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The Practical Use of the Saber For Living Historians
by: James Ottevaere

The use of the saber from horseback requires special skills not commonly practiced by many of today's living historians. Unlike the use of the pistol or carbine in reenacting, which involves no direct contact with an opponent, the saber requires the simulation of combat by physical contact. The striking of blades, either individually or in a staged melee, poses challenges, as well as some danger, to both the horse and the rider. Often times, the potential risks are overlooked and riders engage in saber play with neither adequate training nor proper preparation.

Some reenactor groups practice the regulation saber "Manual of Arms" and present demonstrations of saber skills such as "running at the heads." Although these exercises may be entertaining to spectators and fun to perform, they do little to school the horse or the rider in the skills required to properly use the saber from horseback. In fact "running at the heads" and other such exercises were intended to be a demonstration of the rider's acquired skills with the saber and not a means of instructing its use. It is only necessary to view a videotape or film of a reenacted saber demonstration or melee to get a clear picture of how poorly prepared and unskilled many of the participants actually are. 

The most common faults among reenactors in the use of the saber from horse back are the failure to properly manage the movements of the horse and the improper use of the aids in cooperation with the saber hand. There seems to be some historical basis for these faults. Period literature tended to focus on the saber only in its Manual of Arms and provided scant instruction in the horsemanship necessary for its use. Tactics manuals of the Civil War period and long after, cautioned the trooper not to "derange" the position of the body, but offered no further explanation for this rather important instruction. It was not until 1914 that any mention was made in the regulations and training manuals regarding the use of the rein hand, and this was offered only as a cautionary note, instructing the rider not to "jerk the horse's mouth while making any movements with the saber."

Horsemanship in the use of the saber was left almost entirely to the judgment of the instructor.  The use of the saber in American history was purely a military pursuit. It was rarely a civilian weapon, as it was in some other parts of the world; consequently its use was seldom mentioned in contemporary civilian equestrian literature. This is unfortunate for today's reenactor and living historian. This lack of period literature on the subject has resulted in there being little instructive reference material for those who wish to be learn the skill. More significantly, since the use of the saber is not part of modern equestrian training, there are few instructors today who are even vaguely qualified to teach this skill.  In all athletic activities performed from horseback, the quality of the rider's seat is the one essential and common element. Without a secure and well-disciplined seat the rider is unable to make consistent or effective use of all the aids. The inability of the rider to communicate effectively with the horse while performing multiple tasks, unrelated to the management of the horse, is above all else the most common cause of poor rider performance.  

This is all the more apparent when the management of the horse needs to be subordinated to the activity being performed, such as playing polo, field hunting, cattle roping, mounted law enforcement or, demonstrating the use of the saber in mounted combat. None of these activities can be performed well unless the rider is properly seated and the horse is responsive to the application of the aids.

From the Civil War until the mid 1930s, when instruction in the saber was discontinued, the United States Cavalry taught the saber's use while seated in a McClellan saddle. There is considerable military literature and training material from this period that describes in detail the evolution of the military seat and the proper use of the aids. The United States Cavalry's version of the military seat changed little in the 83-year history of the McClellan saddle. The last official version of the U.S. military seat was published in 1944. Until then the seat was taught in considerable detail as part of the course in horsemanship taught to Cavalry officers at the Mounted Service School at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In its final form the military seat is still considered the best and most appropriate seat for a rider in the McClellan saddle. The basic elements of this seat are briefly described here, but it would be useful for those riders who sit a McClellan saddle and wish to practice the art of the saber to spend the necessary time to acquire the basics of the military seat and the proper use of the associated aids. An understanding of these skills are important for efficient use of the saber, as well as being a cornerstone of accomplished military horsemanship. Equitation philosophy in United States military underwent some fundamental changes in approach in the late 19th century, but the basic elements of the seat changed very little. The military seat that evolved in the early 20th century, often referred to, in error, as the forward seat, is still common today among many field horsemen. Regardless of its subtle changes, the United States Cavalry military seat, in all its forms, was intended to place the rider in the saddle in such a manner that the horse had freedom of movement in all of its parts and could perform for extended periods of time over long distances. Although fatigue and soreness were inevitable to both the horse and rider in cavalry service, the military seat was intended to delay their onset and to minimize their effects by placing the rider and his pack in balance with the horse. A well-developed military seat also placed the rider in a position to regulate the application of the aids in a consistent and effective manner and to adjust the rider's center of balance to the movement and gaits of the horse. The military seat was considered than, as it is now, the most secure general-purpose seat for the rider, and the least punishing for the horse. To achieve this end the position of the rider in the saddle was described in the following manner.

