A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of a book titled Modern Showjumping by one Count Ilias Toptani.
I’d never heard of Count Toptani, so I did a little reading on him before starting the book. He was a member of the Albanian royal family who competed as an international showjumper in the 1940s & 1950s. He also coached South American showjumping teams to success in the same era. He was frustrated with the typical design of English saddles, which he felt were too bulky and placed the rider in a terrible position to jump. So Count Toptani redesigned the English saddle: a lightweight (9 lbs), narrow-waisted saddle with the stirrup bars recessed inside the saddle tree. His influence in saddle design is still seen in today’s close contact saddles and the Count Toptani MkII and MkV are still in production. You can find the saddles, and the whole fascinating story of the man’s saddle crusade on this website
Modern Showjumping was originally published in 1954 and revised in 1972. I have a copy of the revised edition, printed in 1973.
The contents of the book are fascinating, and I feel Toptani’s advice is sound. Here are some highlights:
“Every young horse needs to be taught respect for man. Respect it can get only if correctly treated- with kindness when good and with a little harshness when spiteful. Young colts are just as spiteful and mischievous as young boys and quite as nasty- if they can get away with it.” (p. 39)
“We must always bear in mind that neither young nor old horses love man. It is a popular fallacy that horses often love their masters- only dogs will do that and no other animal I know of. The horse just about ‘tolerates’ man, if trained correctly and broken in with patience. The horse truly loves only three things: to eat, to sleep and to roll happily on a dunghill after careful grooming!” (p. 39)
“I observed earlier that the horse does not need to be a perfect haute ecole horse before starting to learn to jump, but like the rider, it must have elementary dressage training before being taught anything else.” (p. 45)
“This, in a nutshell, is the whole theory of modern show jumping:
(1) Remember that you are only a passenger, so be as little of a burden as possible.
(2) It is the horse that is jumping, not you, so let it jump freely at the speed it requires.
(3) Let the horse decide when it has to take its forelegs off the ground and jump. Never try to show it when to jump- the horse knows better than you do.” (p. 50)
“The best thing is to ride, ride boldly and with decision, give the horse encouragement and the necessary speed to get over the obstacle and not bother about when or how the horse is going to do it. Remember, horses have horse-sense and four strong legs of their own.” (p. 55)
“The worst thing a rider can possibly do is to slow down his horse.” (p. 95)
“I admit that at first it was most difficult to make the riders see my point when I introduced this new saddle. Practically all insisted that any old saddle was good enough for a good rider and that a good rider did not need such a ‘sissy’ contraption to win an event! This attitude was naturally too stupid to bother with…” (p. 133)
“The indicated bit for a show jumper is the snaffle with a drop noseband. Personally, I prefer a soft flexible rubber snaffle to an ordinary one.” (p. 145)
“To my mind the moment a horse needs a standing martingale to get its nose down it no longer has any business in a show ring. It should either be in the manege or in a vegetable cart!” (p. 147)
“Moreover, if the horse needs a standing martingale, it is entirely your fault and the horse is being penalized by your mistakes. My advice is: if the horse is not entirely ruined, take this terrible contraption off and throw it away; take your horse back into the manege and start working it properly by sitting correctly and using your legs as they should be used.” (p. 148)
“If you want to enjoy riding and jumping it is essential to remember the following points:
Never rush the training of your horse.
Never brutalise your horse.
Never try to teach your horse something you don’t know yourself.
Never lose your patience- a horse does not reason like you but like a horse!
Never rely on luck and hope for the best.
Never try to place your horse at a jump.
NEVER try to overcome the efforts of your wrong seat and lack of training by short cuts. Take your horse back into the manege and start again. It will pay in the end.” (p. 150)
Count Toptani also has advice for training the aspiring rider, which includes a great deal of flat work before tackling fences. Count Toptani would like riders to be able to perform an “around the world” movement (you know, where you sit on the horse and turn 360 degrees) at the canter before they even think about jumping, along with a variety of other exercises designed to develop an independent seat, hand, and leg.
He also has advice on training horses to jump and conditioning them. He recommends an hour of slow walking, trotting, and cantering every day in a small arena (or manege, as he calls it) with no reins. As for jumping? As long as you don’t make a big deal of it and reward the horse generously, you will eventually have a lovely show jumper.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in jumping. While I’m not sure that I’ll succeed at performing around the world while cantering, Count Toptani has inspired me to try!