Cross Country training with Stuart Tinney

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Join Stuart Tinney back in 2004 talking about training eventers, and his secrets to riding Cross Country, successfully. Stuart is still competing at the top, and was a member of our Rio Bronze Medal winning team.

Back to 2004

So where did you discover that ‘re-balance’ was the magic word that unlocked the secrets of cross country?

“Trial and error. I’d ridden to two-star level before I moved from Queensland, where I was born, down to NSW and became involved with Wayne and Vicki Roycroft. A lot of the stuff I did was not too bad, but it was done subconsciously. The biggest thing about working with Wayne was making everything conscious. Where do you take off from? I didn’t know. Obviously I took off from a reasonable spot, or my horses wouldn’t have left the ground. After working with Wayne, everything became a lot more conscious.”

“Then the next thing was to realise what makes a fence work. Why did that one work, and not this one? It’s about thinking, about concentrating. Every jump I jump on cross-country, I analyse. That didn’t feel too good – why not? Canter – was the canter good enough? Was the spot bad? Did I rebalance enough? Was I coming down a hill and I tried to re-balance but I failed. All that happens when I am riding, and it is just a matter of realising over time, what works and what doesn’t.”

Are you consciously doing that as you come to a fence – re-balance, re- balance, where’s my take off point?

“No, that becomes a feel. Once you’ve practiced it enough. What I am trying to do is show riders a way to try and feel it themselves. It is a bit like driving a car, you don’t say ‘oh I’d better brake now’, it becomes a feel but you have to drive a fair bit to get the feel happening.”

“You keep refining it. for example, I took a few young horses out at Sydney, it’s a bit undulating, and it is noticeable when you hit a few hills, on a downhill slope things are not as easy as they are on an uphill slope. It’s all about balancing them, and you want to keep the balance when you run downhill. As they become more experienced themselves they won’t just run down the hill, because at the bottom of that hill will be a double of arrowheads. They start to listen to you more, and they stay better balanced all the time. That happens through training as well, even the horses start to do it themselves.”

Stuart representing Australia at the WEG in 2014 in Normandy

So is the secret more boring flatwork?

“Definitely. If you can’t do a half halt on the flat, you are going to struggle to do one cross country. It does change. You can do a lot of flatwork, but when you go out to jump them for the first time, you notice there is a huge difference between jumping and flatwork. Everything needs to happen quicker, they have to react straight away, whereas on the flat, you actually want your half halt to be a little smooth and nice – not abrupt. Then when you go to jump a fence you find you are way too close to the next one, and you go, ‘quick, wait’ and their reaction is that nice slow flatwork half halt… too late. It is related to your flatwork, but you have to speed everything up. Your reactions have to be much quicker. Again that is influenced by the horse – a good intelligent horse will react much quicker.”

Can you get those reactions happening with poles in a jumping arena, or do you need to get out in the adrenalin powered environment of a real cross country competition run? Or doesn’t the horse know the difference?

“You can certainly get them half way there with the stuff you do on the arena. From dressage to what you do on the jumping arena is quite a big step, quicker reactions. When you take them out on the cross-country, they get better the more they do. I’ve found with my young ones that when I first take them out cross-country, they spook on maybe logs on the ground. You can’t do that on the arena – and that spook might happen right in front of the fence you are about to jump. You do need to get out and do that type of stuff, see new things and different types of jumps.”

“My new grey horse, Dettori, finds logs the most offensive thing, he finds them quite scary. They’ve just got to get used to cantering past a log on the ground, they’ve got to get used to going up and down gullies. Once they’ve got out and done a little bit of that, then the events pretty well do the rest. A different sort of jump here, a different sort of jump there, water jumps … ”

Once that starts to happen do you back off on the amount off jumping you do at home?

“I probably only jump them twice a week at home, and that would move down to once or twice as they get more experienced. When they are at Jeepster’s level then I don’t jump them very much, towards a three day event, Jeepster would jump once a week, but at the moment for instance, it’s dressage every day.”

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Stuart and Jeepster on their Gold Medal winning round at Sydney in 2000

Do they need the jumping to develop certain muscles?

“At the start of a fitness program, it is all dressage, just getting all their muscles working. When you do high enough level dressage they are using quite a few of their muscles. Then they start jumping, which will be really low; we’ll jump twice a week because the jumps are tiny. I’ll work up to jumping two or three times a week at a reasonable level, then I’ll go to an event. It’s gradual with the jumping. Then if I find anything faulty, I’ll work on that.”

“When you walk up to some of those Olympic Games fences they look so enormous that you don’t think it is physically possible for horses to jump them. But that is you looking down into the ditch – on a good horse, when you canter in, they don’t take their eye off the top of the fence, yes they see the ditch, but they don’t look in to see how deep it is, neither do I when I am on course. That’s how I try to train them. It’s the same with showjumpers, they put amazing distractions all over the showjumping courses, to make the horse’s eye go away from the top rail, but the good horses don’t fall into the trap. Think of a showjumping course like Seoul; first just watch the horses jump and they are all focussed on the fences, then after a while you start to look around and see what the wings are made of, and that is amazing, beautiful and stunning, but they don’t look at them. It is the same at the Games with some of those beautiful cross-country jumps, honestly I see them on the video now but I didn’t see them when I walked the course because I was too busy focussing on where the horse should focus. That is what you are trying to teach the horse.”

Stuart and Pluto Mio competing at Adelaide 4*

“These fences can look quite complicated at times, but it is not that difficult, if you look at it as a fence and a distance and a fence, that’s all anything ever is, and then it is quite simple. Sometimes when you are walking a course and you come round the corner and from 30 metres away you think what’s THAT! It will be a house, literally a house; you have to jump up to the top of it and off it.”

“Think about it, if I cantered my horse up the drive to my house would he try to jump on the roof – yet they just look at it as a fence, jump it and go on. That’s what it is all about because they do make them quite spectacular looking sometimes. It is amazing how you can spend half an hour at a fence, examining the angles, the flags are here, the flags are there, we try to work out how to do it and we eventually do – then we come down to the fence with the horse – sure we get them there in a nice distance and a nice pace – but the horse has it sorted out straight away and just jumps through it.”

Has the nature of the game changed with the greater emphasis on showjumping – once upon a time there were those legendary cross country horses that bashed fences all over the cross country track?

“I don’t ride horses that hit cross-country fences, that would make me too nervous. I think if they are hitting cross-country fences they are certainly not going to be very good showjumpers. I think now that we are aiming to get better jumpers, they are going to be more watchful, more careful, and then it is a matter of keeping them confident.”

“In cross country, to some degree there are fences that they have to hit, drag their hind legs over – they certainly don’t have to hit them in front. It’s very hard to jump some of the combinations down into the water, without tapping your back fetlock on something, and if horses are genuinely quite careful, they find that a little bit offensive. It does come down to riding them well, and keeping them confident so that when they do see something big and difficult, they want to have a good look at it. I’ve always tried to ride them as well as I can, if they are seriously uncareful, they are not going to be in the sport for long.”

Are you doing more showjumping now than you did in the past?

“It depends on the horses. The horses I’ve got now are green so they’ll do quite a bit of showjumping. It is difficult to fit it all in. I do take them out to jump club, or take them to friend’s places and jump them there – to simulate going out to compete. I’m happy going to showjumping shows.”

Do you get help with your showjumping?

“All the time. At the squad schools I’ve had help from Alexa Bell, I get help from George Sanna, and Vicki Roycroft’s influence is always there.”

 

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Tell me about the grey horse, Vettori. You’re not worried about him being by the Warmblood stallion, Voltaire II?

“Not at the moment I’m not, he’s a nice mover – he is also out of the Field’s Grand Prix dressage mare, Silver Fern – and he is a lovely horse to ride. He is a nice jumper, and he has just had his first two starts, and he won them both. It all comes down to talent. We went there, looked at the horse – how does it move, how does it jump? How does it gallop? He gallops fine, the speed is fine. Has he got the stamina? He has to gallop for ten eleven minutes … he did six at the weekend.”

You think that with the new CIC format will place more emphasis on rideability?

“Look at something like the Sydney Games cross country track, then take two or three minutes off that, but with the same amount of jumping efforts – that’s the new format- and that just means that you lose all that galloping after the second water. All the jumps are still there, you come round the corner and there is the next one and the next one – there’s no galloping in between, that is the only way to shorten the course. The courses will just become more busy, straight away the horse has to be on the ball, focussed, they can’t have little rests between them. You could catch up at Sydney, if you were on a fit horse you could just gallop that last stretch. The horses you take more time on are generally horses that you have to set up more, get them more organized, they might be the ones with a big bit on – so if you’ve got a snaffle mouthed, easy to balance rideable horse, just gallop down to a fence, set up in two strides, jump the fence and go to the next one. That is the horse that is going to be quicker, that is going to be the horse for the new format.”

Are you worried that the new format will mean that eventing will become more like showjumping and dressage, you are going to need the super freaky horse to win – and that means the good horses will get very expensive and it will be hard to keep them in Australia?

“Probably there is going to be less of a spread of horses competing. Look now, the horses go all the way from Megan’s big horse (Hallmark) to … Megan’s little horse (Jester). You can see lots of different horses in eventing now, with lots of different qualities, or weaknesses. With the new format I think it is going to narrow it down. They are going to have to be fancy horses on the flat, talented showjumpers, and nice rideable horses cross country, I think that takes that variety of horses away, they will still be out there competing, but the big ones won’t be able to gallop fast enough or be manoeuvrable so they’ll lose a few marks on the cross country, horses that are good jumpers but don’t move, are going to be left behind in the dressage.”

“Then you would think that a specific horse that looks very very good for the job is going to be expensive, and some of those overseas riders have huge budgets. When you look back at the successfu I horses over the years, some of them have had a weak phase – there haven’t been a lot of horses in the world that are fancy at all three. It is a tough sport and for a horse to be good at all three phases is very rare – and they are going to be worth a lot of money when you find one.”

1barrellonsideEXERCISE 1: THE BARRELS

“The way the cross country is going is that it is getting more and more technical. It still surprises me, you walk a course and see something difficult or technical, narrow… and you’ll think, wow that is really difficult. You seem to get surprised by it every time. An arrowhead used to be four feet wide, now they can be much less – what does that mean, they are going to end up being four inches wide? So you need to teach our horses to be focussed and straight. When they see a narrow fence they should aim at it and take you over it, that’s very important.”

“Once they are jumping confidently over normal fences, then start introducing narrower ones making sure they stay straight.”

“With green horses start with two barrels side by side. I’ll put two wings on either side. With some horses unless there are wings on either side of the jump, it is great drama for them. If there are two wings, they go between those, no problem. Take the wings away and some of them just go ‘I have no idea of what you are asking: They just get so drilled into what they are doing, so if they can’t cope with the two-barrel thing, then I’ll put wings on either side and then it looks like a jump. Then I’ll move the wings further away, so they are still there but there is a big gap between the drums and the wings. Once they have got that down pat, then replace the wings with rails, then down to a single drum lying down.”

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“It is a step from a lying down barrel to standing up barrel. I start with a big rail on top of the barrel so once again it is like a jump without wings. Then reduce the rail until you are just jumping the drum. When it turns from a narrow rail to a drum, it becomes difficult. You can’t steer them over a drum. If they are crooked or want to drift a bit, the drum is too narrow; they actually have to be aiming for the drum. It is just a process to teach them when the fence is there, they jump it. It is like a normal width fence – you don’t have to steer them between the wings, you come round the corner, and they take you to the centre of the fence, that’s what you teach them. You try to do the same thing with this exercise – you turn around the corner and they take you down to the drum.”

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“If they are confident about jumping three foot three, which is the barrel height, then on average after two or three sessions they should be jumping something reasonably skinny. You’ll get the odd one that will always try to cheat- it will l jump the barrel twice, and then it will run out.”

more arena exercises below


EXERCISE 2: THE SUNKEN ROAD

This is another one you need to work on at home because we don’t get many … I guess we aren’t supposed to call them ‘coffins’ any more, rail- ditch- rails. It is a fence you will find on course, where you jump a fence with something behind it, through a road, over a ditch, any of those sorts of things, but you don’t see a lot of them on our courses. I’ve had a horse that has been eventing for 12 months and he hasn’t seen one.

Whereas in England, if you go Pre Novice, you ‘ll get a sunken road, a rail -ditch – rail two water jumps- not at a big height, but you will always get them on a Pre Novice track. That’s why you need to do it at home. You don’t want to get to your first serious event and find there is some sunken road type thing, and the horse has never seen one before. We like to start them early here; we try to jump a fence with something behind it, so they work out how to focus. Some of the green ones, because you’ve got something behind the fence, they can’t work out how to jump the fence properly, they muck up the fence because they are just looking at the ditch behind it, or they jump the first fence then have a heart attack because there is a ditch behind it that wasn’t there a minute ago.

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The more you do that sort of thing, the less they react when you take them out on a cross-country course. They jump a fence, and there is a ditch, it appears as they take off or while they are over the fence and you don’t want them to have a heart attack and throw their legs down and stifle themselves. You just want them to use their brains and concentrate.

When you first teach them this exercise, the distance has to be reasonably correct, later you can start playing around making it a bit shorter and longer. Quite often the distances on cross country are normal, but the fences might happen on a seriously downhill slope which will make the distance long, or short, so that makes it different. I don’t ever tax the horses too much with difficult distances. A little bit long or a little bit short. You’ve always got to keep them confident.


ditchEXERCISE 3: DITCHES

You can try to replicate a ditch on the arena but there is nothing more impressive than a seriously big ditch. You can build a fake ditch with a tarpaulin, colourful rugs, put a rug over a fence so it looks a bit like a palisade, just something that is going to draw their eye down a little, then they learn not to bother drawing their eye down, they keep their eye on the top of the fence. That’s what you want.

This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of THM. 

