Wellington, Fla., January 25, 2008 -- Don't try this at home, kids.
That was the first phrase I thought of after watching the no-stirrups phase of the George Morris Horsemastership Training session today.
Wow, can those kids ride. But so can George, as he proved by getting a leg up onto Karl Cook's borrowed mount, Streetwise, and getting a resistant horse supple with about 10 minutes of classical riding. Not bad for a guy who's turning 70.
"You have to have submission," he said as the horse finally tuned in and cooperated.
The eight participants, most of whom are more than 50 years younger than George, handled their tasks well too. But I hadn't ever seen some of the things George had them doing.
How about riding with your legs in front of the saddle? (It helps develop a good seat, according to George.)
How about opening and closing your legs away from and toward the horse's sides? (Harder than it sounds, believe me, if you're at the sitting trot.)
"It makes you totally dependent on your seat," George explained.
How about going over raised cavaletti, set as bounce jumps, while touching your head, heart and back with one hand in succession?
"This is how to develop a seat. Not just piddly little trotting in the ring," George informed the riders who, I'm sure, were in pain.
"The riding instructor is always in the position of being a torturer,' George said blithely.
I asked Nikko Ritter (always good for a quote) how he survived. Here's what he told me:
But as hard as the work was, the riders finished the better for it, as Aurora Griffin--who came all the way from California--explained.
Here are some things you can practice that I gleaned from today's session.
Pick up the sitting trot, then walk a step or two, then pick up the sitting trot again for six or eight strides, then and walk a step or two. This is what George called a "picture" of a half-halt that helps rebalance the horse and can eventually be transformed into a regulation half-halt.
Oh, and while you're doing that, "don't sag like a muck sack on top of the saddle." George, I might add, has an exemplary back position. But what else would you expect?
Want another exercise? Do simple lead changes every six, eight or 10 strides. And make sure you have your inside leg at the girth as well as your outside leg back.
Then execute three spiral canter circles, a shoulder-in at the canter for 10 strides, extended canter for 15 strides. After that, collect your horse and repeat, making the spirals tighter.
The speaker of the day was Steve Stephens, who will be co-designing the Olympic courses in Hong Kong this summer. He might be better known to you as the resident designer of the American Invitational, held each April in the Tampa football stadium.
I asked Steve why he was chosen to give the talk.
It was easy to pick up some great tips from Steve. If you're ever jumping one of his courses, you can make the time by going fast over the first three jumps; he always sets them as relatively easy efforts. But he noted many riders have a habit of getting into a course slowly over the first jumps, so when they're finally ready to go fast, they're facing more difficult obstacles. Uh-oh.
If you are riding a course where the triple combination comes early, say as the third or fourth fence, do more in your warm-up than you normally would.
Be aware that horses tend to hang up over Swedish oxers, particularly if the "X" part is relatively narrow. To alleviate this problem, gallop at it a little more.
Course designers use left- and right-hand turns to test if the horse is in balance. So at home, be sure to practice changing directions.
The kids really seemed to appreciate Steve's talk, and they asked some intelligent questions about his work. That should all pay off tomorrow as the training session wraps up with jumping a very difficult course.
The kids built the course under George's direction, hauling poles and standards around the big ring they've been using at the South Grounds (the old Littlewood) of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
I asked George about the course, and here's what he said:
I hope the riders are all rested and ready, since they also had a session on grooming, tack cleaning and bandaging this afternoon. It's certainly a full day for them every day at the training session, but there's a lot to learn.
I'll be sending you my wrap-up postcard from here tomorrow--I'm interested to see how everyone handles the course. George was joking with me and suggested that I put on my boots and show everyone how what looked to me like a particularly difficult line should be jumped.
No thanks! I've learned a lot this week, but that's waaay beyond me. To say the least.
Put yourself in the position of these kids and think of all they have done (most of them on borrowed horses), and what ability they have shown. Can you imagine going over a line of cavalletti while touching your head, heart and back?
I rest my case.