This George H. Morris column was originally posted on the Chronicle’s website in February 2008.
Several months ago, my friend Judy Richter kindly sent me a copy of Bill Steinkraus’ revised edition of his classic book Reflections on Riding and Jumping. Ever since, I’ve read it, reread it, underlined it, made my marginal notes, and digested it.
I have always loved to read inspirational riding material. It helps my teaching, which, of course, I do a lot of.
Bill Steinkraus wasn’t one of my teachers as a young man. But I watched him school Maud Farrell’s horses early on at Ox Ridge (Conn.), and I watched him
at many horse shows, rode with him from time to time, and, of course, later on became his teammate at the U.S. Equestrian Team. So Billy was one of my principal influences, my mentor.
Billy and Trafalgar Square Publishing have very generously allowed me to take some of his written material and elaborate from my own perspective.
I grew up hearing, seeing and using many of Billy’s aphorisms, and they always kept me in good stead. And so here are Two Dozen of Bill Steinkraus’ Useful Aphorisms. My comments are strictly from my own personal riding experience, not his.
No. 1. Get your tack and equipment just right, and then forget about it and concentrate on the horse.
Bill Steinkraus was the most meticulous man I have ever ridden with when it came to the quality, make, repair, and cleanliness of his own personal attire and equipment and of his tack. Down to his gloves, hat, whip, and spurs`it had to be just so.
He was very particular in fitting a bridle to a particular horse and always preferred pelhams. His equipment, his tack, and his horse were all scrupulously clean before he mounted. Everything down to the tiniest detail was in perfect order. Now all he had to do was ride the horse!
No. 2. The horse is bigger than you are, and it should carry you. The quieter you sit, the easier this will be for the horse.
Billy exemplified this principle of “self-carriage” for the horse. He appeared to do nothing. If you have to use your driving aids a great deal (legs, weight, voice), your horse hasn’t been properly trained to them. If you have to use your restraining aids a great deal (hands, weight, voice), your horse hasn’t been properly trained to them.
No. 3. The horse’s engine is in the rear. Thus, you must ride your horse from behind, and not focus on the forehand simply because you can see it.
Go to the next horse show. How many people are hand-riding on the flat? (Most of them.) How many people are riding leg to hand? (Few of them.) How many horses are “connected” and truly on the bit? (Few.)
No. 4. It takes two to pull. Don’t pull. Push.
Once a hot, strong horse accepts your leg and seat, he’s no longer hot and strong. Once a cold horse really accepts your leg and is in front of the leg, he’s no longer cold. All horses must be taught to accept your driving aids. Then their mouths will improve immeasurably.
No. 5. For your horse to be keen but submissive, it must be calm, straight and forward.
Calm is first. Calm must permeate everything when you work around a horse, or else you cannot proceed. Forwardness is absolutely indispensable. One cannot go forward, backward, left, or right without the horse “thinking” forward. Straightness is the essence of control; it is the very first step of collection. Keep your horse tracking straight.
No. 6. When the horse isn`t straight, the hollow side is the difficult side.
You see this a lot at the horse shows today. The horse escapes the aids by overbending to the inside. Remember, whatever you teach a horse, he’ll use against you.
No. 7. The inside rein controls the bending, the outside rein controls the speed.
We see too much inside rein today. Let’s start with the dominant inside leg, which puts the horse to the dominant outside rein, which is the half-halt rein, which controls the horse. A well-ridden horse is very little on the inside rein.
No. 8. Never rest your hands on the horse’s mouth. You make a contract with it: “You carry your head and I’ll carry my hands.”
One of my most memorable riding lessons from Billy was how to get a horse’s head down. Raise your hands! One’s hands can always go higher than the horse’s head. He’ll seek to escape this pressure by going the other way—down. I see too many low hands, spread hands, and sawing hands. Horses hate this, and they either go above the bit or behind the bit.
No. 9. If the horse can’t learn to accept what you’re doing, it isn’t any good.
Training horses is love (sometimes tough love), not war. When you see someone always fighting with their horses, they don’t understand. And neither do the poor horses. Study and practice classic techniques until you understand them and they work for you.
No. 10. Once you’ve used an aid, put it back.
