Legendary show-jumping trainer George Morris is known for his forthright critiques of riders in his monthly Jumping Clinic column. This month, he studies photos of Olympian Anne Kursinski and himself taken during his 2013 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session in January. Anne offered a dressage/ flatwork demonstration the first day of the clinic, riding a client’s jumper, and George schooled students’ horses at nearly every session he taught. Here he explains how their riding positions influence their horses’ abilities to move actively from behind, which ultimately leads to self-carriage.
1. Anne has always ridden with a parallel toe and does it very well. It is not wrong, but it is difficult to do without allowing the lower leg to come out. Her inside leg is hanging straight down where she can effectively use it, not back where dressage riders often put it today. Her seat is to the front of the saddle, and she’s sitting on her crotch and two seat bones. You need to constantly adjust your seat to the front of the saddle so you’re sitting over your leg in balance.
Anne has a soft back, which happens when a rider has ridden thousands of horses. Her hands are perfectly symmetrical with a straight line from her elbow to the horse’s mouth.
The horse is very active behind with great impulsion—her croup is close to dropping and her withers are close to coming up. You can sense great rhythm and cadence here. This is a typical Anne picture. She creates such wonderful impulsion.
The horse’s face is a trifle behind the vertical, which is all right when you’re working a horse. Doing this to the extreme, called rollkur, is not good. It is not natural for horses. It’s taxing and it gets them in a bad habit for jumping.
2. This photo shows Anne in a light seat or galloping position. You can see how her seat relieves the horse’s back, letting it come up. As a consequence, the horse’s head will drop down. You get up in galloping position and go out with your horse, put him in a slow gallop, lengthen, shorten, turn, stay up in that galloping position, whether it’s five minutes or 20 minutes, he’ll drop his head.
You see this horse is engaged with the inside hind. She’s stepping well under and tracking the inside front. Her croup is dropping, and her withers and base of neck are coming up. She is bent at the poll with her face slightly behind the vertical, which is OK. This shows very good suppleness of the jaw, suppleness of the poll and suppleness of the joints of the hind leg.
3. Here is another photo showing great engagement of the horse’s inside hind leg. Her croup is low and her back, withers and base of neck are up. I picked this picture to show the relationship between Anne’s inside left leg and her outside right rein. Her horse is connected between her left leg and right rein, and that permits Anne to be passive with the inside rein. The horse is straight, balanced and in self-carriage, which will transfer over to jumping and improve it.
4. Similar to Anne, I’ve almost always ridden with my left toe more parallel to my horse than the right.The stirrup leather is perpendicular to the ground, which gives a rider a solid base. My inside leg is just back of the girth, where I can use it most effectively. My seat is in the saddle because I’m on the descent of rising trot, and my upper body is well forward. As a rider goes up in posting trot or when galloping, the upper body must be forward so it can stay balanced over the rider’s base of support (the area from the knee to stirrup). My back is slightly soft, partly because I’m old and partly because I’ve ridden a lot of horses and your back gets more relaxed. It’s not bad but, for a textbook position, it should be a little more hollow.
This horse is a nice, hot Thoroughbred-2 type with active hind legs. He’s bringing his right hind up and forward, and you can see a lot of swing. He’s in working trot or lengthening of stride. I’m letting him work on a longer rein, and you can see his whole topline is stretching from the dock of tail to poll. He is soft in my hand, seeking the contact from the push behind.
5. I am in a half-seat, or light seat, with a short rein at the canter. My hands are up, which asks him to really accept the contact. Note there’s no indication of me pulling the horse into a frame. When a horse raises his head, most people instinctively lower their hands in hopes of pulling down his head. Instead, you want to raise your hands, close your fingers and continue to push him forward. This will put him correctly to the contact. Here there is great engagement of this horse’s hind leg, and his croup is way lower than the withers. His back, withers and base of the neck are up. With his face in front of the vertical, he is stretching, seeking that frame, flexing in the mouth and getting very round. This is a very collected, uphill horse.
6. This horse is stretching in his topline on a longer, looser rein, which I do only at the end of the ride. He is active behind, really swinging and very engaged. This is between a working trot and lengthening of stride, and the horse is active behind and swinging. My body is well forward so he can use his back. There’s no indication of flat, of short or of hollow.
7. I'm turning to the left in the air over this jump, which is why I'm taking on the left rein. You can see a little rigidity and resistance on the left side of the horse's mouth. He hasn't gotten soft enough to the left rein. If I did this exercise more, he would become softer on that left rein, and there wouldn't be as much resistance in the mouth on that side. Notice that my leg is in about the same place as it was as the trot. My seat is quite high out of the saddle, but I'm not jumping ahead.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.