Day 2 of the 2014 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session - Expert how-to for English Riders

Day 2 of the 2014 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session

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January 1, 2014—The afternoon of the second day of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session included a flatwork demonstration by five-time Olympian Anne Kursinski and a discussion about the theory behind riding with the master himself.

Anne Kursinski focuses on riding Diva forward from her leg into an elastic hand. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

Anne Kursinski focuses on riding Diva forward from her leg into an elastic hand. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

Throughout Anne's session, she encouraged riders to always think about maintaining their positions regardless of what their horses are doing and she stressed the importance of riding exercises that help to strengthen and supple the horse on the flat.

Anne rode her 9-year-old mare Diva, whom she has taken in 1.40-1.45-meter classes. The mare is hot to ride, but Anne said that she still must ride with her leg to get the mare to accept it and move forward from it.

Anne started by asking the mare to go forward at the walk while she maintained her position, the only thing that you really can control, she said, adding, "If you can't control yourself, good luck controlling your horse."

She then started asking Diva some questions, like would she move off Anne's left leg in a turn-on-the forehand. Diva responded by fussing and even rearing. Anne maintained her position and patiently kept asking Diva to yield to her leg. "We're having a discussion about who's the queen more. I'm the queen more," Anne quipped. After a few moments the mare complied with Anne's request and even started to lick and chew the bit in relaxation. Anne later explained that getting a horse to accept your leg requires repetition gently asking the question again, using different degrees of pressure of the aids. "I didn't freak out," Anne said. "I kept my position and kept asking. She has to come to me."

After each question Anne asked, she would ride the mare forward into an elastic hand, so the mare was always thinking about being in front of Anne's leg.

Anne then began riding Diva circles in both directions, using her inside leg at the girth to her outside rein to keep the mare straight. Even when they worked on the rein-back, Anne said the mare still had to be thinking "forward." She would back Diva a few steps and then ride her forward in the trot. When the mare spooked at a pile of jumps, Anne added her inside leg to draw the mare's attention back on her. "She has to learn to concentrate on me," Anne explained.

While Anne was firm in what she asked of Diva, she said that her first instructor, Jimmy Williams, instilled in her the importance of getting inside a horse's head and trying to figure out what they're thinking. "If you aren't getting the response you want, maybe the rider is giving mixed messages and the horse is confused. To me, the great riders watch the horses and listen to the horses."

She then started to work on lateral work, such as shoulder-in, haunches-in and the more advanced half-pass. This work strengthens and supples the horse over time so he becomes a better athlete, she said. She equated the work to what riders do when they go to the gym to become stronger, more supple and more balanced.

When Diva again became a little upset about being asked to do little half steps, almost trotting in place, Anne maintained her position and kept asking until the mare relaxed and focused on the work. Anne said part of her job as a rider is to encourage the horse that "Yes, you can do this."

Anne also rode a lot of lateral exercises, such as haunches-in, to strengthen and supple a horse, which makes a better athlete. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

Anne also rode a lot of lateral exercises, such as haunches-in, to strengthen and supple a horse, which makes a better athlete. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

As Anne continued to work Diva, the mare lowered her croup and became more and more uphill. Anne would occasionally give with her inside hand to show that the horse was in self-carriage.

To start the canter work, Anne asked Diva for a counter-canter from the walk. Then she rode another transition to walk and then asked for the regular canter. Then she rode shoulder-fore and half-pass in canter to ask the mare to sit even more. After each, she rode the horse a little forward and when the mare reached for the bit to stretch, Anne gave with her hands.

Throughout the work, Anne stressed that the horse needs to go forward from the leg and be immediately responsive to it. During the canter work, she rose in the saddle to demonstrate that Diva was so forward that Anne didn't need to sit to maintain the impulsion.

Anne explained that she's always trying to be a better horseman through riding, working out herself at the gym to become stronger and working with veterinarians to learn about care issues and nutrition. "Every day I'm so grateful that I have these marvelous horses in my life," she said. "I ask myself, 'What more can I do for my horses?' because they do so much for me."

George on Theory
George followed up Anne's flatwork demonstration, which he called "a priceless hour," with a discussion about the mechanics of how a horse comes round.

He started by drawing of stick figure of a horse on an easel. The horse's head was in the air and his back was hollow. "Muscularly that is not very good for the horse, and if he's muscularly hurt, mentally he'll hurt. Our goal is to get him the opposite of this."

George Morris drew stick figures to demonstrate the theory behind flatwork and getting a horse round. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

George Morris drew stick figures to demonstrate the theory behind flatwork and getting a horse round. | Photo © Sandra Oliynyk

You do this by working on three points of resistance in the horse where he can brace, George said. These include the haunches, the shoulder and the lower jaw and poll area.

You work on these points of resistance by taking or making contact in three areas. One is in the seat. George sits to the front of the saddle, which is near the strong area of the horse, as opposed to the area near the middle of the horse, which is the loin region. When he first sits on a horse, George does so cautiously because the horse's back is fragile. He stays off the back, leans forward and then sinks onto his seat bones.

Then he takes contact with the horse's mouth and his ribs by putting his legs on him. "I can't talk to the horse without initial contact," he said.

The horse may resist that contact by moving backward, but George uses his legs on the horse's sides to encourage the horse forward. Eventually the horse relaxes to the bridle and then George relaxes the reins. He said that he and Anne differ a little in their approach a little, but that it is OK to be different because the foundation of the work is the same.

He said both he and Anne "obsess with the horse accepting our leg because that leads the horse to be submissive 'happy' submissive."

George pointed out that while in his first stick figure, the horse's legs were out behind, as you work the horse, his hind legs come under, his croup drops and the weak hollow bridge of the loin lifts and the horse's rib cage expands to take up the rider's leg. The wither becomes higher and lighter and the base of the neck raises. All of this leads to the horse dropping his head and becoming round.

George also pointed out that all horses have a stiff side, and that "our goal is to make both sides the same as possible. Crooked horses can't be collected." You do this by working on circular tracks and figure eights, especially in lateral work.

This work also improves and produces "calm, forward and straight," George said. Calm comes from the rider, who can ride without any anger or emotion. Only when a rider is calm can the horse be forward and straight.

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