Carl Hester – Back in the limelight – Uthopia

Carl Hester’s stallion Uthopia has made a dramatic return. With Carl riding Barolo, that Charlotte previously rode, Charlotte has given a demonstration on Uthopia that has set the tongues wagging. We look back at Carl and Uthopia’s decisive emergence that changed the face of dressage at the Euros in Rotterdam back in 2011 with Carl and Uthopia and Charlotte and Valegro going on to win Gold in London the next year…

It was a sensational Europeans for Carl Hester. Coming out on a relatively unknown young horse, he has firmly established himself as a potential individual gold medal winner at next year’s London Games. As usual, Carl is the journalists’ dream – witty, insightful and oh so quotable. I caught up with him minutes after his triumph in the Grand Prix…

“It’s funny, two years ago we had a course with Jan Bemelmanns, Uthopia was only eight years old at the time, and Jan said, this could be the new wonder horse… I believed it, but it’s very difficult to tell everyone you’ve got a new wonder horse, because if it’s a black wonder horse now, it’s called Totilas. It’s amazing when it comes right isn’t it? I still think I am more emotional about Charlotte and Valegro because I think that is so special, she is so young. I’m glad that before I die I’ve made a decent score, but for me to see Charlotte come through, that for me, was just as pleasant.”

And the score of ten from all judges?

“I thought for a minute that there must be a dog in the arena, or a bird had landed, everyone was laughing. I didn’t know I had seven 10s.”

Carl can’t believe the seven 10s, it was a Championship at the time when seven judges were used and every judge gave the extended trot a 10. Everyone in the crowd, which was largely Dutch, gave a collective ‘aah’ of approval which was quite a loud noise as it was a big crowd. 

Carl and Uthopia receive a standing ovation from the Riders’ stand – you can see Edward Gal, Han Peter Minderhoud, Patrik Kittel and Lyndal Oatley taking a photo

Has Paul Schockemöhle rung you yet?

“I’ve turned my phone off for the day so I don’t get all that rubbish. He’s owned by Sasha Harrison from Northern Ireland and myself, I have a share, and so does her father. I bought him for her when he was four years old.

more on Uthopia follows

“I trained Uthopia from four years old. He was the first horse I looked at, and that was the problem. I was going to Holland for two days, and the first horse I see is this small one. I rode him and he felt huge. No one can believe what he feels like to sit on. He is sixteen hands but he is massive to sit on.”

Was that the best test you’ve ridden on him?

“That test actually felt more controlled than it has ever felt before. I thought in Hickstead, he was almost wildly flamboyant whereas here in Rotterdam, he was so light in my hand. I was a bit worried, ‘god is that self-carriage or isn’t it?’ he was like a little fairy sitting up there, that feels alright, I hope it looks alright. He is so nice to ride, I don’t know what the piaffe looked like, it felt a bit slower, he was just very relaxed. He has that incredible temperament, he walks on a long rein when you’ve done, and builds up when you pick him up. I don’t think there is a better temperament for dressage really than that horse.”

Are there more marks to be had?

“He loves the Special, I love riding the Special. That was the plan, the Grand Prix and the Special. I made some new music last week, I haven’t ridden it yet, so that will be fun. It has been specially written for the Kür. Two weeks ago I rode the Tom Jones Freestyle in Hickstead, and I was sick of hearing everyone saying, please god, not that music again. On Monday morning, I thought, I can’t go to the European Championships with this music, I rang up the guy who does my music, that’s like once every ten years, and sent him the program on Monday, and he sent the music on Friday, I’ve been watching it on the computer every day. It looks lovely, it looks great, but the Special is really what I’m aiming for.”

You’ve had some pretty amazing horses over the years, but is this the highlight?

“Absolutely. The horse I loved to ride as much was Escapado, but I was much younger, much more inexperienced and I didn’t know how to deal with a much hotter horse – it took a lot more knowledge than I had. This is just a pleasure, I can’t believe he is only ten years old, he does it like he’s an old man. He used to be different as a young horse, he’d go into the arena and get so big and bouncy, and he was a bit backward, so we didn’t compete him much, this is only his sixth Grand Prix – it’s still a bit of a learning curve. I am still finding out how to warm him up, I had him out twice today, I don’t normally do that but when you see everyone coming up here in the morning, you panic that you are not doing the same thing… go get him I want to ride.”

And did that big team of psychologist, physio, and press officer and everyone tell you what to do today?

“They didn’t tell me to do anything. I think they know I’ve done it many times. I don’t have a mental health problem and the physio, I said don’t touch me until I’ve ridden because I want to feel the same as normal. The press people hopefully know I don’t swear, and I won’t say the wrong thing. No instructions.”

Do you get a lot of support from the British Olympic committee?

“Not the Olympic committee, but the Lottery Fund. This Lottery funding through Sports UK has been a long-term plan. For someone like me who has to make a living, I have to teach to ride. I can’t just ride horses every day, I have to go away two days a week and teach. For me the support is invaluable, the weeks we are away, I need financial help to keep the whole place going. I bought my own place, mortgage and all, so juggling riding and the bills, without UK Sport, I would struggle. I think we have one of the biggest back up teams in the sport, there is something there whenever you need it. I know we get such a lot of flack, that we have such a big support team, but British dressage has done the best it has ever ever done, and that didn’t happen on its own. We’ve always had good riders, but everyone needs support and now we’ve got it.”

Story: Christopher Hector & Photos: Roz Neave


Looking at breeding a dressage star this season, consider Vitalis or Fürstenball, two of the great stallions  available from International Horse Breeders – www.ihb.com.au

Vitalis

Fürstenball


 

Types of Suppling Exercises by Hilary Clayton

hilaryclaytonHilary Clayton combines her own love of horses and riding, with a rigorous scientific approach that over the last 30 years has showed how superstition and guesswork can be replaced by clear logical thought…


PASSIVE SUPPLING – slow controlled movement to the limit of joint motion through the action of an external force

DYNAMIC SUPPLING – rapid movement of a joint due to active muscular contraction or weight-bearing


For the most part suppling exercises are directed toward the shoulders, hips and vertebral column. In working through a series of suppling exercises, it is recommended that the major joints of the neck and back be worked on first, progressing to the upper limbs and finally the lower limbs. Suppling exercises are described as passive or dynamic; both types are useful and effective in horses.

Passive Suppling

Passive suppling involves a slow, controlled movement of a joint to the limit of its range of motion through the application of an external force. Because the force is applied slowly it avoids stimulating the myotatic stretch reflex, which would result in muscular tension opposing the stretch. When the limit of movement in a particular direction is reached, the stretched position is held for 20 seconds to enhance permanent elongation of the ligaments, tendons and joint capsules. Passive suppling is used as an adjunct to dynamic suppling to bring about long term increases in the range of motion in the neck, shoulders and hips, and to promote relaxation and reduce post-exercise muscular soreness. As with all types of suppling exercises, the tissues should be warmed up before passive suppling is performed. This is best accomplished by a period of exercise under saddle or on the lunge, which means that it is more appropriate to perform passive suppling during or after, rather than before, a workout.

Ventral flexion of the neck is accomplished with the aid of a tidbit held between the horse’s front legs. As suppleness improves, the horse will be able to take his nose further down and back between the legs. For lateral bending the tidbit is held at the side of the trunk behind the girth. As the horse gets more supple it will reach further back toward the stifle. Strictly speaking these are not passive suppling exercises because the movement is controlled by the horse’s muscular activity. However, they are easily integrated into the passive suppling routine.

 

 

 

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Ventral and lateral bending of the neck

The shoulder region and the hip joints are stretched in all directions using a series of passive suppling exercises. The horse should be in a quiet environment, and standing squarely before starting. It is safer if the horse is held by an assistant rather than being tied up. The person performing the stretches should have plenty of room to move around on all sides of the horse. Suppling of the shoulder region involves moving the front leg to the limit of its range of motion forward, backward, laterally and medially, and holding each stretched position for several seconds. The front leg is pulled forward slowly to stretch the elbow and shoulder, keeping the knee slightly bent to relieve tension in the flexor tendons and suspensory ligament. The stretched position is held for 20 seconds. The whole leg is moved laterally with one hand applying pressure above the horse’s knee and held in that position for 20 seconds. It is then pulled backward using one hand above the flexed knee to extend the elbow, and held in the fully retracted position for 20 seconds. Finally, the leg is moved medially, in front of the opposite leg, to its limit of motion for a 20 second stretch. The sequence is repeated in the other front leg.

A similar set of passive suppling exercises in the forward, backward, lateral and medial directions is used for the hip joint. During the forward stretch the stifle and hock are flexed to about 90˚ with the tibia vertical and the cannon bone horizontal. By applying upward pressure on the hock, the tibia and stifle are raised and the hip joint is flexed. In the lateral stretch the stifle and hock joints are partially flexed, and one hand applies lateral pressure above the hock. When the leg is stretched backward the hock is flexed to 90˚ with the tibia horizontal and the cannon bone vertical. Gentle pressure is applied to the front of the stifle, pulling the femur back and extending the hip joint. In the medial stretch the stifle and hock are moderately extended, so that the hock of the stretched leg moves across in front of, and slightly above, the opposite hock. Each stretched position is held for 20 seconds, and the exercises are performed in both hind legs.

forward-and-lateral-movements-of-the-hind-leg-to-stretch-the-hip-joint

Forward and lateral movements of the hind leg to stretch the hip joint

The horse should always be comfortable during the stretching exercises. Initially it may take a few days for the horse to relax during the shoulder and hip stretches, but most horses soon learn to enjoy the procedure. When the horse is rehabilitating from an injury and cannot be exercised, passive suppling is particularly useful for maintaining or restoring the normal range of motion. Under these circumstances, the tissues are warmed up using a heat lamp or hand massage prior to stretching. The joints are flexed and extended as far as is comfortable and held in the stretched position for several seconds. Passive motion, in which the joints are moved slowly but continuously through their range of motion, may also be beneficial, especially for horses on stall rest.

Next Dynamic Suppling follows

Dynamic Suppling

Dynamic suppling involves rotating a joint rapidly through its range of motion due to muscular contraction or weight-bearing, as occurs during locomotion.

Examples of dynamic suppling exercises that are a part of the normal schooling routine include turns, circles, voltes, and lateral movements (leg yielding, shoulder in/out, haunches in/out, half pass). The beneficial effects of this type of exercise are due to the sliding motion of the scapulae across the chest wall; flexion, bending, and rotation of the vertebral column; and swinging the hind legs through a wide arc of motion. Other exercises that have a dynamic suppling effect include walking and trotting over raised rails, gymnastic jumping, working on steep gradients, and riding through shallow water or snow. All of these exercises are associated with active limb flexion and extension through a wide range of motion. Swimming is sometimes used to preserve the range of joint motion, while avoiding weight-bearing exercise. It is a useful form of dynamic suppling during recovery from certain types of limb injuries.

Dynamic suppling is particularly effective for enhancing dynamic flexibility in sports that require rapid movements, and for developing specific sport. However, the rapid rate of stretching favours elastic deformation; indeed, the horse makes great use of elastic rebound to reduce the energy expenditure during locomotion. The long term adaptive response to dynamic suppling occurs slowly over a long period.

forward-and-backward-movements-of-the-front-leg-to-stretch-the-shoulder

Forward and backward movements of the front leg to stretch the shoulder

Overstretching

Overstretching tears the fibres of the muscles, tendons or ligaments, which is a painful process. The risk of overstretching (straining) depends on the temperature of the tissues, the intensity of the stretch, the rate of stretching, and the number of repetitions. Cold tissues are susceptible to strains. The signs of a strain include local heat, swelling, and pain on movement or palpitation. In the early stages cold applications (cold hosing, ice packs) are beneficial, together with rest and the administration of anti-inflammatories as necessary. The severity of the injury determines the length of rest and the need for further treatment. During rehabilitation, passive suppling is useful for preventing soft tissue constrictions that restrict the range of motion. Exercise is reintroduced gradually after the acute phase is over.

Paul Belasik: Why are fundamental problems persisting in elite dressage? Part Two

The Problem:’The hind legs stayed out behind, the hollow back seemingly locked down in all the work.’

In an effort to understand and explain the persistence of certain fundamental problems in elite dressage, I have written a short series of articles. In the first article, I discussed the consistent misunderstanding of bend and its seismic effect on performances. In this article, I want to address hollowness in the horse’s back, which is increasingly seen, and worse, is becoming acceptable in elite dressage particularly as it relates to collection.

(if you missed part one, go here)

I just finished watching a video of two competitive riders on a national equestrian team, riding the Grand Prix test. At the halt in front of the judges, the two horses were practically identical. Both were square, but their hocks were out behind and their backs were down. Throughout the tests, especially at the trot, there was an obvious effort to exaggerate the suspension, but there was no proper engagement. At the piaffe segment, it got worse. The hind legs stayed out behind the hollow back seemingly locked down in all the work. I also watched a lesson with a well-known competitive trainer from the Iberian Peninsula, who was giving advice for making the transition from piaffe to passage, while the rider’s horse was completely hollow. This kind of performance in and out of the competitive arena is not uncommon. So what is going on here? Is it bad riding? Certainly the improperly driving seats of riders who are unbalanced, with their weight falling behind their legs, can drive the horse’s backs down. Overuse of the reins can also stiffen the necks of horses and hollow their backs. However, I don’t think this is the major cause.

GrandPassage

Hollow, grande passage

Is it bad conformation in horses? Over the years, I have measured hundreds of horse’s backs. I believe the length of the horse’s back can have an effect on its ability to collect. The shortest back we ever measured was approximately twenty-six inches. The longest back was thirty-eight inches. The length of the back doesn’t seem to have a relationship to the size or height of the horse. However, it seems that there comes a point when the back gets too long, that the horse will find it very difficult to engage the hips enough for collection. Dr. Hillary Clayton has pointed out that perhaps one of the most important conformational attributes for a sport horse is a forward sloping femur. So, it seems logical that conformation can affect performance However, today we have many examples of well-conformed horses with great athletic ability in many breeds. So, I don’t think conformation is the major cause of this epidemic of hollowness either.

Is it bad training? My feeling is yes. Horses are simply not being trained to come under behind. This training has to start early. When riders and trainers obsess on the front ends of horses, on neck and head systems (either low or high) or bending left and right, they don’t learn to have an awareness or to develop the feel for the really important parts of the horse: those that are underneath and behind the saddle; the parts the rider cannot see. How many Grand Prix riders can more or less execute a trot- halt transition with the head in correct position, yet be unaware that the hocks are consistently buried in the tail and that the back of the horse is hollow?

