginning to develop in this country, and it ought to be encouraged and strengthened in every possible way. There is at this moment danger of its being injured, and of its growth being retarded by its falling into the hands of small sets of men, who know no other standard than their own very narrow one, who have a tendency to convert cross-country riding and foxhunting into steeple-chasing and a fierce competition in jumping, who hunt to jump fences instead of jumping fences in order to hunt, and who thus and in divers other ways disgust and drive off many persons whom, in the interests of riding, they should strive to conciliate. These very men are bold riders and often real lovers of the horse, but they are unintentionally standing in the way of what they wish to promote. The riding community hereabouts requires just at this time a little liberal education. It needs to learn respect for various methods, and to appreciate the work done by various nations. In driving the trotting horse no one approaches the American; in racing and cross-country riding England stands at the head ; but we must go to France for the best system of managing and developing the cheval de promenade, and for the best methods of training. We are in danger here of forgetting all this, and nine riding men out of ten, who perhaps never heard of Baucher, will sneer at the French system of training as circus tricks, without being aware that it is purely scientific; that its one object is complete control of the horse, and that the man capable of training a horse properly must of necessity be a fine rider, with coolness of temper, strength of seat, intelligence of hand, patience, courage, and discretion. Colonel Dodge’s book is liberalizing, and it should be heartily welcomed on this account if on no other. It may be both warmly and safely commended to all lovers of horses and to all who ride. We need to widen our horizon and elevate our standards, and this volume is the first effort we have seen by any American horseman to do both.

  1. Patroclus and Penelope. A Chat in the Saddle. By THEODORE AYRAULT DODGE. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.