All week, George Morris has reiterated that riding a horse is hard, even if the concepts seem simple. To learn correct basics, one must practice perfection with discipline and concentration.
Those basics got a lot harder on Jan. 3, Day 4 of his Horsemastership Training Session, as riders came to the ring without their stirrups for 45 minutes of flatwork.
Morris said he likes to ride at least once a week without stirrups to develop a better seat and feel, even now after seven decades in the sport.
“This whole basis of dressage is feel and the basis of jumping is feel,” he said. “Some people are born with it. I’m lucky because I wasn’t born with it and every step of the way I had to learn. By learning every single thing, I can teach. Those natural ones, some of them can and some of them it’s hard to teach. They just felt it from the very beginning.”
“Tightness is a virtue and looseness is a virtue,” said Morris as riders began warming up. “Everything in riding is contradictory and a paradox. Working without stirrups puts you ‘in the horse.’ What it does vastly and quickly is to give you better feel of the horse.”
As he had for the first three days of the clinic, Morris reinforced the idea of the inside leg to create impulsion. He wanted an active walk from the beginning, one that had impulsion, looseness and rhythm.
No stone was left unturned when it came to position. “Now check,” he said as riders walked. “I start with hands because they’re so difficult to teach. Are your hands over the horse’s wither? Are your thumbs the highest point of your hands? If a horse resists the bit in any way, I don’t drop my hands. If necessary I shorten the rein. The horse has to accept the hands. That’s why we talk about the straight line from elbow to mouth. With a high head, you have a higher hand. When that horse starts that business, don’t drop your hand.”
When halting, Morris reminded riders to use all four parts of their bodies—back, leg, seat and hand.
Because riding without stirrups can be taxing on a horse’s back, Morris had riders post the trot for short periods.
“The horse is a bridge,” he said. “You have the two front legs to support, you have the two hind legs to support and the span of the bridge, the back, is very weak, so when you have to sit the trot without stirrups, you have to sit as close as possible to the pommel. This drives the knees down. The legs are in contact with the horse’s ribs so we can control his hindquarter.”
Morris had riders trot over cavaletti again, focusing on rhythm. Some horses, like Erin Fry’s Caprice, tried to canter or bounce over the poles, but Morris quietly insisted she keep trying by pushing him forward and trying to keep a relaxed rhythm.
Counter-canter, shoulder-in, leg yields and changes of pace within the gait were used again to get the horses listening to the aids.
Morris also worked flying changes with both groups and a difference in several of the horses was apparent.
Morris insisted again that the flying changes came from the leg aids, not the hands. “Exclusively from leg aids,” he said. “It’s just like when you get married, people. That word, exclusive. It’s exactly that same idea, only leg aids. You’re cheating if you use your hands.”
As a result, the changes were straighter, less croup-high and more subtle as horses waited for their riders. Riders weren’t going straight to the hand and outside leg to ask, instead using their inside leg and switching aids as they asked.
“The horses are so much better today,” Morris said. “They’re accepting the seats, they’re not bucking you out of God’s green earth in the flying change. I want you obsessive with this inside leg, outside rein. I learned this from Bert de Nemethy in 1956. That’s a while ago. This is not new what I’m teaching.”
In the counter canter, Tori Colvin’s horse, Don Juan, was quite heavy, but she kept her aids quiet as she worked him through it.
“You’ll see that intermittency with her hands,” Morris observed. “She’s not a hanger. These people are good riders. Lillie and Tori can’t be hangers and have the success they had with all the hunters and jumpers they’ve had. They can be very strong, but they take and give. The great secret is self-carriage.”
In the second group, Morris got on Samantha Harrison’s horse, a different one than she’d been riding.
He was quite hollow and braced, so Morris immediately began working him in walk without stirrups.
“There’s no thinking of pulling the head down,” he said. “There’s thinking right as we start walking of impulsion. We break up this resistance by getting that hind leg active.”
“Without stirrups, the horses are forced to accept the seat and legs,” he continued as he began working leg yields and shoulder-in at the walk. “Shoulder-fore we use all the time. When I sit on a horse, it’s automatic that I use that shoulder to break up that paralyzing resistance in the hind end. If the horse goes above the bit, just keep the contact.”
As he began trotting, Morris noted that the horse’s head must be at or in front of the vertical, soft in his jaw, and bending at the poll.
“Oh boy, you’re strong,” he said to the horse. “Sometimes you equitators look like you have rigor mortis. Don’t be afraid of your aids. We have to teach him to help himself.”
After 20 minutes, the horse was noticeably softer. “His hind leg is dancing like Miley Cyrus,” said Morris as the crowd laughed.
Both sessions ended after about 45 minutes. Even though it was cool in the 50s, the past several days have been quite warm, and with course work tomorrow, Morris wanted to preserve the horses.
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