If you told me you were allowed to come to only one day of the George H. Morris Gladstone program, I would recommend that you come on review day, the penultimate day of the program. Review day is like getting the highlight reel from Morris’ masterpiece, Hunt Seat Equitation, condensed into two short segments.
Morris began with a primer on position, saying “Position is a work in progress until the day you stop riding.” George touched on one of his hot buttons first – stirrups. It’s no secret that George prefers the good old-fashion heavy Fillis style to what he calls the “gimmicky” lighter weight or hinged styles that are so popular today. The rider’s foot should be one quarter of the way through, and the stirrup should be at a right angle to the girth.
Morris had the riders lean forward, raise themselves slightly out of the saddle, position their legs just slightly back of the girth, and then sink back into the saddle with the seat towards the front of the saddle. He wanted the upper body slightly ahead of the vertical, at about a five degree angle. The rider, he says, should have posture without being stiff. Hands should be above the withers, fingers closed and thumbs on top, and the elbows should be elastic.
Following the synopsis of position was a review of the training scale. The German scale is Rhythm, Looseness/Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, and Collection. The Morris scale is different. His goes like this: Impulsion, Rhythm, Contact, Straightness, and Collection. With that in mind, the riders were put through a series of exercises designed to move them through this scale, the foundation of all the principles they’d learned during the week.
The first group warmed up in ordinary trot, posting 10 strides and in two point for 10 strides, establishing impulsion and rhythm and working on their position. Following that Morris had them work on a large figure eight, again to establish impulsion and straightness, which in this case meant bent around the curve. Following that they did ten strides of shoulder fore, then ten of shoulder out in both directions. Building on that, they sat the trot and did ten strides of haunches in and ten of haunches out in both directions, confirming the contact and straightness and working towards collection, or the compression of the horse from back to front. (This, Morris tells us, is why draw reins don’t work, as they compress the horse from front to back.)
The second group worked towards the same goals using different exercises. They spiraled in and out on circles at the trot and canter first in one direction then the other, using the both the opening/leading rein and the outside indirect rein against the neck, and their inside leg to regulate impulsion and the correct bend. They also did a shoulder fore to a 1/2 turn on the haunch, then haunches for a few strides before going forward and straight again. Next came trot-canter-trot-canter transitions, eight strides of trot to ten of canter.
Both groups worked counter canter, which is something Morris feels is extremely important for jumping horses. The first group did a series of 8 meter voltes in one direction, then after 5 or 6 circles they changed direction and worked the counter canter. The second group began by cantering in one direction, performing a half turn to reverse with a half pass back to the rail. Then, as they came up the long side they did a flying change back to the true lead, using leg aids only. Finally the second group practiced canter to halt transitions using the pulley rein, a rein aid where the rider fixes the inside hand in the dip just before the horse’s withers while pulling up and back on the outside rein.
Both groups also worked with cavaletti (literal Italian translation = little obstacle). Morris had the riders in both groups work on opening and compressing the strides by going through a series of cavaletti set at three short strides to a steady one stride to a short four strides. The second group went through again on a zig zag, and then opened the throttle, going through with two long strides to a bounce then three long strides. Following this exercise, Morris had them come back through from the other direction doing a short four to a steady one to a short three as he wanted the horses to finish the session on a quieter note.
We did get treated to a demonstration from Mr. Morris himself in both sessions. It’s a treat to watch him work a horse. He’s like water dripping on a rock, he’s that patient as he waits for the horse to accept his aids and buy into his program. I can’t do justice to it with words, so instead I’ll share with you a video I took. Sorry about the quality of the video. Clearly I am in no rush to quit my day job…
Next up: The finale! Today the riders will test the knowledge gained this week over a course of jumps.