(1) The buttocks should be pushed well forward underneath the body and bear equally upon the middle of the saddle. The buttocks should not press against the cantle.

(2) The thighs should extend downward and slightly forward. They should rest without constraint upon their flat sides and clasp the horse evenly.

(3) The knees should be bent but without stiffness, and should clasp the horse snugly.

(4) The lower legs should extend downward and slightly backward; they should be in contact with the horse, but without contraction. When the lower leg is in proper position, the stirrup strap should hang vertically.

(5) The ball of the foot should rest easily on the tread of the stirrup, the heel slightly lower than the toe, the ankle without stiffness.

(6) If the rider is without stirrups, the feet should hang naturally, toes hanging down; they should be free from stiffness in the ankles.

(7) The upper part of the body should be easy, free, and erect. The spinal column should be supple, especially in the small of the back.

(8) The shoulders should be thrown back evenly but without hollowing or stiffening the back.

(9) The arms should be free, the elbows falling naturally by the side.

(10) The reins should be held in one or both hands as is necessary.

(11) The head should be erect but without stiffness in the neck.

(12) The eyes should not be downcast but alert and glancing well to the front.

Despite the simplicity of this description a good military seat is nearly impossible to achieve without first developing a degree of suppleness in the rider's body. It is the suppleness of the upper body, and of the lower back (loins) in particular that enables the rider to maintain the integrity of the seat while using the saber. Many riders tend to ignore the importance of achieving body suppleness as part of the cavalryman's craft. But the United States Cavalry had long recognized the relationship between a supple well-seated rider and the incidence of soreness and the breakdown of the cavalry horse. It was a generally accepted principle that the more supple the rider, the sounder the mount.

Before attempting to work with the saber the rider should think in terms of these "three S's." Saddle, Supple, Seat. First, a well fit saddle. Second, a supple body. Third a secure military seat. When these have been accomplished in that order, the rider is ready to begin working with his hands and the aids in preparation for the saber. 

Without the balance and confidence of a well developed seat it is unlikely that a rider will ever acquire the softness that is characteristic of good hands. Average riders never develop their hands properly because they have never developed their seat. They are more likely to use their hands and the reins for balance instead of control because they lack the stability of a good seat. Undeveloped hands fail to communicate effectively with the horse's mouth, which causes confusion and unwitting misbehavior. To promote soft hands, it is necessary that the rider maintain flexibility in his arms and shoulders and freedom in the wrists and fingers. The hands should be lightly in contact with the horse's mouth at all times and should follow the movement of the horse's head and neck. The hands should never apply force greater than what is absolutely necessary to communicate the desire of the rider.

Unfortunately, maintaining soft hands and a good seat can be in direct conflict with swinging a saber. The weight of the saber and the effort necessary to overcome its inertial forces, combined with the rider's desire to soundly strike at a target can severely upset the rider's seat and hands.  This causes the "derangement" of the body that the trooper was instructed to avoid in the early manuals. It is also responsible for the "jerking" of the horse's mouth that was cautioned against in later training manuals. 

As equally important as the military seat and good hands in the handling of the saber is the management of the horse through the proper use of the aids. It is the practiced coordination of the hands (reins), legs (knee to heel), body (weight) and voice that enables the rider to communicate his will and give directions to the horse. In practice these "natural aids" are sometimes assisted, or reinforced, by the "artificial aids," the spurs and the whip. The management of the horse through the harmony of the aids is the essence of superior military horsemanship. Achieving mastery of the aids is an ambitious goal and one that all serious horsemen should strive for, but, as a practical matter, such a level of skill is not absolutely essential for adequate use of the saber.

