“We’re not in hunter land today, we’re in training land,” said George Morris as he began Day 2 of his Horsemastership Training Sessions, Jan. 1 in Wellington, Fla.
And although the 12 participants were learning, they were still expected to attend to the details as they began incorporating yesterday’s flatwork into gymnastic jumping exercises.
“Someone said that when they rode with me it was like being eaten alive by a duck,” Morris quipped. “Well it is like being eaten alive by a duck. Detail is like being eaten alive by a duck.”
More than double the number of spectators from the first day lined the rail as Morris got started with the first group.
Similar warm-up exercises ensued, including the ubiquitous shoulder-in and the counter canter.
He introduced a bending line of cavaletti that puzzled some of the horses, who would rather have cantered or bounced them. When that happened, Morris just reminded riders to keep a steady rhythm.
Morris was particularly picky on position today, and the riders were mostly up to task.
He noted the Michael Hughes tended to push down on his stirrup with his toe and encouraged Liza Finsness to keep pushing her heel down throughout the session.
“That weight in the heel holds the stirrup in place,” he said. “That’s for every [kind of] riding.”
He reminded riders again of the two- and three-point seat as they cantered around the ring.
“You must not stray from classic riding,” he said. “Straight elbow to the mouth, heels down, good posture, eyes up and ahead, working. Especially with tall people, you want to be sure the chest is vaulted. As Jack LeGoff said, ‘Your dignity is out in front of you,’ and your lower back has a slight hollow.”
Proper Form Over Fences
When it came time to jump, the set-up of fences in the ring might have had some scratching their heads. Most people think of gymnastics as lines of very related fences, but today’s gymnastics had a different, short course feel.
“I consider any combination of fences a gymnastic,” he explained. “Just like transitions aren’t necessarily forward and backward, you go into a circle or a shoulder-in or a serpentine or a lengthen. They’re all gymnastics.”
Before they started jumping, Morris laid out his four cornerstones of jumping (in no particular order):
1. A forward seat and solid base. Is the rider able to ride with his horse? Can they hold position before, over and after fence?
2. Heels down. Is the heel well down? Is it in contact with the horse, not kicking or tapping?
3. The eyes. Are the eyes focused? The eyes have two jobs, direction and distance to the obstacle.
4. The hands. When a rider yields the hands, do they follow the horse’s mouth?
Riders warmed up over a hogsback cross-rail, which Morris said keeps things interesting.
Lillie Keenan, winner of both the ASPCA Maclay and Pessoa/USEF Medal finals as well as individual gold in the Adequan FEI North American Young Riders Championships and Randolph College National Junior Jumper Championships, demonstrated textbook form over nearly every fence she jumped, using an automatic release from the very first fence, without being asked to do so.
Morris praised her form as she cantered to the cross-rail a second time. “As she approaches that fence, she sinks, not sits, into the saddle,” he said. “Legs are anchors. The heel stays well down throughout the jump. Of course she looks like that, I’d expect that after her winning all these championships.”
“Watch his hand position,” he said of Hughes. “Not this puppy dog crest [release] with bent wrists that you see in every picture in the Chronicle. I can’t look at those pictures. It’s not the Chronicle’s fault. What’s wrong with classic?”
After their warm-up jumps, Morris had riders start immediately over jumps with liverpools on the front and back sides to make sure the horses were in front of the leg.
He then created a course that started with a triple bar, two strides to a vertical panel, a right turn to a vertical with a liverpool on the backside, continuing left to a one stride on the short side headed into the crowd, then over a vertical with a liverpool in front, to a right-handed rollback to an open water.
Many of the horses were quite up, so Morris had them stop and back up or circle several times in between fences to regain control and respect.
Mattias Tromp’s horse made the same mistake of landing on the PVC pole on the backside of the water jump twice in a row, so Morris sternly told him to use his stick behind the saddle and demonstrated the proper use from the ground.
