Beezie Madden: Gymnasticize Your Horse

Part 2: Beezie Madden develops athleticism and rideability at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.
“My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work,” said Beezie Madden. After jumping the liverpool with Esprit 373, Eve Jobs and the other riders returned to gymnastic work to get the horses’ shape and rideability back. | Amy K. Dragoo

New Year’s Day dawned unseasonably hot and humid at the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds as two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden perched a George Morris action figure aboard a golf cart to preside over the second day of the 10th annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Day 1 had featured Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig’s schooling of the clinic’s 12 riders in dressage in Wellington, Florida. Beezie’s plan was to work on gymnasticizing the horses with the goal of building on Christine’s lessons. 

“George’s passion for teaching, his system for teaching and his passing it on to the rest of us has been a driving force in this training session for all these years,” Beezie said. “My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work. We’ll introduce the water jump and feed off what Christine said yesterday and try to keep balance and rhythm while we do everything.” 

After deciding to take a break from teaching clinics this year, George enlisted the help of Beezie, Christine and Olympic gold medalist Laura Kraut to teach his three-day training session for up-and-coming riders. The young riders were invited to the clinic based on their placings in equitation and jumping classes last year and included Victoria “Tori” Colvin, Kelli Cruciotti, Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers, Mitch Endicott, Daisy Farish, Eve Jobs, TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Danielle “Dani” Roskens, Katherine Strauss and Vivian Yowan. 

Although the clinic’s namesake was unable to be at the training session, Olympic gold medalist Beezie ensured that a George Morris action figure presided over the lesson, placing him in the golf cart to oversee the young riders. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie introduced the concepts of her teaching method to them first in a demonstration ride. The day’s theme was developing a horse’s adjustability and how that helps when jumping a course. She worked on getting the horse “in front of the rider’s leg” by engaging his hind end because, she said, the horse can’t accept hands on the reins until he is in front of the leg. “I like the horse’s hind legs to feel like they’re stepping underneath my seat.” 

Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Beezie also stressed getting the horse to work from his hind end into and through transitions. She often uses transitions that require leg to school this concept, like a shoulder-in. “In this lateral movement, I have to keep the hind end underneath me to do the transition,” she explained. “If the horse tries to raise his head up, I correct him so that he is underneath my seat.” 

As an example, Beezie said riders could ride a shoulder-in at the sitting trot, then transition to the shoulder-in at the walk for a few steps before returning to a shoulder-in at the sitting trot. Or each could ride a half-pass at the sitting trot, then ride a transition to a half-pass at the walk for a few steps back to a half-pass at the sitting trot while making sure the horse’s hind end is underneath the rider’s seat. Then riders could change it up: ride a half-pass, change direction, walk, trot, walk. Horses could memorize a pattern, so finding the correct balance between repetition and overdoing an exercise is key. 

Variety is the Key To Training 

Tori Colvin uses her inside leg coming out of the turn to put Whisper Z onto the outside rein while shaping the turn and keeping the balance so she can ride straight to the pole. | Amy K. Dragoo

Still riding, Beezie introduced a series of three rails, each placed 48 feet apart, to test the horse’s rideability with frequent gait changes over various patterns while regulating his rhythm and tempo. She rode transitions from canter to walk, then walked over a rail, then picked up a trot to go back and forth through the straight line of rails. At the canter, she rode the rails in a straight line and changed the number of strides between them, going from three strides to a rail to four strides to the next one. Then she mixed it up by asking for five strides to the second rail and three strides to the first rail. “My concern is that the horse’s balance and his frame stay the way I want it all the way down the gymnastic line. When you are at the level of grand prix, your horse should be able to do that like an accordion. You need to be able to do the open water to the double of verticals combination. It’s a test every time. You have to be able to make the adjustment and keep the horse’s brain together so he is able to do something bold and then move to something very short.” 

Before Beezie added jumping to the gymnastic exercises, she moved her stirrups up a hole. “You should have a little longer stirrup for the flat than jumping,” she advised. “Don’t take your foot out of your stirrup to adjust it since you’re never going to know what will spook your horse. If you’re ever on a young horse, you have to have that skill.” Then it was back to the business of adding variety to the workout by introducing three vertical jumps set on a line 20 feet apart with ground rails placed midway between each. She also set takeoff and landing poles 10 feet before and after the line. She rode the line and had the horse halt after it.

“The landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence so it is important to be critical of your horse’s schooling,” Beezie said. “He should halt on the bit, not flying backward or rooting. He’s got to be disciplined enough to halt in the contact.” 

Again to add variety, she would sometimes ride the line and then ride through the corner. She emphasized working on making tidy turns to prepare for the tight time allowed on many courses and the speed often required in jump-offs. To sharpen the turns, she used her inside leg to put the horse onto the outside rein, which keeps him from cutting in. “If the horse is on the outside rein through the turn, the turn becomes much simpler,” she explained. “If the horse is cutting and not on my outside rein, it becomes a battle into the turn. Not only does it distract the horse, it slows him down, too.

