Day 4 of the 2015 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session started with these words from George: “What’s easy about this sport is it’s always the same rules.” Riding different horses? Still the same rules, still the same aids, just different levels of application. One of those rules is that if you want to develop a secure, strong, effective seat, you’re gonna need to drop your stirrups.
Morris began by telling the riders work without stirrups in the key to understanding contact, and he reminded them about what he’d said the previous day on the subject. Proper position (there’s that p-word again!) gives you contact from your seat bones, your legs, and your hands. A rider’s seat bones should be fixed deeply into the saddle, as a great deal of information passes from the rider’s seat to the horse, and from the horse’s back to the rider’s seat. The legs should wrap around the horse’s barrel and cling to the horse’s side (not as a drowning man clings to a life preserver, more like plastic wrap clings to a plate of food.) The hands should be carried over the withers and should be holding a relatively short rein. The legs should be pushing the horse towards the frame, with the hands reading to resist or relax (give or take) as needed.
The groups started off in sitting trot to establish the seat, with Morris stressing once again the importance of the inside leg to the outside hand connection and the importance of the outside hand in regulating the horse’s pace and providing directional cues. To make sure to address those points, the riders were told to start with circles on intervals in both directions, establishing the bend and pushing the horse into the hand with the inside leg. Jumpers, George said, could benefit from this exercise as it helps with turning.
Downward transitions educate the horse to the half halt aids, and upward transitions educate the horse to the leg as an aid asking for impulsion. To illustrate this point, Morris had the riders work downward transitions, telling them to sit, stretch, add legs, and resist with the hands, in that order. When the horse stops, relax all the aids to reward the horse.
They then began trot – halt transitions, taking care to apply the aids in the correct order. After several transitions they moved into serpentines, working to keep the inside leg to outside hand connection (yep, that again!) and to maintain impulsion. George also asked them to pay attention to which side was the horse’s softer side. The goal, Morris told them, is to ultimately make both sides the soft side.
The riders also practiced opening the horse’s stride at the trot in order to master sitting a faster pace. Following that, they were asked to use the half halt aids (Say it with me! Sit, stretch, legs, hands. S.S.L.H.) to contract the horse’s pace. Morris told them to think of the horse’s body as an accordion that they were playing.
Next they moved into lateral work, shoulder-in, haunches-in, shoulder-out, so they could play with lightening the shoulders and haunches. “You have to concentrate where the haunches are, where the shoulders are, not where the head and neck are.” Interspersed with the collected lateral work were lengthenings to reward the horses and test the impulsion produced during the collected exercises. Then back to more collected work, alternation shoulder-in with haunches-in, even transitions between gaits within the lateral exercises. “It’s like dancing, you know? It feels like dancing,” said Morris. (I couldn’t but wonder if the kids understood what he meant. I think their idea of dancing and George’s might differ greatly.)
Canter work included canter-trot transitions, canter-walk transitions, canter circles, and spiral-ins at the canter. They also rode serpentines and half passes in the canter to prep the horses for the flying change.
Perhaps one of the highlights of the day was when George hopped on Lucas Porter’s sensitive mare, Georgia. He told the onlookers that with a mare like that, one should sit lightly, still with fixed seat bones, but inclined forward and lighter on her delicate back. What ensued was an inexorable battle of wills. Georgia did not want to yield her mouth. George refused to lower his hands and began doing transitions to encourage her to accept the hands. Georgia didn’t take kindly to the leg. George began a series of zig zags to progressively acclimate her to the leg.
For a good while the mare fussed around the ring looking like an irritated giraffe with Morris sitting implacably in the saddle. He asked her to canter, then to spiral in at the canter, all the while encouraging her to take the half halt. Every now and again it was starting to look like the mare was considering softening. He then worked her through flying changes, telling his audience that horses learn through repetition. It was during these changes that the mare visibly started to accept George, and to work with him. When she rounded and dropped her head, George lowered his hands to keep the straight line from elbow to bit.
Morris brought Georgia back to the trot, where she was much more relaxed and giving with her back. He eventually brought her to a walk on a long rein, letting her think she was finished. Then, to test her, he took the contact again and asked her for leg yields and haunches in to make sure she’d come to a point where she would submit to the aids. Satisfied that he had, for the most part, made progress, Morris gave the mare back to her rider. It was clear that although the mare was opinionated, Morris thoroughly enjoyed his time with her.
“I like horses,” he said. “I like most horses.” And then, because he’s George: “I like very few people.” After telling the riders to go back to the barn to take care of their mounts, he let the onlookers in on one of the reasons he likes teaching. “In teaching, there is one Chief.” Clearly Lucas Porter’s mare Georgia learned that lesson well.
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