“Horse training is playing,” said George Morris on Day 3 of his Horsemastership Training Session on Jan. 2. “Lengthen, shorten, turn. It’s playful. It’s not temper and emotion and drama.”
But the second day of gymnastics wasn’t all fun and games. Morris continued his insistence of the correct basics of position, but didn’t harp on small mistakes the horses made.
Morris started the day by reviewing his methods, which again included impulsion.
“Knowledge is your power,” he said. “Horse shows are easy. You can learn something from every country. The Germans have a great tradition of success and great horsemen. Their scale is rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. Collection always has to be the end. I put impulsion first. I think that’s the basis of riding.”
Morris introduced several new concepts on the flat. As riders began circling the ring, he noted that he wanted to see three points from the German scale—impulsion, rhythm and looseness.
“The word is oscillate,” he said. “Exaggerate that elbow. Straightness, even on a slack rein, has to be an obsession. You keep the horse with your inside leg, outside rein. Opposition straightness, opposition is balance. Most people walk horses atrociously. They don’t walk a horse. The horse has to have impulsion, he has to have rhythm, he has to have looseness, he has to go forward.”
Every detail of rider position was under scrutiny, as Morris called out riders for not having their heels down or their stirrups at a right angle to the girth.
“Liza, keep your hands up,” he said to Liza Finsness. “To teach you is like pulling teeth.”
For the second group, Morris had them bridge their reins into one hand and perform small voltes with the haunches slightly in, an exercise that eventually leads to pirouettes and turns on the haunches.
“With this spiral, feel that the haunch is on a slightly inside track,” he explained. “The front feet are on a little bigger volte and the hind feet are on a smaller volte and it progressively gets tighter.”
Morris moved on to working flying changes as he had riders canter back and forth across a diagonal line and focus on the straightness of the change.
He insisted that they sit in a full seat to ride the changes, an interesting concept to many of the riders.
“Most hunter-jumper horses we have are what we call ‘light in the croup,’” he said. “They swish their tails, they buck up, they kick out. As I approach after this half turn, I lean behind the vertical, just for this short time, so that he accepts my seat and he can’t toss me up. Make the horse straight with your outside leg. As you approach the point of the change, think new inside leg at the girth, new outside rein. You change your aids and the horse will change.”
Morris reminded several riders not to pull the inside rein and use the outside leg, which resulted in crooked changes.
“We all have to fight that instinct to do it with our hands and our upper body,” he said. “We do it exclusively [with] legs and spurs.”
More Gymnastics, More Improvement
“Perfection is never attainable,” Morris said. But, “We want as close to correct as we can get.”
And with that, he hopped on Michael Hughes’ Zagreb to work over fences.
“You do two things to a jump,” he said. “Every horse, hot or cold, give with your hands. Don’t throw away the contact. If it’s necessary, close your legs. Those are the only two things you do.”
Morris started by cantering over a cross-rail, then asked which of the riders in the group he looked like.
After some good-natured ribbing, Morris explained that he was imitating Hughes’ upper body position, which can tend to get a little ahead of his horse.
He corrected his position by waiting for the horse to lift him out of the saddle, then started angling the jump and landing and turning sharply to get the horse listening to his aids.
“What does my seat do?” he asked the group. “Nothing. What does my upper body do? Nothing. The horse does it. Mostly I like to gallop and jump with the motion of the horse, in balance, light on his back. Laura Kraut and Kent Farrington, Eric Lamaze, Rodrigo Pessoa—most of the time, they’re light on their horse’s back. When it’s necessary and I feel like I have to get defensive, I can do it, but if I don’t have to do that, I do this.”
As he hopped off, Morris was complimentary of Hughes’ horse. “I think you’re going to watch the clinic, Michael,” he joked. “I like this horse.”
The group started jumping over a vertical-to-vertical line. Morris wanted them to ride it first in a short four strides, then work back to three strides and continue varying it, making their horses wait in between and lengthen after.
“Number one for me is lightness on a horse.”
