“This is the meat and potatoes of riding,” George H. Morris said about the shoulder-in. And while he focused on bend and lateral flexion and the shoulder-in for sure, Morris served up plenty of other side dishes of wisdom on Dec. 31. Twelve of the country’s top young riders made their way to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla., to participate in the eighth George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions.
Throughout the clinic, riders will be working on the flat, over fences and without stirrups with Morris and will take care of their own horses. They’ll be monitored by stable manager and professional groom Laurie Pitts, who will also give private demonstrations on horse care and management.
The list of riders is as follows:
Olivia Champ, 16, of La Canada, Calif. (Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-West champion)
Victoria Colvin, 16, of Loxahatchee, Fla. (Winner of WCHR Hunter Spectacular and named Best Child Rider at the Devon Horse Show in the hunters and jumpers)
Liza Finsness, 19, of Wellington, Fla. (Team gold medalist in Young Riders Emerging Athletes Program and a team gold medalist in the FEI Young Rider Nations Cup)
Michael Hughes, 17, of Allendale, N.J. (Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Finals-East champion)
Lillie Keenan, 17, of New York, N.Y. (NAJYRC individual and team gold medalist, winner of Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Equitation Medal Final and ASPCA Maclay Finals winner)
Mattias Tromp, 19, of North Salem, N.Y. (NAJYRC team gold medalist and second place at Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East)
Sunny Drescher, 16, of Hinesburg, Vt. (PHA Medal Finals Champion and Emerging Athletes Program national champion)
Erin Fry, 19, of Newport Beach, Calif. (Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-West reserve champion)
Samantha Harrison, 21, of La Canada, Calif. (2012 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search-West champion)
Sean Leckie, 17, of Reno, Nev. (Emerging Athletes Program reserve champion)
Sydney Shulman, of Greenwich, Conn. (NAJYRC individual bronze medalist)
Katherine Strauss, 15, of New York, N.Y. (NAJYRC team gold and individual silver medalist)
The Importance Of Inside Leg
Morris worked with both groups in one-hour sessions that focused on flatwork. Since the horses will be having a long week, Morris made sure to allow them frequent breaks and didn’t drill any one exercise.
“We have to start people with position and seat,” he said. “That always, until you stop riding, comes first because without position and seat, you can’t talk about the aids, how to influence the horse. The horse has to be taught how to listen to his internal environment, not his external environment. That’s why I don’t choose exotic bits. I’m not a fan of draw reins. I want the horse to listen to my natural aids, being my weight, my legs, my hands, my voice. My artificial aids—bitting, martingales, auxiliary reins, stick and spurs. That’s what riding is all about, that’s what dressage is all about.”
For the warm up in trot, he had riders make multiple changes of direction and work on flexing the horse slightly to the inside with a light, giving hand and a soft but firm inside leg to outside rein connection.
“Look to give, look to give with that inside rein,” he encouraged. “Keep a definite connection. Close your fingers on the outside rein and the inside rein asks for flexion so the horse gives a little in his mouth.”
He made sure riders were sitting up and straight in a deeper seat than many were used to. He remarked that Mattias Tromp had too much of a “jumper seat” in trot, which was slightly too forward and light.
“Posture,” he exclaimed. “I’m very old, but these young people have to have better posture. Fix the seat bone and sit tall.”
Morris then began asking riders to demonstrate shoulder-in, an exercise he continued to touch on throughout all the sessions. When describing shoulder-in, Morris said the movement should be on three tracks with the horse slightly bent from head to tail, not bent in the neck, which is a common mistake. He made sure riders carried their hands so they could easily displace the shoulder by moving them slightly to the inside.
After several steps of shoulder-in, Morris told riders to post the trot to relieve their horse’s backs, then go back to the movement.
The shoulder-in was particularly useful for Tromp’s horse when Morris chose him to get on. At first, he showed resistance, so Morris demonstrated how following the horse’s head movement with his hands could lead to him softening.