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illiopsoas

The psoas and iliopsoas are responsible for the flexion at the lumbrosacral area. This is the “sitting” that precedes true collection.

Collection is a technique. In collection, if we draw a line from the point of the buttocks perpendicular to the ground, the hocks and legs need to be in front of this line. Muscles like the cranialis tibialis flex and bring the hock forward, and there is a rotation with the hip as the center. However, it is really the psoas and iliopsoas that are responsible for this flexion at the lumbosacral area. This is the “sitting” that defines the engagement that precedes true collection. I say ‘precedes collection’ because first the horse must be taught to engage the hindquarters and then, as it gets stronger, the rider can increase the actual loading. It is the same as a weight lifter learning proper stance and good technique before trying to lift more weight. When young horses are ridden with low hands and long frames, stretched out on the forehand, the hind end actually becomes lighter. If this goes on too long, the core of the horse gets stiffer and weaker and the balance more and more on the forehand. The horse learns bad technique that affects future collection.

passage

Young horses should learn this technique by being in crisp trot – halt transitions and walk – canter, canter – walk transitions. The rider needs to keep the seat light so that the back of the horse is encouraged to round up as it flexes at the lumbosacral joint, which brings the hind legs under the mass. The rider’s back and core must remain strong to prevent the horse from tipping the rider over or going through the rider’s hands and shoulders. In the beginning, most horses will try to go through the rider’s hands to make an easier transition on the forehand, but if the rider holds his or her position with passively unyielding hands, the horse will learn a different way to halt, bringing its hind legs under its body. The incredible thing is that as far back as the Duke of Newcastle, the value of these exercises was well known.

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To paraphrase the Duke of Newcastle, “the whole object of the dressage horse is to get the horse upon the haunches, and let me tell you the best exercise I know: that is to trot and stop, to trot and stop.” When this exercise is done correctly, and the rider/trainer checks to see that both hocks are inside that perpendicular line from the point of the buttock to the ground, and that there are not walk steps in between the trot and the halt, the horse will progressively stop with less and less weight on the reins, as it balances the weight to the hind. This simple exercise can practically have as much value as piaffe, with the huge advantage that young or inexperienced horses can practice it and begin to develop the muscles and technique necessary for collection.

In the canter-walk transition, it is often easier for the inexperienced rider to feel the sitting or swinging under of the hind end. The rider needs to start in a quiet, ordinary canter. Within one fifteen meter circle, the rider will begin to swing the haunches more and more under through several progressive strides by primarily using the seat and back, adding the legs if the horse ignores the seat. Again, as in the trot-halts, the proof of correctness will be that as the horse gains more strength and learns to use the hindquarters correctly, the rider will feel less and less weight in the reins at the moment of extreme deceleration. Obviously, the timing is critical and needs practice. If the rider interrupts the swinging haunches with a bouncing seat or drives too hard, too early, or too late in the stride, the rider may flatten the horse’s back and punish the iliopsoas and psoas, freezing up the action.

piaffe

This is where modern riders seem to be very weak in theory and practice. Without learning proper form and feeling, they cannot teach their horses to progressively load and carry more weight as the training advances. Instead, as they increase the difficulty of the exercises, all kinds of evasions start occurring in the unprepared horse. Collection is not just squashing of the hindquarters or the lowering of the hind end or the speeding up of the step. It is the swinging under and transference of weight that defines collection. Like the good stance of the weight lifter, the coming under of the hindquarters on command makes the exercise beneficial instead of risky. These are the first steps, as the horse gets stronger, the ultimate expression of this gradual transference of weight is the levade, where virtually no weight is on the forehand. Even ordinary horses with practice can look more elegant as their balance improves.

CIRCLE

The levade

Good riders are receptive to good advice. I am convinced that riders should: 1) use more of these exercises which are easily quantifiable on their young horses (for example: at the halt, check to see if the hind legs are in front of the line from the point of buttock to the ground); 2) spend less time riding too forward with the horses’ necks too low; 3) practice more exercises which start moving the center of mass more to the rear instead of to the shoulders, and 4) spend more time developing their feel and supple strength in the seat so they are aware of what is under and behind them. (Again, can riders tell without looking if at the halt the hind legs are underneath or not?) Then, I think riders would see excellent results and ultimately, so would the rest of us.

For my next article, I will address the elephant in the room: limb deviations.

want to learn more about Paul Belasik? Click

Paul Belasik – Why are fundamental problems persisting in elite dressage?

Talking Dressage with Carl Hester

Jeremy Steinberg – telling it like it is…

 

 

 

Wow – and clinic with Steffen Peters Part 3

 

Any show at SIEC would have been a delight after the gloom of the EI lockdown, it was great just to be walking around the familiar indoor, and meeting and greeting friends… and there were friends from all points of Australia on hand for the Steffen Peters Master Class. 

But this was certainly not just any show…

There are a number of approaches to the Master Class. There are a couple of seasoned performers – like Kyra Kyrklund and Anky van Grunsven – who have turned the Master Class into a polished theatrical performance. It’s just a matter of pay them the performance fee, and press the start button and off they go. And the advice they dispense is all good sense – it’s just not such a great idea to back up for another performance because you are likely to find even the jokes are the same.

There’s the other option where the organizer hasn’t done his homework, and just invites a rider with a big name without checking their coaching or communication skills, plonks them into the big arena and leaves them there to die…been to one of those?

Rarely, very rarely, there is an instructor with a level of concentration and focus combined with a natural ability to communicate, and a degree of self-esteem that does not require showing the world his or her brilliance, who actually trains and coaches. Hubertus Schmidt was like that at DWTS in 2006 – and Steffen Peters is from the same mould.

Right from the start, Steffen set the tone:

“I’m not here to show how it looks in the show ring but the share the knowledge I’ve learnt from my horses.”

Kate Taylor-Wheat’s World Star is still having a few problems with his changes, a stride late with the hind leg – and right away, the big crowd is given a taste of Steffen’s approach:

“If you are dealing with a problem with the flying changes, you can ride all kinds of fancy exercises but if the horse is not on the aids, you are in trouble.”

And guess what, it all starts in the walk…

“In the walk your horse must be 100% sensitive to the leg aid, and stay away from that little kick, the kick gets attention but it is better to close the leg, and if necessary, a touch with the spur. Think about a one-second aid, a calf driving aid – with the spur the emergency aid. In the warmup you are not just working on their muscles – it’s relatively easy to get a horse fit and strong, more important is that he 100% understands what is wanted.”

“Okay right now the horse is too low for competition, and behind the vertical, but when the horse is supple, then we’ll put him on the vertical. The first rule of the training scale is rhythm and suppleness, but so many riders just worry about rhythm. Even a three-year-old must be supple.”

“I like my horses equal on both reins. Some riders say they want them more into the outside rein, I want both equal. When the horse properly learns to yield to the leg, he will yield to the rein…”

It was time to work on walk pirouettes and once again, Steffen was reminding Kate not to let the horse trick her into supporting him with her aids – “it’s a reminding aid, a little strength momentarily, even if we get a trot step, the last thing we want is a lethargic step. If it is not happening in walk, you have no hope in canter. Is he listening to the aid or getting numb to the aid? – that’s the worst scenario. If the horse isn’t responding to the aid, analyse it every day – you can compromise on expression but not on the response to the aid. Even after the horse has just been two weeks under saddle, you should have pretty high expectations about his response to the aids.”

“If the horse has learnt to push into our leg, then it is very hard in a flying change, not to get a late change. You don’t want to have to push every stride, your legs passively there should be enough to move the horse forward.”

next back to walk

Back to walk again and the right walk pirouette to make World Star sensitive to the right leg – and when we go to canter… he gets both his changes clean first time!

“It’s all to do with straightness, if on the diagonal we have to think about ten things, that’s too many things to think about. At the end of the day, the most rideable horse puts in a clean test, and then if you have some highlights, you can score. For example, Floriano did not have a great piaffe, but he made the work look easy, he used his own muscles to carry himself.”

One of Steffen’s techniques was to use the whip as an attention-getter rather than a forward driving aid:

“If he breaks into canter from trot, touch him with the whip – hey buddy listen to me.”

It was time for Steffen to listen to the audiences, and seemingly affected by the quality of the presentation, they were intelligent questions!

Why not two whips?

“I like to stick to the FEI rules, and you can only warm up with one whip. It’s a crutch we can’t use at the show. I like a little more classical approach – one whip.”

Was the walk pirouette preparation for the flying changes something you always do – or just for this horse?

“It’s very individual for this horse. He loves to push your right leg and he can build up quite a bit of resistance, so it was easier in walk, to introduce the lateral movement.”

And if the horse doesn’t listen to the aids?

“Simple, in walk Kate’s horse might be large and beautiful but we also want quick, if you push and don’t get a response, go trot, and if you don’t get the response in trot, go canter. That tenth of a second kick is not so productive, it gets the horse’s attention – What do you want? But he doesn’t flow forward, it’s not a driving aid. Ask a little longer, then passive. Do the movements with the calf on the side, not supported by the spur.”

What do I do if I ask for travers and my horse canters?

“It happens many times. Make sure in the canter aid, you take the leg back and then put it on, a clear canter aid. The aid for travers should be a very gradual movement.”

The next horse in was the baby – Anna Krups’ Reverence F. According to Steffen: “On the first day we worked together, this horse sometimes had too much of a desire to go forward. Yes, for the higher levels, we need a serious go-button, but we also need a brake. Let’s work on the transitions and remember just repeating the transition without correcting, the horse won’t learn. Use your seat and leg, but we also use the rein. It’s perfectly okay to increase the contact with our hands as long as when we release, the horse stays in the same frame.”

Once again, Steffen is using the whip as an attention getter: “If he horse grabs the bit, I’ll give him a little tap. If we give a perfect aid and ask for halt, and he does it two steps later, it’s time for a little tap with the whip. I’m not a great fan of using the whip to go forward. Again, if you are going across the diagonal, and you want to shorten at X, tap with the whip before the transition, get the hindlegs engaged.”

“If you come to a halt and you can’t release, then the halt is not finished. Finish 100%, don’t compromise.”

And when we do go forward, be careful: “Forward is wonderful but it must never be an evasion.

Suppleness and self-carriage come before expression… every inconsistency needs to be corrected.

Stretching means that when you give an inch, he takes an inch; lots of horses use it as an excuse to fall on their forehand. If you go rising, that is no reason for him to grab the bit. If we allow a young horse to run through our hands and just say ‘oh he’s young, give him time’, we make problems for ourselves. You must have certain standards and expectations, don’t compromise. It is so important to have an experienced rider on a young horse to make logical decisions.”

And again the questions were interesting – as were the answers.

You say don’t let your horse go too low, what do you do if your horse wants to go low?

“Well the German explanation is don’t let him. Analyse the horse’s temperament – think about his conformation. Some horses are naturally low, and you need to strengthen the back of horse like that, that horse needs a rounder topline, but he should not take advantage of that. If you go walk to halt, and the horse increases the pressure on the bit, give him a little tap or the horse learns to be numb in the mouth, and they don’t care about the hand.”

“They have to learn to release on the slightest pressure and a little tap can help.”

It is not always physical, it can be mental, the horse learns to evade. The horse can use his muscles to carry himself, or to evade, that’s when they learn to lock up. We are more than happy to give the rein, but the horse must give first. It’s okay to use strength for a second, but get done. Momentarily firm, then release.”

If you get your horse to a competition and it is tight and spooky, what do you do?

“If I take a horse to a show, and it’s not ready, I don’t show them. Expose them to the situation – there’s not a single exercise you can use to improve the horse at the show if you don’t expose them to the environment. When you get to a World Cup final in front of 20,000 people in a tight arena… you need exposure before you go there.”

It was time for Donna Carrera and Rozzie Ryan to join Steffen in the school, and again, Steffen was warning about getting the horse too deep:

“Be very careful not to just get her lower and rounder and softer so that she gets overly round and leans on your hand. Round in the poll but at the base of her neck, no.”

And always the point was made that when you are training you are doing just that…

“If you are approaching a canter pirouette it is so easy to just worry about the movement. NO. The first thing on the training scale is suppleness. The horse must always be perfectly in front of your leg. When we shorten the strides in preparation for the pirouette, the horse must always be in front of your leg. You can compromise on collection but not on the reaction to your leg. The pirouette is counter-productive if the horse is behind the leg – get out of it.”

“Don’t let her trick you into too much leg aids. Ride the pirouette passively and find out if she is becoming more honest. By supporting her a little less, you find out if she is reliable for the show arena.”

Once again, Steffen demonstrated his amazing attention to detail, and I wonder just how much his teaching style had been subtly influenced by that highly developed American style of jumping teaching that is also as picky as hell. Every now and then, it might have been the great George Morris sitting in charge of the microphone.

“In the transition from extended walk to collected walk, she’s discussing it. Don’t discuss. There should be a clear understanding – gently squeeze to the rein, don’t discuss it.”

 

“It is so important to me as a trainer and coach to ask the rider how it feels. It doesn’t matter if it looks good enough to me, even if it looks a 9, if the rider can’t be sure of it in the show arena. A good coach allows the rider to have some freedom. I am amazed when I go to an international show, and there in the warmup arena, the coach is giving a riding lesson – it’s too late for that. The coach is simply eyes-on-the-ground to give the rider confidence.”

“Be careful if you increase engagement and the horse goes rigid, that is counter productive. Increase engagement, increase lightness.”

And remember, this is not a test…

“Instead of riding a bunch of changes and getting crooked, ride less changes and work on keeping them straight. Make a little leg yield and make the horse straight in the change. There, you lost it in the first stride of the diagonal – turn off, circle in the corner and let her know, don’t go across the diagonal when she is against you. Every single issue is a training opportunity. Never in a million years accept that the horse is braced against your hand – not in halt or walk, not in passage or piaffe.”

