Twelve of the country’s top young riders arrived at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla., before sunrise on Jan. 2 to prepare for the 2013 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. They came from all corners of the country and from leading show barns, some with their own horses and some aboard borrowed mounts.
No grooms or assistants surround them this week; they are responsible for all care of their horses throughout the four-day clinic, and their early start reflected that. They were all turned out and prepared for the 8 a.m. start time in idyllic Wellington, where this year, the weather is cooperating with temperatures in the 70s and a light breeze.
For this, the seventh annual Horsemastership Session, riders earned the privilege to ride with Morris for four intense days by earning a variety of top honors throughout the last 12 months: from the 2012 ASPCA Maclay Finals winner to the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships individual gold medalists.
The list of riders is as follows:
Gabrielle Bausano, 18, of Manhattan, N.Y. (ninth in the Washington International Equitation Classic Finals, seventh individually in the NAJYRC Young Rider Championships)
Olivia Champ, 15, of La Canada, Calif. (Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-West reserve champion)
Meg O’Mara, 17, of Rumson, N.J. (winner of Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Equitation Medal Finals, second in Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East)
Jacob Pope, 18, of Columbia, Md. (winner of ASPCA Maclay Finals)
Dana Scott, 17, of Wilton, Conn. (individual gold and team silver medalist Randolph College/USEF Junior Jumper Championship)
Catherine Tyree, 19, of Chicago, Ill. (third in the ASPCA Maclay Finals, team gold in Randolph College Prix des States Junior Jumper Championship)
Claudia Billups, 18, of Oxford, Miss. (team bronze in NAJYRC Junior Championships, grand prix experience)
Stephan Foran, 17, of Lake Forest, Ill. (2012 EAP Winner)
Ana Forssell, 21, of Petaluma, Calif. (2012 EAP Runner Up)
Frances Land, 18, of Alpharetta, Ga. (2011 team gold and individual silver at NAJYRC Young Rider Championships, grand prix winner)
Abigail McArdle, 17, Barrington Hills, Ill. (2012 NAJRC Individual Junior gold medalist, team gold and individual silver at Randolph College/USEF Prix des States Junior Jumper Championship)
Kilian McGrath, 17, Westlake Village, Calif. (2012 NAYRC Young Rider individual gold and team bronze medalist)
The riders concentrated on flatwork today during two one-hour sessions. Morris, who missed last year’s clinic due to a fairly serious bout of the flu, was in fine form for this year’s sessions, choosing a horse in each group to ride in order to personally display the fundamentals he was teaching. He dialed right into subtle weaknesses (“your horse is dead to the leg”; “raise the hands, raise the hands”; “put your stirrup where I put your stirrup,”) shown by each rider, and he offered up constant reminders on how to strengthen their positions and improve the connection with their horse.
Active Connection, Improved Impulsion
A simple but precise warm-up that concentrated on asking every horse to accept the contact evolved into exercises at the canter and gallop. A steady connection at the walk became strong upward transitions to the trot. With an active connection, the horses’ reach into their strides became more active, with impulsion always improving across lengthening and shortening of the gaits.
Morris also stressed the importance of finishing every ride with a free walk, and he emphasized subtle aids to maintain a consistent connection even when the horses were allowed to stretch and lower their heads. “Don’t seesaw the bit,” he preached. “Keep your hands very steady and just close your fingers if you want your horse to stop shaking his head.”
In Group 1, Morris rode Catherine Tyree’s horse, which had a bit of trouble accepting the connection. The horse gave a big buck and a rear at one point, but Morris quietly brought it under control and used the moment as a lesson in the importance of forward impulsion. He remarked that the horse’s biggest reward, and also its biggest discipline, was always to go forward. “Be tactful but persistent,” he said. “Tact but tough.”
At several points, Morris spoke directly to spectators, who filled nearly every available seat and ranged from teenagers to Olympic gold medalists. He was especially happy to ride participant Ana Forssell‘s borrowed 6-year-old bay mare, which he was sure to point out is owned by his “pet of all pets,” favorite former student Kristine Pfister Stephenson.
He kept up a running dialogue while riding, turning his head slightly towards several audience members as he passed by while displaying a textbook haunches-in along the rail.
“Three contacts,” he said. “There are three contacts, and the horse has to accept that. Hands, seat, leg. The biggest problem I see today is hands doing the riding. Hands too low. I want your hands close together, fingers highest point and thumbs closed.”
Later, “What a horse, what a horse,” he remarked about Forsell’s mare, which he rode in counter-canter in both directions, incorporating lead changes and downward transitions to practice suppleness and obedience.
As he passed Forsell, who stood in the arena watching attentively, a trademark zinger slipped out of his mouth. “You’re very beautiful, my dear. I hope you have a brain,” he said.
Curt one-liners aside, one thing was clear when watching the riding today. The seemingly simple fundamentals of good flatwork are all-important when training the horse and rider.
The 12 teenage participants were attentive, and at times they showed moments of tenseness, but as a whole they rode with confidence and executed all that was asked of them without trouble, proving that they are worthy examples of the United States’ best young talent.
With eyes on every rider, Morris expected nothing less than flawless riding and positions throughout both hour-long sessions. The steady, forward seat he schooled participants on will carry over to gymnastic work on Thursday.
As he watched the riders circle at the canter, Morris’ face lit up with a hint of a smile. “These kids are sharp. They’re sharp,” he said.
Practice What You Preach
After a break for riders to return to the barn and care for their horses, the day concluded with a flatwork demonstration by Anne Kursinski. A longtime student of Morris, Kursinski preaches and practices his tried and true methods known as the American System of Forward Riding.
“Doing flat work is like going to the gym,” Kursinski remarked. She rode a mare she described as a sensitive, red-headed horse that is owned by her own student, former GHM Horsemastership participant Karen Polle. With emphasis on “invisible aids” and a quiet, consistent leg, she rode through flatwork exercises from haunches in to leg yielding, to counter canter.
Throughout the hour-long session, she mentioned the famous horses she rode during the height of her career, and great trainers who she has learned from in anecdotes that always referred back to the exercise she was demonstrating.
“You can do everything from a half-point position if you have a strong base of support,” she said while performing a halt from the two point. She joked about a poor man’s pirouette as she performed subsequently tighter and more accurate ones with her horse. “Robert Dover probably wouldn’t have said those are very good, but with my jumping and galloping that I do it’s good enough,” she commented.
Kursinski used all of her aids to keep her horse animated, responsive and obedient, all the while staying sensitive.
She emphasized that her fascination with dressage, and regular practice of incorporating dressage into all of her flatwork is what helps her win the grand prix over fences.
“The contact is always there and is always changing based on what you want out of the horse,” observed rider Dana Scott when asked what she thought of Kursinski’s position and methods. Every rider had a comment about Kursinski’s ride, including Morris.
“I learned from my pupils. You can see that Anne is at the highest class,” he said. “Her record speaks for itself. She is impeccably turned out, her horse is impeccably turned out. That is the difference between good and great."
Watch the 2013 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions online for free at USEFNetwork.com. Find the complete four day schedule here.
See stories and photos from all sessions of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.