January 6, 2009 -- Influencing your horse to be a better athlete by using a strong position was the overall theme that Olympic show-jumper Anne Kursinski stressed to the eight young riders participating in the 2009 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session in Wellington, Fla.
The riders earned a spot at the 6-day clinic by being at the top of the Bates Equitation Rankings List or placing well in top equitation competitions. During the week, they are being trained by five Olympic riders and learning stable management skills from top veterinarians and grooms.
After dressage trainer Robert Dover worked with the riders Monday, teaching them about the principles of dressage, Anne's goal was to serve as a transition to jumping, which she did by working on flatwork and gymnastic exercises.
"It's important to understand fundamental flatwork, how to change your horse's muscles, not through draw reins and big bits, but by using your position to influence your horse," she told the four riders in the first session. "If you can't control your own body, good luck being able to feel his body and influence his body.
"Horses are always trying to put us in a position where we're not effective. Basic equitation is that you can control your body, that you have body awareness."
To begin working on their positions, Anne instructed the riders to have their upper bodies 30 degrees in front of the vertical at the posting trot with a straight line to their horses' mouths. At the sitting trot, she wanted the riders to have their bodies on the vertical.
"Taylor, get your heels down," Anne told rider Taylor Land. "Your heels, really your feet, are your anchors, especially when we go to jump. They're shock absorbers. When we go to jump, you want to be sure your base of support is down around the horse."
"Jacqueline, make sure your upper arms don't come back behind his body. Keep them ahead of your hips," Anne told Jacqueline Lubrano.
Anne wanted riders to have a sense of pushing their horses with their seats to the reins and giving with their arms--not hanging on their horses' mouths to round their necks. "The engine is in the back. You receive the energy in your hands, through elastic elbows," she said.
When the horses began to stretch their necks forward and down, Anne encouraged it. "He's relaxing his topline," she told Jacqueline. "When he's trying to be in a good shape, you can be more supple in your arms. Then you're allowing self-carriage." She later clarified when a horse stretches his neck, he brings his back up and you get a better jump.
To work on these things, Anne had riders ride a lot of transitions from walk to sitting trot to posting trot and lengthen and shorten their horses' strides in trot and canter. She also had them ride shoulder-in, which makes the horse use his hind end and straighten.
To show what she wanted with position, she got on Taylor's horse. "The first thing I do when I get on is close my legs a bit to see the reaction." The horse started dancing around a bit and flipping up his head. "I ask him to go forward and straight and go to the bit. He's testing me. I'm tickling him with my spurs. When he comes above the bit, I resist with my arms and seat--my center--until he says, 'Yes.' My position stays the same. After he lowers head and neck down from the withers, then I can give with the inside rein as a reward and say, 'Hold yourself.'"
The position work continued in the jumping phase of the lesson. The point of riding gymnastics is that the jumps and distances are all set up for the horses, so "you don't have to do anything but think of your position," Anne told the riders. "It's about you being in a good position and not interfering. It's about being one with the horse."
Anne's gymnastic work started by having the riders work at a posting trot over a cavalletti, 9 feet to a crossrail, then one stride to an oxer. After the oxer, the riders dropped their stirrups and halted between a set of standards.
When Chelsea stopped a little early, Anne instructed her to move up so she was exactly between the standards. She scolded Taylor when the rider forgot to drop her stirrups. The function of halting exactly between the standards and dropping your stirrups is so that "you're thinking after the jump and of accuracy. The work without stirrups also helps riders to be balanced and centered. You naturally get in the center of your horse or you fall off," Anne said to a chuckling audience. "You either get it or you don't."
Once the horses and riders were warmed up, she began to work on the automatic release--"a real pet peeve of mine. Look at photos of me and you see a straight line from elbow to bit." To practice, she had the riders turn their hands over on the reins (see photo). Approaching the gymnastic, Anne instructed riders to stay in a two-point position and spread their hands apart and lower them by the sides of their horses' necks.
"Don't touch your horse's neck. Treat it like it's a hot stove," Anne said. She also told the riders that because they were already in a two-point, they didn't need to do anything with their bodies, especially not lean. "Chelsea, give your horse space to come up to you."
Riders continued practicing the automatic release over a series of bounces. They started on a right-lead canter over a crossrail-to-oxer bounce then cantered three short strides to a crossrail-to-vertical bounce.
Again, Anne told the riders to get into two-point so they'd be in a light seat while keeping their hands open wide on either side of their horses' necks. "The wider your hands, the more you engage your center," she told Taylor. Riders repeated the exercise several times so they could feel their positions.
The next gymnastic was trotting over a cavalletti to an oxer, steady two strides to a vertical, followed by a steady one stride to a vertical. Riders had to halt straight. Anne instructed them not to use stirrups. "Feel your position and hopefully your horse getting round and using his head and neck."
Anne then tested the riders' ability to continue using the automatic release by asking them to canter to a square oxer, transition to trot to jump a Swedish oxer, ride two strides to a vertical-to-vertical in-and-out.
Many of the riders reverted to the crest release when they had to slow down their horses for the tight two-stride. "That's what happens when you have something new, you go back to what you're familiar with," Anne explained.
The problem with reverting to the crest release is that you stop communicating with your horse. "The beauty of the automatic release is that any time over the jump you can influence your horse. Once you go to the crest, you're just a passenger."
Anne concluded the session by saying that the riders were going to be seeing different systems and to take advantage of that. It would be up to them to take away what was most helpful. "To me, that is the fun of riding," she said. "That you do things different and you're always learning."
Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.
The training session is hosted by Bates Saddles and Equestrian Sport Productions and supported by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In addition to Bates, supporting organizations include Purina Mills, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, Nutramax (Cosequin ASU), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Practical Horseman.