The long tradition of horse riding has its reflection in the geographic scope, number of horse breeds and riding styles, and for several decades the American school has been one of the most prevalent techniques in that field. One of the figures that had the strongest contribution into the improvement and maintenance of the American riding style was George Morris (born in 1938), a rider, trainer and judge who is still active on the international riding stage today.
Morris is famous not only for his practical achievements, but he also has exceptional merits as a theoretician, professional and author of works on horse riding. In 1992, he published the a book entitled ‘The American Jumping Style’, in which he describes the character of the riding school whose origins date back to the Old English and Irish influences. It was the English hunting seat that served as the basis for the contemporary style. Another important factor in the development of the American style was the forward seat, an intermediate position that enriched the hunting seat with grace and elegance.
The contemporary American school is largely based on the achievements of Federico Caprilli (1868-1907), a captain of the Italian cavalry and creator of the fundamentals of horse jumping as a sport. Characteristic of his style were shorter stirrups, lower position of heels and strong leaning, which facilitated moves, improved balance and was less exhausting for both horse and rider. An important stage in the history of the American horse riding was the activity of the American School of Cavalry at Fort Riley that educated many significant sportsmen in the global hall of fame. One of them was Gordon Wright, George Morris' mentor and representative of the French school of Saumur. In the 1950’s, when Morris was already active as a professional rider, the American style was also influenced by the German School and such masters as Berthalan de Nemethy, Richard Wätjen and Gunnar Anderson. For Morris, the crucial element of horse riding has always been the rider’s position. He believes that the rider should be at one with the seat. In his view, such a seat must be a versatile one, one which can enable a rider to have a comfortable hack through the country, go fox-hunting, show a hunter, or ride in a hunter seat equitation class, ride a dressage test (with a longer spur), or an open jumper class (with a shorter stirrup). With this seat the rider should be safe, secure, have a good style – and most important of all – be versatile.’ The rider should always keep the appropriate position, focus on the obstacle and prevent the external world and unnecessary thoughts from inhibiting their unity with the horse. He emphasizes the need to tame the animal using such tools as patience and consistency.
Training should start from such simple tasks as going forward along with the horse, which helps maintain full control and carry on to the next training levels. Morris believes that another significant aspect of horse riding is the intimacy between the rider and the animal, and the most efficient method to achieve that is touch. This form of communication enables creating deeper understanding; otherwise, it may happen that a calm horse becomes agitated after the rider gives it an instruction.
While training a horse, the crucial factor is motivation and discipline. To reward the horse, one should not use a 'carrot' but control the tension of laces instead. On the other hand, the rider should also give the horse relative freedom, so that the animal could have some initiative and, in consequence, learn from experience. The rider should focus on their own, simple assessment, as well as the instinct of the horse. Morris pays particular attention to maintaining simplicity and creates a consistent and sensible system of rewards.
As for the position of the rider, another important factor is the horse breed and Morris claims that the best choice for the American style are Thoroughbred horses, known for their temperament, energy and strength. On many occasions, Berthalan de Nemethy, an authority on horse riding, would say: 'you don’t need to go abroad to buy horses… (Thoroughbred horses) are the best for Olympic jumping.' Physically, they are distinguishable by their sustainability and athletic body structure, and the best seat for the rider in that case is the lowered position reflecting the silhouette of the horse at a particular moment in time.
In the American style, the stirrups remain in the mid-position and touch the ankles of the rider whose contact with the horse is not limited to the inside of the knee, but it is extended to the ankle. Such a position ensures light, stable and continuous contact of the lower leg with the body of the horse and makes every move less exhausting and aggressive. The light forward position and light seat additionally increase flexibility in the upper body parts and force the rider to maintain their head up. Simultaneously, the elbows remain in a parallel position to the mouth of the horse and enables direct and free contact with the rider.
For many decades, the American style, a unique combination of the hunting seat, forward seat and jumping position, has withstood the external influences and even the slightest attempts to introduce changes have always backfired. Morris once remarked: 'I’ve always felt it better to be a good copier than a poor innovator. Let’s not fix what isn’t broken, nor tamper with the foundation of all our riding success up until now. It would be a crime to lose our American Jumping Style and what it has stood for. We cannot let that happen.'
For George Morris, professional horse riding is not only about performance, but what also counts is the position, clothes and elegance. He is frequently criticized for his conservative approach and sentiment to the past rules, nevertheless, even his fiercest critics cannot deny his lasting results and the fact that his pupils are today one of the most successful riders worldwide.
Author: Grzegorz Zawora / pr-controlled.com ©
Illustrations: George Morris on Sinjon in Rome 1960 archives, Leonardo da Vinci's Horse