Unseasonable Florida heat and humidity were already causing trickling sweat between the shoulder blades of 12 competitive young riders as they tacked up for the final day of the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. In George’s absence, Laura Kraut devised a Nations Cup-style format in which riders jumped two rounds each on the Conrad Homfeld-designed course.
“One of my passions is riding in Nations Cups,” said Laura, an Olympic gold medalist. “For me, that’s just the pinnacle of the sport. We were lucky enough to find all of George Morris’ notes that he would read at every team meeting at every single Nations Cup. Last night, we had an hour-and-a-half session going over George’s thoughts and ideas—and demands. I thought it would be fun to make it a competition because, let’s face it, all these kids are competitive. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t high achievers.”
The 12 riders were divided into three teams each with an Olympian serving as chef d’équipe. Team Red with Beezie Madden included Kelli Cruciotti, Daisy Farish, TJ O’Mara and Ransome Rombauer. Team White with Anne Kursinski was made up of Victoria “Tori” Colvin, Eve Jobs, Danielle “Dani” Roskens and Katherine Strauss. Lauren Hough was at the helm for Team Blue of Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers, Mitch Endicott and Vivian Yowan.
After team members rode the first course featuring 12 obstacles set at 1.35 meters with a time allowed of 76 seconds, Laura critiqued them, offering suggestions for improving their second rides later that morning. She emphasized that the riders should help their horses over the jumps instead of being passive passengers. Whether it was the timing of a leg to urge the horse forward or the artful use of a half-halt, Laura was all about being a smart rider to help the horse prepare for and master each jump. Time and again, concentration was her advice to the young riders.
The First Round
Team Red’s TJ was first up in the irons, and an iPhone recorded the time of his round at 81 seconds. “To have to go first in a Nations Cup is very nerve-wracking and he’s on a young horse,” Laura said, explaining that it was a strong ride on a borrowed mare TJ didn’t know, Gut Einhaus’ Delinda. She thought he could have been sharper between Fence 4B and Fence 5 by giving the horse a good kick to gallop through the long turn. He used his body and balance to help the mare handle the final vertical of the triple combination, Fence 11C. When they landed, he instantly recovered to get to Fence 12 in seven strides. TJ’s takeaway: Increase sharpness and decrease time by urging his horse forward and helping her balance.
Team Blue’s Ailish came in under time at 74, and Laura thought the left-turn gallop after Fence 4B made the difference. Ailish knocked down a rail at Fence 3, a yellow oxer, and Laura suggested she should have given her horse, Whipstick Farm’s Perfect de Coquerie, more encouragement. “A nickel’s worth more leg there and you would have gotten across the back rail,” she said. “When you are in a Nations Cup and there is so much pressure and you have a fence down, you’ve got to stay on it and you can’t lose your focus. You’ve got to think about whether you give him a kick or a cluck or do something different.” Ailish’s takeaway: Maintain focus.
Team White’s Katherine rode her new young Hanoverian gelding, Executive, who was a little strong, although she finished with no faults in 73 seconds. Laura suggested that Katherine not say “whoa” as she was leaving the ground over an oxer so that the horse didn’t think about landing on a back rail. “He has plenty of scope so I don’t think that was going to be an issue, but the time to say ‘whoa’ is on landing,” she said. Laura praised Katherine’s set-up to Fence 5, the liverpool, when she kept control of her horse and made him wait to jump it. He was losing his shape at Fence 11ABC, the triple combination, when he landed and got wobbly, but Katherine kicked him at just the right moment to get his focus on the last fence of the course and get him up into the bridle. Katherine’s takeaway: Avoid voice aids used at the wrong time.
Daisy came in at 74 seconds but Laura said her horse, River Mountain Farm’s Double Play, looked as if he had been against her from the start, and although she did the first line in seven strides as Laura would have recommended for the smaller horse, he wasn’t soft in the bridle. She suggested Daisy work at regaining control after the jumps so she could turn earlier at the ends of the ring instead of pushing her strong horse forward so he could get heavy in her hand. In addition, Laura chided her about the triple, where she knocked down a rail at Fence 11B. “You were riding C before you finished riding B. You sat up and you stiffed him at B and just sat down on it [the jump] behind. The next round, think just maybe use your voice first and then go to the hand and the shoulders to help.” Daisy’s takeaway: First finish the fence you’re jumping.
Mitch rode a borrowed horse, Alexa White’s C’est Blue, who had just turned 7. “When you are riding a young horse, you’ve got to sometimes allow him time to concentrate and get your rideability,” Laura said, adding that Mitch lost the horse’s focus around the turns because he swung wide to set him up. “If I was on a young horse, I would not have trusted that so much. I would have had more impulsion through the turn so I was darned sure I was getting it done.” Mitch’s takeaway: Allow a young horse time to concentrate.
