First Postcard: 2010 George Morris Horsemastership

Ten top American young riders face banks, water jumps and more in the first few days of the 2010 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

January 7, 2010 — It’s the third day of the fourth annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session in Wellington, Fla.–my first full day here. George packed so much information teaching riders into his two mounted training sessions, it will be hard to fit it all in.

As George Morris looks on, Jacqueline Lubrano canters over the cavalletti. | ? Sandra Oliynyk

But first, to give a little background–the purpose of the training session is to show the 10 best young riders in the country what it takes to become international riding stars. In addition to daily riding sessions with George, the riders are attending lectures on veterinary care, equine nutrition, joint health, animal cruelty and stable management throughout the week. They are also taking complete care of their horses, from feeding to mucking out stalls to cleaning tack. A big bonus is that anyone can audit the mounted sessions and the lectures for free. The educational component is really important to George and John Madden, who developed the idea and has been in charge of organizing it for the last four years.

Back to George’s mounted sessions. The riders were split into two groups of five, with the first group starting at 8 a.m. As the riders warmed up their horses at will, George discussed the importance of working your horse from back to front: “Roundness starts at the back of the horse. Those hind legs have to be active. That drops the croup, spreads the ribs, raises the back and raises the wither. It drops the horse’s neck. If you drop the horse’s neck from the front, that’s not a round horse.

Later he added, “First you create impulsion, then you regulate that impulsion with rein.” He stressed that you always want to be taking and giving to regulate your horse’s tempo and pace. “You can take for two to three seconds, then give. You don’t take longer than four beats maximum before giving, even if your horse is pulling you.”

He then had the riders work on the pulley rein at the trot and canter–an aid he says has been undertaught and is one of the most effective ways to gain control of your horse on course.

To use the pulley rein, he told the riders to put the excess rein on the outside of their horses’ necks. He then instructed them to put the knuckles of their inside hands into the little dip directly in front of the horses’ withers to slow their horses. When the horses responded, they relaxed the hand. “The person to watch is [Canadian Olympian] Ian Millar with that pulley rein,” George said. “He’s of the era when we taught that. It’s a quick control check.”

Theodore Boris jumps down off the small bank. | ? Sandra Oliynyk

Riders then moved on to cantering and trotting over a line of cavalletti: They were to canter two strides to a bounce, transition to posting trot and trot over three cavalletti set in a row. The purpose of cavalletti, George explained, are to “stabilize the jumping horse and attain perfect rideability over very low obstacles. . There is no concussion of landing. . It was a brilliant invention.”

Next up, George had the riders jump up and down a small bank. “It’s not even a bank. It’s a ‘bank-ette,'” he said. They rode over a small vertical, four quiet strides up the bank, three strides over a gate set in the middle of the bank, then two strides over a small vertical down the bank. “This is just a gymnastic with a bank,” George said. “Banks make people nervous. We don’t do enough banks in this country. They take time and they take work, and the professionals don’t like them, so the show managers took them out.”

Jennifer Waxman was the first to ride the line, and her horse tried to leave out a stride up the bank, then bobbled, causing her to lose her stirrup. But she earned high praise from George: “That was very good. She wasn’t whining, she wasn’t whingeing, she didn’t circle. She kept going.”

After that was one of my favorite exercises: A bending “S” line of six fences of verticals, oxers and Liverpoools that riders cantered back and forth over five or six times in a row. The purpose was to laterally supple the horses with the turning and relax them through the immediate repetition of the pattern.

In the middle of a bending

To begin, George dropped a side of each fence so the horses could get used to the pattern. “Even if that was [Olympic horses] Authentic or Sapphire or Cedric, that’s how I’d start. You have to be progressive in your training.”

The line was at five strides to four strides to two strides to four strides to four strides. But George said the number of strides initially didn’t matter. He was more interested in the turning. “Once you see the distance, forget the jump and start turning,” he said.

“This is suppling. This is softening. You can see softening the horse has nothing to do with gadgets. It has to do with aids. It doesn’t have anything to do with tying the poor horse’s head down.”

The finale was the water jump, and George had plenty to say about that. “I started riding with the USET in the 1950s, and we’ve always had a problem with water. If in Athens and Hong Kong, we had jumped the water, we would have won by this much,” he said, separating his hands by a foot. “Instead, we won by this much,” he added separating two fingers by an inch.

“We don’t jump water enough. In other countries, they jump water at every little show. Water is an everyday thing.”

Jumping water is a simple, three-step process:
1.Carry sufficient pace, but “sufficient” isn’t over the pace.
2. Once you see your distance, ride a little past it to the base so you don’t make the fence any wider than it is.
3. Ride the tape. Keep riding over the jump to encourage your horse to stretch out over the tape. [Landing on the tape incurs faults.]

Riding Matthew Metell

George got on Matthew Metell’s horse after the horse had a foot in the water to show what he meant by getting the horse to stretch–although some suspected that George, who had been praising how lovely the horse was, just wanted to have a little fun on a very nice horse!

Nutrition and Barn Management
After cooling down their horses, the riders attended a lecture by Allyn Mann, senior manager of Luitpold Pharmaceuticals, makers of Adequan. The topic was joint health and maintenance. He encouraged the riders to check their horses’ legs every day before riding to “catch little problems before they become big problems.” Topics he covered included:

How does degenerative joint disease occur?

  • wear and tear of daily use
  • misstep, stumble, twist, fall
  • poor conformation
  • shoeing problems
  • old age

What are the signs of degenerative joint disease?

  • joint swelling
  • heat in the joint
  • hesitation to perform the usual task
  • lameness

Treatment includes:

  • conservative therapy, including rest, cold water and bandaging
  • medical intervention
  • surgical intervention

The bottom line is to try to recognize joint problems early and consult your veterinarian. “Be proactive, not reactive,” he said.

The day ended with a field trip to the barn where Olympian Anne Kursinski keeps her horses in Florida and a discussion of her stable management system. Both Anne and Market Street’s general manager Carol “Hoffy” Hoffman were on hand to share their experiences running a top operation. The riders learned things like what a typical day was like, what types of therapies are used on their horses, why they take their horses’ temperatures every morning and how Anne gets her horses to peak. Overall their system is about respecting the horses. “The better turned out and kept the horses are, I promise you, the better they feel. On some level, the horses really get it,” Anne said.

Tomorrow George will teach the riders on the flat, and he told them to “leave their stirrups at the barn.” There also will be an ASPCA All Star Equine Anti-Cruelty Summit and Panel Discussion in the afternoon.

Read Postcard 2 on developing feeling without stirrups and Postcard 3 on jumping a course..

Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.

Click here to read about rider Zazou Hoffman’s experiences at the training session.

Check out some more photos from the training session on Practical Horseman’sFacebook page.

Read more about the 2010 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session in the March and April 2010 issues of Practical Horseman.

The 2010 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session is supported by Purina Mills, Practical Horseman, ASPCA, Equestrian Sports Products, Equus Foundation, Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, U.S. Equestrian Federation, USET Foundation and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.

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