For the last four days, participants in the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2011 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session have taken part in a rigorous program to further their jumping expertise and overall horsemanship. Today, Jan. 8, these riders had the opportunity to apply everything they’d learned and combine it with the talent that earned them a chance to participate in the first place.
To begin, Morris reviewed the course for the audience and explained the intricacies of the route. "It's deceptively difficult," he noted.
At final height, fences were 4-foot plus and scopey. Riders had to navigate precise striding, bending lines and rollbacks, and one- and two-stride combinations, in addition to the water jump and troublesome liverpool.
In facing today's course and looking forward to the pressure of future competitions, Morris spoke to the riders about mental preparation. "I've had plenty of practice with this in my 62 or 63 years of showing horses, and because I'm a nervous person," he noted. "The best remedy is to go over the plan. Ask yourself, 'What is the pace I need, and what are my options?' "
As horses in each group loosened up on the flat, the dressage lessons that had been learned earlier in the week were in widespread use. In the second group, Morris briefly rode Hayley Barnhill's horse to demonstrate how to get a horse thinking forward during the warm-up. Then Morris lined up the riders for a pep talk and to further explain his philosophy about proper preparation and the importance of knowing your horse.
Know Your Horse
"Don't warm-up your horse too much and use him up before you even go in the show ring. If your horse is hot, get your butt up at 4 a.m. and top the horse off in an organized fashion well before your class," he explained. "I always took my grand prix horses out early in the morning anyway to check how they're feeling that day. I don't like surprises, so I don't want to take a horse up to the ring and just hope that he's OK."
Morris used a former Olympic mount as an example of the importance of knowing what each horse needs and how these can differ greatly between mounts. "That horse needed 45 minutes—no less, ever—or he was a fruitcake," he laughed. "Every horse is an individual, and you must recognize that."
Moving on to warm-up fences, Morris had all the riders work over a small square oxer. "The basis of most of my warm-ups is square oxers to get the horse forward with confidence and scope," Morris explained. "I don't use rampy oxers very much, as they don't teach horses as well. Sometimes I'll finish warm-up with a vertical to encourage collection."
Morris also emphasized taking the opportunity to jump the warm-up fence from both directions and off of both leads. "Be sure to use different directions, approaches and distances to teach the horse to be elastic and versatile," he said. "And remember: pace to the base. This way we encourage bascule. We're not riding hunters here."
As Morris watched horses warm-up, he took the opportunity to explain to the riders how to more effectively utilize both a two-point (jumping) position and three-point position (both legs and seat). "I want to see you using your two-point position for all galloping between fences to relieve the horse's back," he explained. "But on the final approach to the jump, I want you to have a light three-point seat. And always keep the connection with your hands as this is support for the horse."
As riders began tackling the course, Morris observed and then critiqued each round, explaining the nuances between each rider and horse, which affected how the pattern unfolded. He emphasized how every detail, from before the start until after galloping through the finish flags, was important.
Every Detail Is Important
To begin with, it was incredibly important for each rider to get his or her course off to the right start. "When you trot into the ring, have a path in mind to introduce your horse to the jumps, which will be different for every horse and every course," he explained.
And this did not mean that getting too up close and personal was allowed. "Don't go up to a jump and let them touch the rails with their nose or eat the flowers," he explained. "If you go to a fence, cluck and leg them so that they associate the jump with forward."
Once underway, Morris encouraged riders to be confident to the initial jump. "Lots of people creep to the first fence and then have to try to establish a pace after the round has already started," he noted. "Set your pace right from the start."
And when finished, Morris instructed everyone to ask their horses for about 30 seconds of dressage movements to re-focus their mounts from the excitement of the round.
One of the more challenging sequences on the sizeable course was a square oxer, followed by a tight left 3/4 circle to the green wall, and four very forward strides to the spooky water. Immediately following the water, riders had to bring their horses back within five tight strides in order to jump an airy oxer placed on a slight right-hand bend from the water.
"Water in itself is not that difficult," noted Morris. "It's the questions it asks before and after the jump." These words rang true as several horse-and-rider combinations were unable to answer those questions, resulting in charging steeds, flat jumps, dropped rails and even run-outs at the oxer as horses were caught off guard after the water.
Once again Morris' patience wore thin with the second group. "You're not stupid, but you practice being stupid," he reprimanded one rider. "If you get to a tough distance, get tougher. If you're in a difficult spot, don't just drop the aids. Fix it, fight for it, get it done!"
Unexpected trouble was also found at the scopey triple bar and the first fence of the final vertical-square oxer combination, which was placed next to the spectator tents for added distraction.
"Don't ever think of quitting, don't ever make it an option for the horse," Morris admonished. "The only options are over, under or through." He continued explaining the importance of every rider learning how to handle difficult situations and be able to solve problems, which may suddenly present themselves on course.
"If the horse stops, you must do something—leg, cluck, whatever. The horse must never associate a refusal with nothing happening. This is how people unconsciously teach horses to stop and run out."
As the morning and the training session concluded, Morris reminded riders that the skills learned during the week should be continued after they return home. "The purpose of these sessions is to make your toolbox fuller," he said. "I want to give you these tools to have and use for the rest of your careers."
Be sure to read each day's report on this exciting training session. You can also watch video from the lessons on the USEF Network.
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.