Eve just made the time, and Laura thought her biggest issue was getting her mare, Esprit 373, to coil up or shorten her stride. As the round progressed, the horse became longer, stiffer and more strung out, which affected her rideability. Laura observed that Eve was hesitant to go forward because she lacked control. “She was behind you. You couldn’t put your leg on,” Laura said. “She was stiff and you ended up adding at least one too many [strides] or maybe two too many to the water to cross it.” Eve’s takeaway: Do something. When you ask, ask.
Ransome’s word of the day on her borrowed horse, Stansky’s Mission Farms’ Liverpool, was “passive” after her 81-second ride. “You’ve got to learn to make your horse come back to you,” Laura said. “I’m very disgruntled with the way you rode [from Fence 7 to Fence 8, the liverpool]. If you had been on my team I would not have been happy with you. I could have gone out and had coffee. You need to get over, land and send him. Even if you lose some control on the gallop, you can make it up on the hairpin turn back. Risk it.” Ransome’s takeaway: Work on being stronger within the time allowed.
Vivian rode a big mover, Saddle Ridge’s Ultimate Z, around the course in 76 seconds. Laura told her to think about helping her horse more with her legs to balance him around the turns. “You got wrapped up with too much hand and not enough leg,” she said. “The leg is really important.” She reminded Vivian to keep mentally sharp in the second round—to not just think she had a good first round so she could relax the second time. Vivian’s takeaway: Stay on top of it.
Dani had a refusal at Fence 7, but Laura praised her handling of the problem. “When something goes wrong, you can’t dwell on it,” she said. “You just went right around and came back to it.” She suggested Dani try to be softer on the strong mare, Pablo Mejia’s Dynastic Up, by making her fit the stride in [from Fence 6 to 7] to maintain control. “You have to learn some finesse. You started out so aggressive that you were against her and then toned it down.” Dani’s takeaway: Take soft control from the beginning.
Kelli wowed Laura with her 73-second ride on Serenity Equestrian Ventures’ Wallenberg. “That was a riding lesson,” Laura said. “That was fantastic. You never looked hurried, and that’s the sign of a rider who has confidence and who knows her horse.” Kelli rode forward yet held him together to make him go high over the jumps. Kelli’s takeaway: Cut off more real estate at the turn at the end of the ring so you don’t have to gallop.
Laura praised Lucy for her control after her 74-second finish. Lucy’s horse, Hamlet, hit the water at Fence 5, a liverpool, and Laura suggested she was wishy-washy on the turn after Fence 7 and didn’t get her horse back, so she couldn’t create the impulsion to Fence 8, the water jump. “You never panicked,” Laura said of her approach to Fence 9, but she pointed out that she needed to use more leg coming into the turn on Fence 10. “You thought forward and went forward, but he wasn’t in your hand and coming from your seat and leg. When you came though the turn, you were out in front of him. So you had nothing to work with.” Lucy’s takeaway: Commit through the turn and go forward to fix the water next time.
Tori rode the fastest round of the day at 72 seconds. Laura commended her for a strong ride and for getting Allyson Shyroc’s Whisper Z up and in front of her leg. “He never went behind your leg, not once,” Laura said. “You never lost the connection with him and rode him forward. Your shoulders were back and you were strong through your lower back and your arms never even had to move.” Tori’s takeaway: Give your horse a half-halt or two and set him up so you slow down just a little before the oxer.
Laura said she was impressed with the riders over Conrad Homfeld’s technical course. Added the 1984 Olympic gold and silver medalist: “I think it’s doing its work properly without overfacing anyone or taking too much out of the horses.” After the riders attended team pep rallies and were debriefed by their chefs, they took a short break from the heat. Then they mounted up for round two.
At the end of the first round, Beezie’s Team Red had a 14-point advantage with six faults while Teams White and Blue had 20 faults each.
The second round began with the riders tackling the course in the order of those with the highest to lowest number of faults. “It seems obvious that you can come back in the second round and correct your mistakes and make a better round, but that’s not necessarily the case because you’re dealing with a horse,” Laura explained. “You don’t know if your horse is going to come back and let down and become tired and less sharp, or, in some cases, a hot strong horse might know that something important is happening and get overly strong and anticipate. So it’s not really a given that the second round is easier. In fact, sometimes I think the second round can be even more difficult.”
The first up, Ailish came in at 74 seconds again. She knocked down several rails and rubbed Fence 12. Laura said she had hoped the horse would settle down, but instead he lit up at the gallop. “You could have made him straighter and more focused,” Laura advised. “You panicked just a touch and just stiffed him a little bit.”
Katherine was the only rider to have a clean round, which she did in 73 seconds. Laura praised her for being more relaxed and for timing her voice aids properly. “My favorite part is when you said, ‘Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,’” she said. “You held it and when he went, then you said ‘Whoa.’” Katherine also was lauded for her concentrated control. “He wants to drop his right shoulder a lot. But you then took the time to pick up the right rein and really straighten him and balance him.”