It was time to try some half steps and once again Donna tensed up: “She’s tricking you into holding – push her sideways, it doesn’t matter if she piaffes in the leg yield, but make her supple – and praise her when she lets go. Prove to yourself that you can establish flexion and release and keep it. The piaffe is good Rozzie but it is too dependent on your aids. Be creative, don’t just cruise.”

“Before you start the half pass, don’t take a chance, make sure the horse is through and supple even if it takes another ten minutes. It’s not expression, it’s suppleness and sensitivity to your leg.”

And sure enough, it was a super half pass.

Again in the piaffe Steffen was asking Rozzie to check the quality of the work: “A passive transition to piaffe. Find out is she is honest, do it with your heels down. You don’t have to teach better piaffe, or better passage, just more reliable passage and piaffe.”

“The essence of dressage is maximum expression with the rider not supporting the horse.”

More intelligent queries:

Do you workout? What is your strategy to stay focussed at a big competition?

“I have a personal trainer and I work out at least twice a week in the gym. We are Olympic athletes… On the day of the competition, I separate myself from the crowd, and look at the arena, and go through every movement and know where the horses strengths and weaknesses are. I’ve done this since I was fourteen or fifteen, my dad taught me to do this with the ponies.”

In the warmup do you do the things you do well or difficult things?

“Usually the things that are easier for the horse. Floriano had difficulty with piaffe, and you’d get a levade if you asked too early, you had to wait til the very end. It was tempting to start piaffe right away, I’d have to say to myself, have patience, it works at home, it will work here. I don’t believe in a long warmup even with hot horses. Always walk for five minutes before you trot. Horses have a certain temperature when they show best – stick to the routine that works at home. It’s all planned, I work to the minute.”

The next horse into the arena was young GB William and once again, Steffen’s attention to detail is to the fore:

“When Glennis first brought him into my class, I looked at the bridle. I always do, if the bridle is not comfortably adjusted, we are not going to reach our goals. But he’s more comfortable without the flash on the noseband, it’s important to recognize that the rider knows the horse better than someone who has just flown in.”

 

“With this horse we spent quite a lot of time getting him nicely forward. When Glennis started she was a bit too accommodating – he likes a lower frame, but when I got on him there was too much in my hands. Since he loves to take advantage of being downhill, we’ll work him in an uphill tendency. And we are working on getting the reaction quicker. We know he can go forward but we don’t know if the reaction is quick enough. In America we have a speed limit, but there is no limit on how fast you can go from 0 to 60! I know he can do 60, it’s how quickly he can get from 0 to 60. Without sensitivity to your leg then it is hard to get collection.”

At every point, Steffen demonstrated what it is to be a thinking rider, examining each and every move…

“When I started with Jo Hinnemann, he asked, which part of your body do you use first? Legs? Seat?? No – the head. Making logical decisions is the most important point.”

What do you do about a horse that is tight in its back – a horse that holds his back?

“Floriano was a little inclined not to yield to the contact, so I rode walk / halt / walk, until he let go the neck and poll. When a horse is tight in the back then he is tight in the neck and poll. Simple, go to leg yielding, half passes in walk, get the horse yielding to the rein, address the back and address the hind legs.”

What do you do with horses that lose the four beat in the walk?

“My helpful hint is don’t buy any horse with a tricky walk. It’s very hard to fix horses that are very quick and horses with a huge extended walk – they tend to be lateral and rush. I’d do tons of transitions – halt / walk / halt, getting them a little more focussed on the rider and not speeding up. The tempo is related to the rhythm. If the tempo is too quick, then problems arrive, I would compromise, open the neck and slow the walk right down.”

You don’t seem to like horses stretching down?

“I never want to see a horse take advantage.”

“Putting a horse together is a bit more difficult than making a horse long.”

“If I get horses that brace up, then two or three times a week, they do nothing but stretching. But you do see a problem with lots of young horses that have been babied too long, and that makes it harder to put them together. It’s very individual, if a horse is too light in hand, and its tail is swishing, that’s the perfect horse to stretch very long.”

By this time, Nadia Coghlan had warmed up her gelding Carlyle, and she was explaining the issues with her horse: “He likes to take charge, he likes to rest on my hands.”

Steffen explained that with this horse, much of the work had concentrated on closing him up, getting his hindlegs under him, and for this he asks for some work in canter:

“See how much he can engage? And his back arches up now and he can’t be hollow. I love warmup in canter – lengthening and collecting. The first few days we were getting engagement, but not suppleness.”

And again, beware of getting deep: “He should go deep and round, but accept the contact respectfully.”

Time for Steffen to get on the horse, and again he was thinking about the contact: “As soon as he releases, I give, I love him to go forward but it must never be an evasion. I must be sure that when I ask for more expression, I still have the suppleness. Bring him back, increase the suppleness, he gives, go forward again. The corrections must be very quick, not strong, but quick.”

“Hot horses need a lot of work on walk, they relax better in walk than trot or canter. It is important not to get after the horse, repeat the movement.”

“When I ask for piaffe, he comes a little behind my hand – I don’t want that. There is no need to use the spur unless he sucks back. There should not be too much lower leg in collection, only upper leg and spur if you need it. Don’t crank your legs, tell him what you want and leave him alone… Ride him every step, the tension builds up with him, and you have to think outside the box. Soft contact and true carriage is always going to be your best friend with him.”

And talking of friends… Do your ever take your horses outside the arena?

“Horses should stay motivated. I like to go on a trail ride to cool them out. I usually work a horse for 30 minutes, but set aside an hour so I can walk outside. The grooms walk them around in the afternoon – just working in the arena is no good.”

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It had been a full session but there was more to come – Steffen was to ride Rozzie Ryan’s Grand Prix stallion, Jive Magic, and once again, the visitor impressed with his determination not to show off the tricks, but to honestly work with the horse:

“He definitely a horse I would ride a little lower – even let him stretch. He wanted to get tight on my left rein, and instead of using my hand, I put my leg on and pushed him over and said ‘let go’. I want to get him over the back, move him a little sideways, then I’m happy to release him.”

 

It was interesting to watch Steffen ride, once the horses realised that the leg was not automatically accompanied by the spur, the dialogue between rider and horse through the leg was very subtle…

And Steffen soon had Rozzie back on her horse, reinforcing the points he had been making all the way through his clinic and the master class. Sure it’s nothing new, but it is sophisticated coaching at a level that we haven’t seen in this country before – let’s hope Emma and Natalie can tempt Steffen out again…

One last thought to ponder: “The horse may relax, the rider never.”

The Basics of Dressage with Christian Thiess: Riding the horse into the outside rein

After the previous article, you know how important, and how difficult it is, to get your horse going straight. This time, Christian Thiess explains the ‘how’ of getting that essential straightness by riding the horse into the outside rein…

As I mentioned previously one of our tasks as riders is, when we encounter our horse’s natural crookedness during the preparation, is to influence them to move straight. The first step in this progress is to make the horse accept the bit evenly on both sides.

Only a horse who accepts the bit correctly and evenly is capable of making further improvements. This is the only way the rider can gain control over the horse’s hind legs and influence them, and therefore the horse, to move straight.

                          Charlotte Dujardin and Barolo – straight

To influence the horse to accept both sides of the bit evenly seems to be a big hurdle for most riders, especially those who find their horse leans on the bit on its stiff side, and feels hollow and reluctant to take a contact on the opposite side. But it doesn’t need to be!

There is good news! There is a riding technique which can help you achieve your goal. The technique is called riding the horse into the outside rein. The German expression is Das Pferd anden ausseren Zugel heran reiten.

How can you learn this technique? Fortunately there are some simple exercises to help. The easiest way is to ride your horse on a circle at walk and engage the inside hind leg through a half parade (half halt – click to go to Christian’s half halt article), and at the same time push the inside hind leg under the horse’s body in the direction of the outside rein.

To do this you will need to apply a lateral aid, which will be the half parade on the inside. At the same time you will have to apply a diagonal aid. This will be the pushing of the inside leg in the direction of the outside rein.

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The aids need to be very similar to shoulder in. In fact, at walk they should be exaggerated and the result should be a shoulder in on the circle. If you are not familiar with riding shoulder in, begin with aids similar to leg yield. This will be the first step towards achieving the goal of riding the horse straight.

Try to offer the horse a firmer contact on the outside rein. Also, try if necessary to increase the pressure of your inside leg until the horse is really bending his inside hind leg under his body in the direction of his centre of gravity (body mass). The inside leg will step closer and in front of the outside one.

At the same time try to use your outside leg to prevent the horse’s outside leg from falling out. Try to keep it stepping in the line of the outside foreleg. In the moment when the horse stops resisting, and engages and bends his inside hind leg, you will feel a wonderful difference. It is almost as if a magical change has occurred. The horse will suddenly flex at the poll and accept the contact with the outside rein. By accepting this contact he will take an even contact on the bit – in other words, he will take the inside rein too. This is essential and is the key value of the technique.

You will feel that you have full control over the hind legs of your horse and therefore you will be able to control and influence the whole horse. You will have him 100% on the aids.

                            Charlotte and Barolo – 100% on the aids

At the trot or canter you should not aim to actually ride a proper shoulder in (or leg yield) on the circle. Instead you should aim to apply the aids in a similar manner to when you ride shoulder in (or leg yield). Emphasize to the horse that he should engage his inside hind leg and push it in the direction of the outside rein. It is most beneficial if the horse comes to a shoulder-fore position.

As a rider it is important to realize that to be able to ride the straightening exercises correctly, it is necessary to be able to apply the aids correctly, especially the half parade inside at the right moment. It is through using the half parade at the correct time that we, as riders, are able to really influence the inside hind leg.

Now that we have looked at the first step in straightening the horse, let us look at some of the problems or resistances we may encounter with our horses. Let’s begin with an example of riding a right footed horse. As you will remember from the first article, the maj0rity of horses are right footed.

                           Right Hind leg  stepping under the body

When you try to ride a right footed horse into the outside rein on the right rein (that is going to the right) you will have more difficulties influencing the horse to engage his right hind leg and step under his body. The right hind leg is the leg which generates all the problems related to the crookedness. But don’t despair. You will find it easier to achieve a contact on the outside rein by using the horse’s tendency to fall over his left shoulder. In this way the horse will look for support by trying to lean on the left rein.

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The right handed horse will try other evasions to avoid engaging the right hind. One is to curl his neck at the shoulder to the right. In this way the horse will increase his tendency to fall over the left shoulder. The rider can correct or limit this evasion by limiting the horse’s neck bend with the left rein contact, combined with a stronger influence of the right leg.

The horse may also push against your right leg with his right hind. Once again, this can be corrected through using stronger right leg aids. If this doesn’t help, you will have to interrupt the exercise and ride the horse forward in an energetic working trot, and do some suppling exercises such as transitions to working canter and back to trot. Then go back to the previous exercises and gradually increase your demands.

Do not despair if the horse does not respond as you wish at the first time of asking. It is worth comparing the horse with a person who is participating in their first aerobics class. At first they are not supple or athletic enough to be able to execute every exercise well. However, over time they improve until not only have they mastered the original exercises, but they can graduate to more difficult ones.

On the left rein with a right handed horses you will have fewer difficulties engaging the left (inside) hind leg because this leg’s joints, ligaments and muscles are already used to engaging and carrying the weight.

However, you may have serious difficulties influencing the horse to bend to the left because his left side is his stiff side. Often the horse leans on the left rein, and riders have problems correcting  this. Also the horse avoids accepting the contact with the right outside rein (because the right side is his hollow side). It helps to apply coordinated half parades inside every stride to engage the horse’s inside hind leg and to try and supple him on the left side.

When your aids are successful (come through) you will influence the horse to stop leaning or pushing against the left rein. The horse will suddenly accept the outside rein and therefore the bit.

You also may have difficulties on the left rein with the outside hind leg, which is the leg which causes the problems by trying to avoid stepping in the tracks of the outside foreleg. By keeping your outside leg firmly behind the girth you should correct this evasion. However, sometimes this will not be enough and more engagement of this hind leg to keep it strictly in the track line of the foreleg will be beneficial.

If your horse ever loses the even contact with the bit through a variety of evasions it is now very simple to correct him. First of all you must understand that when the horse tilts his head, or comes above or behind the bit, or tosses his head, champs on the bit or leans on one side, he is trying to avoid engaging his hind legs and stepping into the contact. By increasing the demands on the inside hind leg to engage more, you will be able to influence the outside hind leg easier. Through controlling the hind legs you will be able to straighten the horse, and as a consequence he will accept the outside rein, and as soon as he accepts this, he will accept the contact with the entire bit. Therefore the evasion will disappear.

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From my experience, riders in England or in countries which have been heavily influenced by English equitation, like Australia and New Zealand, find that riding the horse on the outside rein causes a lot of confusion. Some people believe that it is incorrect to try ride the horse on the outside rein because the horse should accept the bit evenly on both sides, rather than on one side alone. However, it is necessary to understand that the horse cannot accept only one side of the bit. He can lean on one side, but he will not accept only one side in isolation. In other words, if the horse is accepting one side of the bit, he must be accepting the whole bit. Therefore, by riding the horse into the outside rein, we succeed in both straightening the horse and influencing him to accept the contact with the outside rein, and therefore with the entire bit.

To conclude, I would like to re-state the essence of riding the horse into the outside rein:

Through engaging and bending the horse’s inside hind leg, the rider will be able to influence and engage the horse’s outside hind easier and therefore push the horse from behind into the bit. This will cause the horse to accept the bit. Then the rider really will be able to ride the horse, influence him, exercise, bend and model him. The horse is said to be ‘in front of the rider’s legs’.


Working with Champ and Malcolm Barns – Part Two

Words by Chris Hector and photos by Roz Neave

In part one, we left Champ happily lunging with master dressage trainer, Malcolm Barns. This time, Samantha Bartlett is back in the saddle and Malcolm is happy with the quality of the work he is seeing:

“At this stage, I think Sam should be working on straight lines to push Champ forward a bit more. Circles to get him using the inside hind leg a bit better. Using the circle she can get some loosening to the inside.”

“I like the ‘diamond exercise’ – you ride straight from the middle of the short side to the middle of the long side. That makes you use your outside aids to stop them drifting out. I start on this exercise fairly early, but I’m not too demanding at first.”

