Equestrians are well aware that horse shows don’t always take place under sunny skies and serene surroundings, and learning to deal with Mother Nature was the first major challenge the riders faced during the Day 1 of the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, Jan. 3-7 in Wellington, Fla. With howling winds and cold temperatures, heavy coats were the order of the day for participants and auditors alike while horses bounced exuberantly in the volatile conditions.
The 2012 class of training session participants is made up of the following young talent, who earned their invitations due to a variety of accomplishments:
- Carly Anthony, 21, Redmond, Wash. (Wild Card)
- Natalie Crane, 20, South Dartmouth, Mass. (USHJA Emerging Athlete Program)
- Katie (Katherine) Dinan, 18, Wellington, Fla. (NAYRC gold medalist)
- Taylor Harris, 20, Huntington Beach, Calif. (Talent Search Finals—West)
- Lillie Keenan, 15, New York, N.Y. (Talent Search Finals—East)
- Sarah Milliren, 18, Sapulpa, Okla. (ASPCA Maclay Finals winner)
- Michael Murphy, 18, Apopka, Fla. (Talent Search Finals—East)
- Meg O'Mara, 17, Rumson, N.J. (Randolph College/USEF Junior Jumper Champion)
- Jacob Pope, 17, Owings Mills, Md. (USHJA Emerging Athlete Program)
- Wilton Porter, 17, Bartonville, Texas (Wild card)
- Samantha Ramsay, 19, West Palm Beach, Fla. (Wild card)
- Samantha Schaefer, 18, Westminster, Md. (NAJC gold medalist)
After the first session's start was delayed by an hour due to the miserable conditions, attendees were further disappointed to hear that George Morris wouldn’t be conducting the day's clinic because of illness. In his absence, he asked that Olympian and former Morris protégé Anne Kursinski teach the morning flatwork sessions.
Morris is historically vocal about the importance of dressage work for hunters and jumpers, and as his long-time student, Kursinski mirrored that belief. "I'm a big fan of dressage," she said. "When schooling flatwork, I'm always having a conversation with my horse. It's a time when you should be listening to your horse as much as he's listening to you."
Kursinski emphasized correctness of a rider's position throughout the morning as she coached riders on proper placement of hands and legs, as well as depth of seat. But even more importantly, she described how riders must be effective in the saddle.
"Riding is about more than just position," she explained. "A rider can have a beautiful position, but not be effective. Pretty is as pretty does. Know what's going on underneath you. Some of you from the equitation ranks get this look of riding around like a zombie, like you're not a part of the horse. I want to be one with the horse, like they're practically reading my mind.
"The basics of equitation are great, but, to me, to look good just to look good isn't right," Kursinski continued. "To jump big jumps or go to the Olympics someday, you must be effective. And sometimes this means doing nothing, such as on a sensitive horse. Can you be strong? Can you be light? Can you get them round and supple and balanced? Can you ride the devil out of them over the water if they're scared? To be a great rider, you must be able to do many things, and there isn't just one way to train."
Always, Always, Always: Leg To Hand
An eloquent teacher, Kursinski urged riders to be acutely aware of how their horses use their bodies and take the time to utilize flatwork exercises to improve performance. "How do they feel? Get inside your horse, not just on top," she said. "Use flatwork as an opportunity to learn about your mount, such as which side may be stronger than the other. Everyone's so quick to put draw reins on their horses and strap them down. I've never used draw reins. You can get them going correctly without them."
She instructed participants to strategically use lateral work, such as a shoulder-in, especially in transitions ("to get both horse and rider thinking about the task at hand versus everything else that's going on"), slight leg-yields on canter circles, half-pass, and lengthenings and shortenings to improve suppleness and obedience in preparation for jumping.
