A Day with George Morris…
Persimmon Tree Farm and K2 Show Stables hosted George Morris for a 3-day clinic this weekend. Having never seen him in person, I felt compelled to make the trip. Not wanting to go alone, I convinced three friends, and our trainer to come as well. Then I began to second-guess myself, wondering if it would be worth it to go without riding. But since I don’t have my own horse (or trailer or tow vehicle) yet, auditing was my only choice. The entire experience was absolutely worthwhile — and for more than just the treasure trove of information I learned from the actual riding clinics. George addressed the students who were riding with a singular focus. Then, when he had something to say to the auditors, he brought the riders in, and addressed us directly, even recognizing that some of us were students who just weren’t riding, and others were instructors.
There were three different sessions of two hours each, the only advertised difference was the height of the jumps they took. In actuality, each session became increasingly complex, focusing on the more nuanced aspects of our sport.
The first session was for those jumping under 3 feet, and there were 8 riders. Don’t think for a moment that George was soft on them because they were the “beginners.” Upon entering the ring, he had them cross their stirrups. A mere 42 minutes later, he gave them back. He admonished us all that riders don’t do enough work without stirrups, and called people out for not being fit enough. This group worked intensively on the flat, with George reminding us all that flat work is the key to good jumping. The warm-up was extensive, with lots of transitions between halt, walk, and trot to get the horse listening.
He also reviewed his technique for using a whip properly — taking the reins in one hand and using the opposite hand to make short, quick, sharp strokes applied behind the leg, issued immediately upon the display of unacceptable behavior, and made without looking down or back. George also schooled his class on proper hand position. He is a firm believer that riders carry their hands chronically too low. He insists that this create mouth problems, and repeatedly corrected riders to raise their hands to keep the straight line from elbow to hand to bit. He also called riders out for “sawing” on the bit, alternately pulling on one rein and then the other, saying that this also creates mouth problems, and ultimately souring the horse.
As always, he chose one mount to take through one of the exercises, talking the students and audience through his ride as he went. It’s both daunting and encouraging to see a 76 year old man just hop on a horse that he’s never ridden before, and take them through an exercise that their owner has shown difficulty with. His form is impeccable, and his expectations are communicated clearly to his mount. What can I say? The horses respond quite remarkably!
His four primary points to the riders about jumping were:
1) Always stay with your horse, not ahead of, and definitely not behind (that is only for extremely advanced riders in special situations because you can get in big trouble if you goof it up),
2) Keep your eyes looking to where you’re going,
3) Keep your hands soft and supple, and
4) Keep your heels down.
He used four exercises, each focusing on one of these four tenents. First was a figure eight over a vertical, and a bounce (photo #1 – turn left after the bounce, then use the bounce like a chute on your approach to the panel, after which you turn right). Simple, but not easy.
To keep the rider’s eyes up, he had them ride a line of jumps as a serpentine (photo #2). Not only does this require the eyes to stay up, and looking for the next jump, it’s also a great training method for teaching a horse to do flying lead changes at the canter. With such a sharp roll back to the next jump, a horse has to change his lead in order to be able to make the turn. Combined with a definite ask from the rider, the horse gets the idea that the ask really does mean change leads, and eventually, they will pick up the change even without the hard turn.
To keep the rider’s hands supple, he sent horse and rider through a one stride — a vertical to a small oxer (photo #3). With such a short time from one jump to the next, the rider must keep their hands and elbows moving with the flow of the horse’s motion.
Finally, to demonstrate and practice keeping the rider’s heels down, he sent everyone over a small Liverpool. Since these are somewhat unusual, and a little bit scary looking, a horse would tend to balk here more than elsewhere. So heels down to anchor a rider’s base of support is even more critical.
The second group came in, numbering 7, and the jumps got a bit higher. Being a more advanced class, things became more nuanced. They too had to drop their stirrups to begin, and didn’t get them back for nearly an hour. With the same exercises, George brought in new concepts for both horse and rider. They began with getting horses on the bit properly, again having issues with hands being too high, and sawing.
One rider, having both a hot temper and a hot horse, was admonished to keep his anger out of the ring, and to be more patient. George repeatedly instructed him to wait for his spot on his jumps and not rush so much. To help that pair, as well as the rest of the class, they focused on angled jumps, which necessitates proper contact with the reins. As each rider went through the proscribed course, George counted out the number of strides between jumps. And if it wasn’t the right number, the rider was called back to repeat the course and get the striding right. They also took a single vertical, starting with a very extended stride, and progressively shortening it until they reached the fence, looking to take it on a short stride.
Finally, he sent them through the vertical/oxer combination (without changing the distances), requiring that they fit in two strides where the previous class had only included one. The challenge came in that he had them take it in both directions. When it was vertical to oxer, it was more doable. But cantering into an oxer and then to a vertical, it was a much bigger challenge. Simple, but very tough!
Again, he took one of the student’s horses and did a brief demonstration. But as he mounted, he started digging in the horse’s ears to remove her ear plugs. He reminded us all to not be “bamboozled by fads and fancy barns.” Instead, look at the horsemanship. He would rather see plain and workmanlike, over fancy and gimmicky.
After a lunch break, the four riders for the third group came in, and the jumps got even higher. Now the concepts became more subtle and nuanced, all in an effort to train the horse so they are correctly muscled for higher levels of competition. And again, they started without stirrups. But they didn’t get them back for over an hour. Horse and rider worked on straightness and impulsion, developing their rhythm from back to front. They worked on getting their horses loose. And they worked on definite, steady, straight contact with their horse’s mouth. George even went so far as to change one rider’s bit from a gag to a double twisted wire. The change in the horse’s carriage was immediate. It’s amazing what the right tack can do.
The buzz for the day came when George admonished two of the riders for coming down too early and too hard in their saddles when jumping. So to keep them up and out of the saddle, in their 2-point position, he taped push-pins to the back of their saddles, and sent them over a short course. The looks on their faces left no doubt as to what they were thinking (photo #5). I’m happy to report that everyone survived in fine fashion.
Aside from the direct rider instruction, there were innumerable reminders that came up during the course of the day: When you have a pole above a panel or wall, always remember when you drop one side of the pole to take it to the outside in case a horse hits it with their foot, they will just knock it over, and not get tangled up in it.
George’s final take away: “It is impossible to have education hands without an educated leg and seat.” My relatively limited experience confirms that. As my own leg and seat have become stronger, my compulsion to pull with my hands has decreased. Now I understand why. What a marvelous gift!
After the clinic was finished, I took a few minutes to speak to George, and say “Thank you” for sharing his time and attention. Yes, I paid to be there. But I definitely got the better end of the deal. He was attentive and enthusiastic throughout our conversation. He challenged me, asking asked why I hadn’t ridden in the clinic. I explained, my situation, and he challenged me to find a way to ride when he returns next spring. I am grateful for his encouragement, and look forward to participating the next time he comes to Persimmon Tree Farm. By then, I should have my own horse, with enough time to train up in advance. And I hope, one day, to know as much about riding as George Morris has forgotten.
I’d also like to take say a special “Thank you” to Carolyn Krome, owner of Persimmon Tree Farm. She and her husband were wonderful hosts, along with Patsy, the dog, who nearly came home with us.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of no-stirrups work to do…
Sue van der Linden