This Between Rounds column by George H. Morris ran in The Chronicle of the Horse print magazine in 2006. (Editor’s note: Jack le Goff passed away in 2009.)
There are very few horsemen (or horsewomen) that I would consider “genius.” Jack Le Goff is one of those rare few–Olympic rider, teacher, trainer, theoretician, coach, and, now, author.
When talking to Jack the other day about his new book, I asked him what was wrong. He hit the nail on the head, as usual: The young trainers are teaching their students to compete. They are not, necessarily, teaching them to ride. Jack elaborated a bit further: Therefore, when the student reaches a certain level, he or she fails or falls short. The student doesn’t really know how to ride.
It all starts, riding that is, with one’s own self-sufficiency with one’s horse. Do you know what he eats? How to bed a stall? How to clean a stall? How to properly lead a horse, groom a horse, trim or clip a horse? Do you know all about tack, bitting and how to keep your equipment scrupulously clean? Do you know how to load and ship a horse? Do you know how to polish your boots the night before you ride? Have you ridden all different kinds of horses, with all kinds of problems? Have you produced green horses?
These are just some of the many things that come way before competing with a horse. These are the basics, the platform from which you might successfully and correctly reach the top of your particular discipline.
I witness great disappointment time and time again in America when a rider fails to reach the top. He or she can’t quite make it. After all, the parents have sacrificed enormous amounts of time, money and effort. The trainer and pupil have worked long, hard hours together on position, flatwork and jumping courses.
And, yet, the “Peter Principle” rears its ugly head. (The original principle states that in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their “level of incompetence”.) Far too soon, the whole project falls short. Whether it’s to the top end of the hunter division, the Medal Finals, grand prix, or the Olympic Games doesn’t matter. The horsemanship is not there, the attention to detail is not there, the spit and polish is not there, the practiced toughness is not there, the experience garnered from thousands of problems is not there.
No matter how much money is spent and no matter how fabulous the horses, it’s truly inconceivable to compete against, let alone beat, the true professional horsemen of the sport without this built-in experience, without this toughness of character.
In the earlier days of my teaching, a different time, a different place and a different culture, young people sought true horsemanship. They wanted problems. They wanted a myriad of experiences with horses, often not easy or pleasant. The good teachers had time to accommodate this indispensable part of the sport.
Time and space and competition have encroached on our wonderful sport of riding and jumping horses. Everyone is rushing. One cannot rush with horses. It’s literally the “kiss of death.” Even our top team riders are all over the map trying to do too many things at once.
Space has curtailed the natural aspects of our sport. Rings, be they for hunters or jumpers, are constantly being reduced in size. As a consequence, collection is over-emphasized and jump construction is becoming more artificial. The “sine qua non” (essential meaning) of course building for the hunters or the jumpers is to bring the country to the arena. Miniature golf is not what the sport is all about. That’s why I still love to go to Hickstead, England.
All over the world, there are too many horse shows. Horse shows in all disciplines are taking over the sport. Trainers like horse shows (and I’ve been a trainer, believe me) because it’s good business. Day money. Riders like horse shows because of their egos. Horse show managers like horse shows because of money. It all goes back to dollars, cents and egos.
No. That’s not the real point. As Robert Dover has said: “It’s the journey that counts. Blue ribbons are a dime a dozen. If you’re smart, it’s not difficult to win at horse shows, any horse show. What gives real pleasure and value is getting to the horse show.”
We used to be at horse shows about 20 percent of the time. Most of the time, we were at home with our horses, taking care of them, going cross-country, taking lessons, riding on our own, and figuring things out.
Now, many people are at horse shows 80 percent of the time. Showing, showing, showing. If you’re a true horseman, you know that is not true value. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual connection with the horse cannot be the same under the constant stress. Yes, that adrenaline rush is important to experience from time to time, but not on a weekly, let alone daily, basis. It’s not healthy for man or beast.
It’s exactly the same in going to school. Homework (practice) supplements class and lecture time (lessons). All of this work combined prepares for tests (horse shows). Horse shows are simply a barometer, a test of where you stand relative to your peers in the art of riding and jumping.
During the last year, I’ve experienced three events–a small indoor show in Germany (actually only a half-hour from Aachen), a clinic in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a clinic in Hungary–which made me not only appreciate, but actually worship, the principles of Caprilli, Santini, Cham-berlain, Saumur, Gordon Wright, Jimmy Williams, Vladimir Littauer, Jack Le Goff, as well as other advocates of the forward seat more than ever.
Violating these precious principles not only makes for insecure, unbalanced, inefficient and ugly riding, but also for disturbed horses performing badly. It’s usually the misinterpretation and/or exaggeration of a technique when things go badly astray.
Dressage, well done, can be a wonderful thing. Dressage, however, can be a risky venture for those who want to gallop and jump horses, especially the way it’s practiced today with very long stirrups, loose lower legs, riders excessively behind the motion and horses over-collected and over-flexed. Littauer and others warned us 50 years ago of this possibility, and he was right. I’m sure he would be shaking his finger at all the hoop-la over Rollkur!
What I have witnessed, perhaps most apparently in eastern Europe, but also in other parts of the world are classic violations of a correct position for riding and jumping. The repercussions of incorrect riding take their toll not only on the rider but, worse still, the horse!
First, the stirrups are often too long, undermining the support for the rider. (By the way, all of these funny, new-fangled stirrups being sold do nothing to help. They are a detriment.) Stirrups too long, especially for galloping and jumping, is infinitely worse than stirrups too short. One must reach for the stirrup, and it de-stabilizes the leg, making it impossible to close the angles of the ankle, knee and hip.
With these long stirrups, the heels come up, further loosening the leg, as well as promoting an unauthorized active leg, driving and irritating the horse by mistake. This, in turn, makes for a clash of aids that deadens the sides and mouth of the horse.
These riders have been taught to lean back to such an extent that most of their weight (if not all) is on the buttocks. The weight should be distributed between crotch, seat bones, heels and stirrups.
As a result of this faulty weight distribution, the rider is given a rough ride. He has to constantly catch up with his horse, which causes excessive upper body motion, acrobatics, and gyrations, plus the fact that the tender loins of the horse are abused and become sore, as well as defensive. No wonder there are so many back problems in the horse world today, for both horse and rider.
Because the upper body doesn’t shift to the front in various degrees at the different gaits, especially posting, galloping and jumping, posture is compromised drastically, characterized by roached backs and leading with the head and shoulders.
Staying with the motion, or center of gravity, is totally foreign to this backward way of riding.
Most of the riders I watched or taught looked down far too much. Like it does while driving a car, this habit directly affects the coordination of aids, control, balance and security.
Violating the great principle of a straight line from elbow to the horse’s mouth always has repercussions. Stargazing and head tossing will be only some of the resistances encountered. Human nature will always try to “pull” the horse’s head back down rather than “push” it down. Higher hands, closed fingers, straight wrists, and thumbs just inside the vertical, are secrets to putting a good mouth on a horse.
Believe me, basic principles and theories that are often being taught in other parts of the world are far from what we’ve always been taught as correct equitation.
It’s interesting from a teacher’s perspective to see this, work with it, and try to help and enlighten people in other parts of the world. And, believe me, you’re certainly doing the horse a favor to stop irritating his rib cage, get off his back and have great consideration for his mouth. Good teaching, as well as good all-around horsemanship, is all about the horse. The rider is just the conduit.