“Initially with the young horse it is quite acceptable if he has his front out and his hindquarters in. If you are too obsessive with bringing the front in, you may succeed, but you will put the hindquarters out, which is a very bad fault.”

“Slightly quarters in is not a serious fault and you can use that position so that when you go to canter, he is in a position to use the leg you want. Many riders pull the front in and then the horse canters on the outside leg. So you’ve really got to put the front out, but actually you are putting the front in front of the hindquarters. Kyra Kyrkland said that when she came to Dressage with the Stars, that if you had the front out, you were going to lead with the correct leg, and this was quite acceptable with a young horse. You are really opening up his inside so he so he will hit the leg you want.”

“Later when you come more to collection you have to put him more on one track, and when you do have collection, you can start placing his front in.”

“I like the frame Sam is riding Champ in. People are so mixed up in their terminology – particularly in regards to behind the bit and on the forehand. Horses can be very very deep and not necessarily be on the forehand. On the forehand is when they hang and then the centre of gravity goes further forward than it naturally is.”

“Unfortunately some judges can’t see this, if the horse is behind the vertical or a little bit low, they will say ‘on the forehand or overbent’ and it may be neither of those things. It’s a shame, when we get the overseas judges in Australia to help us, they help the A and B judges and not the novice judges. Then the Novice judges try to judge novice classes as if they were judging at Grand Prix standards…”


“Here he is accepting the rein nicely, the ears are pushed away – he perhaps could be a little longer. Here we are working on direct flexion, because this is the roundness through the body as opposed to roundness from side to side of left and right flexion. In fact he could be a little deeper.”


One concept that Malcolm used in the lesson that we found fascinating was that of ‘pushing the ears forwards’:

“You don’t want to try and make the horse’s neck longer by dropping the reins because if you do that the horse will go longer – but longer on the underside of its neck. I think it was Paula Price who wrote something about ‘push the ears away’ – and I thought that is good because riders can relate to that. I don’t mean that the horse has its ears pricked as opposed to being back, but that it is stretching the top line.”

Interestingly, this master of rhythm feels that in the early stages, the horse has no rhythm:

“Initially when you are teaching the horse to become regulated, they don’t learn rhythm, because if you put someone else in charge of them, they would just run. What you are teaching the horse is to be regulated, and teaching that it is perhaps better to have a slower rhythm, than having them too fast. At this stage they might not track up – later as you push them and they get a bit more forwards, they will track up. They can only get as far as a straight line dropped from the nose, and that is as far as they can go with the hind leg, and they don’t really over-track until you can bring them regulated and for that they have to have a slow rhythm. If you try for a faster rhythm at the beginning they won’t move any more, they just go faster and they learn to run.”


“This is what I call a schooling trot, or schooling canter or schooling walk. It is not a medium walk or trot or canter or even a working walk, trot or canted because in both of those the horse is up, that is a competition pace. This is a schooling pace. Here he is very nice and deep.”


“A lot of people, push their young horses, saying ‘come on, he’s not tracking up’ but all that happens is that the horse goes faster and they still don’t track up, because they are not using their bodies.”

“It’s a great help to count your rhythm. I was amazed when I was working in Germany, the children sing, they play the piano or violin, they go dancing, and the rhythm is built in, they don’t even realise they have it, it is almost automatic. As well as that the children go to gymnastics, callisthenics, they learn rhythm from swimming.”

‘Riders can develop that feel by learning to count the outside front leg of their horse. I like to count in sixes: not just ONE/TWO, ONE/TWO because that can speed up and you don’t notice it. But if you count up to six, I find you can hold the rhythm better. There’s one girl I teach, and she was a ballet dancer, and her rhythm is just automatic, she just feels it. And that is what you have to do as a rider, get it automatic in your body, then you can regulate the rhythm of the horse.”


“Sam is testing with her inside rein now, and that is necessary so you don’t hang on the rein. Testing the inside rein shows not only that you are not hanging on to the rein, but also that the horse is moving from the inside leg to the outside rein. Ultimately we want the horse to balance to the outside. So Sam has moved her hand forward to make a loop, later we can test with both reins, to test self carriage, but here we are just testing that the balance is moving to outside from the inside leg.”


“It’s great to see Sam ger her chance with such a nice horse. She came to Oakwood when she was 18 or 19, a really talented kid, and you don’t get many highly talented pupils. We have a large base but the top riders are few. It is wonderful to see her now with such a lovely horse. I hope she just takes him slowly, but she’ll get there – she has had the experience of taking her other horse, Party On to Grand Prix. I think she’ll get there with this one.”

“Sam has had to work her way, which is very different from buying a trained horse. You can buy a trained horse and in five minutes you can ride the thing (Sam would be able to ride it in two minutes!) but training them to get there is very different to sitting on a horse someone else has made.”

“If she keeps going the way she is, she is going to make something very exciting with this one.”


“Sam’s hands are a little bit wide but Champ is a young horse and she has an even contact with both reins. It doesn’t look as if she is pulling on the inside rein. If you pull on the inside rein, it is going to pull the balance to the inside, and you want it to go to the outside, letting him step across with his inside hind leg.”


Christopher Bartle – The Next Step: Part One

BartleOpenerAn interview with Christopher Hector

Photos – Roz Neave, Julia Rau and archives…


Is CB headed for his next success?

It’s now official, Christopher Bartle, eventing super coach, after leading the Germans to two Olympic gold medals (three if not for Bettina Hoy’s blonde moment in the showjumping at Hong Kong) and one silver, has left the mighty German team to take over a consistently under-performing British team. This is the first part of a long ranging interview that began at Pau**** and continued on at Adelaide****. I have left it largely as it happened, since Chris is such an interesting guy with so many fresh ideas, and he also has a very elegant way of expressing himself. – CH


Do you think it is more of a challenge in the UK, and for that matter, Australia, for a coach to work with a group of riders who all have different methods and philosophies, from very good to seriously wacko, where with your Germans they came nicely trained out of a very specific program…

“I think there certainly is an advantage in Germany,  they do have a good basis – I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in GB, it does, and what you’ve got to take in, is if a rider gets to the stage where he or she is of interest to the squad, then conventional or whacko, they clearly have talent and performances, and it would be a mistake to ditch all that, and say, right now you are under my tutelage, and you’ve got to change everything that you have done.”

“Clearly what I’ve got to see is why did their success happen, how far can it be further developed and be produced more consistently. I want to work very much with the existing trainers, and not somehow take over. That system has worked very well for me in Germany – that was one of the first statements I made to the squad in Germany when I started, you’ve got all these good trainers in Germany, why aren’t you using them?”

Luhm¸hlen 13.06.2013 Vielseitigkeit CCI****: Bundestrainer Chris Bartle (GBR) geht mit Ingrid Klimke (in rot) und anderen Reiterinnen den Cross ab (hier am Lotto-Hindernis) Foto: ©Julia Rau Am Schinnergraben 57 55129 Mainz Tel.: 06131-507751 Mobil: 0171-9517199 R¸sselsheimer Volksbank BLZ 500 930 00 Kto.: 6514006 Es gelten ausschliesslich meine Allgemeinen Gesch‰ftsbedingungen

Christopher walks the course with Ingrid Klimke – in the background, famed equestrian photographer, Jacques Toffi cycles to the press room…

“At that stage, the eventers felt themselves separate, they more or less trained by themselves, and then they spent weeks, months in training camps with the team trainer – in a totally artificial situation away from their homes, and I don’t think that worked particularly well. So we changed that, Hans (Melzer, team manager) and I, and used a much more flexible training model, and very much working with the riders’ own trainers.”

“Some riders clearly had very good trainers, and some needed direction to find the right trainer, and as you are well aware, there is a dressage trainer that is right for eventing, and there is a dressage trainer who is not so good for eventing. You need someone who can combine the various elements of eventing, into the package. If I get the job with the British team, that’s what I want to do, work with the trainers, put across my philosophy to the trainers, and clearly to the riders as well. I want a triangular situation where I am the coach overall with the individual riders and their coaches.”

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Was it scary sixteen years ago to take up a position in Germany where they have such a strong tradition of their own? It was much more formal then, than it is now…

“It’s scary to think that it was sixteen years ago. Certainly in my little sphere, we got rid of the ‘Herr’ and ‘Frau’ the day I arrived and it was Chris and Rudi and Hans and co. There is still that discipline, an old fashioned-ness about the Germans that is a positive. They come up and shake hands, and don’t quite salute, but there is no sloppiness and I think that is a good thing – it makes them from a training point of view, good to work with. There will always be some people who question what you say, and I don’t mind that at all, that’s a good thing. Blind faith is the wish of some trainers, but it is certainly not mine, because once the riders are out there, they have to think for themselves.”

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The team, Hans Melzer and Christopher de-brief Dirk Schrade

When you started with the German team, clearly they had good dressage scores, but they tended to fall apart cross-country…

“Actually when you go back to the statistics, and this is me bragging at the moment, I was training the dressage for the Brits at that time, and for five or six years, the Brits were always in front of the Germans after the dressage. The Germans needed to lift their game as far as dressage was concerned, and I had very good allies there in terms of, particularly Ingrid Klimke, and Hans Melzer, who were very pro trying to improve the dressage.”

When did you first lay eyes on this slightly square, slightly balding, rider from the south of Germany…

“Don’t be too negative, he’s a charming guy. Michael and I get on really well. He is clearly an amazing talent. You’ve probably seen the photo of him at the age of ten that was sent to St Georg magazine for George Morris to critique. It’s an amazing picture because you can see his confidence and his eye, even at that point. I met him in 2003, that was when I first saw him in competition – he had some fairly old fashioned Warmblood horses at the time. He definitely had that winning attitude but he was fairly rough at the edges, even though he clearly had that winning streak about him. That was partly because of the type of horses that he was riding at the time. From 2003 to 2009, my rôle was much more keeping an eye on him, taking every opportunity when I saw him at competitions to compliment him and give him ideas as to what could be better, to motivate him to think, basically the team trainer thinks you are a rising star – that’s important for any up-and-coming rider or athlete.”

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Christopher and Magic Michi and Sam…

“I can’t say I had any formal involvement in his training until he joined the squad in 2009 and even then, through all that period from 2009 to 2016, my rôle is very much as an extra to the team the Jung family already has, his mum and dad, and the home team. I don’t try to take over in any way but try to channel my ideas and information as much through his dad as I do directly to Michael.”

Now Michael is riding horses that are generally 75% blood – who effected that transformation?

“I think it was partly by accident and clearly by design in the sense that they could see that the type of horses they had before were not the right ones for the modern sport. As you well know, landing on a superstar is not easy and is often by accident. In the case of Biosthetique Sam it was purely by accident, not a horse that any of us would have put our hand up at the auction to buy. FischerRocana is one that they sourced locally and that was probably more intentional, they went looking for a horse and found her. The idea of having more blood became more clear to them in those first seven years or so. They were getting results, but the Warmbloods were breaking, and just didn’t have that class. I know Michael is looking for more horses right now…”

Olympic Games Rio 2016

‘We will get there’ says Michael Jung – on course at Rio

Four four-star horses in stable…

“But we all know what the sport is like, in equestrian sport you always have to be looking to the future.”

Have you ever seen him ride as rough as he rode at Rio?

“I wouldn’t say how he rode at Rio was rough. At an Olympic level it is technically four-star but it was really three-star, but star levels don’t really count at Olympics. It was an Olympic track and at the end of the day, it was a really clever track, despite all the negatives one could say about it. The fact of the matter is, Michael had to fight for it, it wasn’t just a style competition, and the fact that he can move from being a stylist to making it happen, is what sets him apart from the rest. Yes, I would criticize a rider who was unfair to his horse, but not a rider saying, YES WE CAN and YES WE WILL…”

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The Jung team – father and son,  Joachim and Michael working with Takinou

He was saying it fairly definitely…

“He was saying it definitely, but that was what his horse at that time needed. You had to believe, and if you don’t have that, you can tick all the boxes and you can follow all the rules about how to sit correctly and ride, but if you don’t have that extra yes, we can attitude, then at the critical moment, you will lose it.”

I understand that Hans Melzer’s innovative strategy for Rio was that he was going to send his best riders out first and blast the opposition out of the water – it didn’t quite work that way…

“It was a good plan at the time (he’s laughing) – I think it was an excellent plan, then sadly Sandra (Auffarth) made a little mistake going into the water, lost her position for a split second, and that was critical. That’s what made that course so interesting because you couldn’t afford to make a mistake.  If Sandra had gone out first and achieved what I hoped and expected, we would have blown the other teams out of the water.”

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“The great thing was that Michael set off with his typical attitude, and mine as well, we don’t play safe just because that has happened, we just ride how we planned to ride. Clearly Michael has to make the decisions from fence to fence as to how his horse is going whether he goes the quick way or the long way, he makes that decision at the moment, knowing what the goal is. Certainly our strategy at that moment was that we were still on target to go for gold, not to play safe.”

The French were playing safe…

“They played safe with their third and fourth riders but it is not my attitude, or Michi’s attitude, nor Ingrid’s. Sure you have to make some decisions and my one regret is that I didn’t tell Ingrid to go long at the last water, but there we go, it is easy with hindsight.”


ChrisBartle photoChristopher Bartle – A History

Were you an odd man out when you started eventing, because it was the era in which a leg yielding on the way to the Hunt was considered adequate dressage training, and anything more dangerously liable to ruin the horse cross-country and you were coming from an academic and very serious dressage background…

“That’s right. My mother was very academic and translated a number of the classic dressage texts from French, and Hans von Blixen-Finecke, who was my primary trainer, had been an Olympic Three Day Gold Medallist in 1952 on Jubal, and the other horse he trained, Master Rufus, was ridden by Henri Saint Cyr in the dressage and also won a Gold Medal. Incredible. So that was drummed into me as a kid, that dressage is clearly a sport in its own right, but that dressage comes from the French word, dressur, which means to train, and all the movements we do in dressage have a rôle in equestrian sport outside dressage.”

