On Day 3 of the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, Jan. 3-7 in Wellington, Fla., it was McLain Ward’s turn to step in and conduct the day’s lessons due to Morris’ continuing illness.
As he got acquainted with each session's participants, Ward sent riders around the ring to get their horses loosened up. However, since the day's school was to include quite a bit of jumping, he limited the flatwork to about 15 minutes.
"When you're in the warm-up arena at a competition, I'm not a huge fan of complicated flatwork, because I think you can irritate the horse," Ward said. "My goals are to get the horse supple, relaxed, and going forward and back. If he's doing those commands, he's going to ride better in the ring than most of the people who are out there. I think people can create a problem by doing too much."
As a refresher from the previous day's gymnastics session with Kent Farrington, Ward asked riders to start cantering on a large circle over a single cross-rail with ground poles set 9 feet from the base on either side. "Ride the first pole, not the jump itself," he explained. "Let the pole come to you. If you focus on the jump, I guarantee you're going to miss. One of the reasons I like this exercise is that not only is it good for the horses, but it's also great for the riders. It really makes you stay disciplined to what you're focusing on. You cannot get anxious. If you get anxious, you're going to screw it up every time."
Moving on to a short serpentine pattern of four to five fences, followed by a second winding course, which included a liverpool, riders quickly discovered that while the jumps weren't huge, there were plenty of questions to answer in the bending lines.
Reiterating the importance of position, Ward described how a lackadaisical attitude to the basics will come back to bite riders when jumps increase in size and frequency. "We have to pay attention to our weaknesses," he warned. "You have to be disciplined. I hear people say all the time, 'Oh well, it's just a cross-rail, I can throw my body forward or not keep my weight in my heels,' but then they just think they'll magically be able to do it when there's five jumps in a row? It doesn't work."
Maintain Your Position
Ward encouraged everyone to be mindful of their horse's rhythm while keeping their hands up and bodies back, maintaining connection between hand and leg, and avoiding any exaggerated movements in the saddle such as leaning too far to the inside. He explained that a rider's position must remain strong and in the correct place whether a jump is 2'6" or 5'6".
One flaw will lead to another. For example, if a rider's wrists are in the wrong place, the elbows soon will be too, followed by the shoulders. "I don't want to see any more motion than that with your upper body—let the horse jump the fence first," he instructed one rider. "I keep harping on this point, but in your mind's eye you've got to see and feel the horse coming up through your chest. Don't overextend your body and jump over your hands. Then your lower leg slips back, the connection is lost, and the horse's hind end is gone, and you lose all your power. You can't give me one good reason why overdoing the balance and jumping up the neck helps the horse, so there's not one good reason to do it.
"There are all these debates about equitation, but I think it's great," Ward continued. "The problem is that this type of mistake, in general, doesn't show up in equitation. Where it shows up is when the oxers start to get wide and the jumps get bigger, and then that mistake becomes a big problem."
Ward believes the key in any sport, whether it's a quarterback throwing a football or a golfer hitting a ball, is working toward being able to perform a task the same way every single time. "No matter what type of horse you're riding, if you have a nice rhythm with a straight horse, and the last three strides in front of the jump you connect your seat in degrees with a supportive lower leg to a nice steady hand that follows the horse over the fence, you'll succeed," said Ward. "Consistency is critical—use the same routine to every single jump and ride correctly on every type of horse. Just make minor adjustments to the degrees. Anybody that tells you, 'This horse jumps this way, and you have to ride it this way and another horse jumps this way,' they don't know what they're talking about."
Getting Their Feet Wet
Despite the impressive appearance of today's water jump, it caused few problems for the young riders and their horses. Ward said the key to navigating this type of obstacle is the approach. The rider must utilize the approach to create impulsion and balance the horse, while he remains connected through the rider's hand. This is the same concept as any other jump, "just up a few gears and with a little more leg. Get right to the base with a lot of power—don't let him get flat,” he said. “You don't just come off the corner and catch a flyer and wing it. That's why people land in it all the time and fall off."
Ward also warned riders to pay attention and be ready to act if their horses got starry-eyed at the possibility of getting their feet wet. "Don't let your horse put his head down at a natural fence. If you can keep his head up, normally you'll get them off the ground," he explained. "And after the water, don't let the horse run around wildly. You're going to pay dearly for that at the next fence."
Make Smart Choices
One of the prevalent themes during the week's training session has been for riders to do more than simply react to situations; they must think strategically and proactively when in the saddle, as they are ultimately responsible for their horse's actions. Ward noted that while some riders may win a lot because they push the envelope, they also have to be smart about their training, even if it means taking a conservative route and adding strides.
"With these small fences, this is not the time to be galloping the jumps. Be disciplined, be patient," he said. "You must be in charge of the horse's stride. Make it happen—not just kinda. But you have to make those corrections before the last stride to the fence."
Ward scolded participants whose focus wavered as the course progressed. "Don't be three-quarters of the way through a turn and still getting organized," he admonished a rider. "You've done the same line three times now, and you're still three strides in before you're even thinking about balancing. You've got to be a smart rider, at least after the first time through. You've got to think! The same riders win everything because they're smarter than the other people."
Ward believes mistakes, even seemingly minor ones, display a lack of discipline. "Trust what you know is correct and do just enough to get it done. You've got to plan ahead, always be thinking ahead, because how you ride this line seriously affects the next one," he concluded. "Think about what's going to make it easier for you, and learn from somebody else's mistakes. Don't ride stupid."
Due to Morris' continued illness, Beezie Madden is on the schedule for Friday's mounted sessions.