There may be many roads to Rome, according to George Morris, but there are no shortcuts. No gimmicks, either. No draw reins, no ear plugs, no newfangled bits. There is just the classically correct way.
Day 4 of the George H. Morris Gladstone Program dawned wet, cold, and rainy, and we all huddled at one end of the indoor arena bundled in parkas and clutching coffee cups as the riders warmed up. George was sharing his thoughts on the German training scale, which was developed as a guide to offer benchmarks in the classical training of a young dressage horse.
Morris feels that Impulsion, or Schwung (doesn’t it feel good to say Schwung?) should be the primary characteristic on the scale as even with a green horse the first thing you teach is forward, whether you are leading them, loading them, or whatever. Forward comes first. He went on to define the other elements of the scale spending extra time discussing Looseness, the lack of forced constraint, which Morris says is in direct opposition to the tightness produced by draw reins. He also spoke about how the use of draw reins goes against Collection, as true collection is back to front and draw reins work front to back. Morris said that in saying this his intent was not to chastise people, but to let them know that if their goal is classic, correct training, gimmicks have no place in their tool kit.
Morris asked the riders, who were all without their stirrups (ouch!), to feel which side of their horse was the hard, or convex side and which was the soft, or concave side. Horses, like people, have a stronger and a weaker side, and the goal of classical training is to systematically work the horse so that those differences are diminished over time and the horse reaches his greatest athletic potential. And what is the basis of all this training? You guessed it – Dressage! And how do you get nice long legs wrapped around the horse’s side and seatbones that are riveted to the saddle? You take away a rider’s stirrups! “This is where you get good jumper riders,” Morris commented. “Not with the fences, but with the dressage.”
In order to eradicate stiffness in the horse, it’s essential that the rider is supple and not stiff, so in the second session Morris had the riders perform several exercises to loosen themselves up and achieve a more relaxed balance in the tack. Recognize these from your early days in the saddle? My favorite part is when he talks about the “fixity of the seat.” Another fun word! (You learn all sorts of things at a Morris clinic, not the least of which is new vocabulary.)
To work on improving the straightness Morris had the riders counter-bend the horses while riding a 4 loop serpentine, which progressed into lengthening and shortening at in the sitting trot, with 10 strides lengthened and 5 shortened. The riders were encouraged to really use the inside leg to engage the inside hind leg, and then once they felt that engagement behind, to relax the hand to allow the lenthening. Following that they worked on half passes at the trot, positioning the horse bent around the inside leg in the direction of travel, moving forward and sideways with the legs crossing over. Notice the pattern of the week continues – work on bending and supplying, then going forward and coming back, then more suppling.
Canter departs were next on the list, with Morris bemoaning the American habit of hanging on the inside rein during the depart. “Give with the inside hand,” he urged. I can remember the Ah Hah Moment I had while taking a clinic with Irish eventer Eric Horgan. My mare had been popping upward in her canter departs, and he told me to let go on the inside rein, to “open the door” for her. Lo and behold, a much smoother depart. Not surprisingly, it worked for this group as well.
Departures segued into working on straightness in walk-canter-walk transitions, then counter canter, then a series of progressively smaller voltes of 20′, 16′, and 12′. Riders were told to open their inside rein if their horse got sticky in the exercise, which is a precursor to the canter pirouette. Following the volte work there was a bit of work on lead changes to get the riders to work off the outside rein, with the horse straight and coming from behind, and when George spotted Hillary and her horse working hard to get the changes correct, he hopped on the lovely Thoroughbred gelding to help out. That wasn’t enough riding for George, as shortly thereafter he got on Meg’s grey to demonstrate how he gets horses responsive to the leg by practicing turn on the forehand, turn on the haunch, and turn on the center.
The second group was tortured with a lot of posting trot work, as well as an exercise that had them crossing the diagonal in the posting trot, sitting in the corner and going around the ring to the next diagonal, posting that, and so on. Following this was an exercise called a counter change of hand, where the riders went from M at the bottom corner of the ring out to X in the center and back to the long side at F in the top corner. Poor kids, there wasn’t a Boy or Girl Scout among them, as they had such GPS issues over this it gave George fits. Take note: If you ever get to ride with George, know the letters of a dressage ring, not just the letters of the alphabet.
They worked counter bending with shoulders out and haunches out, and then moved into canter work. George advised them to remember to oscillate their elbows, which was especially important when they did working canter to collected canter to working canter transitions. A fixed elbow causes a hollow-backed horse, and tight , hollow backs will eventually cause unsoundess, and that is not something George is willing to countenance.
A few minutes were spent on counter canter and shoulder fore in the canter, and then the horses were allowed to go on a long rein to stretch. The group did some lead changes, transitions within the gait, and turns on the long rein in the long rein to test self carriage and then transitioned down to trot on the long rein for some more stretching before walking out.
“The basis of every horse’s training is dressage. Marcus Ehning and Ludger, every week they have a dressage trainer,” said George, naming two of the greats of the show jumping world.
So that’s it. Go out and lengthen your stirrups, ride some transitions, work on suppling your horse with turns, counter canter, and lateral work, and for heaven’s sake, inside leg to outside rein! 🙂
I’ll leave you with George’s best line from the day: “A horse being on the bit is like being pregnant or not pregnant. You’re not “sort of” on the bit.
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