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Hans von Blixen-Finecke on his way to Gold

How did your mother become so involved – translating some of the great classic works…

“You could either say it was boredom that pushed her in that direction – because she’d sent us all off to boarding school and she wanted something to do – but she was also clearly a very intelligent person and for her, horses were not just about going off hunting, the typical Yorkshire equestrian scene. She always had an enquiring mind, you didn’t do something because you were told to do it, you had to understand, you had to keep asking the question: why?”

“I well remember my mother’s interest in the ‘why’ taking her into physics to understand the principles…”

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Christopher’s Mother…Nicole Bartle

Did she go to France?

“My mother was from Belgium, she was a fluent French speaker from the French side of Belgium. Because of the war, my mother never had the opportunity to pursue her equestrian ambitions, so it became more of a hobby than pursuing her passion as a professional. When we were kids, she went to Nuno Oliveira, one of her first mentors, and he was again, someone who was not just wonderful, but an out-of-the-box character. Then she met Hans von Blixen-Finecke somewhere, and they hit it off really well because he was very much a thinking rider and trainer. He had the same attitude of mind, it wasn’t a case of just doing things because of tradition, you had to be able to answer the question – why?”

 

Were you genetically coded to become a rider-cum-trainer?

“Probably yes in that sense, in that I ended up with horses as a way of not getting a proper job. I finished an economics degree and every year after that my mother used to ask me when I was going to get a proper job, I’d say, next year.”

“To a degree it was force of circumstance that took me down the coaching / teaching road, because I had to finance my competition aspirations, but at the same time, it was something that I really enjoyed: being able to answer the question ‘why’ and explain it better to my pupils. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to have lots of ‘guinea pigs’ – pupils, both horses and humans, who I could experiment with, and each one of them contributed something to what I know now. One never stops learning, so you could say that even now, the people that I help, are also my guinea pigs to a certain extent.”

Bartle and von Blixen-Finecke

Christopher and Hans von Blixen-Finecke

You ended up riding in the Grand Prix dressage at the Los Angeles Olympics, was that just because your eventer was better at dressage than eventing…

“It probably was an accident. Wily Trout was an eventer, and quite successful, then four weeks before he was to go to Burghley, he tweaked a tendon, and in the nine months it took to get him back and in the process of bringing him back, I got bored of doing normal work, and decided, why can’t he do what the dressage horses do? I worked on his flying changes, he seemed to have a talent for piaffe and with the guidance of Hans von Blixen-Finecke in particular and his motivation we started to get there. It was also going to Goodwood one time and seeing Reiner Klimke on Mehmed, and being inspired by what Reiner did, but also thinking I can do what the other ones are doing. For a horse that wasn’t bred to be a dressage horse – in those days, horses were just horses, they weren’t born to be dressage horses or showjumpers, or eventers – he did really well. Sixth at the LA Games…”

ChrisBartleWilyTrout-Mar11

The eventer turned Olympic Grand Prix competitor – Wily Trout

In those days were you an eventer having fun doing dressage, or seriously a dressage rider…

“The thing about dressage is that it is only fun to win, so it was a challenge to get to the top of the mountain, and getting Wily Trout there was quite an achievement , but I was frustrated I hadn’t got to the top of the mountain on the eventing side. The next mountain was Badminton…”

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Wily Trout

And the hero this time is Word Perfect – where did you find him?

“A dealer’s yard. We were stopping the night, attending another event in the area and as one does in a dealing yard, you start putting your head over stable doors. Word Perfect came out, and something attracted me to him. He had a very ‘blood’ looking head, he was probably only three quarters Thoroughbred. He was out of a mare, that if you saw her, you would never believe she could breed a Badminton winner. He was bred more on the jumping side, he was a very good jumper, that’s what attracted me, when I popped him over some fences.”

“I took him home, and regretted for a year, having bought him. I got frustrated with him because he wouldn’t jump a ditch. I’d spend an hour trying to get him over a ditch, he was frightened of them, so I gave him to my wife, Alison, and she played around with him for a year and he turned from an introverted horse with no self belief to one who was clearly enjoying life, and I took back the ride from Alison, and he went from Novice to three-star in one year.”

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Christopher on his way to winning Badminton with Word Perfect

Keep an eye out for part two…

 


Christopher Bartle was also an Olympic dressage star and he is a great dressage teacher. Enjoy this vintage series that will take your horse to Collection and FEI Level tests click 

Read about Hans von Blixen-Finecke here: http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/whos-who/von-blixen-finecke-hans/

George Morris – A celebration – the complete file…

Words – Christopher Hector

The photos are from the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Today is George’s birthday, it’s also the beginning of a week long celebration of George Morris and the training philosophy he has so eloquently espoused over the past half century…

George Morris’ book, Unrelenting, is like the man – astonishing! The darned thing is over 400 pages long, and took up a fair slice of my Christmas ‘break’, that is when I wasn’t flying to Sydney, to watch the great man in person with his best ever team of Aussie pupils, at Vicki Roycroft’s stables.

My friendship with George goes back to 1987 when he kindly autographed his classic Hunter Seat Equitation, “For Chris, A good ‘watcher’.” Thirty years later, the inscription on Unrelenting reads: “Christopher – A great friend who gets ‘it’ and isn’t afraid to say it… Thanks”

George Morris has never made any secret of the fact that he is gay, but as one of George’s star pupils, Chris Kappler points out in his forward, ‘Some will find it surprising to meet George as a fast-living playboy, who, in a time when it was not accepted by many to adopt or pursue a gay lifestyle, comes out in a way that allowed him to abide by the strict boundaries of his professional life, while still exploring his creative, tempestuous, spontaneous self.’

Gay but not exclusively so, and George at the age of 78 still relished the thought that the Wellington social set suspected that he was having an affair with his writing assistant, the ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ Karen Robertson Terry, when she moved in to work on his book.

Indeed the book comes with a warning: this book is a candid portrayal of my life. Innocents and those faint of heart or closed of mind may wish to proceed no further.

At one stage in the book, George estimates that he has had something like 10,000 sexual encounters, and while each and every one of them does not make the pages of Unrelenting a fair few do – beginning with his dalliance, at the age of 19, with movie star, Tab Hunter.

For more information go to The Dancing Horse

George was born into a life of luxury and privilege, of ‘old’ families and glamorous country houses, of hunt clubs and horses – and he soon discovered one of the passions that was to dominate his life. He was lucky in that he met a very great teacher in Gordon Wright. George was desperate to ride but he was also a timid and fearful rider, Wright had the answer:

For my first lesson I was instructed to get on an old school horse, Silver King. He had probably foundered and wasn’t good for much more than slow gaits and tiny fences, but it was the perfect way for me to relax and start at the beginning, learning Gordon’s methods. He started me from scratch. literally from a standstill on Silver King, and taught me basics like keeping my eyes up and focused ahead. His very methodical and technical approach rebuilt my riding and my confidence.

George’s great teacher, Gordon Wright

Soon George was competing in equitation and hunt seat classes with Gordon’s help, but his friend Victor Hugo-Vidal introduced him to the next great mentor in George’s equestrian development – Bertelan de Némethy:

One day Victor told me he’d heard of a man from Europe training horses down at the Rockefeller’s barn in Westchester County and took me down there to watch him. Peering into the schooling ring, I immediately noticed the foreign horseman’s class and sophistication; he wore gloves and longed horses in side reins. He worked horses with snaffle bits doing basic dressage and gymnastic work over cavalletti. It was a different kind of horse training than we’d ever seen before. Victor and I would sit by the hour and watch him work horses.

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In 1952, George won the prestigious Medal and Maclay equitation class at Madison Square Garden, and already some of his life long obsessions were in full flight. One of the great things Karen Robertson Terry has done is collect dozens of quotes from friends, students and associates of George. Winifred Gray was too young to go to Madison Square Garden, but remembers ‘waking up the morning after he won the Maclay and seeing his picture in The New York Times. Then just as I was finishing the article, the phone rang and it was George calling from New York. He said, ‘I won!’ I told him I knew it and that I’d just read all about it in the paper. And he replied, ‘Oh I haven’t seen the papers yet…’ and after a pause, ‘Winnie, look at the picture carefully for me.’ ‘Yes?’ I said. And completely serious, George asked, ‘Are my heels down?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied earnestly, ‘Yes, George, your heels are down.’

Riding Game Cock in a Junior Olympic Jumper Class… and yes his heels are down

Unrelenting, George’s recently published autobiography provides a fascinating glimpse at the American jumping scene, precisely at the moment when the new American style, which was to dazzle the world, was emerging…

Christopher Hector continues his review of the book:

Really George’s equestrian education must have taken place in a golden era of American equitation with some of the most brilliant teachers ever assembled on hand.

When de Némethy decided George needed to ‘learn how to sit’, he was dispatched to German dressage trainer, Richard Wätjen:

‘I wasn’t sure what Bert meant; I was already quite successful at shows, and I didn’t quite know what was deficient with my seat. It didn’t take long for me to understand. I took War Bride to Mr Wätjen’s stable in Bedford, New York, for two months and trained with him. Richard Wätjen was revered above all others as a god among horsemen because of his incredible seat and position on a horse. The German school is, of course, very focused on the development of the seat. I worked with Mr Wätjen on and off the longe line, usually without stirrups, and worked War Bride the entire winter with side-reins to get her to soften and be less high- headed.’

The great German stylist of the seat, Richard Wätjen

‘Many decades have passed since I outgrew riding with draw- or side-reins but at that time in my riding education, it was a good experience to work on my seat, connection and feel… As usual, Bert had been right and my time there was an integral part of my education. Exposure to the German school of riding was invaluable.’

Very early on George found himself ‘magnetically drawn’ to teaching, and his six-year-old cousin, Whitney Ann Harvey was amongst the first of his guinea pigs:

‘The riding lessons were terrifying. One exercise stands out as a least favorite. George would tie the reins at the withers of our ponies, remove our stirrups, and blindfold us. He would then lead each pony to the side of the ring where three fences were set up. He would hit the pony with a crop and we would jump the fences we could not see! If we didn’t do it perfectly we would have to repeat the exercise over again. Years later I broke my arm during this exercise when my horse went one way and I went the other.’

‘George was unpredictable and a perfectionist. He was also by far and away the best riding instructor anyone could ever wish for. We won many blue ribbons and enjoyed being part of the horse world for a number of years.’


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On his first trip as a competitor to Europe in 1958, George was well placed to observe the differences in riding style.

‘The American jumping style was startling to see in Europe in those days and even an uneducated spectator noticed the difference. At that time, there was no opportunity to watch show jumping on television and the crowds at the shows were often seeing an American ride for the first time. The typical European rider rode with a straight back and deep seat, pulling the reins with sometimes hard hands in an effort to get deep to the base of the fence. As the horse left the ground, a rider would often throw his body and kick his lower leg back with a huge, visible effort. Imagine watching a dozen or more riders with that rough style, then watching a rider entering the ring, picking up a gallop with a softness of hand and seat, and seemingly floating around the course like water streaming over stones in a riverbed. Those watching were inevitably struck by the beauty of that flowing, soft style with the rider positioned quietly forward and the horse freed to make his best effort. Not only was it beautiful, our American style was effective, and we gave the Europeans a run for their money.’

The US Team in Dublin 1958 (left to right) Bill Steinkraus (Kasar d’Esprit), Frank Chapot (Diamant), George (Night Owl) and Hugh Wiley (Master William)

From the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com)

Traveling with de Némethy was to travel in style. The male riders were invited to an evening at the McKee Barracks in Dublin, and George who had three tuxedo jackets with him, white, powder blue and black. “I dressed in my powder blue jacket with black trousers and walked down the spiral staircase to meet the others. Bert, standing in the lobby in black tie, took one look at me, pointed his finger up the stairs and simply said, Up! I said nothing, did a turn on the haunches, and headed back up to change into my black jacket.

Two years later, George was back in Europe, this time preparing to ride in the Olympic Games in Rome, and George learned something about the trickery that goes on at Olympics:

‘I learned everyone pays attention when it comes to the host team trying to take a home-field advantage. Frank Chapot told me that he saw exactly the same course as the Olympic course set up forty-five minutes out of Rome at a training stable. Perhaps the Italians had a little bit more time to train over the Olympic course than the rest of us! It’s hard to say for sure, but I learned over time that there are always politics and funny business at the Olympics.’

George was once again battling with his nerves:

‘The night before the individual class I didn’t sleep for even a minute! I paced and fretted all night in the living-room area of the hotel, wearing down a pathway in the carpet. The first horse was slated to go at seven in the morning. there was no qualifying in those days, which meant every rider from every country rode in the individual competition. I finally gave up completely on sleep and before dawn walked down to the Piazza di Siena.’

‘I walked into the Piazza as dawn broke over the stadium, which was lined by tall thin cedar trees and thick grass soaked through from the morning dew. I stood at the in-gate and looked out over the course for the individual show jumping event. The size of the fences was absolutely staggering. In those days, Olympic jumping courses were significantly bigger than even the largest Grand Prix courses, even the Grand Prix at Aachen. The course, to me, looked positively unjumpable. I thought there was no way I would get around. My order in the class was very early, and I knew the turf would be slippery still from the dew and the sun would be coming up over the hills right into our eyes. But there was nothing to do but try my best, even if it was an impossible task. A feeling of dread followed me as I prepared and warmed up Sinjon, convinced the day would be a disaster.’

George got round with 12 faults and was amazed at the cheering from the crowd, until de Némethy told him, he was the first with less than 40 faults. In the end, the locals, the d’Inzeo brothers took gold and silver, with David Broome just edging George out of a bronze medal by one fault. George and Sinjon then were part of the silver medal winning US team.

George and Sinjon at the Rome Games

From the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com)


Home, George realised he wanted more, and walked away from horses to a life in the theatre, joining the school at the Neighbourhood Playhouse:

‘Theatre school was a totally new life for me. We had dance class, acting class, improvisation, and voice lessons. We also took fencing, worked on costumes, props, and sets, and learned about the technical running of a stage production. The Playhouse was a very comprehensive school. Some of my classmates regularly worked out at a gym and I started to do the same after school. Since then I’ve always been someone who makes fitness a priority; I still go to the gym regularly today.’

