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.
Now for George's discussion of each gait:
Walk: "Walking horses is very instructive for teaching and for resting."
Trot: "This is the gait we use most. You can do lots of teaching in the trot because it's not too fast. It's also good for getting horses fit." He says it also helps fatigue the horses a little.
Canter: "This is the nitty-gritty because it's the gait we jump at. Canter is a collected gallop."
Gallop: "This gait is very important for jumping horses. In gallop, you have a shorter rein and come up out of the saddle to make it easier for the horse." George reminds us that the horse must be as light in the gallop as he is at the walk.
The first group of riders finished up by doing free work at all four gaits with changes of direction. He seemed pleased with the progress.
He ended the session by asking all four riders how old they are. As each responded, George told a short anecdote about what he had done at that age, and how at each of those points, he thought he knew it all. But time brings wisdom: "What gets me up every morning is realizing how much more there is still to learn."
After a break, the second group of riders--Aurora Griffin, Carolyn Curcio, Kimberly McCormack and Jennifer Waxman--brought out their horses. George had the riders do similar exercises as the first group, but expanded on some of them. Not only did he reinforce the necessity to ride all four gaits, he began discussing the gaits within the gaits. He explained there are three speeds of trot: ordinary (about 8 mph and done in posting), lengthened (9-10 mph) and collected (the rider sits, straightens up and opens the hip angle, and the horse's steps are shorter and a little higher).
The riders went from working on longitudinal suppleness (lengthening and shortening stride) to lateral suppleness. George asked them to perform reverse half-turns--riding an oblique line to the inside of the arena followed by a half-circle toward the rail. He then asked the riders to put their horses in shoulder-in, explaining that it should be done with an angle of 30 degrees to the track. He then had them switch to shoulders-out and then back to shoulder-in while keeping the rhythm intact and their horses active behind.
Carolyn's horse Blast Off was being fussy with his head and stiff in his lower jaw, so George asked her to bring him into the center where he got on the horse. He explained that a rider must resist a stiff horse's mouth. "You have to hold when the horse takes and relax when he yields. Take and give will help the horse soften his lower jaw."
George then started working at the canter, making reverse turns with flying changes (making a figure eight, turning toward the rail). He discussed making the changes clean and from behind by exclusively using your outside heel as the aid. He reminded the riders not to lean forward or jump out of the saddle while asking for the change or using too much inside rein. "We are satisfied with too many mistakes in the changes," he said. "They should be straight and clean."
After a few minutes, Carolyn was allowed to get back on and was sent to the middle of the arena to give Blast Off a rest while the other riders performed the exercise.
He explained that this exercise helps get the horse in front of the rider's leg, and he got after the riders who bent their horses too much with the inside rein. "You lose the horse's shoulders."
As did the first group, the four riders were then asked to work on their own in the four gaits. Immediately, and for the first time during the session, Carolyn's horse came through from back to front into a beautiful, round and soft frame. Mission accomplished.
Closing the riding sessions, George advised, "Take from the clinic what you like. You don't have to take everything or anything. Just take what's appropriate for your system."
After the riding sessions, Olympian Melanie Smith Taylor addressed riders and spectators with an insightful discussion on the importance of being a thinking rider. We're looking forward to bringing you coverage of her thoughts in a future issue of Practical Horseman.
Tomorrow (January 23) is chock-full of exciting events including a riding session on flatwork and gymnastics, a session with U.S. Equestrian Team veterinarian Timothy Ober, a lecture on nutrition from Dr. Kathleen Young of Purina and a much-anticipated slideshow on conformation from Dr. Danny Marks. As George says, there's always so much more to learn.
Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore is the managing editor of Practical Horseman magazine.