On Jan. 6, the third day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2011 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, riders continued to build on skills learned and practiced during the first two days. And for the most part, exercises today were completed in a relatively drama-free fashion, and flak jackets were not required.
Flying changes have been a consistent theme—and for some, problematic—throughout the sessions. Today, Morris asked the first group to perform a shallow serpentine exercise on the long side of the arena, with flying changes between each change in bend. Several horses expressed their displeasure by kicking out during or after the lead change.
“That spoiled horse! I hate that!” barked Morris. “If they kick up in the change, you must leg them. That is a very big resistance.”
For their part, riders were expected to properly prepare their horses for the changes by ensuring absolute straightness between bends of the serpentine when asking for the changes. “Keep the horse perfectly straight—not a pretzel like you people do,” said Morris. “You have to be there for them with the new outside rein and get to where you just ‘think’ the change and make it happen.”
Members in the second group, who bore the burden of Morris’ displeasure yesterday, once again started off on the wrong foot. For their canter work, Morris instructed the riders to canter over a single cavaletti, then begin spiraling circles which became progressively smaller before changing direction (with a flying change) to repeat the pattern in the opposite direction. Riders were told to move both of their hands toward the inside to help control their horses’ shoulders without overbending their necks.
But Morris was not pleased with the group’s execution of the difficult exercise. “Tighten that turn, you dumbbell!” he barked to one rider. “I’m starting to think you’re half-dumb. Don’t waste my time.”
Participants in both morning sessions worked with a cavaletti-vertical fence combination, arranged in a rather tight placement along with explicit instructions from Morris for the horses and riders to approach the exercise slowly but with impulsion and rhythm: “Keep your horse forward and into your hand.”
Cavaletti Require A Sensitive Ride
Several horses were unsure of the question being asked and jumped or scrambled through the cavaletti to the vertical. “Some horses find cavaletti mentally challenging,” explained Morris. “Be a tactful rider if they get flustered—don’t force them.”
Even though Morris believes that these exercises can be beneficial for any level of horse, he reminisced about a past Olympic mount that hated cavaletti work. “After he made it to the Olympics, I said, ‘Maybe we can just forget about cavaletti for a while,’ ” he laughed.
At this point, the bar (both figuratively and literally) was raised as horses and riders moved on to a winding series of six jumps incorporating two liverpools, a wall, a trappy vertical, and a triple bar. The highlight of the course was the introduction of the crowd-pleasing and impressively-sized water jump.
As they proceeded through their patterns, some riders seemed somewhat anxious about the new challenge, translating into some missed striding, too much speed, and the occasional run-out at various fences.
“Don’t be a hero—stick to the program and make the strides happen! Faster is not better!” exclaimed Morris. “And don’t ever take those liverpools for granted. Use them to prepare your horse for the water.”
Despite the minor mistakes, all horses navigated the exercise safely and productively. As a finishing touch, Morris told the riders to ask their horses for some lateral work after pulling up at the end of the course. “Always do some constructive dressage work for about 30 seconds at the end of a series of jumps to refocus your horse,” explained Morris.
The final gymnastic exercise of the day was a four-jump combination of verticals and square oxers, at heights of 3’6″+ with what seemed to the casual observer to be impossibly tight distances.
False Groundlines And Audience Participation
And there was an additional complication. “I purposely put this exercise against the rail right next to the spectator tents,” noted Morris. “This will force you to use your inside leg and outside rein. Straightness is imperative.”
Of particular note, one of the verticals incorporated a “false” ground line, which Morris praised. “False ground lines teach horses to jump better,” he explained. “And if a horse hits a rail, we just do it again—this way the horse is ‘self-poling’ and teaches himself.”
As a twist on the exercise for the second group of riders, Morris stood at the end of the arena and directed each rider to build upon yesterday’s opening rein exercise to help keep their horses straight through the line of jumps. “Get your hands working, they’re not handcuffed together!” he instructed.
As the morning sessions concluded, Morris spoke to riders and spectators about what he believes are the keys to success, noting that one of his favorites to illustrate this idea is John Whitaker, who Morris called “a great rider, horseman, and competitor—he has it all.”
“First, you have to have a good horse,” he explained. “Secondly, take care of the house your horse lives in (the horsemanship aspect). Third, you have to use more dressage. And you have to make time for the details. Success by itself isn’t enough—it also has to be beautiful.”
As morning sun gave way to storm clouds, attendees gathered inside for a photo review of the riders by Morris. After critiquing each young rider, Morris was able to laugh at himself as the audience reviewed photos of the clinician while riding the students’ horses on Day 1 and 2 of the sessions.
“This is a very good example of bad,” laughed Morris. “Were all of my jumps like this?”
Next, a panel discussion titled “The Road From Young Rider To Olympian” was held with McLain Ward, Laura Kraut and Beezie Madden. These U.S. Show Jumping team members reviewed the various paths their careers had taken from the young rider ranks, and they answered questions from the audience about career choices, college, and managing a stable of high performance horses.
Jennifer M. Keeler is the former National Director of Dressage for the USEF. She lives in Lexington, Ky., and competes in hunters and pleasure driving with her palomino Quarter Horse, Whistlin Dixi Time. She will be sending daily reports from this year’s George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.