Wellington, Fla., January 17, 2007 -- After finishing their morning barn shores, the young riders participating in the second day of the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session head up to the main hunter ring for a lesson with the master focusing on flatwork and gymnastics.
From his golf cart in the center of the arena, George builds on Monday's flatwork session and introduces a new exercise: A reverse half turn, first at walk--how he always introduces new exercises--then at posting trot. From the rail, the riders walk into the center of the arena at a 45-degree angle, make a half circle, then "your inside leg pushes the horse to the outside rein back to the rail," George instructs.
The atmosphere is businesslike, but George shows his wit when scolding Nick Haness, who rides a regular half circle a second time. As he's handed a cup of coffee, George says, "I hope it's loaded with vodka because at this point with Nick, I'm getting to the vodka stage."
Next, George has the riders go over a single cavalletti, first at walk, then trot. The riders then work over a line: three cavalletti (4-feet 6 inches apart) to a ground pole, (set between two standards 10 feet from the third cavalletti) to another groundpole (set 4 feet 6-inches from the first ground pole). "This work teaches rhythm to horse and rider," he says. He tells Zazou Hoffman, whose horse is a little dull, to activate him with leg but contain him with hand. "Your horse has to have the correct impulsion." Then he counts "one-two, one-two, one-two" as she trots through the exercise.
John Madden, who masterminded the event, makes the first ground pole into a vertical. The riders go over the cavalletti and as they jump the vertical, George tells them to use an outside opening rein (bringing it out and down). "This exercise gives you confidence that you don't need the horse's neck for balance," he says. "I don't care what happens, concentrate on the independence of the left hand. Then gradually drift over to the rail with a soft inside leg to outside rein."
The master never misses a chance to teach. During a walk break, he barks a command: "Zazou, get rid of that habit. The technical term is sawing hands when you pull left, right, left, right with your hands. It creeps into your elbows and your whole torso. It's a dreadful habit."
Riding a Bounce: Focus on Independent Hands
In the next exercise, the riders jump three fences, an oxer to two verticals, set as a bounce to a bounce. George tells the riders to canter in and again focus on their hands--keeping them wide off the horse's neck and lowered down to the shoulder. "Concentrate on your hands. This gives you total independence and balance. It helps your body stay in place. Keep the contact very consistent, but very light."
The fences start low, and as they are raised, George says, "Nick with bounces, don't be shy--canter, canter, canter forward to the bounce." He then modifies the exercise and has the riders use an automatic release, raising their hands just slightly so there's a straight line from the bit to their elbow. They bring them in a little and keep a delicate feel.
Longitudinal and Lateral Suppleness
The final exercise is a line of four jumps set diagonally across the middle of the arena: an oxer, 35 feet to a gate (two strides), 32-feet 6-inches (two strides) to another oxer, 50 feet (three or four strides) to a plank.
The riders warm up over the line in one direction, canter the final element a few times on a figure-eight, reverse and jump the line back in the other direction.
Then he asks the riders to ride the line four times putting different strides in the 50-foot line:
- They start by jumping the two, two strides to a four-stride, which is comfortable.
- After a reverse half turn, they keep the impulsion and lengthen the horse's stride to turn the four-stride into three strides, which makes the following two-stride tight.
- They make another reverse half turn and ride the line: The first two stride is nice, the second is quiet, which makes the next three stride ride even more forward.
- Another reverse half turn and they need to collect their horses to put in four strides to the two to the two.
Maria Schaub's horse is a little hot and quick in the reverse turns: "Maria, let the horse fight you. Don't fight him. Don't get upset. Just mentally and physically stay against the horse. You are very tactful at this."
The reverse turns, George explains, softens the horse laterally. The line, with the change of stride length, supples the horse longitudinally.
George follows the same theme with the second group of riders made up of Maggie McAlary, Jack Hardin Towell Jr. and Sloane Coles. In the flatwork, he has them work on counter bending--"a good remedy for the overbending we see in the hunter and equitation rings today." They then ride serpentine loops maintaining the counterbend instead of switching the bend. "When turning right, the horse is slightly bent to the left. The bend is just in the neck. Keep the rest of your horse super straight and in the same rhythm."
He next has the riders work on shoulder-in for several steps, then shoulder-out in sitting trot. "Now go to posting trot. Interrupt this lateral work with straight work. Lengthen 10 strides, then shorten for about five strides."
The riders work on the cavalletti, bounce line and then the center line of four fences on the diagonal. Maggie finishes the line with her horse still getting a little tight in the four stride. But George says it's time to quit because the horse will have to jump Thursday and Saturday. "It would be a great mistake to try to make that perfect today. I didn't learn that until late in life. You can't jeopardize the soundness and morale of the horse at the expense of perfection. That's what's happening in the equitation and hunter divisions these days."
George ends the first session by asking if the riders had fun. "It's hard work but the fun is in the excellence of what you're doing with your horse, whether you're conditioning, grooming, flatting or competing. The real fun is because of the excellence."
The day also included enlightening discussions on basic course design principles with course designer Steve Stephens and grooming with top barn manager Laurie Pitts. Check future issues of Practical Horseman for stories on these topics.
--Photos by Sandy Oliynyk
Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.