Liza Finsness’ horse made several beautiful efforts, but he struggled to wait for the four strides and had a few funny jumps over the second element.
“If the horse jumps upside down, that’s ok,” said Morris. “The horse has to take the half-halt and listen to your hands there. Don’t freak out if he jumps a little inverted. What takes precedence is if he listens to your hands in between jumps. If he’s inverted, that’s his problem.”
After several times through the line, alternating between three and four strides, Finsness’ horse was noticeably more attentive to her aids.
Hughes was having a great ride until his Zagreb misjudged a triple bar and landed in the middle of it. Hughes fell off and Zagreb seemed slightly off when he walked off, so an attending vet looked him over and decided he should go back to the barn for the day.
“That’s horse jumping,” said Morris to the audience at the end of the first group. “The horse made a mistake, the boy didn’t make a mistake. Possibly if I could guess, I asked him to ride a little different. He’s a top rider and he’s ridden a lot of green horses. He holds the horses together very well and I wanted to get him teaching his horse to pull himself a little bit. I would say it was a fluke. He just left out a stride.”
Erin Fry also ran into trouble with Caprice, who stopped out at a hogsback cross-rail that Morris finished the session with to test straightness.
“The first time, don’t trust that jump with a green horse,” he said. “Spur and right rein! Right back over here! Watch him with that right rein. Anticipate that left duck. Come on you people. When adversity strikes, you fold like a tent.”
As he addressed the audience and riders at the end of the day, Morris noted a lack of boldness in today’s riders.
“Physically, mentally, emotionally, this is a hard sport,” he said. “Even adult hunter, even short-stirrup jumping is hard. We’ve had falls today. The only way you address the sport is hard. The babysitting, the stroking, ‘What does the student think?’, ‘What does the parent think?’, ‘What does the owner think?’ is for the birds. It lowers the standards of horsemanship. You’re the professional, you’re the trainer. You tell them the facts of life, not the student. You have to create hard, even if they’re 8-year-olds on ponies or adult ladies. You have to somehow produce inside them some physical hardness, some emotional [hardness.] It’s a hard sport. The less you do that, the more problems you’re going to have.”
Lessons In Horse Management
In addition to riding, the 12 participants must take care of their own horses throughout the week.
Laurie Pitts is in her fifth year working as stable manager at the clinic and she’s been touching on all aspects of horse care throughout the week.
A former groom to top riders such as Rodney Jenkins and Conrad Homfeld, Pitts has been teaching the riders everything from proper grooming techniques to the care and fitting of tack to bandaging and how to take a horse’s vitals.
On Day 2, she gave a demonstration on proper lunging using Bert de Nemethy’s system.
“I gave them a handout straight from Bert’s book about how to correctly lunge a horse, which includes a bitting rig, a head stall or cavesson, and learning to lunge the horse back to front, just as if you were riding him,” she explained. “The lunge line becomes your rein and the whip becomes your leg. It’s important to get them mentally supple and a little tired, instead of physically tired, because that just makes them fitter.”
Pitts noted that she’s got a strong group this year, but even so, she’s giving them some tough love.
“I’ve told them from the beginning that there are community tasks and if it needs doing, just get up and do it, like raking the aisle or sweeping,” she said. “If you’re sitting still with nothing to do, you probably haven’t done something that needs doing. Even with one horse, it should take you all day to do well. They’re such nice kids. They’re really trying hard and they want to do right.”
Pitts enjoys giving back to the sport that’s given her so much, but like Morris, she’s noted a distinct lack of horsemanship over the years.
“I love to teach,” she said. “If I can get one person to carry it forward and try to get back to the American way of horsemanship. It horrifies me to walk through the aisles in the barns [at horse shows]. It makes me crazy. The same as [George] does, the same message over and over again and possibly trying to get a little bit of what we once had. The whole world was jealous of our horsemanship from the late ’60s to probably the early ’90s. Then it all changed and now it’s like, if it’s European, it’s got to be right, and that’s just not true.”
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