If you’re like many Horse Junkies who follow show jumping, your world probably stops during the first week of January when the USEF Network airs the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions from Wellington, Florida. Yep, maybe you get in early so you can watch it before your work day officially starts at nine, and then surreptitiously sneak glimpses during the morning as you try to get things done. You rush home after the barn so you can watch it on-demand. The dog needs walking? The kids need to be fed? Pffffffffffffftttttt! Let them fend for themselves. It’s George!
I’ve always wanted to audit the Horsemastership Training Sessions,which is aimed at juniors in the Eq and jumper rings, but have never been able to. Like others, I’ve lived the learning vicariously through DVDs and, more recently, through USEF Network. This year, however, George and the folks at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, with the support of Suzanne and B.G. Porter, have created a new program to educate and prepare serious young riders who hope to represent the country on future US show jumping squads.
The riders at the Gladstone Program are, for the most part, a bit older than most of those at the Wellington training, although a couple, like Meg O’ Mara and Chase Boggio, are veterans of the Florida sessions.
Full list of riders:
Chase Boggio (GA)
Shawn Cassady (TN)
Michael Desiderio (NJ)
Katie Lynch (CT)
Jared Petersen (FL)
Jordan Coyne (FL)
Lisa Goldman (IL)
Meg O’Mara (NJ)
Hillary Simpson (FL)
Mattias Tromp (NY)
The goal with these educational programs is to take advantage of Morris’ wealth of knowledge and to educate riders. Today’s system places an increased focus on competition and young professionals face learning gaps when it comes to things like young horse training, stable management, and basic horsemanship. These gaps will ultimately weaken the pool of riders the US will look to in future years. By sharing his system with the future of the sport in this format, Morris hopes to continue to mentor the next generation.
I’d describe Morris as a humorous, engaging, and exacting teacher. The morning started off with a quip from Morris as he lowered himself into his ringside chair, “I’m sitting down because I swam over from Weisbaden [the most recent stop on the Longines Global Champions Tour]. I’m jet lagged.” He then asked participant Jordan Coyne about her horse, who had fallen ill after being shipped to Gladstone. This lead to a discussion on shipping do’s and don’ts, and ultimately to Morris’ reasons for holding the program.
His goal is for everyone to absorb the information he is providing, and hopefully incorporate one or more elements into their own system. The system Morris speaks of is one that was created in the very stables and rings these riders are in right now, created by the great Bertalan de Nemethy and passed down to greats like Steinkraus, Chapot, Morris, and new US coach Robert Ridland.
The first group of riders (Michael, Chase, Lisa, Hillary, and Meg) started off at a walk on a slack rein while Morris had riders tweak their positions and adjust the length of their stirrups. The riders were then asked to post the trot, as posting relieves the horse’s back, and continue into a series of walk-trot-walk transitions to test the horse’s response to the forward and half halting aids. “As you go back, you make sure the horse is in front of the inside leg. As you go forward, you make sure the horse goes in to contact.“
When Meg’s horse shook its head, Morris advised her to raise her hands, close her fingers, and push the horse into the bridle, a maxim he repeated several times to various riders over the course of the morning.
The riders incorporated lateral work to supple their mounts, working in a serpentine to create bend, then adding shoulder fore, and then haunches in. Morris exhorted the group to “be obsessive with the hind end” and reminded a few to keep their hands up while learning to feel the horse come under from behind.
Haunches in segued naturally into counter canter for increased suppling, then the riders reversed to the correct lead and worked shoulder fore in canter. They tested obedience to the leg by asking for canter-walk-canter transitions, and transitioned between a light seat and the galloping position to test the horse’s acceptance of both positions.
George then vaulted onto Chase Boggio’s horse and worked the ‘hot” horse on a progression of compressed circles, tight turns, lengthening and shortening, and lead changes.
He spoke to the crowd as he rode, telling us to get off our inside reins; that our inside reins are for suppling and direction, and the outside rein is for stopping and turning (think neck rein). He shared how the best way to approach a “hot” horse is through a progression of correct position leading to contact, followed by the acceptance of the aids. “Getting a horse on the bit is physical, mental, and emotional,” he said as he sat on Boggio’s horse, who by now was calmly surveying the crowd. “You’ll see the horse is now my horse.”
After a short break we moved on to Group 2: Mattias, Shawn, Jared, and Katie were eventually joined by Jordan, who had been remounted on a horse supplied by local trainer Emil Spadone. George relaxed the group by joking while he adjusted Mattias’ stirrups, “You don’t use Stick’em like McLain, do you?” Morris turned to the crowd, “Now, Athina, I can’t touch her, my hands get Stick’em-ed.” (Morris has been coaching international show jumpers Athina Onassis de Miranda and her husband Doda).
The second group started with position adjustments as well. “The leg clings to the ribs, not GRIPS!” The two pelvic bones should be fixed to the saddle!” Poor Jared was reminded to shorten his reins and raise his hands so often that if George even began a word beginning with “J” the young man’s hands would immediately rise several inches. He also incurred George’s wrath when he neglected to sit while changing diagonals. Trust me, he won’t be making that mistake again.
After Position 101, the group moved into what George called ‘circles at intervals’ where the riders would trot 6-8 strides, then turn on a small circle, using the inside rein to provide direction and the outside rein against the neck to direct the shoulder. They then encouraged the horses to accept various seats by posting the trot for 10 strides, then two pointing for 10 strides. After that they worked on installing the gas pedal and brakes with halt-trot-halt transitions and canter-walk-canter transitions, with George reminding them to “sit, stretch, and keep the inside leg on!”
The riders continued through what had become sweltering heat, sweating through canter/counter-canter serpentines and ‘circles at intervals” at the canter, where they were told not to come back to the full seat, but to sink into the saddle on the short turn without coming fully erect. Morris, clearly not fatigued after his first ride of the day, elected to hop on Jared’s horse to sharpen the animal’s response to the aids. Off the Master went, lengthening, shortening, turning, changing direction, adding lateral movements and the occasional flying change until he was finishing with a long and low trot with a relaxed horse seeking the bit. “Look at his eye. Look at his ear. You’re a horseperson. (He gestures to an auditor.) Look at his contentment.“
“This is Tuesday,” Morris tells the assembled group. “Monday is the break. This is what we do for jumping on Tuesday.” Morris is referring to his system, and the necessity of doing correct flatwork. “This is the basis. If there is something off here, there will be something off with the jumping.”
After reviewing the session’s takeaways with the group, Morris is off on his next mission before lunch and the afternoon closed session. On his way, he pauses to watch Jordan, who is flatting the mare loaned to her by Emil Spadone, putting in a little more work in hopes of creating a partnership.
“Beautiful horse!” he says with a smile. For Morris, it’s always about the horse.
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