Anne Kursinski: Horses Are Reflections of Their Riders

This five-time Olympian offers training tips and advice to the winner of Practical Horseman’s Training with the Stars: Win a Day with Anne Kursinski contest and nine of her friends.
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Jennifer Harper grew up in Los Angeles, California, in the late 1970s, admiring the adventures of Jimmy Williams’ cadre of young super talents at the Flintridge Riding Club—Anne Kursinski chief among them.

Throughout the clinic, Anne emphasized that equitation is how we talk to our horses. | © Mary Cornelius

Throughout the clinic, Anne emphasized that equitation is how we talk to our horses. | © Mary Cornelius

Much has transpired since then. An amateur hunter rider, Jennifer has juggled saddle time with earning advanced degrees in art history and prominent positions in the art world, including her current post at the Portland Art Museum. Anne, meanwhile, became a five-time Olympian, two-time Olympic silver medalist and a successful coach, author and clinician.

Jennifer always counted Anne an idol, so it was a dream come true to saddle up for her on a chilly, drizzly Portland morning on Saturday, April 11. Writing about the ripple effect Anne’s visit could have to the equestrian community in Portland, Jennifer won Practical Horseman’s Training with the Stars: Win A Day with Anne Kursinski contest sponsored in partnership with Finish Line, Back on Track and Nutrena. Along with nine friends from Linda and Wade Worley’s Cornerstone Hunters & Jumpers, Jennifer enjoyed a day of knotted reins, dropped stirrups, discarded martingales and counting strides (forward, always!). It was all in service to the notion that horses are reflections of their riders—in their turnout and tack, for sure, but more importantly in their way of going and behavior.

In regards to tack, Anne requested martingales be removed from five of the clinic’s 10 horses. She’s not anti-martingales, but said their effect, especially running martingales, of creating downward, rather than direct, pull on the mouth impeded clear communication through the rider’s hand.

Anne went on to note that most of the time horses want to do what we tell them to do. So it’s a matter of understanding what we are asking them and how we’re asking it. Are we sending mixed messages? The wrong message? And, when we know the right message, are we communicating it in a way our horses can understand?

Equitation is how we talk to our horses, Anne emphasized. It’s an effective body position in which each part functions independently of the others, of the horse, and all together as needed and does so instantly in reaction to whatever the horse is telling us.

The eye emerged as one of the most important body parts. Few of the day’s 10 riders looked at the jump early enough for Anne’s liking at the outset. “Trying to jump without looking at the fence is like trying to hit a tennis ball without watching the ball,” she said.

This idea was first addressed in warm-up flatwork of gait transitions, circles and halts in Cornerstone’s covered arena set amidst a lush forest and emerald green pastures. Anne asked each group of three or four riders to space themselves evenly while working through these exercises while also alternating between a light, forward two-point and a deep-seated dropped-stirrup position. The riders’ efforts to look around to monitor their place relative to the others later translated to Anne’s request that they monitor where they were in relation to the next jump.

The first jumping exercise for each session asked riders to start counting eight strides before a single small jump set on a diagonal. She didn’t expect perfect stride predictions but wanted everybody to get in the habit of sighting the jump and their line to it several strides earlier than most riders were accustomed to doing. Stride counting in this and other exercises was also important to establishing and maintaining rhythm and consistent mental focus.

In pursuit of her “light hands, light seat” ideal, Anne had all riders spend much of the session with reins knotted several inches up the neck. Riders held the reins near the knot, between the knot and the horse’s mouth, so the rein length was pretty short. The intent was multifold: to create consistent contact with the mouth, equal on both sides and to position the upper body in a light forward position that enabled elastic contact with the mouth. Almost every participant noted dramatic improvement in her ability to maintain a steady, fluid upper body position.

Contest winner Jennifer Harper and Anne Kursinski at the clinic | © Mary Cornelius

Contest winner Jennifer Harper and Anne Kursinski at the clinic | © Mary Cornelius

Contest winner Jennifer was right about that ripple effect. In addition to the day’s riders, several spectators—kids to professionals—soaked up the sessions’ many lessons. The chance to ask questions of and chat with Anne during breaks in the action and lunch in Cornerstone’s warm arena viewing room were additional bonuses for all.

More in-depth coverage of the Win a Day with Anne Kursinski clinic will be in the upcoming July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. A special thank you toLinda and Wade Worley’s for hosting the clinic.