“Once he contracts—Bill Steinkraus taught me this—when the horse raises up, I follow him up,” he said. “That’s discomfort for the horse. I keep the horse going forward into the bit. When he stretches, I soften and give him comfort by lowering my hands. Take and give. That is especially important in the hand, but it’s also reflected in the legs. When the horse takes the half halt, give. When the horse flexes, give.”
Counter-Canter For Improvement
Morris likes to start cantering in counter-canter because it can immediately improve the gait. For today though, he had riders start by cantering on the correct lead and asking for canter-walk transitions, making sure to give with the inside rein in the upward transitions.
Transitions within the canter were also emphasized. He noted that a second or half seat is appropriate for faster work, galloping or jumping. He had riders get up off their horse’s backs on the long side of the ring, then come back to a full seat to make small voltes, all while making sure the horses were still in self carriage.
Morris got on Erin Fry’s horse, who was having trouble accepting the connection. “He’s a tough one. He’s got a strong character,” he remarked of the lanky bay, who was resistant to contact.
After more than 20 minutes of lateral work in trot and some counter-canter, Morris was rewarded with a softer horse who was able to perform a stretchy trot and show self carriage. “I want him to eat the dirt from the push, not the pull,” he said.
Although he may have had to be firm at times, Morris made sure to give. “The first criteria of working with a horse, off the horse or on the horse, is that the horse stay in front of you,” he said. “There has to be an empathy to your discipline. Always an empathy.
“It’s the detail,” Morris concluded. “What’s interesting with horses is the perfection of little things. The big things will take care of themselves, I guarantee you.”
Emotions - “Never is there to be temper with a horse,” he said as he started the session. “Don’t have emotion with a horse. Don’t be overly giggly. Be content, be happy, be pleased, but don’t factor in emotion, especially temper. Ask for very little and appreciate very much.”
Submission - “Our instinct when horses resist the hand is to drop the hands, take off our legs and get out of the saddle,” he said. “We surrender. No. The horse surrenders. We sit, we put our legs on and we close our fingers. It’s called submission. When the horse gives us submission, then we release all of that.”
Jumping - “Most of the days with your horse, you don’t jump,” he said. Morris remembered that one of his top students, Anne Kursinski, rarely jumped her Olympic partner Eros.
“Once he got made, we never jumped that horse,” he said. “We jumped him once or twice before Florida and did one or two classes before the Olympics, 4’6”, not 5’6”. She was my best [student] that didn’t jump. She wasn’t a jumpaholic. She worked them, she got them fit and sound, but she wouldn’t jump them.”
Stirrup Length For Flat Work - “For classical riding, the stirrup is at right angles to your girth and you feel the outside branch across the ball of your foot, and you feel it with your little toe,” he said. “Bert de Nemethy taught me that and I stuck to it.”
The Basics - “The sport is very simple because the basics never change,” he said. “We change because we see fashion, all of the horse show business. We get seduced. I don’t because I’m hard-headed. If you’re not hard-headed you get seduced by what is really not riding.
“But it’s very difficult and takes a lifetime to get where it is very simple,” he continued. “The basics never change. That’s why you see these great dressage riders. It’s always the same people on top, Anky [Van Grunsven], Isabell [Werth], Steffen [Peters.] They’re always at the top because whatever horse they have, the basics are the same so they produce horse after, horse after horse. It’s the same with top jumping riders we have over here. The basics don’t change, it doesn’t get exotic.”
Gadgets - “Longitudinal balance is front to back, back to front,” said Morris. “That’s where the horse carries himself more and more on his hind legs. That’s why I hate draw reins, because they pull the horse onto the front legs. [Gadgets] pull the head down. Classical riding pushes the head down. You push the head down firstly by impulsion. The second is straightness. Most people bend the neck because the neck is more flexible than the back, but in truth, you’re supposed to bend the horse with your inside leg in his ribs. You make the horse straight by bending on curved lines.”
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