January 6, 2012—Every time I get on my very accident-prone Thoroughbred, I brace myself for the latest stiffness or short stridedness I expect to feel during my warmup. Whenever something feels a little unusual, I begin a lengthy internal discussion with myself as to whether or not I should call the vet. I don't want to be the person who cries wolf, but I also don't want to let a bigger problem linger. Today's horsemastership session with Beezie Madden and Dr. Tim Ober taught me how to assess my horse's weaknesses and feel a bit more confident in my decision to call--or not to call--the vet.
George Morris was still recuperating, so once again the organizers seamlessly switched to Plan B. Today's session was a bit of an experiment with Beezie teaming up with Dr. Ober for flatwork without stirrups. While Beezie worked with each rider on position and effectiveness, Dr. Ober quietly assessed each horse and discussed his observations with the riders and auditors during breaks. As Beezie's husband John explained, "We're not talking about lame or sound here. We're talking about what the horse needs to stay sound for the long term." In other words, the riders learned to assess their horses' strengths and weaknesses to create a training plan to improve those weaknesses and be able to reassess progress at regular intervals.
The assessment is a simple exercise that entails riding the horse on a small figure eight of two 10-meter or so circles. Riders should feel (or watch) the horse--how he moves, how he bends, his attitude. Some stiffness is normal, Dr. Ober said. This doesn't require a call to the vet immediately, but it is something the rider should monitor. This helps you decide what is going to be easier or harder in the horse's training and helps you figure out what weaknesses need strengthening. A normal horse should progress in that weakness over several months. If he becomes agitated and resentful from the pain, it's time to call in the vet for further diagnostics.
But going back to the riding session, one common problem shared by the riders was keeping their hands too low, buried in their horses' withers and locked, stiff arms and shoulders. Beezie instructed the riders to keep their hands up and over the withers. This keeps a straight line from elbows to bit for better control, it allows the horses to become more supple in the poll and creates a softer overall contact with the horses' mouths. She had the riders exaggerate their hand position. The result was more relaxed, supple horses who had nice connections in the bridle and who stepped up under themselves. The riders spent some time with their reins in a short bridge to help them keep their hands working together and not overbend their horses' necks.
Another area that required improvement was the riders' seats. Beezie worked with them on bringing their shoulders over their hips and creating a connection with their horses' hindquarters by sitting deeper in the saddle and encouraging the horses to accept their seats the way they need to accept their legs. Beezie had the riders relax their legs while they took the reins in one hand while they held the pommel of their saddles with the other to pull their seats deep into their saddles. The idea was to give the riders the feeling of sitting very deep and around their horses so they could try to re-create the feeling when they took both reins back. In addition, Beezie had them put one arm behind their backs to help them sit up straight and centered in their saddles.
The riders, who have mostly done equitation, seemed a bit stiff and "stuck" in a "pretty" equitation position. Beezie explained that the riders need to be able to control and work in many positions. To loosen them up, Beezie had the riders rotate their shoulders to relax them. She also had them work with different hip angles--closing their angles on the long side and opening them in the corners.
To summarize: work on what the horses aren't comfortable with.
After the horses were put away and the riders had lunch, everyone met back at the arena for a hands-on seminar with international course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio. Anthony began by discussing Saturday's Nations Cup-style course with the riders--the types of fences used, how related distances will ride, options for strides between lines and the questions he asked with each obstacle. He then went on to teach the riders how to properly set a course beginning with marking the arena to make sure each fence was set exactly how it appeared on the course map.
My inner geek was fascinated by the details of course setting:
- Oxer widths are measured from the the outside of one rail to the outside of the other.
- Combinations are measured from the inside of one rail to the inside of the other.
- Measuring the distance between jumps in an in-and-out isn't enough. Also measure the diagonal distances between rails to be sure they have the same measurement.
To set up a bending line with related distances, measure the distance in a straight line first. Then have someone hold the tape at the center of the arc and walk the end of the tape over to where the second fence needs to be set.
With that, I had a plane to catch. While I would have loved to stay for tomorrow's Nations Cup-style course, I will have to settle for watching it with all of you on the live stream and replays. The riders seemed excited about it, so I have no doubt it will be fun to watch.
In summary, the riders were disappointed that George was unable to teach this year, but they did appreciate the variety of clinicians and being able to make those contacts in the industry. While most of the teachings dovetailed well, the riders found the difference in preferences a bit difficult at times--one clinician wanted the stirrups lower while another wanted them raised. One trainer liked the hands low while others wanted them to be carried higher. All in all though, the riders will come away from this experience with lots of new tools in their toolboxes, and we look forward to seeing them blossom as professionals in the future.
Tomorrow, the riders will break into four teams of three riders and "compete" over a Nations Cup type course. The Pan American Games team gold medalists, Beezie Madden, Christine McCrea, Kent Farrington and McLain Ward, will act as chefs d'equipe for the teams. There will be only one riding session, and live streaming will begin at 9 a.m.
The 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, presented by the US Hunter Jumper Association and Adequan, is being held at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida, Jan. 3-7. Twelve young riders are participating in the sixth annual training session sponsored by Practical Horseman, The Dutta Corporation, Farnam and Equestrian Sport Productions. The training session includes mounted lessons as well as educational sessions on stable management, veterinary care and nutrition.
Auditing the mounted and educational sessions is free and open to the public. There is live streaming of the mounted sessions at www.USEFNetwork.com, where there are also updated broadcast and auditor's schedules. Unmounted sessions that are open to the public will be available for viewing each evening.
For Practical Horseman's coverage of previous years' training sessions, click here.