Despite the unfortunate illness of George Morris, which has prevented him from attending his 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, Jan. 3-7 in Wellington, Fla., organizers have continued to present an all-star lineup of instructors offering fresh ideas and methodologies. During today's sessions, Olympian Beezie Madden and U.S. Team Veterinarian Tim Ober, DVM, teamed up to school riders on the flat without stirrups while evaluating their mounts' performance from a sports medicine perspective.
Know Your Horse
Madden and Ober started the day by asking each combination to trot a small figure eight of 10- to 12-meter circles with a straight change in direction in the center. Ober explained how important it is for riders to establish this type of observation as a regular habit to see how their horse feels (and/or have someone watch the horse) and establish a baseline over time.
These observations, gathered over time and then compared to each other, help horsemen know their horses and figure out the right time to ask for veterinary assistance. "This horse is just showing a little bit the soreness of an athlete who's doing his job every day," he said of one horse. "But he absolutely improves as he warms up, and I expect that he will succeed in what he needs to do for the day."
Madden added that the rider needs to be cognizant of any and all factors which may affect soreness in their horse, such as recently being shod. "Ask yourself, is he this way every day? Is it better today? Is it worse?" Madden said. "You have to help your vet so that he doesn't just have a snapshot, he has the whole picture."
Ober emphasized that the observations are not based on looking for outright lameness, but from the perspective of sports medicine. "Horses are athletes. They get stiff and sore," he said. "We're not talking about three-legged lameness; these are just the last few percentages of soreness that we're trying to help, and that's always the hardest. It's easy to get 80 percent of the way there; it's harder to get to 90 percent; very difficult to get to 95 percent; and realistically you almost never get to 100 percent."
According to Ober, a critical responsibility of riders is to recognize how conformation affects function and performance, and develop their horses' physical attributes so they can do the best job they can for as long as possible.
"Have an open mind and remember none of them are perfect," he said. "Riders have to recognize weaknesses and learn how to help their mounts. A horse with a conformational flaw such as a long back has a disadvantage he has to overcome, and a little bit of pain might go a longer way with him and get in the way of training's progress. He may be one you have to ask your vet to intervene with sooner to keep him happy in his work."
After the veterinary observations, Madden sent horses and riders to the rail to begin flatwork without stirrups. Despite the well-known benefits of working without stirrups, which include strengthening of seat, legs and balance, for most riders this challenge isn’t necessarily fun. But displaying the composure and talent that earned them an invitation to Wellington, the training session participants handled the grueling workouts with grace and apparent ease.
Riders were instructed to hold their reins in one hand and begin work on the rail at a trot with the fingers of the other hand hooked under the pommel of the saddle. Madden explained that this exercise helped riders move their seat towards the front to encourage better position and a deeper seat. "Feel what this seat is like and pull down so you never leave the saddle," she said. "When you release, try to keep the same seat, keep the same feeling. But in order to do that, don't tighten your thighs and pinch with your knee so much that you get popped out of the saddle."
Other visualization exercises included asking riders to stretch their legs and toes down while thinking about wrapping themselves around the horse, as well as picturing having their shoulder blades touch and placing a hand behind their back to help keep a tall posture and shoulders back. "With your hand behind your back, also bend your knee and slide your lower leg back at the same time," instructed Madden. "When you go to the posting trot without stirrups, it will be easier to post if your legs are more underneath you."
Madden worked with one rider to demonstrate how tipping forward combined with stiff arms put her in a weak position. Riders had to practice a canter-halt-canter exercise with prompt transitions, keeping their horses in front of the leg, even in the halt. Madden wanted to see each rider keep his/her shoulders back, even to the point of exaggeration. "Your strength comes from your position," she explained. "Your shoulders have to be behind your hips, and then you can be supple. When your shoulders come forward, then that's when everybody gets locked up because they don't have the strength to have enough leverage on the horse."
Up With Your Hands
Madden reinforced her demonstration from Tuesday’s session by asking riders to extensively utilize bridging their reins to make their hands work together. With reins bridged, riders practiced small circles and square corners—pushing their horses into the corners to better work off the inside leg without overbending to the inside—as well as lengthening and shortening strides; and shoulder-in movements on a small circle.
"Engage that inside hind leg," Madden said. "Then try to create that same feeling on a bigger circle."
Another interesting exercise consisted of riders holding their hands in an exaggerated high placement. "Put your hands much higher than you're comfortable with—make it look a little ridiculous. This is actually a softer hand than a low hand set in the withers," Madden said. "I don't care where the horse's head is right now. Most horses are going to try to come above the bit in those transitions, so in order to keep a straight line from the mouth to elbow, your hands have to raise up. So I want that to be your first instinct on a downward transition: Raise your hands up first and then be able to soften from that. I don't want to see anyone pulling down on their mouths; you'll see that they come into the contact even with the high hands. Encourage them to accept that."
Madden explained that riders have to stay relaxed and have supple arms. The stiffer the rider's arms, the harder it is to have a consistent contact. "Don't get so tight that your shoulders can't move. Roll your shoulders. Everyone's tendency is to get their arms so locked that they can't move. Don't get stuck in your equitation position. It doesn't always have to look pretty; we want different looks that are effective. Make it better."
The final day of the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session will take place on Saturday, with all 12 riders jumping in a two-round Nations Cup format. Members of the U.S. gold medal-winning team from the 2011 Pan American Games (Christine McCrea, Beezie Madden, McLain Ward and Kent Farrington) will serve as chefs d'equipe.
Day 1 at the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. 
Day 2 at the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. 
Day 3 at 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.