January 9, 2009 -- Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward talked to eight young riders Friday about taking all the different perspectives they've learned this week at the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session and incorporating them into their own system.
"You all ride great. But the difference between being an Olympian and good rider is that to be an Olympian, you have to take what you learned all week and put it together in your own system. Don't change your entire system. Take bits and pieces and put it with what you already know."
The key to any system is that is should be consistent, he said, but the riders should be open to incorporating new things they've learned. And most important, while maintaining consistency, they need to adapt to the individual needs of the horse. "I have to figure out how my horse goes the best," McLain said. "Then I have to adjust my program."
McLain's program includes flatwork for jumping, gymnastics and simple lines ridden different ways to work on the adjustability needed in the show ring.
Flatwork for Jumping
McLain said his flatwork differs from Olympian Robert [Dover]. "It's dressage for jumping," he said. "The horse has to be supple, straight, and be able to go forward and come back."
He told the riders to take five minutes when starting out at the trot to let their horses figure out their own balance. "Then from there, you ask for a little rhythm." After that, the riders could start asking their horses to drop and take contact.
When Matt Metell picked up the posting trot, McLain told him not to push so much. "This horse looks sensitive. Don't be so demanding. People think I'm a strong rider, but I ride a lot of sensitive horses. You have to be careful about how much you correct them."
To supple her horse, McLain told Victoria Birdsall to raise her inside hand and exaggerate the inside bend for a few strides. "I do this a few times before a class. Like any athlete, you want your horse to be flexible."
McLain then asked riders to do a sitting trot, which helps get a horse deeper in his carriage and up through his back. "I'm very pro-American. And I'm very frustrated with myth that Europeans do things better than us. But one thing they do do better than us is the sitting trot. As Americans, we work on getting our butts out of the saddle. I watch [German Olympian] Ludgar Beerbaum. I try to emulate Ludgar."
McLain also had the riders counterbend their horses to "soften them a little bit. This works on suppleness. You want them to get round in their backs."
As with the trot work, McLain wanted riders to let their horses get going a little bit and then ask them to go on the bridle by asking for things like a little flexion.
He also had the riders gallop down the long side in two-point and then ask them to collect and ride a circle. After that, they moved on to jumping. "I believe in the practical warm-up for a jumping session. I'm not a big believer in working a horse for 30 minutes on the flat for jumping."
Bringing Back Style with Gymnastics
To warm-up, McLain had the riders start over a crossrail. When Carolyn Curcio's horse looked tense over the fence, McLain asked if he ever stopped. She said no, and he took her stick away.
"I rode a nine year-old Sapphire with no stick and no spurs in the Olympics. You really have to judge your horse as an individual. I'm traditionalist, and it's nice to ride with a stick and spurs, but you have to be realistic and do what's best for your horse."
After Carolyn jumped the crossrail a few more times, her horse settled. "Look how much more relaxed your horse is when we took the stick away. Feel the difference. Your horse took a nice deep breath."
Demonstrating that top riders have differences in their systems, McLain had the riders work with a crest release as opposed to the automatic release that trainer Anne Kursinski emphasized Tuesday. "You need to know how to do both, but I prefer the crest release," McLain said. I think it's a more modern release and helps the horse round up over the fence."