2013 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session Day 4: No-Stirrup Flatwork

Riders leave their irons in the barn for a no-stirrup flatwork session with George Morris.

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Photos ? Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore for Practical Horseman.


January 5, 2013?Each year there’s one day where the 12 riders in George’s clinic spend the session working without stirrups on the flat. Today was that day. And while the riders probably don’t look forward to it, the spectators certainly do because George will inevitably get on at least one horse and show everyone how it’s done. He proved that he’s still “got it” but riding not just one but TWO horses for about half an hour each with no stirrups and very few breaks. And he still makes it look easy.

George spent the session reinforcing his previous lessons about the need to make a horse calm, forward and above all, straight. He utilized the same lateral exercises and transitions to increase the horses’ lateral and longitudinal suppleness. And he emphasized the connection from the rider’s inside leg to her outside hand. Without stirrups, the riders were able to “rivet” their seat bones to their horses’ backs, requiring that the horses accept the aids and allowing them to come round, working from behind and elevated in front.

While the sessions today weren’t as long as those on previous days, there were lots of training gems and useful nuggets of insight that George shared. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Keep your horse’s tempo the same in turns as it is on the straightaway.
  • The shoulder-in helps you get your horse in front of your leg. From there, just let him go forward into a lengthening. Don’t push.
  • The horse doesn’t determine the rein length. YOU determine the rein length.
  • When you work without stirrups your horse must accept your seat and show submission.
  • A horse doesn’t work properly if he escapes in the neck.
  • A horse is put on the bit from leg to hand?not pulling, sawing or with draw reins. Ride from back to front, and feel the horse’s hind legs “dance”!
  • Alternating 10 strides or so of shoulder-in with 10 strides of haunches in will bring the horse’s hind legs under and encourages him to start to collect.
  • The lateral work you ask of your horse doesn’t have to be perfect for a dressage class. It just needs to gymnasticize the horse.
  • Too much neck bend is a habit in our country. Keep the head and neck straight and bend the horse in his middle using your inside leg.
  • With jumpers, I don’t do a lot of transitions from canter to trot. I do canter-walk because if I’m jumping, I don’t want to ask them to shorten and instead have them break into a trot.
  • Don’t do the same exercise too long even if it’s not perfect. Drilling isn’t the answer.
  • I never start with flying changes–I want the horse to first listen to my leg in counter-canter.
  • The hand can’t “hang” on the horse’s mouth. I don’t care how hard you have to half-halt. You have to release.
  • These are show horses. We need fresh, competitive horses. I don’t want them perfect. But they need to accept the contact.
  • When collecting, you want to ask the horse to go slower without losing the activity. Watch with your legs that the horse’s tempo stays the same.
  • With a horse who is built downhill, the simplest way to transfer the weight to his hind end is by elevating his poll. The second way is to engage the hind leg, and the third way is to do both together.
  • Riding without stirrups allows you to better feel your horse’s balance.
  • When doing downward transitions, think of “stretching your spine.” A stretched spine “rivets” the seat to the horse’s back.
  • Lengthening allows a stretching of the horse’s topline.
  • Let the horse “roll” around the bit. Don’t pull him down.
  • A half-pass is just haunches-in on a diagonal.
  • Your inside rein is the flexing, suppling rein. Your outside hand needs to be steady.
  • What you teach your horse, he may try to use against you. For example, he may use shoulder-in to try to evade the contact or throw in a flying change just before a jump.
  • The contact should be straight from elbow to bit, supple and definite. If that’s not happening, I take with my hand and close my leg.
  • It’s tempting to roughen the hand when a horse stiffens. What’s important is the give.
  • In half-halt, your hands should move backward and upward toward your stomach, not toward the pommel of the saddle.
  • Temper is always wrong because temper is too strong.
  • A horse chewing the bit and foaming at the mouth is a sign of suppleness and relaxation.
  • Impulsion is the mother of equitation. Without impulsion, you can do nothing with the horse.
  • Relaxation on a horse is not slack. You’re still watching and listening to your horse.
  • Your first aid is the inside leg, just behind the girth. It is more dominant than the outside leg aid.
  • Your outside hand regulates impulsion and straightness and is your dominant rein. The inside rein gets the horse’s jaw to relax. Don’t think outside rein without inside leg.
  • Successive reverse turns (turning into the wall) gets horses supple and turning.
  • Only the horse’s head is flexed in the direction of travel. Not the neck.
  • If a horse breaks into a canter instead of extending the trot, it’s a backward resistance.
  • Short reins and soft arm, not long reins and stiff arm.
  • Don’t make the shoulder-in at the canter for too long. It’s very taxing on the horse. Maybe ask for only 10 strides at a time.
  • What’s interesting about give and take is the give. Good riders give when the horse gives; great riders give just before.
  • Working in counter-canter teaches collection.
  • Turning a horse’s head displaces his haunches. Leg-yield is the first stage. There is no bend in leg-yield.
  • If a horse stiffens in the transitions, repeat until he gives.
  • Save the sharper bit for jumping. Use a plain snaffle for flatwork.

And my favorite:

  • Schooling a horse is playing. It’s play with boundaries.

This wraps up our coverage of the clinic for this year. I leave you to watch the Sunday riding sessions, featuring course work, on www.usefnetwork.com as I had to get home. You can be sure, though, that despite the temperatures hovering around freezing here in Maryland, I’ll be working my horse (and myself) on a lot of the exercises George introduced to these talented riders and horses. I hope you have been inspired as well.

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