“When you ride without stirrups you ride from your seat. When you ride with short stirrups for jumping, you ride from your leg,” said George Morris on his self-proclaimed favorite day of the 2015 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. “You should always leg-ride, but you also must learn to create a responsive horse from underneath your seat bones.”
The 12 young riders shed their stirrups on Day 4 to work their horses on the flat once again, learning to sit straight and deep in the saddle as they practiced getting their horses supple and soft in their hand.
Morris advised his students not to be afraid of using their hands, legs and seat in a clear, decisive way that encourages submission. In practicing gymnastic exercises like shoulders- and haunches-in, leg yields, transitions and more without stirrups, the riders were able to feel and gage the receptiveness and sensitivity of the horses to the aids.
“I want you to learn to use your seat bones to feel the horse with your whole body,” said Morris as he watched the riders transition their horses from the trot to the canter and back down to the trot every ten strides. “The horse should carry his hind legs under himself and engage his hindquarters so he can elongate his neck and move into your hand.”
But it wasn’t just the horses that were required to be responsive; Morris explained that the rider must judge their horse’s reaction to his or her aids and adjust accordingly in a take-and-give relationship so that the horse becomes more comfortable, rounder and accepting of the contact.
“Don’t push a horse to be rounder,” said Morris. “It’s important you don’t try to lower the head by lowering or see-sawing your hands. The horse accepts the contact from a straight line [from elbow to bit]. If the horse raises his head, you raise your hands a little bit. Make it crystal clear for the horse: shorten your rein, close your hands and feel the contact.
“When the horse responds to your contact, your aids for that moment really relax so the horse associates his response with comfort,” he added. “Resistance needs to be met with resistance; submission needs to be met with relaxation.”
Resistance Meets Resistance
Morris took the time to give lengthy demonstrations aboard both Geoffrey Hesslink’s mount Baldev and Lucas Porter’s mare Georgia so that the riders and auditors looking on could visualize his process of getting a resistant horse into a supple frame. Georgia proved to be especially challenging, remaining stiff in her body and refusing to give Morris her head for over 20 minutes.
“You’ll see that when I make contact she shakes her head and puts her head up and doesn’t yet accept my hands,” said Morris. “She knows exactly how to escape the contact. That’s a very irritating habit she has, but I refuse to lower my hands until she accepts my aids.”
Morris piloted the mare to shoulders-in and leg-yields at the walk and trot, then moved on to canter around a repetitive figure-8 pattern asking for flying lead changes. The mare willingly performed the exercises, but stubbornly refused to lower her head until Morris’ method of ‘taking and giving’ with his hands seemed to convince the mare to submit to his contact, and she dropped her poll nicely for a few more trips around the figure-8.
“When she accepts the bit, she’ll soften in her jaw and bend in her poll and I soften the contact. When she does what I call garbage, I do the contrary.”
The Shoulder-In Dance
One of the first exercises Morris had his students perform were stirrup-less shoulders- and haunches-in at the sitting trot. Morris stressed that, though they lacked stirrups, they were still required to train their horses to accept their leg as a guiding aid propelling the horse through these lateral movements.
“Keep the flexion in the direction of the movement and be patient with your hands and with your lower leg,” Morris instructed Sydney Hutchins as she piloted Zorlando down the long side. “You have to ask [Zorlando] to move over with your leg, but be patient because he wasn’t trained in leg-riding. Very few horses are these days.
“Raise your hands, put both hands on the inside and feel the horse carry the hindquarter behind the shoulder,” he continued. “It feels like dancing, this exercise. In shoulders-in and haunches-in you feel the shoulder get lighter and feel the haunch get lighter.”
Once the horses felt lighter in their bodies with the lateral exercises, Morris had his students perform flying lead changes on a shallow serpentine to remove any lingering stiffness or resistance in their necks and bodies. The curving lines, he explained, promote flexibility in the horse’s body without losing the established contact with the head and neck.
“Ride the horse on a curve from head to tail from your leg, not just bending his neck,” said Morris. “Concentrate and sit up straighter, raise your back, carry your hands higher, leg on, correct that bend and turn. Get the horse supple in his body when he’s bending. The horse becomes supple in bending because you ask him to use his inside hind leg.”
Trot Like An Accordion
After they completed the serpentine exercise, Morris instructed his students to straighten out once again as they transitioned every ten or so strides from the collected, sitting trot to the extended, posting trot.
Morris explained that posting without the support of stirrups is good for riders like Lucas Porter and Jennifer Gates, who tend to overcompensate with their upper bodies over jumps, because without stirrups to help propel them out of the saddle, they must utilize their leg more and quiet their upper body.
As he instructed his students to collect the trot, Morris suggested a metaphor to consider when making the transition.
“As you collect your horse backwards, you sit deeper, you sit straighter and you close the horse,” said Morris. “Seat, back, hand, outside rein. So this is like an accordion, people. You open and close the horse.
“In the trot, regulate the impulsion with the half-halt,” he continued. “The horse gets so fine-tuned to the half-halt that you need less and less hand as you go. So you teach the horse that when you stretch and sit with pressure on the outside rein, that means a transition. This is getting your horse light in your hands.”