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One of the few times when  everything is working right.  Notice the rider's rein hand position, the firmness of his seat and his movement toward the horse's center of balance. The horse is on the correct lead and the rider is positioned to turn in balance, even at high speed.

It is useful, and desirable, for any rider who wishes to become efficient with the saber to become well schooled in the application of the aids, and in their many variations and effects. But the use of the saber on horseback requires only a working understanding of the aids and their application and an average degree of skill in their use. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each of the aids and their various applications in detail. There are many well-written books and military texts that address the proper use of the various aids.

The use of the saber requires that the rider manage the horse with the reins held only in the left hand, while applying the bearing rein, or what is commonly referred to as "neck reining." The use of the bearing rein alone does not provide enough control to effectively handle the saber. In order to manage the movement of the horse with the bearing rein while using the saber requires the use of a combination of aids and the understanding of several techniques involving the seat, hands and legs. Remember, the most common faults in the use of the saber are poor management of the movements of the horse and the improper use of the aids in cooperation with the saber hand.

The use of the bearing rein is often misunderstood. It is nearly impossible to make the short agile turns necessary to effectively use the saber by applying the bearing rein alone. Yet, this is one of the most common errors made by riders when using the bearing rein with the saber. There is an almost universal tendency to forcefully turn with the hand alone. The bearing rein is not intended as a forceful aid and is generally used to gradually change direction while maintaining a specific gait. The turn that is achieved with the bearing rein alone is a long arc as opposed to a short "U." To accomplish its usual purpose the bearing rein is applied lightly to the upper part of the horse's neck, on the side opposite the intended direction of the turn.

This action forces the horse's nose up and away from the direction of the turn and shifts the horse's balance onto the shoulder to the inside of the turn. In other words, for a turn to the right the left rein would be applied, bringing the horse's nose up and to the left, shifting the horse's weight onto the right shoulder. The disadvantage of the bearing rein alone is that once the rider's hand passes any distance over the centerline of the horse's neck, the intended effect is lost and it instead becomes counter productive by forcing the horse away from the direction of the turn.  A common method for overcoming the limiting effect of the bearing rein that is used in some performance horse classes is "over-bitting." This is the practice of using increasingly severe bits until the horse essentially throws itself into a tighter turn in order to escape the pain applied to its bars, jawbones, lips, nose and poll. It is generally unnecessary to employ such extreme methods to achieve tighter turns with the bearing rein. That is if the rider is willing to take the time necessary to learn the proper use of a combination of aids.

Since the bearing rein forces the horse's head and, if applied too aggressively, the neck and shoulders away from the direction of the turn, the resulting turn is mechanically of a larger arc than is achieved by the use of two handed rein aids. Skilled horsemen understand this limitation and apply a combination of aids to assist the bearing rein into tighter turns and turns at greater speeds. For the average horseman the effect of the bearing rein may be improved by first learning to correctly and consistently apply the bearing rein and to school the horse to correctly respond. After which the horse's performance may be improved by more vigorous use of individual aids and by the use of these aids in combination.

There are many combinations of aids that will achieve the object of shortening the arc of the turn when applying the bearing rein. Some of these are quite complicated and depend on a superior level of horsemanship. For simplicity, here is a method that can be easily learned and will return good results. When beginning the turn, the rider should bend his upper body, above the base of support, slightly forward and toward the direction of the turn. This action helps the rider adjust to the horse's change in balance and compensates for the slight turning of the horse's head away from the direction of the turn. At the same time, the contact of the outside leg is increased at the girth. The application of the outside leg reinforces the action of the bearing rein against the neck by directing the horse's forehand in the direction of the turn. The action of the inside leg is constant (passive) and assists in maintaining impulsion and balance. It is more effective when shortening the turn in this manner to be active with the outside leg than it is to push the hand over the center of the horse's neck.

