During the second day of the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, held Jan. 3-7 in Wellington, Fla., riders and horses schooled over basic gymnastic exercises with Kent Farrington, a member of the gold medal-winning Pan American Games team.
As both groups warmed up on the flat with suppling exercises practiced in the previous day's sessions, Farrington added a new twist by instructing riders to deliberately keep their horses several paces off the rail. "I always work off the rail," he explained. "The rail is something I sometimes use to train a horse to help make him go straight, but on a more schooled horse I always stay off the rail so that I know exactly where my horse is and how straight he's going on his own. This gives you a chance to see how much control you really have."
Basic flatwork principles such as elasticity, connection and balance were further established during warm-ups. Farrington asked riders to change their horses' frames, alternate sitting and posting at the trot to adjust tempo, and keep their mounts properly connected from leg to hand.
"You want him to come round from behind, not from his mouth backwards," he instructed. "Practice lengthening and shortening just by changing your seat, and work on slowing down by sitting a little bit deeper. I train the horse not only to my hand and legs but also to my seat and body weight. But watch when you lighten your seat that your body doesn't automatically drop forward. You can ride with a light seat and still be centered on the horse. You don't want to tip forward and lean with your shoulder on the flat because it will happen when you jump as well."
While several mounts were exuberant in the chilly morning air, Farrington said he appreciates horses that think forwardly. "That horse looks like he's falling asleep," he scolded one rider. "I want my horses to carry me straight and forward; all of my horses go forward off the leg. I can't stand riding a lazy horse. If he's unwilling to extend or too slow in the trot, send him forward in the gallop for a few strides, then bring him back. It can't be something he thinks about—if you ask for it, he has to respond."
As emphasized during the first day's flatwork sessions with Anne Kursinski, an effective position continued to be a primary theme. "Having a good strong position isn't about being frozen in one spot. It's about moving with the horse. Don't sit there like a rock on his back," Farrington said. "Don't let your hands drop below the withers, and keep the reins short, with your thumb on top and your hands in front of your body. When you roll your hands, you have no strength."
After trot work, participants moved on to the canter, including using counter-canter. "One thing I always do on the flat is that I'm not scared to work with a little pace. It's very easy to work at a really slow canter until you get a horse well schooled because you're not really going anywhere, but I make sure my horses are just as well trained to an open canter as they are to a very short canter," Farrington said. "In counter-canter, continue to stay off the wall and keep a deeper seat so you have a little more control. Just because you're counter-cantering, the horse should still be able to go forward and come back, just like he does on the correct lead.
"I keep it pretty simple. Training horses is like anything—it's all about being consistent," he continued. "You do the same thing training the same way every single day—it becomes a habit. Horses understand that. If you're changing things all the time, the horses are going to be erratic."
Put Time In At The Gym(nastics)
"These are the gymnastics that I always jump with all my horses," Farrington said as he showed riders several jump combinations he’d set up. "I think almost any successful rider has a foundation of gymnastics and a system that they always use and go back to. If I'm training a horse or struggling with a weakness, I'll usually build it somewhere into the gymnastics. They thrive on consistency that all my horses know very well, so if there's something new I need to teach them or there's something that's hard for them, I'll incorporate it into a gymnastic that they know really well so that they're already a bit comfortable, and then it's easier for me to train them over something more difficult."
First, riders navigated a simple pair of ground poles, set 15 feet about for a simple one-stride exercise. "Break it down—make corrections if need be," Farrington told the group. "You just keep flatting—don't think about it like a jump. The horse is going to do all the work. Hold your position and let your horse do it on his own."
Horses and riders continued with several simple cross-rails with ground rails set 9 feet in front and in back of the fence to bounce in and out, or 15 feet for a one stride to the fence. "These poles help the horse place himself, and it's a good way for me to practice relaxing and letting the horse do all the jumping on their own," said Farrington. "As a rider, you have to have a disciplined eye. It's very easy to just go for the first distance you see, and lots of times in the ring that's what we'll do to make it easier on the horse. But at home when I'm schooling over the small jumps, I work on getting my horse straight and balanced and have it be a really organized school. If you see the distance really far away, just pass it up. Have confidence that something else will show up. Especially in an exercise like this with rails on the ground, you don't have to commit to the first distance you see."
Let The Jumping Begin
As Farrington moved on to two triple combinations, one comprised of verticals and the second a set of three oxers with the same snug one-stride distance between, it became obvious how all the fundamentals worked on so far in the week's training sessions would come into play as the jumping questions became more challenging.
Farrington encouraged riders to continue to be cognizant of their position. "Upper body position is critical through the combinations. Just because you're going to the jump, don't change your body. Just keep flatting as if you're going to do a circle instead," he said. "It's always better to be a split second behind than a split second ahead. Just wait it out and watch in the oxers that it doesn't start to feel like he's hustling through. Keep the same cadence at the canter you had through the verticals—just let him step and stretch over each one by himself. You don't have to leg him for the back rail. Just sit there and let him jump the width all on his own."
Farrington also outlined how the riders needed to use visualization and composure while thinking proactively about their horse's work, rather than just responding to situations. "These jumps are small, but you want to imagine and train him like it's a big fence," he said. "If he makes a mistake, it's no problem. Just break it down. Insert circles, simple changes, downward transitions where needed. No big deal. You're schooling the horse to be better. There's no rush to it; you can take as long as you want and put it in as many segments as you need to make it better. Ride the pattern not as a course, but in pieces. If you feel like you need to organize your horse, that's fine, but don't do it at the last minute. Try to do it sooner so it looks more like it was planned, not like an afterthought."
Farrington explained how he mixes up the same basic exercises with his own horses. "Instead of just cantering after the combination, I'll gallop, collect, turn myself around, gallop down the long side, and then come back," he said. "I'm always practicing opening and closing. These exercises build confidence that you have options open to you.
"This is a basic taste of what I do all the time," Farrington concluded. "It's something I always go back to between shows, and I'm really big on disciplining between the fences. It's very easy to get the horses very well schooled in front of the jump, but what's just as important is that they're really well schooled on the backside of the fence. Put him in position to succeed—be a team with him and build his confidence in you. That's going to make him a better horse."
As Morris was still not feeling well, McLain Ward agreed to take on teaching duties on Thursday.