The George Morris VOICE is a fearsome thing but it is interesting to learn that it did not come naturally:

‘As a teacher, my voice has always been a central part of my identity and livelihood and people tell me it’s my voice that sets me apart at any horse show. But you might be surprised to know that my voice has also been the cause of massive stress and anxiety at times in my life. As a teenager, I was teased about my high-pitched, boyish voice and I retrained myself to speak with a deeper more masculine voice when I grew up.’

George with Beverly ‘Boobs’ Rubin on stage

From the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com)

At Theatre school, George learn to enunciate and project his voice and had many big roles, often singing roles in musicals, but then: ‘All of a sudden, one day, there was a line in a play that started with an ‘h’ sound and when I went to speak, no voice came from my throat, just empty breath – the sound completely stuck in my throat.’

Decades later George leant that there was a tiny gap in his vocal chords, that fatigue caused it to crop up, then anxiety caused it to worsen. George stayed another year in the theatre, and mostly his voice was fine but ‘Always in the back of my mind – and discouraging me from reaching for stardom on stage – was the voice issue. Adversity in your life is often a blessing in disguise.’

Before long, George Morris was not only the most influential of American coaches, but his fame had spread to Europe, and he was soon attracting pupils over there. One of the first was the Swiss rider, Thomas Fuchs:

‘I first saw George in 1979 showing in America, and I remember seeing him schooling horses in the morning and he was always in the counter-canter. I thought, well he must know he’s on the wrong lead and be doing it on purpose! We had a really hard time with the shows in New York, Washington and Toronto, that year. The Swiss team was always last in the Nations Cups. I talked to George a little bit and then organized a ten-day clinic in Switzerland that following year with all the best riders in our country. We became friends and he came back to show a bit and teach for many years. What happened after was that people started laughing at us because we were counting strides and measuring distances on courses and we rode with longer martingales, all because of George’s teaching. In the early eighties nobody measured, so this was really new to us. Good German riders were laughing at us, but then we started to place better and better at the shows. We had quite a few good European Championship results.’

Thomas Fuchs and Diners Dollar Girl

The gold medallist at the Los Angeles Games, Touch of Class, was another that slipped past George. One of his students David Boley turned up with a ‘little, hot, 15.3 hand Thoroughbred mare off the track.’ They tried her, and George delivered his verdict:

‘David, this mare has no scope. Send her to Vince Dugan the horse dealer and let him do something with her. She’s no hunter and certainly doesn’t have enough scope to be a jumper!’

The next time George saw her, Leslie Burr was in the saddle, in a Low Preliminary Jumper class, the ring ‘had a little pond with ducks in it at the far end. For the entire show, Leslie couldn’t get that mare to go down to the end of the ring because of the ducks! She’d jump around the top half of the ring, and would never go down to the bottom. It’s hard to believe it was the same mare that went to the Los Angeles Olympics.’

Joe Fargis and Touch of Class

Bert de Némethy not only revolutionized jumping riding, he also turned around course designing:

‘Before the Los Angeles Games, Olympic show-jumping courses were diabolically large and a completely different sport than the courses at Grand Prix level. It was a total bloodbath! The fences were a foot higher and two feet wider than any Grand Prix, even the Grand Prix of Aachen. When you see the fantastically beautiful jumping courses at today’s Olympic Games, know that it was Bert de Némethy that delivered us into that world. When he designed the courses in Los Angeles, he flipped course designing on its head in one fell swoop. Always obsessed with the strategy of course building from basic gymnastics to Grand Prix, Bert was a genius in the creation of the most complex test of horse and rider. He knew how to challenge the scope, strength and guts of a horse and rider while also testing intelligence and quick thinking when it came to precision, speed, turns and judgement. Bert de Némethy single-handedly took Olympic course building from the historically huge, solid and dangerous to the extremely technical, varied courses we see in international championships today.’

Read on for Armand Leone’s tribute to George…

Despite missing out on Diester, Armand Leone pays fulsome tribute to George’s role:

‘George’s biggest contribution, in my opinion, was how he developed so many great women riders. One of his greatest talents was helping riders overcome stage fright. George had to overcome it himself. It was very simple: you make a plan, your work on that plan and focus on it, then you don’t have time to be nervous! He was able to address and understand both the psychological fear of making mistakes, which most everyone has, and the physical fear of being hurt. He was able to inspire riders to rise above their self-imposed limitations and insecurities. He pushed students out of their comfort zone and instilled a certain drive and aggressiveness in women in particular, to enable them to become the world’s greatest generation of riders – the Katie Prudents, the Leslie Burr Howards and the Melanie Smith Taylors. When you think about it, George was very central to women excelling in the sport of showjumping during a time when women were still redefining their role in our country.’

It was a two-way street, Katie tried to help George out when he made his return to top level jumping in 1988 when he rode Rio to victory in the du Maurier Inrternational at Calgary, at that time the richest show jumping class in the world:

‘George and I joke about that day, because I was trying to help school him in the warm-up ring before the second round of the du Maurier. I was talking through some of the lines on the course, and George was so focused on what he wanted to do in the ring that he barked back to me, ‘Stop it, I can’t listen to this! I know what I’m going to do.’ And he was right. He was in the zone. The second round was a lot of pressure but he rode it beautifully. After he won, I told him he was just the absolute worst student, talking back to me like that.’

George and Rio win the Grand Prix of Calgary

From the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

American dressage coach, Robert Dover based himself for a while at Hunterdon and he and George would endlessly discuss half halts.

‘I put George on my Grand Prix dressage horse more than once. Even though he wasn’t as practiced in a classical dressage seat because he was always riding hunt seat and the jumpers, within five minutes he could do the entire Grand Prix on my horse. It didn’t matter if it was an easy horse or a hard horse. He’d ridden with top dressage people in his life and he had such a strong feel that he was able to look very good. He delighted in the advanced movements: the piaffe, the passage, the pirouettes, the tempi changes – all thrilled him.’

And it would seem George was something of a match-maker, Robert again:

‘I rode up one day into the arena at Hunterdon. It was a very hot day and some riders were jumping inside to get out of the hot sun. There was a young guy setting up jumps in the arena that caught my eye. I rode right past him and up to George and asked, ‘George, I just have one question: who in the hell is THAT? He said, ‘That’s Robert Ross and he’s here from California for a clinic.’ Later that evening, I promptly invited myself over to George’s pool party the next day. And that was the beginning of a twenty-seven-year long relationship with Robert Ross. Now we’re married.’

George admits that being gay was not entirely easy:

‘Today it’s quite different in that being gay is very accepted, but the feeling of being stigmatized – being an aberration from the norm – never stops, no matter how respected you are in your field. Despite my unapologetic stance that I’d held onto since the late fifties, I’ve struggled through my entire life with not feeling entirely comfortable in either straight or gay society in America. Most often, I feel at home with certain special people in my life or groups of friends who seem to strike the balance between the two worlds with intelligence and open-mindedness.’

George was one of the selectors of the team for the first ever WEG in 1990 and in the middle of a huge dispute as to whether Debbie Dolan or Anne Kursinski should be in the team. Eventually Anne was selected and a law suit ensued and the equestrian community sadly divided. It lead to an entirely objective selection system – which just did not work – before a combination of objective and subjective evolved as Anne Kursinki explains:

‘During Bert de Némethy’s era as Chef d’Equipe, the selection of the team was always subjective. This system worked because the pool of horses and riders who the experience to compete at international level was so small. This system continued when Frank Chapot took over. However, as the pool of riders grew so did the problems of selection.’

‘Looking back, perhaps things did need to be shaken up a little bit – not necessarily how the teams were selected, but just in transparency of the process. Everyone wants to have the best team they can but some people felt they were in the dark as to how decisions were being made. Of course, the lawsuit itself was a result of strong feelings that the decision was unfair, specifically for the Stockholm team. However, I think that reaction was partly due to a lack of understanding about how the decision was made and why.’

‘The whole shake-up resulted in almost complete objectivity in the selection process for years afterward, to avoid the appearance or accusation of any unfairness. We had some very good teams in those years, but there were also instances where using objective scoring didn’t produce the best possible team.’

‘There are always factors that come into play over the months leading up to a big event. Today, we have a great system where there’s objectivity to create long lists of candidates and some subjectivity as well in the final choices. It’s all spelled out and there is excellent communication about the process. In the end, subjectivity can be used as long as its defined carefully how, when, and why it’s being used.’

Ann Kursinski and Starman at the 1990 WEG

From the book UNRELENTING by George H. Morris with Karen Robertson and used with permission of Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

George Morris will not tolerate slackness. Chris Kappler recalls:

‘I recall George came home from Europe and it was one of the first times I’d been on my own for a while running Hunterdon without him around for support. Running a barn isn’t easy: George joked to me once, ‘If it weren’t for the clients and staff, it would be an easy business!’ That being said, I’d lost a grasp on the grooms and standards had slipped a little. The grooms were maybe a little above themselves and the clients were showing up not quite on time for lessons. When he returned, George was absolutely brutal in the barn, on the grooms and the clients, reasserting his authority over the entire place. The whole staff dug in and worked in a very somber mood in response to George’s toughness: this went on for a week or more. Morale got pretty low. Then one day, he brought in a framed sign and propped it up on the front of his desk. It said, ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.’ It was classic George! Just when things were really starting to look like the dark cloud would be there to stay, everyone laughed about the sign and things lightened up a little bit as we went back to work as usual. It was just what was needed. He knew what it took to rein everyone back in, but he also knew when to release the hold and when his point had been made.’

‘We had a great twenty years together, George and I, and we’ve remained very close ever since. His ability to stay current in the sport is pretty amazing. He stays sharp, brings in new people all the time, and wants to learn from other people’s perspectives and disciplines.’

George is also an acute critic of the way in which show jumping is going, what he calls the pussification of the sport, where the tough natural obstacles are thrown out to make it easier for very rich, not so good riders, to get around on the horses the mega-dealers have prepared for them. It’s not really a new new trend. Back in 1984 at the WEG in The Hague:

‘Pierre d’Oriola (who was the only rider to win the individual show jumping Olympic gold medal twice, in ’52 and ’64) drove from France to watch the WEG. His comment to me was something to the effect of, ‘They sit down in the saddle too much, the fences are all the same, and therefore all the courses are the same and the spectators get board. I’m leaving the show.’ I was surprised to hear someone put it so bluntly, but I couldn’t have said it better myself! That was the direction show jumping had been going in for years, and we’ve continued on that trend ever since. For most shows, the arena is very much the same and the fence material is the same. The courses are familiar. The riders, for the most part, are behind their horses too. The old champion hit the nail on the head over twenty years ago, and we’ve still facing the same challenge.’

 Pierre d’Oriola = showjumping has lost its way…

 

There is no doubt that the Sydney Games were a resounding success, but there is equally little doubt that the arena surface was a disaster:

‘At each of the Olympic Games I had attended from Rome in 1960 to Atlanta in ’96, the footing was by and large acceptable. Montreal was one exception to that rule, but Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta all managed to produce safe, quality surfaces for show jumping. That’s why it’s such a mystery to me why the footing in Sydney was so poorly done. It consisted of loose sand over a hard, concrete-like surface. Horses would try to set themselves at the base of a jump and when they tried to push off, they would slide. The feeling of instability lead to the horses jumping defensively and not extending themselves in their take-off. They also couldn’t trust the footing on the landing side of the jump and the horses pulled their hind end down more quickly in an effort to get all four feet on the ground.’

I could go on with the quotes, but really it’s time for you to rush out and buy your own copy of Unrelenting, but I will finish with one last tribute from McLain Ward:

‘First and foremost, George is a horseman and a horse lover, and for him, horse sports are his life’s pursuit. That’s the kind of person I want to be in the trenches with, and in my view, it is a key to George’s success and to his popularity – not just among the masses, but among the top athletes. George is not just preaching from the sidelines: he is someone who lives and breathes horses, day in and day out. As a boy I knew who George was and even though I wasn’t one of his students, he absolutely influenced me. George set the tone for what the modern teaching system was in the United States and around the world. I’ve always taken it as a great compliment that even though I wasn’t one of George’s students, others feel I have embodied and followed his system. George’s dedication to excellence and striving to improve and win is something you only see in a handful of people in the sport. Riders like Beezie and myself take that philosophy to heart. In our sport, where methods are constantly evolving, George’s approach of staying true to classical horsemanship while being open-minded with a desire to learn and continue to improve is one I emulate. There’s a balance – you have to be open-minded to evolution and improvements while appreciating the classical base of correct riding and horsemanship.’

For myself, I have enjoyed almost thirty years of friendship with George. He has always been so wonderfully generous with his time. In Rio when I was in a flap that my showjumping story was going to be weak, he took time out from managing the Brazilian team to meet me in the press room, and save my day.

Happy Birthday George…

 George Morris at Mt White – the Master takes a clinic with some super talented riders… NEW AND EXCLUSIVE


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NEW and EXCLUSIVE: George Morris – It’s simple, it’s just not easy

 


Back in 1988, I wrote my first GM story – here it is:

http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2017/02/george-morris-teacher-genius/

Settle back to enjoy George taking a clinic – click

But there is still more wisdom to be had try –

http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2010/07/george-morris-and-the-ultimate-learning-curve-part-2/

In fact there is a whole file of GM articles, just check out his entry on our Who’s Who

Morris, George H

 

 

 

George Morris – Teacher Genius…

By Chris Hector

The man is a phenomenon. An artist and a teacher who has changed the face of the showjumping world. There is scarcely a top rider in the United States today, who has not studied at the feet of the waspish New Yorker – George Morris. Four out of the five members of the Gold Medal team at the Los Angeles Olympics were Morris pupils – and the current top combination on the world scene, the group they call ‘George Morris’ all girl team’ of Anne Kursinski, Katharine Burdsall, Joan Scharffenberger and Katie Monohan Prudent is proving over and over again the George Morris dictum that good, stylish riding is effective competition riding.

