On Day 4 of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2011 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session participants heard the words that every rider hates: "Drop those stirrups!"
Work without stirrups will strengthen an equestrian's seat, legs and balance, and as Morris bluntly put it, the "ability to stick." But even for some of the country's top young jumping riders, today's brisk temperatures, frisky mounts, and even a circling helicopter turned an already grueling workout into a matter of survival.
Starting out, Morris stood in front of each group's line-up to make sure that without their stirrups, all riders were still sitting evenly in the saddle instead of unknowingly weighting one side of their body more heavily. Riders were then instructed to bridge their reins in one hand and begin work on the rail at a trot with the fingers of the opposite hand hooked under the pommel of the saddle.
Morris explained that this exercise helps riders not only get warmed up with a little extra security, but also move their seat towards the front to encourage better position and a deeper seat.
Next, riders were directed to perform some flexibility exercises, which at a walk would not be too daunting—but at a sitting trot, these were a lot trickier. As some horses flailed and cavorted, riders attempted to circle their free arms forward, upward, and back; also, to reach for their horses' ears, then to each of the toes of their own boots (both sides), and stretch backward to the top of their mounts' tail.
In two additional and quite difficult movements, Morris instructed the participants to repeatedly lift and hold both their legs away from the saddle for a second, "like a pair of scissors;" also, to place their legs forward and over the front of each side of the saddle to improve balance.
Finally, riders rotated their feet in small circles and then repeated with their heads while being warned by Morris not to perform too many revolutions lest they risk lightheadedness.
"I'd hate for my little pets to topple off," Morris joked.
He also warned, "Don't do these exercises for too long, as they are too taxing for the horse." No word on the effect on the rider, although red faces and the occasional muttering of, "Oh Jesus" spoke volumes.
As the trotting marathon continued, riders practiced turning their horses in figure-8 patterns while maintaining both reins in a single hand. "Feel how to control your horse's head, neck and shoulders with only one hand," Morris said. "The Western people do this very well since they commonly ride with one hand."
No Rest For The Weary
Riders finally earned the right to retake both reins and take a walk break, but there was little rest for the already-weary. Morris kept riders focused with lengthening and shortening of their horses' walks. "Don't neglect the walk work with the horse since it is the foundation for all other work," he explained. "I see so much sloppy walking and so many lazy horses!"
Regaining a sitting trot, Morris instructed both groups to practice voltes (very small circles) using an opening rein, with each movement followed by six to eight "absolutely straight" steps before starting another volte. Practice of dressage movements continued with a regimen of shoulder-in and haunches-in, lengthening and shortening of gaits, counter-canter circles, and flying changes on the long side of the arena, which remained the undoing of some riders.
"This is a super exercise to get your horse in front of the leg, and the horse should feel forward in the change, not backward," Morris explained. "But you must lean back more. Most of you are out of the saddle, fall forward, and use too much inside rein when asking for the change. It should be exclusively from the leg."
At the canter, the responsiveness of horses to their riders' aids was tested via a canter-halt-canter exercise, performed using both a full and half seat, while incorporating a progressively faster canter and a pulley rein if necessary to get the job done effectively.
"I want a QUICK halt!" barked Morris. Participants were kept on their toes even when back at the trot, with trot-halt-trot transitions using only the legs and seat.
"Riders are too dependent on their hands," explained Morris. He also instructed everyone to keep up frequent changes of direction, circles, as well as lengthening and shortening their horses' strides.
Do Something With Your Horses!
"All around these show grounds I see too much of nothing happening in the warm-up rings," said Morris. "Too much of trot, trot, trot, canter, canter, canter around the rail. Make lots of transitions and changes in direction—do something with your horses!"
As each group's session wound down, Morris asked riders to continue mixing it up at the trot with changes of direction and lengthenings while slowly letting the reins get longer to encourage the horse to properly stretch without snatching the reins. The relaxation of most of the horses was obvious. "In this way, the horse gradually gets long and low," said Morris. "This is what we call 'kissing the dirt.' "
Throughout the week, spectators didn't have to be experts to recognize how strongly Morris feels about the importance of flatwork in proper development of riders and horses. In describing the multitude of exercises demonstrated throughout the week, Morris explained, "This is my interpretation of dressage. Regardless of country or discipline, the basics of impulsion, rhythm, suppleness, and straightness have to be the same.
"This is why flatwork is so important," he continued. "You can't make a jumping rider—or horse—over fences. You have to make them on the flat."
Horse Welfare Is Part Of The Big Picture
Representatives from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started off the afternoon lectures. High performance jumping riders Georgina Bloomberg and Brianne Goutal participated in a panel discussion about horse welfare. The ASPCA, as the oldest animal humane organization in America (and which was originally founded to protect carriage horses in New York City), continues to be proactive in equine issues, and the representatives encouraged Horsemastership participants to become involved in promoting welfare.
FEI Course Designer Anthony D'Ambrosio gave a presentation on "The Logic Behind the Course," explaining to the audience the how and why behind design and also reviewed the full jumping course, which would be built for tomorrow's final session.
"Contrary to 'popular belief,' we are not out to get competitors," D'Ambrosio said with a laugh. "One of the most important considerations of a designer is to understand exactly who they are building the course for. We don't want horses or riders to be too over-faced or ever be frightened."
The popular water jump was the topic of several questions from the audience. D'Ambrosio encouraged riders to get their horses comfortable with water well before they reach the elite levels.
"Horses should see water more," he stated. "I will be using water as an option in many more of my courses here in Wellington this year."
Morris enthusiastically agreed that more riders should incorporate this obstacle as a regular part of their training. "We should be more like the Europeans—they jump water like we jump crossrails," he said.
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.