January 16, 2007 -- It's 7:15 a.m. on Tuesday, the first full day of the George Morris Horsemastership Clinic in Wellington, Fla. The eight young riders and their mentor grooms quickly move through Barn 4 at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club to get everything ready for George Morris' 8:30 arrival. Viv Munden, a top groom on the A-circuit, watches Maggie McAlary cleaning her horse's stall.
As riders Maria Schaub and Alex Maida clean tack, mentor grooms and Olympians Lauren Hough and Beezie Madden wet the aisle to keep down dust as fellow Olympian McLain Ward sweeps. Top equitation trainer Frank Madden works with rider Zazou Hoffman to polish the stirrup bars of her saddle.
"Hunterdon always looks good from the front but better from the back," he says, grinning at Laurie Pitts, who is serving as barn manager for the week-long clinic.
Soon Laurie calls "14 minutes to zero hour"--the time George will arrive. Mentor and Olympian Margie Engle stoops outside the stall of Sloane Coles' horse, picking up little bits of hay the mare drops while leaning out the door.
George arrives in rust breeches, boots, spurs, a navy polo shirt with the U.S. Equestrian Federation logo and riding helmet. He inspects the riders' bridles for the day's flatwork sessions. He explains that he likes to see all horses in drop nosebands because every horse has "seeds of resistance" in the jaw and the noseband helps to break that up. He stresses to the young riders that they always need to know the "why." "Take from everybody what suits you, but always ask why?" he says.
The horses and riders begin to work and George encourages all of them to make their horses straight with the outside rein. When the riders get too close to one another, he orders them to space themselves apart more.
He has them ride posting trot for six strides, then halt. "Don't take the legs off in a downward transition" and "Use the inside leg to outside rein so that the horse is not overbent" are frequent commands.
Soon the riders are lengthening and shortening their horses' strides in posting trot. "Hardin, keep your horse active, not faster," George calls. "Active, then hold back, active, then hold back."
"Maggie, shorten your reins. That horse lengthens your reins."
He asks riders to lengthen across the diagonal before collecting in the corner. Sloane's horse is holding up her head and occasionally flipping it. George tells Sloane to be persistent with her contact. The group begins to ride shoulder-in in sitting trot, using both hands to bring the shoulders in, keeping the horse bent with the inside leg. George explains: "The horse crosses inside hind to outside front. This starts to get the horse's hind legs under himself."
A highlight of the session is when George rides Sloane's horse. "This horse is very hot," he tells her. "The consistency of contact, that's the trick.
"We have to stabilize the horse's head, which I'm not saying is easy, but that happens with stable hands. That's why I shortened my reins." He asks the horse to lengthen across the diagonal, then shorten. "A horse has to accept my aids," he says. He puts the mare in a slight shoulder-in "so she accepts my leg," he says. "You see how my outside rein limits the bend. You have to resist the horse in direct proportion to how she resists the hand."
He begins to canter working on circles of various sizes throughout the ring. The horse begins to take deep breaths. "That's what I want to hear. When the horse blows out, she's accepting me." As he works on simple changes, then flying changes, she begins to lower her head and has several moments of steady contact.
After the session, he asks the riders what they observed in his ride. Zazou Hoffman talks about the inside leg as the first aid. George agrees but clarifies that it's the inside leg to outside rein. "Opposition causes balance." Hardin says that by watching George ride he got a better idea of the differences in the seat. On a circle, George picks up the canter and sits way back, then upright, then forward then way back again. The horse looks a little confused at first and speeds up, but then relaxes and lets George adjust his seat. "This horse has to accept every seat. Submissiveness is acceptance of position of body and contact of body."
The afternoon includes a conformation session with Dr. Danny Marks, in which he explains, in part, what traits make a better jumper. Here is just a sample of his insights:
- The more upright a shoulder, the better the horse can slam off the ground.
- Horses with nice, sloping shoulder blade are prettier movers; they move out in front of them.
- He prefers to see a prominent jumping bump--on top of the horse's buttocks. That's where several muscles attach and hang from. The higher the angle of the bump, the better the horse's jump.
- The higher and more prominent the point of the buttocks are, the more scope the horses will have.
This is only a small part of Dr. Marks' presentation. Be sure to keep a look out in a future issue of Practical Horseman magazine for more details.
The day ends with young riders helping George set jumps for tomorrow's gymnastic sessions. Then they feed and finish the barn work.
Jumper trainer John Madden, who masterminded the clinic, sums up why he feels it's important: "We're all so busy trying to win, we don't spend time to review. The Germans tend to cherish review. In the U.S., if you have to be told twice, you're a bit of a loser. But everything comes down to the fundamentals and they have to practice, practice, practice."
The practicing will continue tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Sandy Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.