TJ was praised for applying his leg without overdoing it during his 73-second ride. “What you did so well was your ride to the liverpool [Fence 5] because after revving her up and riding through the turn, you then turned the corner and softened her by just using your body,” she said. But then, after Fence 10, he tried to get the mare back, and in the process, he lost impulsion before the triple. “You tried to soften her up and get her back to you and that’s what caused your rail coming in. Just take a breath. Add one more step, get her organized so you have the concentration going into the combination that you need.”
Mitch came in with a time fault at 78 seconds. Laura said he made a dramatic difference after Fence 4 when he put a little pressure on the horse by making a tighter turn. She was impressed with how he gave his young horse confidence. “He rode the water perfectly,” she said. “I don’t think [the horse has] ever seen anything like that, and you were strong and behind him.” She was also impressed that Mitch didn’t panic when his horse made a desperate leap at Fence 10. He got the horse back, kept his composure and successfully jumped the triple.
Eve also finished at 78 seconds, two seconds more than in the first round. “What I love to see is you improved everything from the last round,” Laura said. “You maybe could have cut off a little more space [at the end of the ring]. She made such a big jump on the oxer [Fence 4B], I think maybe you landed and you just didn’t have the control you really needed.” Laura told her to keep riding to the end. “You’ve just got to fight for that last fence. You’ve got to give them that energy to want to clear it. Something in your body has to say, ‘Come on, just one more jump!’”
Laura noticed that jumping the first round took a toll on Vivian’s horse, although they were faster at 74 seconds. “You’re such a great follower of instruction because you did—exactly.” Then, Vivian’s horse started to run out of energy, but she rode him until the last jump, the biggest of the course. “You didn’t give up and you stayed strong and you got there with some energy and you made a nice jump.”
Laura said Dani was tough and focused and her decisions to add power or slow the pace were fantastic on her 76-second round. “There were a couple of places you could have been sharper. Definitely landing from [Fence] 2, you needed to just put your leg on and get over there,” she said, adding that Dani fixed mistakes from the first ride, and they looked like a different horse and rider this round. “You kept her energy, you kept her bouncy and alert and she gave you a great jump. You should be very proud of yourself. That was a great ride and really a good demonstration.”
Although Laura had worried that Daisy would have a time fault because she was trying to soften her ride from the first round, she came in at 76 seconds. Laura was especially impressed with Fence 5, the liverpool. “I thought you did [it] very well because he was wanting to get a little bit stiff again on you, but you softened your hand and you made a nice jump,” she said. “You didn’t take for granted that he was just going to jump it, you put your leg on and made him jump it.”
Ransome made the horse go straight to the jumps and she kept her focus as well as her horse’s. “You looked like a different rider going through the turn,” Laura said. “You feel the difference? Because that’s really important, and that’s just thinking. That’s just making yourself get that done. You did it perfectly.”
Lucy was spot-on with quick reactions without over-reacting. Her horse made a short turn into the liverpool and wanted to jump the water high, so she added a perfectly timed half-halt before the jump. “He accelerated his pace after the water and became a bit more rowdy and difficult to ride,” Laura said. “But you fought for it and you trusted his carefulness and his scope and he gave it to you.”
Laura praised Tori for another great ride with a time of 72 seconds but with four faults. “Horses can make a mistake just like we do,” Laura said, adding that Tori improved her position and took suggestions from Beezie, who taught on the second day of the training session (see “Gymnasticize Your Horse, May 2016), to heart. “Yesterday helped you because you are sitting taller and stronger and you look like Beezie when you go around,” Laura said. “You remind me of watching her, and I think you’ve got that same composure that she has.”
Laura said Kelli and her horse weren’t as relaxed and smooth as in the first round. “This is something good to know about him—that in the second round, you are going to have to work on relaxing him and figuring out how to keep him calm,” Laura said. “I think you gave up when you had 12 [faults] down. Twelve is better than 16! Many times on Anthem I would have a first clear round and 16 on the second.”
In the end, Team White rallied and won with 28 faults. Katherine was the only rider to ride a double clear. Team member Dani rode a 19-fault test in the first round and came back with only four faults in the second round. Eve and Tori rounded out the team’s winning performance. Team Red came in second with 32 faults while Team Blue finished with 41 total faults. The winning team was awarded limited edition George Morris and Rio action figures, all signed by Laura and the three chefs d’équipe.
“I’m thrilled with how it went today, and I thought it was fun to see the team so far behind come forward to win because that can happen,” Laura said. “It gives you that inspiration to know that it’s never over until it’s over.”
Laura said she would have loved to have had an opportunity like the three-day training session when she was young. With Christine Traurig teaching about dressage and flatwork on the first day (see “Develop Your Athlete with Dressage,” April 2016) and Beezie explaining to the young riders how to gymnasticize their horses on the second day and Laura giving each rider helpful tips and suggestions for a more competitive ride, the participants gleaned a wealth of information from the three Olympic athletes.
“I hope George would be proud,” Laura said. “I think he would have enjoyed it.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.