Jumping Clinic With George Morris
Which two horses would George love to ride?
Over the years, the only other person I’ve known to be as obsessed about stirrup-iron position as I is Helen Crabtree, the doyenne of saddle-seat equitation about 40 years ago. She said, “George, it starts with the stirrup iron.” It’s such a trivial-appearing thing, but in my own experience, it’s critical because it is the foundation of position and balance.
With that in mind, I want this very nice rider to twist her iron so that the outside branch is a little ahead of the inside. This puts the iron perpendicular to the girth, which allows for a suppler leg. Otherwise, her leg is excellent: Her toes are turned out, her heels are down, her ankles are flexed and there is even distribution of contact between her thigh, inner knee bone and calf.
This is how a rider’s base of support must look: The thrust of the horse’s jumping effort has tossed her seat out of the saddle. Her posture is excellent and she’s using her eyes well in the left turn. This is a good example of a long crest release. It’s like placing a hand on a table—it supports you while giving the horse freedom. However, if the hands are thrown more than halfway up the neck as you often see in the hunter ring today, that is unnecessarily maligning the crest release.
This is a lovely horse whom I’d love to jump. With a beautiful head and expression in his eyes and ears, he has an impeccable front end and his rider is letting him drop his head and neck. He is not the roundest over the low fence but his hind end is following through nicely.
He is also beautifully turned out. His coat shines, he’s a good weight and he’s braided. The rider has correctly put a red ribbon in his tail, indicating that he kicks. I’d prefer a white saddle pad because I think it dresses up a horse. I’d also like the rider to wear the more traditional navy or hunter-green coat. The overall picture is a bit gray and musty for my taste.
This child is a good rider, an athlete, with a beautiful leg. To be picky, the outside branch of the stirrup iron could be twisted just slightly farther forward, but she is correctly feeling the outside branch with her little toe. I like the iron’s heavy-duty stainless steel and its narrow width from front to back. Her toes are out, her heels are well down and her ankle is flexed.
Her seat is also fine. She’s not jumping ahead or dropping back. She’s a very balanced rider. She’s also fit, something I think riders have an obligation to be for the comfort of their horses. It’s part of horsemanship. I don’t want anorexic riders, but I don’t want them overweight either. This rider also has beautiful posture. And look how serious she is—she is not wasting her time, her trainer’s or the horse’s. I love her.
She’s attempting an automatic release, but her hands are too high and rotating back so she’s lifting this horse over the fence. You can see there’s pressure on the horse’s mouth—he’s smiling a little. This is not good for the horse because he can start to depend on being held off the jumps. While still using her leg, she needs to lower her hands a little and have a softer, more following contact on his mouth. Her pony might hit the jump the first few times, but he’ll learn to use himself better.
The pony has a big roman nose and plain head, and he’s just stepping over this jump with an uneven front end, but he appears to be safe. He’s healthy and in a good weight but there’s not much attempt at turnout. He could be better trimmed around his pasterns and his mane could be pulled. I don’t like the light-colored tack and it doesn’t seem to be well made. The trick with tack is to buy quality, which will save you money in the long run. Lesser tack wears out and breaks. I also think her boots could have more shine.
Eventers have license to put their stirrup irons farther back on their feet than hunter or jumper riders do and this rider is a great example of how to do this. But I’m not advocating this stirrup position because top eventers, like Germany’s Michael Jung, ride with only one-quarter of their foot in the iron, which allows for a suppler leg. The rest of her leg is beautiful with toes turned out, heels down and ankles flexed. Some trainers teach that toes should be parallel to the horse’s sides, but I don’t agree because it pulls the calves away from the horse’s sides.
She has an impeccable base of support with her seat just out of the saddle enough. There’s no hint of her ducking, dropping back or jumping ahead. She has perfect body control. Her eyes are looking up and ahead—she has wonderful focus. Her release is closest to a following hand with an almost-straight line from her elbow to the horse’s mouth. She has excellent contact: She is giving what the horse is taking. To make it textbook perfect, she would need to lower her hand about 2 inches. Overall, I really like this rider.
This flea-bitten gray has a beautiful head with attentive and alert ears and eyes. He has an impeccable front end with his knees up by his eyeballs. You want a horse’s forearms to be parallel to the ground and this horse’s are higher. Below his knees, his right leg is a little looser than his left, and he could pull both feet closer to his elbows, but that’s not a necessity. He’s not the roundest jumper, but he jumps boldly and correctly with thrust and scope. I’d love to ride this horse.
He is also well cared for. He’s clean and trimmed with his tail pulled. The tack looks clean and understated as does the saddle pad, so the horse’s beauty is what you notice first. The rider’s turnout also looks clean, sharp and workmanlike.
This relaxed, bold rider, who is with her horse, would be even better with a few adjustments. The stirrup iron is forward on her toe, putting her at risk of losing it. She needs to move it back about a half-inch and position it so her little toe touches the outside branch. I’m not a fan of wide (front to back) stirrups or ones that are too light. If you lose them, they fly around and are hard to retrieve; heavy stainless-steel irons are much easier to retrieve. This rider has too much grip in her knee, which takes her lower leg off her horse so it swings back. She needs to work on getting her heels down and making sure there is even distribution of contact among her thigh, inner knee and calf.
Going hand in hand with pivoting from the knee is a seat that is too far out of the saddle. She has good posture and she is looking to the left. This is an excellent demonstration of the short crest release. She’s resting her hands up the neck an inch or two and the rein is a little slack with a broken line above the mouth. To improve the release, she could drop her hands 3–6 inches to create a straight line from her elbow to the horse’s mouth.
This horse has a dramatic front end. He’s almost hitting his chest with his feet. I’m not sure if this is a gag-type bit. If so, I suggest she use a rubber rein on the snaffle ring and a leather rein on the curb ring. Using just one rein on the curb ring can cause a horse to jump high-headed and a little flat.
The lesson she gives us is beautiful turnout. The horse is groomed impeccably and is in beautiful weight. His coat blooms. He’s been braided. Her tack, saddle, breeches and boots are clean. The rubber rein is absolutely clean. This rider is a horsewoman. Horsemanship doesn’t start in the winner’s circle; it starts with the horse. Today that is not the norm—now it’s dying out, which is scary. Top caretakers are becoming extinct.
George H. Morris is the former chef d’équipe of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Team. He serves on the USEF National Jumper Committee and Planning Committee, is an adviser to the USEF HighPerformance Show Jumping Committee and is president of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.