In fact it is important that the hand does not pass beyond the centerline of the horse's neck. At faster gaits, there is an added refinement to the previous method for decreasing the arc of the turn using the bearing rein. It is to turn the upper body slightly more forward and into the direction of the turn, while at the same time maintaining the contact of the outside leg at the girth and increasing the contact of the inside leg behind the girth. This combination of aids pushes the horse's hindquarters away from the direction of the turn, and off the normal arc of the turn, causing the turn to be shortened around the forehand. This will result in a

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The rider takes the horse to the target, maintaining a secure seat. It is best to keep the horse on the inside lead, which makes it easier to adjust direction toward the target. The rider's hand is soft giving the horse the
free use of its head, neck and shoulders.

considerably shorter turn, but its effectiveness is dependent on the horse's proficiency in yielding to the action of the rider's legs, and the rider's ability to use the outside leg in support of the movement of the horse's hindquarters. Keep in mind that the horse needs to be on the correct (inside) lead when making turns at a gait faster than a trot. In this case, if the horse is not on the correct lead this combination of aids may serve to force the outside lead and take the horse's balance away from the turn. This is called cross cantering to disaster.

Once the rider becomes accustomed to the use of the leg aids in support of the bearing rein, the use of the hand will be lightened considerably. The horse will then be free to use its head, neck and shoulders, as nature intended, for maintaining balance in the turns. This will greatly improve the performance of the horse and will permit the rider to develop his skill with the saber. Technique and finesse with the saber are more useful in reenacting its use than strength and force. Since it is the goal of the reenactor to demonstrate the art of the saber and not to unhorse an opponent, it is not necessary to acquire the more militant aspects of saber use, which in any event can be downright dangerous. It is important to keep in mind some of the basic techniques that contribute to skilled saber use:

  • Always keep your seat. That doesn't mean to simply stay in the saddle; it means maintain a good military seat.

  • Develop your leg aids and use them. Reinforce the bearing rein with your legs and seat. Keep your hands soft. Take your horse to the target. Your striking distance is only the length of the saber plus the length of your arm. Do not try to lengthen the striking distance by reaching beyond a secure seat. You will only upset your balance and likely upset that of the horse. Anything that you attempt with the saber while you are out of balance will be ineffectual, unsightly and may result in a fall.

  • Keep your right shoulder within your base of support; stay positioned over your center of balance. Well-placed legs will help with that. Do not swing the saber rearward beyond the deepest part (center) of your saddle. If you need to meet a target to the rear, take your horse to it; never reach back for the target. Many falls with the saber result from "chasing the target" with the saber and getting behind the horse's movement.

  • Do not stand in your stirrups to make a strike with the saber. Stay seated. By standing you will need to grip with your upper thighs, which may "cloths pin" you from the saddle as you reach to strike the target.

  • Follow the movement of your saber hand with your upper body, your seat, and your legs, not your rein hand. Your horse will adjust for this interruption in its equilibrium and may learn to follow your saber, without over working the bearing rein.

Arguably one of the most splendid sights on a reenacted battlefield is the saber charge and the ensuing melee. It is exciting for the spectators and exhilarating for the reenactors. To do it well takes skill, practice and a close relationship and communication with your horse. On the other hand, the use of the saber on horseback is a dangerous activity. Although there are very few reported accidents, the inherent dangers should not be ignored. No one should participate in any activity involving the use of the saber unless they have been judged to be a reasonably competent rider and they have had some specific training in its safe use. There does not appear to be any uniform safety standards amongst reenactors that apply to everyone that uses the saber on horseback. Some of the more thoughtful cavalry reenactor organizations maintain such standards and generally abide by them, but these standards do not always bind other reenactors when engaging in saber activities. If your organization has safety standards, follow them. If they do not, create them. Most importantly do not engage in saber activities with any groups or individuals that do not abide by a specific set of safety standards.