The Morris’ style! Lisa Jacquin and For the Moment, and below: Joan Scharffenberger and Winnipeg

The link between style and success has been well established in the United States (or many years. It is a lesson George learned from his first great teacher: 

“I was very lucky when I was young I lived relatively near to the man who was at the time the greatest American jumping teacher, Gordon Wright. He came out of the cavalry at the end of the war, and has written many books. He lived about half an hour away from where we lived when I was about eleven and I started riding with him.”

The story continues below the advertisement…

That first break opened new doors – paths to other great horsemen…

“Because of that piece of luck, I did very well showing early and got on the American team at a very early age. On the team, I worked with Bert de Nemethy, who was a world master of cavaletti, gymnastic and dressage work – he was the coach of our team. I was lucky again because in the winters, he had me go to a man called Richard Watjen, one of Germany’s great pre-war dressage trainers. I also spent one summer in Mexico with Mariles Cortes, he won the Games in ’48 and he was a genius. After the Olympics in Rome, I went to a guy called Gunnar Anderson, who is a dressage trainer living in the States.”

“So at a very early age I was lucky to be near some very great horsemen. They were my principal teachers.”

Melanie Smith and George Morris

In America did the riders always realize that there was a very close connection between very good flat work and good jumping?

“Gordon Wright started that idea in the States, along with a Russian horseman who settled there, Vladimir Litteur. We’ve always had a good mentality of horsemen in America, with racing and fox-hunting, the attitude is very good, it has the horseman-like approach of England, but with a little more of the technical, methodical approach of the German mentality – and the sympathy of the French mentality. I like the American horseman’s mentality – I always have.”


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“De Nemethy really fixed any thought that jumping and dressage could be separated – because he was a great flat rider, and a great cavaletti trainer – bridging the connection between the flat work and the gymnastics. Amongst jumping riders there are different degrees of interest in flatwork. I would say as a jumping trainer I am at the top of the scale, there are not many who like the flat work any better than I do. Take Conrad Homfeld and Michael Matz, they are great keen flat riders – then it drops down. We have riders who might go through the motions on the flat, but they are not really interested, they don’t really realize how important it is – but the good ones do.”

“Some people in the States feel that I am too pedantic, too much interested in dressage. Many in the dressage community would like me to give clinics in dressage, but I am too busy, more interested in dressage for jumping. I’m not interested in dressage as an end in itself.”

The pupil at work! Conrad Holmfeld and Abdullah.

Do you see yourself as a competitive rider or a teacher?

“Oh as a teacher. My priority hasn’t been riding since 1960. I think I’m more gifted as a teacher. I’m a very good rider, still a very good rider in competition. I won a class at Madison Square Garden last month, and I was second at Spruce Meadows – the biggest show in the world – just before that. So I’m still a very good rider, but my greatest gift and greatest contribution is as a teacher.” 

Certainly ‘being a teacher is something that George Morris appears to enjoy – even if, at times, some of his students find him a good deal less than enjoyable. One member of the Australian Olympic long list suffered the indignity of being banished from the group. “Is there one thing this boy can do right?” demanded Morris – before deciding that whatever he could do, it wasn’t going to be done in his clinic.

But he was equally quick to warm to the student who really was prepared to try. George Morris is a great one for setting distance problems, for giving riders the option of the short or the long stride, of letting the jumps and their relationship be the teachers. At his Olympic squad school, he set a line of jumps and informed the pupils that they could be ridden short four or long three, short five or long four. The first few riders took the nice safe short stride option, before that magnificent young man on the flying machine, Gavin Chester wound his horse up from back on the fence and set sail flat out for the line, determined to jump off the long stride or die in the attempt “I like the boy!” came the instant response.

At his Olympic Squad clinics, George was sure he detected a change in the attitude of the Australian riders…

“Oh yes, yes, there’s always a change – even the ones who don’t admit to it, or resent it, or pooh pooh it. Even if they don’t know they’ve changed – they have. Of course, the ones who accept it, and like it, and admit to improving, they improve a lot. Now in Australia you always need more association with the outside world. You have to develop your own teachers, you must have clinics. You must send your riders to horse shows and events in other countries … reading, anything you can do to associate yourselves with progress.”


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There were some (notably unsuccessful) showjumping riders who were unimpressed when George taught in Australia for the first time. He had nothing NEW to offer, no magic gimmicks to sure fire success. And they are at least partly right, for the essence of George Morris’ horsemanship is age old.

“The methods I teach have stood the test of time, not only with me, but with many other trainers. If you try to circumvent a problem with a trick or a gadget or a funny technique, the problem will always come back.”

At the schools at the VEC it was an entertaining sight to see the group of showjumping and eventing riders riding basic dressage movements, oh so seriously. Lengthen the stride on the long side, collect a little on the short, now some shoulder in, now change the rein across the diagonal – this last produced mass confusion, but there was no doubting the intention of the exercises, nor the attention of the teacher to detail!

Slip a finger over the rein, slide your foot just a fraction further into the stirrup, roll the hands over for just a second – and detection, and correction was instant.

The position of the foot was crucial.

“My weight belongs in my heels, not in my knees. What keeps the stirrup in place is not pushing down into the irons – it’s the weight driving down into your heels. It’s better to have reins that are too long rather than too short, and better to have stirrups that are too short than too long.”

World Champions: Katharine Burdsall and The Natural – products of the equitation system

All the time, George was pushing the riders to get their horses more under control, more in tune…

“If I have a very excitable horse I go slower and slower until I get regularity. People talk a lot about rhythm, but it’s only regularity. All your horses are on the muscle. They need lots of walk, sitting, rising trot transitions.”

With the little shoulder in movements, with the emphasis on nice smooth transitions, the riders were encouraged to get their horses rounder.

“All people do the wrong thing with a high headed horse because it’s a natural reaction to drop your hands when the horse goes high. DON’T. When the horse raises its head, follow him up a little and show the horse the way to lower his head.”

“If you try to pull his head down, then I can come back in twenty years and his head will still be up!”

George had already spotted a number of faults that characterized our Australian way of riding:

“I’ve been trying in Australia to get rid of hollow horses. There are riders who sit too far back in the saddle and hollow the horse’s loins. Those who sit back in the saddle have to consciously move forward.”

“I never saw a country where less respect is paid to training horses. Your horses go with their heads to the outside and their bodies to the inside. It’s not your jumping down here that is the problem – it’s your understanding of training and dressage which is so poor. Don’t give me this hogwash that the horses are too hot to handle. It’s just that the training is so poor.”

“You don’t need jumping in Australia, you need riding.”

“Ride with your thumbs up! There is a funny habit in Australia, where you invert your thumbs. Your hands are not just flat, they are past flat, they are inverted. The thumbs should be up.”

If our rider’s hands drove George to distraction, the habit of kicking horses to get them going sent him wild!

“You don’t kick in riding. It’s wrong. Kicking de-sensitizes your horse to your legs – and every time you take your leg off the horse to kick him, you jeopardize your security. Squeeze the horse, and if he doesn’t go forward, tap him with the whip. When a horse is schooled to legs, you don’t need legs, you just think legs.”

“Before you can understand hands, you have to understand legs. You can’t do much with hands until you have legs that are independent and soft.”

“Never ever kick the horse – that’s for the birds. In serious training we always carry a stick – not to beat the horse, but to support us.”

“I don’t kick horses. If I want more than leg, but less than a whip, then I’ll click to the horse. It’s a nice aid, clicking gives the horse some heart.”

“All over the world they teach riders to have a tapping, living leg. It’s a dreadful thing, a deadening thing, to be at the horse with your legs all the time.”

“The lesson of legs is through your whip – not through your legs.”

“Eighty percent of your time on the horse should be dressage and only 20 to 30% jumping. In Australia, I object to your education – not your guts, or experience or athletic ability – your education. I grossly object to hollow, hollow horses that jump upside down and hit their jumps.”

“Down here you people jump better than you ride.”

“Ask yourself – what originated style? Function! Function gave us form. If you teach good form, you get function. Why do we put the stirrup on the ball of the foot? Because it creates a softer, more effective ankle. We do it NOT to look better, but to DO it better.”

Even the mighty can have the occasional crash! George in a neckbrace after a fall at Hickstead with Jean Claude Vandenburge and Susanne Bond-Leone

The connection between riding well on the flat and over jumps was emphasized.

“The rising trot is the same as jumping a fence – the horse is throwing the rider out of the saddle. If you get it wrong posting the trot, then you are going to get it wrong over the jump.”

And we learnt there was posting and posting…

“They’ve taught you to bring your stomach forward in rising trot. I don’t like that. Get into position and let the horse do the work. Sink into the saddle and as you come down, open your hip angle – and your upper body comes close to the vertical. When you rise, close the angle between your hip and trunk. Let the horse do the work and see how little you have to do. When I say sink that means soft – come back into your horse’s back nice and soft.”

George does not agree with much that is taught in modern dressage – particularly the ‘tendency to use both leg and hand aids simultaneously.

“Do your half halts with your hands not your legs. Always use legs without hand, and hand without legs – that is a very old principle of the French School.”

“There are five rein aids: the direct rein, the indirect rein, the leading or opening rein, the pulley rein and the neck rein.”

“Legs, the rider can learn in three or four years – hands in thirty or forty years. There are good hands, bad hands, no hands and educated hands. I’ve taught tens of thousands of riders – and I’ve only ever had one pupil with educated hands… I won’t say which one.”

“Riders with bad hands are just butchers on horseback. In these clinics we aspire to good hands.”

After half an hour or so, George judged the riders, and their horses, sufficiently in tune to try a little jumping. But first riders were quizzed – what was the cardinal sin in jumping?

“The cardinal sin in jumping is hitting the horse’s mouth. That is the worst thing you can do to the horse. The second worst thing is hitting him in the back with your seat, and the third worst thing is swinging your legs back into his ribs.”

Morris has pioneered the crest release – both the short and the long release, where the rider’s hands are steadied on the horse’s neck George was quick to stress that it was not sufficient just to throw the hands up the horse’s neck and just as quickly pull them back:

“Rest and press your hands on the neck. That way you’ll get rid of the rotation when the hand comes back. Push the knuckles down and let the horse out of gaol! In the long release, put your hands half way between the withers and the ears. In the short release press your hands just in front of the withers.”

“If you hit the horse in the mouth with your hands you produce a horse that chips in on a short stride… then a stopper.”

“Instead of jumping in front of the horse with your upper body, let your hands do the work. Riders are jumping ahead of their horses because they do the work with the wrong part of their body. Move your hands – there is not a lot of work for the body. It’s very hard when you are riding a horse to do nothing. That’s the most difficult thing of all. The first step to timing is to be able to relax. Wait for your horse – wait for your jump.”

“You have a habit here when you are coming to a short distance of starting to hook, instead of waiting and letting your horse find his jump.”

Swiss student, Thomas Fuchs and Tullis Lass

If it was hard work for the riders, the horses had their share of learning curve to cope with too. Much of the schooling concentrated on making the horses think and learn for themselves. A false ground line behind the jump, and the poles were quickly corning down.

“That’s alright, I like a horse being stupid and green and hitting the jump. There is nothing so nice as a horse that has learnt to help himself. The Canadian showjumper, Ian Millar rides his horses out of balance in training. He does everything wrong to make it hard for them at home – in the Show Ring he rides like an artist. He is the best in the world today.”

Riders were encouraged to leave the horse alone and let it draw to the jump…

“As the jump gets wide, let freedom make it easy. Have the horse free and relaxed, gallop nicely to the jump and use very little hand. But when you ask him, go with him – never lie to the horse. Never ask him to jump and then not go with him.”

“Relax and trust your eye and give the horses scope. Get the scope from the horse’s gallop. I don’t like too much checking and ‘hand riding’. Hand riding comes from being excessively protective of the horse’s front end. Let the horse learn about his own front end and the hind end will also improve.”

“In the lower grades of showjumping I’ve seen in Australia, 70% of the faults come from behind. That tells you a lot about the rider’s hands. They are inverting and hollowing their horses. Don’t grab with your hands. Don’t try and force the distance. You can’t make distances that aren’t there appear. You’ve got to soften and wait for the distance to appear. When you see your distance, I want the leg very passive – don’t attack the distance.”

“Here in Australia, you’ve got better horses than your training.”

One of the US model ‘Morris’ superstars, Katie Monohan-Prudent

It was an amazing process to watch. George Morris is the master of setting up a line of jumps that will ask exactly the right questions – of creating a learning situation for both horse and rider.

“Give to your horse, let the horse study the jump, let him learn to bascule.”

And suddenly it all happens. The rider sits quiet, the horse rounds itself beautifully through the air, clears the jump neatly and cleanly – and the teacher is delighted:

“There you saw it. You did it. If you don’t like the first stride you see, sit still and bypass it, and take the short option. If you see a long option, a short one will come up. Relax your hands and arms and you will see it better.”

As might be expected from one who has spent a lifetime teaching, George Morris has an endless supply of exercises for his students. They are instructed to bridge the reins and take them in the outside hand, grasping the mane halfway up with the inside hand, and then standing in the stirrups – first at the walk, then at the trot.

“It’s a wonderful exercise for the rider to make the seat lighter, to put the weight in the heel. Watch me jumping. My seat is up, and then it is down – but be careful, when your seat comes down, it is like your leg or your hands, it must be tactful. When your seat is up, then your weight goes into your heels – not into your toes or your knees.”

Some of the exercises were even more entertaining. George would stand next to the wing, holding his hand up, and instruct the rider to look at his hand – on the approach, through the air, on landing and through the next corner.

And woe betide the rider who peeped down at the track!

Or instructing the rider to put their hand on their head, behind the back, on the hip – all in rapid succession, and all while the rider was sailing over a fair sized jump.

The lessons were taxing, exciting and ever so productive. At the end of the school, there was a queue of pupils coming to thank this master horseman who has so kindly given Australia’s riders the opportunity to share his wisdom, to benefit from his finely honed teaching technique. It was a rare privilege just to sit, and watch and listen… but at the end of the day, George Morris makes it quite clear that the ones who will really benefit are the horses.

“I’m interested in rider’s technique because I think it makes life easier for horses. Horses suffer when they are badly ridden – and the better the rider, the nicer the horse’s life.”

This article first appeared in the April 1988 issue of THM.

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