Gladstone, NJ – May 23, 2014 - The fourth day of the George H. Morris Gladstone Program opened to a brisk breeze and 60-degree weather. With the horses feeling fresh, riders had to be on point as they mounted sans stirrups for the morning sessions with the world-renowned horseman. Although the riders would not face the imposing obstacles from the previous day’s sessions, Morris would test both horse and rider mentally and physically with exercises on the flat to improve aids and balance.
Proponents of no-stirrup riding, including Morris, argue that riding in this fashion is natural. It allows the rider to sit over the shoulder and just behind the withers, increasing communication with the horse considerably, while improving balance. Riders adjusted the bridge of their reins, keeping the outside a touch shorter than the inside, putting the excess rein or “bight” to the outside. The horses maintained straightness with help from the outside hand, with each rider moving forward with impulsion at the free walk.
Morris explained, “Riders, myself included tend to slip back in their position and seat, For this first position, I want your hand on the pommel of the saddle, and pull your two seat bones deep into the saddle while lengthening the legs. Your leg should be slightly behind the girth, keeping impulsion at the walk.”
Although the clinic has focused deeply on the suppleness of the horse for the past three days, today Morris redirected his attention to the suppleness of the riders. He introduced a series of exercises that are beneficial to riders of all levels, working through the ankles, legs, crotch, arms, shoulders and neck. Riders rotated their toes clockwise and counter clockwise three to four times while keeping the leg perfectly steady.
The scissors implementation, allowed the riders to open and close their legs to the sides while helping to stretch the adductor muscle group and the legs in entirety. The exercise is very challenging, bringing the legs to a 45-degree angle simultaneously, and Morris only had the riders perform it five times.
“You can never grow out of these exercises, they not only help to make you supple, but they allow the horse to trust you. It is important that the horse always trust its rider,” Morris commented as he asked the riders to move their arms in a circle, brushing the horse’s neck and flank lightly. “You want them to feel content, and trusting. Pat their neck, and lightly brush their flank so they don’t confuse your hand with the whip.”
The riders picked up a slow trot, still holding a forward position, and Morris asked them to rise to the trot. It was very short-lived though, as Morris acknowledged how physically taxing the posting trot is without stirrups. The riders moved through a succession of the volte, ranging about 8 meters in diameter, completing circles at an interval while keeping the horse’s forehand and hindquarters on the same track.
The riders worked with feeling the horse in the hand, pushing the horse with their legs while allowing them to stretch for the bit. As the riders worked on downward transitions, Morris focused on the details of positioning during each, always focusing on keeping the horse in front of the leg.
“The half-halt is the crux of riding,” Morris said as riders transitioned from trot to walk and walk to halt. “The basis of the half-halt is in the hand. It is like you are squeezing a lemon or a sponge. You must close your hand and make a fist. If you need a stronger half-halt, add the arm, if you need to be even stronger use your weight. The French have a great term-stretch the spine. I love that saying. It tells you that you must drive your seat into the saddle.”
Morris then asked the riders to complete leg-yields and half-passes as part of the lateral schooling. “The purpose of lateral work is to get the horse coming from behind, this is horse training,” he said. “This is why I am in the sport, not because I have won numerous equitation, hunter and jumper championships, but because of the horse training.”
The final part of the morning sessions included counter-cantering while using outside aids to correctly ask for a lead change. Morris expected each rider to keep their horse straight while asking for the lead change on the track with their inside leg and outside leg, contrary to popular teachings. Morris had the opportunity to work Brittni Raflowitz’s horse from the first group session, and Savannah Talcott’s horse from the second mounted session.
As he walked each of the horses at a free walk, it was apparent that they were content and submissive to his legs and hands. “Do you see how the horse is relaxed? It’s not from exhaustion, not from lunging, not from drugging, but from riding. See how she snorts, she is happy and that is her purr.”
Morris finished the session with words of wisdom for his students and spectators, “Our goal is perfection, we won’t ever reach perfection, but that is our goal. The best professionals reach their goals because they set their standards high.”
Day five of the clinic will review the principals that the students learned throughout the week, preparing them for the major day of jumping on Sunday morning. They had the unique opportunity to meet with United States Show Jumping Team Veterinarian, Dr. Tim Ober, DVM for a veterinary session Friday afternoon where Ober discussed the importance of proper riding and veterinary implementation in a program.
“The foundation of what I have to say builds on what George and Dr. Heuschmann have been saying, that proper riding and balance go hand-in-hand in reducing the need for a veterinarian to be involved too frequently in the care of their horse,” Ober explained. “The best way that a veterinarian can complement you and your horse in the sports industry is to help you to be proactive and preventative about injuries. If you are riding well, your horses are fit, and your vet is helping you get on top of small details, your injury rate will go down, there is no question about that.”
“I think that these clinics, and these programs are opening rider’s eyes to standards and common approaches that George and others would like to see adopted in the U.S. I think that shift will have to be nurtured and developed over time, and these clinics are fundamental,” Ober concluded. “How these clinics are getting adopted more and more throughout the year is the next evolution of this.”