“Jumping is a sport of concentration,” she continued. “Every horse we put in a class could jump over the fences or we would be idiots to put them there. The real test is can the horse concentrate and be schooled enough to jump those fences in a strange environment with the trickiness the course designers like. We always think about the riders, but the horse has to concentrate, too. His concentration has to be mainly on the fence. Responding to the rider and the rider’s aids has to become a force of habit.”

Put the Jump in the Middle of the Arc

Beezie began Day 2 of the 10th George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session with a demonstration to introduce the day’s lesson: developing adjustability of the equine athlete and how that translates to jumping. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie said training the horse to jump so that his arc is over the middle of the jump is important. A rider does this by keeping the horse’s hind end engaged and maintaining an even rhythm so the takeoff spot is accurate. “A horse that jumps too early will have the back rail. I want enough rideability that I can keep my horse together in rhythm.” As long as a rider keeps the rhythm and the connection, the horse can jump well from a variety of spots.

As Beezie cooled down her horse before bringing the young riders into the ring, she encouraged him to stretch and relax his topline. “It’s a nice exercise physically and mentally,” she said. “Even though he’s in a long frame, I’m still stretching out the muscles in his back” while keeping him in front of the leg with light contact. There is “still connection between leg and hand even though I am letting him rest and relax,” she added.

When riding the final downward transition to the walk, Beezie pointed out that riders should not just plop down on the horse’s back and let him fall behind. Everything you do on a horse is training him, she said. “When I’ve done this nice flatwork and I end with a bad transition, I’ve pretty much ruined the session. Details, details, all the time. Even in the barn you are training your horse.” 

First Training Session 

“I learned to think about every part of the course and not take any part for granted,” said 20-year-old Dani Roskens. She also learned to use her whole body as a unit to affect the weight of the horse. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the first six riders entered the ring, Beezie instructed them to warm up by walking in a lively rhythm with the horses in front of the riders’ legs. She asked them to establish contact with the horses’ mouths by pushing them into the bit, not by pulling on the reins.

Throughout the session, Beezie insisted the horses react to the aids. Not a fan of digging the horse with a spur at every stride, she explained that the horse needs to be respectful of the aids and ready to respond to them, but he can’t be afraid of them. “It’s got to make sense to him,” she said. “There’s a progression. You don’t want to go from no leg and then attack the horse.” You start with the amount of pressure you want the horse to respond to and if he doesn’t, “he gets a little reprimand” with a stronger leg or a kick. 

Beezie asked the riders to move into the posting trot, reminding them that their first goal was to make sure the horses had enough impulsion for self-carriage. The horses should be trotting in a nice forward rhythm with a light contact. If the horses evaded the bit by pulling or getting behind it, she instructed the riders to raise their hands to put a little pressure on the corners of the horses’ mouths. When the horses changed the head position by accepting the bit, she explained that the riders needed to immediately soften the contact while maintaining the leg. 

As Vivian Yowan’s horse became fussy with his mouth, Beezie suggested she try to keep her hands as steady as possible while using her legs to push him up to the bit. When he put his head down and relaxed his jaw, Beezie told her to relax her hands. 

Once again, Beezie stressed transitions: walk to trot, sitting trot, collect a little, shoulder-in in a walk to a sitting trot, shoulder-in in a sitting trot to a walk. She explained that to achieve the shoulder-in, a rider adds pressure with the inside leg at the girth to push the horse into the outside rein. The horse’s neck stays bent to the inside but not overbent. The hind legs should feel as if they are stepping up underneath the seat without going faster. She added that a rider should always work the horse in both directions. The riders were often asked to sit the trot so that they could use their seats and backs to influence the transitions. 

Tori Colvin, 18, was reminded to lean back when doing transitions instead of forward. She said she’d remember what Beezie said about carrying the hands, making sure she’s not pulling on the reins and legging the horse for impulsion. 

Just when the jumpers thought they might be finished with dressage, Beezie introduced a half-pass. A half-pass is performed with the horse parallel to the side of the ring and slightly bent in the direction in which he is moving forward. Beezie reminded the riders that looking at the horses’ heads will not put them into the right position, but looking where they wanted to go will help create the roundness of the horse. 

Then riders tackled the ground rails, using transitions to increase rideability and adjustability. “Working with the horse’s rhythm and balance, the horse’s hind leg has to come underneath you,” Beezie said. “Think of the rails as references where you make the transitions. The horse should feel like an accordion. He should feel short in his neck and then lengthen a little.”

Kelli Cruciotti liked changing the number of strides between three ground poles in a line. “That was a great exercise for me to think about and take home to my other horses. I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling.” | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie chided the riders for sloppy halts. In the downward transitions, the seat and back need to remain fixed with the shoulders slightly behind the hips. She instructed Eve Jobs, 17, to brace her heel a little so her leg could slide a bit forward in the halt and to give a little with her arms. Then Beezie told Vivian, 18, to think of a halt more like waterskiing with her shoulders behind her hips. “If you get your shoulders in front of your hips, the horse has a big advantage,” she cautioned. “He’s much stronger than you. Our only method of riding is by having leverage. You get the leverage by having the correct position and style.” 

