January 9, 2009 — Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward talked to eight young riders Friday about taking all the different perspectives they’ve learned this week at the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session and incorporating them into their own system.
“You all ride great. But the difference between being an Olympian and good rider is that to be an Olympian, you have to take what you learned all week and put it together in your own system. Don’t change your entire system. Take bits and pieces and put it with what you already know.”
The key to any system is that is should be consistent, he said, but the riders should be open to incorporating new things they’ve learned. And most important, while maintaining consistency, they need to adapt to the individual needs of the horse. “I have to figure out how my horse goes the best,” McLain said. “Then I have to adjust my program.”
McLain’s program includes flatwork for jumping, gymnastics and simple lines ridden different ways to work on the adjustability needed in the show ring.
Flatwork for Jumping
McLain said his flatwork differs from Olympian Robert [Dover]. “It’s dressage for jumping,” he said. “The horse has to be supple, straight, and be able to go forward and come back.”
He told the riders to take five minutes when starting out at the trot to let their horses figure out their own balance. “Then from there, you ask for a little rhythm.” After that, the riders could start asking their horses to drop and take contact.
When Matt Metell picked up the posting trot, McLain told him not to push so much. “This horse looks sensitive. Don’t be so demanding. People think I’m a strong rider, but I ride a lot of sensitive horses. You have to be careful about how much you correct them.”
To supple her horse, McLain told Victoria Birdsall to raise her inside hand and exaggerate the inside bend for a few strides. “I do this a few times before a class. Like any athlete, you want your horse to be flexible.”
McLain then asked riders to do a sitting trot, which helps get a horse deeper in his carriage and up through his back. “I’m very pro-American. And I’m very frustrated with myth that Europeans do things better than us. But one thing they do do better than us is the sitting trot. As Americans, we work on getting our butts out of the saddle. I watch [German Olympian] Ludgar Beerbaum. I try to emulate Ludgar.”
McLain also had the riders counterbend their horses to “soften them a little bit. This works on suppleness. You want them to get round in their backs.”
As with the trot work, McLain wanted riders to let their horses get going a little bit and then ask them to go on the bridle by asking for things like a little flexion.
He also had the riders gallop down the long side in two-point and then ask them to collect and ride a circle. After that, they moved on to jumping. “I believe in the practical warm-up for a jumping session. I’m not a big believer in working a horse for 30 minutes on the flat for jumping.”
Bringing Back Style with Gymnastics
To warm-up, McLain had the riders start over a crossrail. When Carolyn Curcio’s horse looked tense over the fence, McLain asked if he ever stopped. She said no, and he took her stick away.
“I rode a nine year-old Sapphire with no stick and no spurs in the Olympics. You really have to judge your horse as an individual. I’m traditionalist, and it’s nice to ride with a stick and spurs, but you have to be realistic and do what’s best for your horse.”
After Carolyn jumped the crossrail a few more times, her horse settled. “Look how much more relaxed your horse is when we took the stick away. Feel the difference. Your horse took a nice deep breath.”
Demonstrating that top riders have differences in their systems, McLain had the riders work with a crest release as opposed to the automatic release that trainer Anne Kursinski emphasized Tuesday. “You need to know how to do both, but I prefer the crest release,” McLain said. I think it’s a more modern release and helps the horse round up over the fence.”
After the crossrail, McLain had the riders jump through a gymnastic.”I live and die by the gymnastic. There’s not many horses that this doesn’t help,” McLain said. He also canters most of his gymnastics unless a horse gets aggressive. “I don’t win too much trotting fences, so I don’t do it very much,” he said to the chuckle of the auditors. He has the horses in his barn go through gymnastic exercises three to four times a week.
“Jumping courses takes away from the jumping. Gymnastics bring the style back.”
The gymnastic consisted of a ground pole, 9 feet to a vertical, 18 feet to another vertical, then 18 feet to a third vertical. Each vertical had a ground line, and between each vertical, there were ground poles to help the horses realize they needed to put a stride between each fence.
He told the riders to find the distance to the first ground pole, not the fence. He also explained why he preferred ground lines. “I believe in ground lines. I think it helps the horse jump in good style. I don’t want to trick the horse,” McLain said. When Carolyn’s horse got a little quick to the final vertical, he said the ground line helped him find his balance.
Adjustability Over Fences
Another exercise McLain had the riders work on was jumping a pair of verticals set a slightly forward six strides apart. “We’re using simple jumps to practice everything you see on course,” McLain said.
He told the riders to first jump the line in the six strides and gave each rider individual advice. “Carolyn, your horse hasn’t seen the fence before. No attacking it. Just be there for him.”
He told Jessica Springsteen to be careful not to jump ahead of her horse. “Close your leg up into your hand. Let your horse bust up through you. I want you to feel the fence coming up through your sternum and chest.”
Then he had the riders ride the line in the opposite direction in 7 strides. “I want it smooth, no jerking. I want you to do it quietly, but that doesn’t mean burying your horse.”
He told Matt that it would be harder for him to get the seven strides because of his horse’s stride. He said to fit in the strides by asking his horse to come back a little each stride. He also told him not to collapse with his body if he got close to the fence. “Even if it’s a little deep, that’s the time to stay more connected. If you’re deep, fine. That’s one mistake. Don’t compound it with a second mistake. Don’t collapse. Let the horse jump up to you.”
Then he had the riders go back and do the line in eight strides. McLain praised Carolyn for working to settle her horse throughout the lesson. “He’s getting more relaxed now. He started nervous and spooky. That’s progress without getting tough with the horse. I hate getting tough with the horse. Everything has to be with sympathy.”
After the eight strides, he had the riders do the line in five strides. “You got your horses really listening and collected. Now you have to gallop down in five strides. It’s a very simple exercise, but it’s all the questions that are asked in the ring.”
McLain concluded by reminding riders to put together a program they believe in. “All good programs a based on similar basics with slight variations,” he said. “Stick with your program but stay open-minded about different horses and different training techniques. Stay consistent, but look for ways to make your program better.”
Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.
The training session is hosted by Bates Saddles and Equestrian Sport Productions and supported by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In addition to Bates, supporting organizations include Purina Mills, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, Nutramax (Cosequin ASU), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Practical Horseman.