"The horse must be sensitive and light to your aids, and you must be effective and clear. That's what makes the top riders great—you don't see what they're doing so much," Kursinski said. "It's the quality of your work, not just doing the work. How is your horse behaving? Is he supple? To me, all my riding is about being correct, balanced and light, so that when we're galloping and jumping, I have to do very little; the jumps almost get in the way. I can lengthen them, shorten them, straighten them, all these things that we do on the flat are exactly what you do when you gallop and jump. Bill Steinkraus always said that you can solve so many problems over fences while on the flat."
Tied Up In Knots
For a new experience, Kursinski asked riders in each session to drop their stirrups and put a knot in their reins as close as possible to the horse's neck, an exercise described by one of the participants as "a revelation."
"Make your knot shorter, shorter!" she exclaimed. "I'd rather have them too short than too long. This puts your hands where they belong. I want long arms and short reins, not long reins and short arms."
Even when re-taking their irons, Kursinski coached riders to keep their seats as if they were still without the stirrups' support. "Stay on your fanny, keep your body back and use your core—when you rock forward, you're not in a strong position," she said. "Melt into their back and keep a 'breathing' feeling with your whole body and in all your aids—when I ride, my whole body is riding my horse's whole body."
Despite progress made during each session, several horses (and riders) continued to struggle with consistent connections. "He looks like a camel!" scolded Kursinski. "Leg to hand! When I just rode, not one time did you see me pulling his head around. Run interference when he wants to come above the bit. Resist with your arms, squeeze with your legs, and push with your seat. And as soon as he wants to stretch his head down and out and use his back, give, because that's also how we want him to jump."
Kursinski viewed each rider's correct use of his or her hands as critical to success. "Work your hands as a pair, and keep your hands no further apart than your thumbs are long—about the width of the horse's mouth," she said. "Never see-saw your hands to get the horse to give. Keep your hands low and firm, not busy. As he gives, I give. When he resists my hand and come above the bit, the correction (and his punishment) is my leg, not my hand. My hands are the last thing I go to.
"It's not just doing the work, it's the quality of the work," she continued. "You're the trainer when you're up there, so you're responsible for how he's working. How the horse goes tells me a lot about the rider."
A Test Of Patience
With the challenging atmosphere, naughtiness was prevalent in several of the mounts. Kursinski utilized the opportunity to teach the riders how to most effectively handle challenging situations. "Is the disobedience a training or physical issue? Very often it's to test or intimidate the rider, but I cannot be afraid or get excited and beat him up. Be demanding in a patient way and always be instantly ready to give and reward. You can't be critical all the time," she explained. "Say to your horse, 'I have all day, and you're going to give to this.’ As Jimmy Williams used to say, 'like a dripping faucet on a rock.’ Just keep asking the question. You don't have to win, just work together."
Kursinski acknowledged that she is firm yet fair in everything she asks of her mounts. "I ask for a lot. I push horses like I push my students, but there's always very much of a reward," she said. "I ask myself all the time, 'How do I get the most out of my horse? How can I be a better partner for my horse?' This encompasses all aspects of horsemanship, not just show ring riding."
The Basics With Beezie
Training session attendees enjoyed an afternoon demonstration by the renowned Beezie Madden, Olympic gold medalist and a perennial force in the show jumping world. Madden reinforced key points in Kursinski's morning sessions about the importance of flatwork as well as correct riding form.
Madden explained an exercise she uses comprised of bridging the reins to help curb much-maligned busy hands. "It can be a habit you don't even realize you do," Madden said. "Bridging the reins helps keep your hands where they belong and also helps if a rider tends to overbend their horse on the inside rein."
Demonstrating a variety of dressage exercises combined with cavaletti to encourage rideability in her mount, Madden continued to stress the importance of taking the time for proper schooling. "Making the transition from hunter or equitation into jumpers starts on the flat," Madden explained. "In your flatwork, strive for power, contact and balance so that you always feel that you could jump a big fence from it, whether galloping or collected."
At the end of the day, the announcement came that Morris wouldn't be feeling well enough to attend Wednesday's session, so Pan American Games gold medalists Kent Farrington and Christine McCrea would be the clinicians for the mounted sessions.
Watch the training sessions live on the USEF Network.