Riders then start incorporating verticals and oxers with turns in between. Beezie told them to put their horses on the outside rein to shape the turn and keep the balance while looking to finish the turn. “Once you have the horse on the outside rein, you don’t have to keep fading, fading, fading to the outside standard of the next fence,” she explained. “You’ve got to put the horse on the outside rein to put him into a position to come in on the turn. If you don’t look to come in, you’ll have to make time up.” As more jumps, including oxers and a water jump, were added throughout the session, riders were urged to supple their elbows to increase connection with the horse. “When they react to the hand, we reward them by becoming more and more supple ourselves.” 

Beezie told 17-year-old TJ O’Mara to keep his elbows bent and elastic, causing him to note afterward that “it really made the course so much easier because sometimes I stiffen my arms and the horse will sometimes resist it. It made my horse listen to my aids and she felt amazing.”

Mitch Endicott, 17, learned he needs to focus on staying square in the saddle. “Around the turns, I don’t stay square with my body,” he said. “I tend to lean in. That’s something I need to work on.”

Second Session

Lucy Deslauriers rides a line of three vertical jumps, each set 20 feet apart, with ground rails set midway between each fence. This helped emphasize that the landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence. | Amy K. Dragoo

The second group of riders had the same warm-up. Beezie urged them to create energy in the walk on a long rein. She instructed them to liven their horses to the leg but not by increasing and holding the spur into the horse’s side. “What that does is create the horse being duller to your leg,” she said. “What you do is you ask with the pressure you would like for him to react from, and if he doesn’t answer to that, attack him a little with the spur. Try to surprise him a little so he starts to anticipate when you do put a little pressure on his side. He’s got to be ready to react to that. If the horse is reactive enough to the leg, I shouldn’t see what I talked about in my demonstration of people spurring the horse every stride and slapping the saddle with their seat to try to create the impulsion. I want to see the horse light enough to the leg that I don’t even see that you’re doing anything.” 

When 20-year-old Dani Rosken’s horse began jigging in the trot, Beezie told her to be more sympathetic with her leg. When horses are reactive enough, don’t keep trying to get more and more horse. In addition, Dani said, “I learned to use my whole body as a unit instead of just trying to use one part to affect the entire weight of the horse.”

Daisy Farish’s horse was a little too reactive to the leg, so Beezie coached her to apply a half-halt with her outside hand to recycle the horse’s energy back into the hind legs. Afterward Daisy, 15, said she learned how her position could strengthen the rideability of the hot horse. “Beezie helped me with the way I sit and with keeping my shoulders back to make it easier to control him.”

Beezie told Ransome Rombauer, 17, to bring her hands above her horse’s withers because when she carried her hands too low, she risked pulling the horse’s head down and creating resistance than suppleness. Instead, Beezie told her to raise the hand, keeping the bit in the corners of the horse’s mouth until he sought a different position and gave in the jaw by lowering his head. When that happens, the rider can reward him by relaxing the contact though not allowing a slack in the reins. 

As riders moved on to riding over the ground rails and jumping, Kelli Cruciotti, 18, said she liked using different stride lengths over the set of three ground poles. “I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling,” she said.

At the water jump, Beezie had more advice. “You don’t want to ride the water like you would a tall vertical. You don’t want to get there having to compress the stride a lot.” Many of the riders were aboard borrowed horses for the training session so the coaching often involved how to navigate a horse whose quirks weren’t known. “When you know you have a sophisticated water jumper, that’s a good time to compress a little and let the horse jump bigger. When you don’t know your horse, you want to be able to build a little for the water the first time.” 

After the riders schooled over the water jump, Beezie had them return to the gymnastic exercises. “Schooling the water creates kind of an aggressive horse. Any time you do a water school or you’re schooling natural jumps getting ready for a derby-type show, remember you probably need to do something after that to get a little more gymnastic and get the horse’s shape and rideability back together. Even if they’re good about that stuff, it still creates a bold, long, kind of aggressive horse.”

Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session watch and listen to Beezie Madden describe what Day 2 holds (from left): TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Kelli Cruciotti, Mitch Endicott, Lucy Deslauriers, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Ailish Cunniffe, Daisy Farish, Vivian Yowan, Victoria Colvin and Danielle Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the day wound down, Beezie again praised George while acknowledging his tiny action figure set in the golf cart overlooking the training session.

“He’s the driving force behind this training session and, thanks to him, we have a good program here,” she said.

Katherine Strauss, 17, found that working on fundamentals such as smoothly extending and collecting, basic flatwork, lateral work and making sure the horse is responsive to the aids was helpful. | Amy K. Dragoo

Next month: Laura Kraut on perfecting jumping skill.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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