He also thought Hughes was too protective of his horse off the ground, so he told him to soften at the base.
“Invite him to rub the fences,” he said. “Invite him self carriage. Invite him to get to that last two or three strides and you soften.”
Morris finished the session by having riders jump a triple combination of an oxer, three strides to an oxer, three strides to an oxer, but with no ground lines.
Olivia Champ took an unfortunate tumble when her horse stopped out at the last oxer, but with a good use of her stick, she went through well the second time.
Morris reiterated that the horse must listen to the aids by having riders pull up immediately after the line and turn to the outside of the fence—not an easy feat with just a couple of strides before the end of the ring!
A Priceless Hour
After a lunch break, Olympian Anne Kursinski demonstrated flatwork techniques that reiterated the point Morris drove home yesterday—make the horse move off the leg.
“Like George, I always do a little bit off my legs,” said Kursinski as she began walking on a “hot and light” warmblood mare who’s currently jumping 1.40-meter courses. “The first thing is to ask them a few questions.”
The first question was a turn on the forehand, but the mare was extremely resistant to the left leg and put on quite the show, rearing and backing up.
“She thinks she’s the queen mare, but I’m the queen mare,” Kursinski joked, never missing a beat while the mare resisted her aid.
With quiet insistence, she was finally able to move off into trot after a few good steps.
“The most important part of riding is your position,” she reiterated. “That’s the only thing you can really control. Once you get control of yourself, then you have a better chance of controlling your horse. That’s repetition. I didn’t freak out; I kept my position and then she comes to me.”
Passersby could be forgiven for thinking they’d wandered into a dressage show as Kursinski demonstrated movements straight out of second and third level tests.
She worked from shoulder-in to haunches in, then shifted her weight, changed the bend and flowed effortlessly into a half pass.
Throughout the trot work, as Morris insisted yesterday, Kursinski posted the trot to relieve her horse’s back and make sure she was accepting the contact using, you guessed it, seat and leg.
“When she bends well, I can give a little with my inside rein,” said Kursinski, demonstrating a noticeable loop in her rein. “I see too many riders bending and hanging on the inside rein. To make a horse straight, it’s inside leg to the outside rein.”
After working some counter canter and tempi changes, Kursinski truly impressed by performing several pirouettes.
She finished by showing a softer, more supple trot on a horse that started out quite tense.
“Because they’re fit, strong and supple, they’re using similar jumping muscles, so you don’t have to bore them to death with jumping,” she said. “From this kind of work, they’re fitter, stronger and sounder by proper riding followed up with good vet work.
”That’s a priceless hour,” said Morris as Kursinski exited the ring. “With a snaffle bridle and a total understanding of how to make the horse forward, straight, loose, supple, active—all those wonderful things.”
Kursinski’s demonstration of classical riding is becoming more rare in today’s hunter and jumper world according to Morris.
“Unfortunately the world is getting quicker and quicker and lots of activity and less and less accomplishment when it comes to real riding, real horse care, real stable management, real understanding of the structure of the horse,” he said.
Morris finished the day with a lecture on good, old-fashioned paper. He joked about his “gift” for art as he drew a stick figure horse on a drawing board and circled his three points of resistance in the horse, the lower jaw and poll, the shoulder, and the hindquarters.
He then listed the three contacts to the horse; the back, the mouth and the ribs. “I can’t talk to my horse without connection to the mouth,” he said. “I can’t feel without connection to the seat bones. First I establish contact. The big problem we have with resistance is that horses don’t accept contacts.”
Lessons from yesterday were repeated again, as he noted that by following the horse’s head with the hands, you can overcome a lot of resistance.
“I’m a great believer in staying over the corner of the horse’s mouth,” he said. “I get a very good contact with that. When the head goes up, I maintain contact. The horse will escape by running behind that. I close my legs and he has nowhere to go because I am always higher than his head. Once he seeks comfort [by giving, I give.]”
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