This has to do with active versus passive aids. Once the horse has responded and yielded, relax the pressure. That is the reward. Then he’ll look to respond quicker the next time. Billy’s advice is the basis of self-carriage.
No. 11. You can exaggerate every virtue into a defect.
I’m sure Billy was thinking of the “crest release.” I know I am. The “long crest release” is a virtue for beginner riders or when working with very green horses. After that, there are better ways to use your hands when jumping, such as the “short release” and the “automatic release” (the following hand). The crest release is exaggerated and often used grotesquely.
No. 12. Always carry a stick, then you will seldom need it.
This is a truism if I ever heard one. For any serious riding or schooling, you should know how to use it in a variety of ways. Any and every horse can be taught to accept a stick if you carry it every day and don’t abuse him with it.
No. 13. If you`ve given something a fair trial, and it still doesn’t work, try something else—even the opposite.
We all tend to be set in our ways and narrow-minded when working with horses. Be open-minded and imaginative, and be willing to change.
No. 14. Know when to start and when to stop. Know when to resist and when to reward.
This piece of advice takes lots of experience dealing with lots of different horses. Some people hate to confront an issue head-on with a horse. Some people don’t know when to stop. They’re drillers and the killers. They’re the worst.
No. 15. If you’re going to have a fight, you pick the time and place.
I’m constantly setting up situations where I know I’ll get small resistances so I can break them up. Just a simple thing like getting a horse through a puddle. Once that is accomplished, the liverpool and the open water won’t be such a task.
No. 16. What you can’t accomplish in an hour should usually be put off until tomorrow.
This is a great piece of advice I learned from Billy. I rarely ride a horse more than 50 minutes, if that, in training. Put your ego aside and put your horse back in the barn and try again tomorrow. Perhaps try a different tactic.
No. 17. You can think your way out of many problems faster than you can ride your way out of them.
A few examples of this are: Check your tack thoroughly before mounting. Make sure your off stirrup is down before mounting and that your stirrups are approximately your length. Keep your foot in the stirrup when adjusting the irons. Always have a short rein with a feel of your horse’s mouth before going to a faster pace. I could go on, and on, and on.
No. 18. When the horse jumps, you go with it, not the other way around.
Excess motion in the hunter/jumper ring is equally, if not more, appalling than in the dressage ring. Invisibility of aids, self-carriage, and wait for your horse are all truisms. Learn what those terms mean and practice those principles.
No. 19. Don`t let over-jumping or dull routine erode the horse’s desire to jump cleanly. It’s hard to jump clear rounds if the horse isn’t trying.
This is probably the best single piece of advice Billy could give you. Drilling a horse until he is stale and sore is the worst thing you can do. Once a horse has lost his “try,” there is nothing you can do except let him freshen up. And that can take weeks, months or never. The cleanest jumper is a fresh horse.
No. 20. Never give up until the rail hits the ground.
One often has to fight to jump clear. All winning jumper riders somehow know how to leave the jumps up, no matter how tight a spot they get in. Watch Margie Engle!
No. 21. Young horses are like children—give them a lot of love, but don’t let them get away with anything.
Love, coupled with discipline, is the “sine qua non” of horse training. Disobediences, resistances and evasions tend to grow like weeds.
No. 22. In practice, do things as perfectly as you can; in competition, do what you have to do.
Americans have always been chided by their European counterparts about dying in their beauty. And rightly so. Often our technique and style are better; but they, as a rule, are tougher competitors.
No. 23. Never fight the oats.
Many horses cannot stand prosperity. It is impossible to train a horse who is always “above himself.”
No. 24. The harder you work, the luckier you get.
Nowadays, a lot of people talk over dinner about where they hope to get in the horse game—win the ASPCA Maclay Finals, be amateur-owner hunter champion at Devon (Pa.), ride grand prix, or get on the Olympic team. Usually those are the “talkers.” It’s the “workers” who attain those lofty goals.
Aren’t Bill Steinkraus’ aphorisms wonderful? They are little gems, pearls of wisdom that keep you on the right track. That’s why I had to share them with you.
Now go out and get his book. You can’t learn to ride from a book, but it sure can help.
(In 1999, the Chronicle’s staff selected Bill Steinkraus and George Morris as two of the “50 Most Influential Horsemen of the 20th Century” for our Turn of the Century Issue.)