He's Back! George Morris kicks off Day 1 of the Gladstone Program

He’s Back! George Morris kicks off Day 1 of the Gladstone Program

The 2014 George H. Morris Gladstone Program began yesterday morning – YAY!  The Gladstone Program is an intense week of training and education for talented young show jumping riders that have the desire and dedication to reach the top echelon of the sport and potentially represent the US in international competition.

To qualify for the program, riders must be 18 years or old, and competing successfully at 1.45 meter classes or higher.  They were required to submit an application to be considered, and the finalists were chosen by Morris himself. This year’s riders are: Alec Bozorgi, Karina Busch, Sloane Coles, Katie Cox, Christi Israel, Scott Lico, Maggie McAlary, Jacob Pope, Brittni Raflowitz, and Savannah Talcott.

The purpose of the program is to continue to continue the education of potential team riders while putting a support system in place to help them gain the knowledge and expertise required to succeed at the top level. In addition to daily mounted sessions with Morris, the riders get to spend time learning from a veterinarian, an equine business lawyer, a top level stable manager, and physiotherapist. Riders are responsible for the care of their own mounts, when they are not learning from clinicians or  working on flatwork, gymnastics and jumping with Morris.

And the experience doesn’t end when the week at Gladstone is finished: Each rider gets to meet with Morris during the program to discuss their goals, both short and long-term. Morris will work with them to craft a program that will continue to move them towards eventual international “team” competition, and will remain available to them after the week is over to assist in their continued development.

Mounted Session Day 1 - Flatwork

Mounted Session Day 1 – Flatwork

So, umm, a week with Morris and some of the best support people on the planet?  Individualized coaching and program development with the Master?? Spending a week at the facility that has seen some of the greatest coaches and riding talents this country has ever seen??? AMAZEBALLS!!!

We started the morning bright and early with a presentation by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, author of Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage and Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport — An Irreconcilable Conflict?  I can’t even begin to tell you how amazingly powerful his presentation, Science Meets Art: The Old Masters Meet Biomechanics, was.  To give you an idea, I can tell you I took 10 pages of notes and ordered his books and DVD, If Horses Could Speak,  the second I got home.

 Heuschmann began by stating his position that 95% of what we treat horses for (think lameness, soreness, injections) is caused by poor training.  Yikes!  He then went on to quote from training manuals written by leading equestrian lights such as Gustav Steinbrecht, author of The Gymnasium of the Horse and an early proponent of riding the horse “forward and straight.”  In a nutshell, each of the manuals he quoted spoke of a horse moving in balance, with a soft poll, stretched neck, and soft, swinging back.  To have this in a horse, he said, the rider must have a strong, yet relaxed, seat, and an open mind that is attuned to and listening to the feedback from his horse. (Sounds a bit like what we learned from Anne Kursinski in the report from her Market Street Clinic).

We saw slide after slide explaining the physiology of the horse, and how neck position influences back position and suppleness (or lack thereof) and how back position impacts the ability of the hind end to function optimally.  For example, he spoke about how a braced back muscle (latissimus dorsi) stiffens the hamstrings, causing the hind legs to drag.  If you’re doing dressage, that’s a problem.  Additionally, if the horse’s back is stiff, it impedes the lats, which in turn blocks the forearms from full movement, which slows the front legs down.  Put in practical terms, if you have a slow front end, odds are that’s gonna make getting over the big fences difficult.

One of the most impactful parts of the presentation was when Heuschmann showed a video of a 6-year-old mare that had been lame over for a year and a half.  She’d been presented to a number of veterinarians, who had tried a number of therapies, including injections.  When a veterinarian recommended putting the mare down, the owner brought her to Dr. Heuschmann. The video showed how, when flexed, the mare trotted off, head up and back inverted, at first looking lame in front, then behind.

Over the course of 5 days Heuschmann put her on a longe line with very long side reins.  At first the mare travelled with her head up and to the outside, back inverted, hind legs out behind and off balance to the point of cross-cantering.  As the days passed, the mare’s head lowered, her back rounded, her hind legs swung under and she remained in balance and on the correct lead easily.  The transformation was amazing.

I could go on about Dr. Heuschmann’s presentation for hours, but this post would be a novel.  Let me just say this, do yourself and your horse a favor, go get the book and if you can, the DVD as well.

AND THEN THINGS GOT EVEN BETTER!!! George Morris and Dr. Heuschmann teamed up for the mounted sessions.   George would make a comment addressing an issue with a rider and horse, and then hand the microphone over for Dr. Heuschmann to get his take on what he was seeing.  For example, George has always stressed a quiet hand and the importance of giving and taking with the hand, not just hanging on the rein.  Scott’s grey was a bit inverted and fussy during the walk warmup, and Morris advised him to do a bit more giving and taking with his hands.  Dr. Heuschmann asked Scott to take the contact with his grey, not to pull, just take the contact, and then release the reins down to the buckle, repeating 7 or 8 times.  Sure enough, after several repetitions, the horse began to relax the head down on a loose rein.

George Morris and Dr. Gerd Heuschmann working together to help the riders unlock their horse's backs during the morning session of the Gladstone Program.

George Morris and Dr. Gerd Heuschmann working together to help the riders unlock their horse’s backs during the morning session of the Gladstone Program.

Both men stressed the importance of the inside leg as a means of generating impulsion and bend. At one point George asked Jacob to use his inside leg more to get his horse on the outside rein.  Dr. Heuschmann suggested Jacob put the horse on a circle, using his inside leg in a gentle squeeze-squeeze-squeeze manner, rather than a strong, solid, shoving leg.  This leg-give-leg aid allows the horse to relax the ribcage while moving freely off the aid  He asked Jacob to gently maintain contact with the inside hand, then to flex the fingers and then give, telling Jacob how the inside leg works to soften the horse to the inside rein.

Both men advocated transitions for suppling the horse, because, of Heuschmann stated, “Without suppleness, further training is doesn’t have any meaning.” Morris spoke about longitudinal transitions (think front-to-back, within and between gait transitions) and lateral transitions, meaning circles, turning, and traveling on two tracks.  Dr. Heuschmann recommended medium trot as being the “road to the back.” He told the riders to get their horses stretched, soft in the poll, and then ask the horse to lengthen the stride while staying in rhythm, and then come back in rhythm as well.  He also advocated doing trot-canter-trot transitions as a method of opening up the back and loin. Heuschmann and Morris also discussed the benefits of a proper rein back, again as a tool to encourage suppleness and open up the back.

Morris then said to the riders, bringing our focus to the purpose of this training program, “The jump is a reflection of the walk, trot, canter, and gallop. If the gallop is hard and stiff, the jump will be hard and stiff.”

Perhaps Heuschmann summed it up best when he said, “Why make your horse resist you?  He’s your dance partner.”