When George speaks, horses  -and people - listen!

When George speaks, horses -and people – listen!

Those were the words of the Master as he set the tone for Day 4 of his 2014 Horsemastership Training Sessions.  Its meaning is crystal clear: While many aspire to equestrian glory, very few actually put in the time and effort it takes to really succeed at the top level.

For example, how often do you ride without stirrups?  Once a year?  Once a month?  Every other decade?  George Morris, the ever-spry equestrian master who will turn 76 this February (yep, you read that right – 76?!!) rides without stirrups at least once a week.  So basically, that means the rest of us have no excuses when it comes to this particular form of torture. Suck it up, Buttercup.  If George can do it, well, by George, so should we.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist that!)

So Day 4  found the riders sans stirrups.  Why does George feel that serious riders need be dedicated to practicing riding without stirrups?  Simple – it improves tightness.  Huh?  Tightness sounds counter intuitive when speaking about a sport where “looseness” is considered a virtue.  Yes, says George, and that paradox is one of the many paradoxes found in this sport.  By tightness he means the ability to sit into the horse, and work without stirrups will “vastly and quickly” help with the development of “feeling”, which George says is the basis of all dressage and jumping. (Those of you who had the chance to read my reports on Anne Kursinski’s Market Street Clinic may remember how important Anne felt the concept of “feeling’ was.)

Morris asked the riders to work “half school,” or half the ring, at the walk and immediately start a position checklist , as he is a huge proponent of the “function follows form” school of thought.  He begins with the hands, asking the riders to assess if theirs are up and over the withers, if their thumbs are the highest point, if there is a straight line from their elbow to the horse’s mouth?  Morris reiterated how important it is to never drop the hands. If a horse resists, he said, the rider must close their fingers and legs until the horse accepts the hands.

The riders were asked to halt as Morris advised them to stretch their spine, fix their seat and close their legs so their horses stayed on the bit and thinking forward.  “Incorporate all four parts of your body,” he told them. “Back, seat, leg, hands.”  Sounds like a lot of detail just for walk-halt transitions?  Not to Morris.  In his system, the American Forward System that he is trying to pass along to this next generation of American riders, every moment on a horse is to be spent with carefully thought out precision.

Stirrupless George Morris

Stirrupless George Morris

After testing the gas and brakes at the walk, the riders moved into trot work.  During no stirrup sessions Morris prefers to sit the trot, as he feels posting is too taxing.

Morris advised the riders to sit close to the pommel when working without stirrups to avoid giving the horse a sore back.  He compared the horse to a bridge, saying the front and hind legs are the supporting structures, and the back is the span.  The supports are the strongest part of the bridge and the span the weakest, so sitting against the pommel close to the front span takes stress off the horse’s back, as well as serving to drive the knees down and position the legs back and against the ribs.

At one point Morris related how one of his trainers, 1948 Olympic champion Brigadier General Humberto Mariles of Mexico, used to tell him to “sit over you-know-what over the pommel.”  Kudos to the riders for maintaining their concentration while trying to avoid thinking about Morris’ you-know-what, because the thought and ensuing mental picture certainly caused a blip in my concentration. (Did he really say that?  Am I understanding him correctly?  Giggle. Snort.)

While sitting the trot the riders rode voltes at intervals to test the horse’s response to the turning aids, then moved into trotting a serpentine over 3 cavaletti.  The rhythm of the cavaletti exercise relaxes and gives confidence to the horse.  “Horse training is playing,” said Morris, relating dressage superstar Isabelle Werth is the epitome of playful training without tension.

Isabel Werth having fun with 19 yr-old retired Satchmo

Lateral work followed the cavaletti exercise, and the riders were encouraged to “get the horse dancing in the hind legs” through the use of shoulder fore, shoulder out, haunches in and haunches out in both directions. Morris loves lateral work, saying it serves to collect from back to front by compressing the hind quarters.

Trot work progressed to canter work.  Riders performed transitions between the canter and the trot, with eight strides in canter and 5 or 6 in trot.  Morris exhorted the group to “Make sure the first stride of trot is active!”  A half turn with leg yield to the rail led into work in counter canter.  As the group worked Morris kept up a stream of advice, reminding them that the outside rein is the half-halt rein, and that they should be “desperate” to give with the inside rein.  The riders were told to make a flying change to the correct lead and to repeat the exercises in the new direction.  Morris noted that the changes were much improved over the day before, much straighter and with less bucking up and tail swishing.

During the second group Morris rode a white faced chestnut that seemed disinclined to accept the deeper seat and stronger legs his rider was asking him to.  Morris quickly taught the horse a lesson – that his head couldn’t get higher than Morris’ hands.  After a minute or so the chestnut relaxed a bit and lowered his head, at which point he was rewarded by an immediate giving of the reins from Morris.  The Master noted how he paid particular attention to maintaining the impulsion and activity of the hind legs, as this is what would ultimately break up the “paralyzing”  resistance of the horse. Morris further broke up resistance and gained control of the hind end by placing the horse into shoulder fore and and haunches in.

“When I stretch my spine – that’s why posture is so important – it drives my seat bones into the horse’s back and makes my legs and hands way stronger.”  Morris schooled the horse with transitions to get him to accept the half halt, worked him laterally to gain acceptance of the leg and break up resistance, and directed the audience’s attention the constant giving and taking of his hands.  The give is crucial, said Morris, as it encourages self carriage.  About 20 minutes later the audience was looking at a more relaxed horse, a horse whose hind end was dancing, as Morris noted,  “like Miley Cyrus.” (Yeah, I know, Miley Cyrus is a name I’d never think I’d hear coming from George Morris’ lips).

90 Seconds Without Stirrups from #GHM2014 Day 4

“Don’t be afraid of your aids.” Morris told the group, telling them that many of the “equitators” gave the impression of corpses afflicted with rigor mortis.  In other words, don’t just perch up their looking pretty, be effective in the tack.  Stretch, sit, take, give, inside leg to outside rein, give and take with the inside rein – as he applied each aid Morris would tell the audience what he was doing. When the chestnut objected Morris chided him, saying “I know your tricks. I’ve ridden a few horses before.”

The sessions came to end like many Morris sessions do, with long and low work and many changes of direction to give the horse time to relax, stretch, and absorb the learning.  The session finishes with as much attention to detail as it began.  Because, as Morris himself will tell you, “Every detail of horsemanship, there’s right, and there’s wrong. I have no time for wrong.”

Check out this session, or the other Horsemastership sessions, on USEF Network.