Wellington, Fla., January 22, 2008 -- There was a flurry of activity when I entered the barn this morning prior to the George Morris Horsemastership Program's first day of riding sessions. Riders rushed around making sure their tack was spotless, their horses gleaming, their boots shined until you could see a reflection in them. I wouldn't be surprised if the riders were more nervous today than when heading into a Medal or Maclay equitation final.
The four who were in the second group of the morning fussed over their horses' stalls, making sure they were spotless and banked high on the sides. Top trainer and program mentor groom Frank Madden instructed one rider on how to clean a stall before he headed out to dust off another rider's boots on the way to the arena.
George started the first group of riders--Tina Dilandri, Maria Schaub, Nikko Ritter and Karl Cook--in a flatwork session by discussing the proper stirrup length for flatwork versus jumping. (Do you know what it should be? George says your stirrups should be two holes longer for flatwork than for jumping.) He quizzed the group on why one's stirrups should be longer on the flat. (It's because it allows you to have a deeper seat and a longer leg to influence your horse.) If you're one of those riders who tends to have a "chair seat," however, George says this happens from NOT lengthening your stirrups on the flat. (If you're among the thousands of loyal readers of his monthly Jumping Clinic column in Practical Horseman, you know it's not often you hear George recommending riders LOWER their stirrups!)
He asked the riders to track out to the rail and begin walk-trot transitions, explaining that this helps get the horses light to the riders' legs and hands. Then they began changing directions on a large figure eight, with George reminding them to "be meticulous about going into corners. On course, that habit will hold out."
He then asked the riders to put their horses into shoulder fore--threading the track of each horse's inside hind leg between the track made by his front feet. "This helps make the horse straight," George explained. It also helps him to balance and gets him listening to the rider's inside leg.
George--who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year--gave spectators and participants alike a riding master class when he got on Nikko's big chestnut, Aristotle. George grabbed everyone's attention--particularly the horse's--when he gave the horse his head while, at the same time, giving a strong leg aid and reaching back with his whip--SMACK!, behind his leg. Aristotle surged forward, clearly never expecting that kind of signal from his rider--let alone someone who had barely mounted and got his feet in the stirrups. The reason: Because George had noticed that the horse was dead to Nikko's leg and wasn't carrying himself, he set out to make a point from the very beginning. And it only took one time to get the horse's attention. Whenever George so much as THOUGHT about putting his leg on from that point forward, Aristotle jumped to attention. "You shouldn't always have to keep your leg on," George said. "The horse should carry himself; you should be able to ride with a passive leg."
George put Aristotle through his paces, doing canter figure eights, counter-canter and lead changes, showing riders and spectators alike how it's done. He pointed out that Aristotle seems to have two personalities: "He's sensitive, but then he goes back to being phlegmatic." Once Nikko got back on, it was clear the horse was paying attention.
In a thought-provoking part of the lesson, George talked about the need to ride horses at all four gaits. Yes, you read that right, FOUR gaits. If you're like me, you counted off on your fingers, walk, trot, canter, ...? That fourth gait, people (as George would say), is gallop. George lamented the loss of the gallop as a gait judged in the hunter show ring. He pointed out that foxhunters gallop for a good portion of their time in the field, yet this gait has gone the way of the dinosaurs in the show ring because "it's not convenient." He made a plea for the gallop to be brought back--even made mandatory--in certain hunter divisions.