George Morris schools Michael Desiderio's horse in half pass.

George Morris schools Michael Desiderio’s horse in half pass.

When you were in school, what did you usually do the day before a test?  You would review, right?  You’d go over the important information you’d learned that was going to be featured on the test, yes?  Well, that’s what the riders in the George H. Morris Gladstone did on Saturday in preparation for the final day’s course.

I can’t imagine how the riders are able to process all the information they’ve received this week.  I’ve averaged eight pages of notes each day and have been chronicling what I’ve seen each day, and when I rode yesterday and tried to recreate George’s warmup, I found myself having difficulty remembering it all.

We began with George riding Michael Desiderio’s horse, working on counter-bending the horse in trot through a 3 loop serpentine.  Morris explains he is employing the use of the counter-bend as the horse is stiff on the outside rein.  “Do not forget to bend with the leg, not just the hand,” he reminds the group.

Morris moves into a series of transitions between the walk and trot and within the trot, and then adds a series of haunches in, shoulder in, shoulder out and then haunches out to “get the hindquarters dancing, as Anne Kursinski would say.”  As he said this he aimed a smile over at Kursinski, who had made the drive to Gladstone to see her longtime mentor.  As George reminisced about what it was like to teach Anne ( they rode together, he never gave her a typical lesson on the circle as is the norm) he mixed in half passes to get the horse on the outside rein and supple him with lengthenings and shortenings to get him coming forward and coming back.

George moved into what he called a canter tour, circling at intervals, testing the horse’s self carriage, adding some counter canter.  Morris likes the counter canter quite a bit, as he feels it collects the horse in a very natural way.  It was interesting to note that while Morris was moving through traditional dressage exercises and had longer stirrups, he was sitting with his seatbones fixed, but not on the vertical, and was inclined a bit forward. Morris  feels this position does not compromise the horse’s back.  George then told the group how he was using inside leg to get the horse more under and uphill in preparation for doing flying changes, which he proceeded to work on for the next several minutes.  The horse changed late a few times, and George explained he’ll typically do some haunches in after a late change to reinforce the idea of the outside leg to the horse.  He ended the warmup by letting the horse stretch his neck on a loose rein, a technique the French masters called The Descent of the Neck.

The Descent of the Neck

 It was at this point that Morris asked the group to change to their jumping stirrups and while they did he discussed body position over jumps. Morris described thinking of one’s balance over the fence as like being on a seesaw.  If you sit way back on a seesaw what happens?  You come crashing to the ground, right?  However, if you drop your buttock back and close your hip angle you can more easily negotiate the up and down movement and remain in balance.  “McLain can be more upright as he has complete body control,” Morris said.  Note to the rest of us Ward WannaBes – buttocks back and close the hip angle, people!  Think of it this way: Ride most of the course in two point and then just before the fence sink lightly into the saddle, heels down, close the hip angle, and wait for the horse’s thrust to toss you up out of the saddle.  As George will tell you, position is not for cosmetic purposes. It puts you in a place where you can best influence the horse.

The group practiced this over a crossrail, making sure to use their automatic releases to follow the horse’s mouth.  The idea was to trot in a tad on the slow side so they needed to do something to create impulsion while trying to remember the whole sink-heels-closed hip angle thing.  George called this learning the “Coordination of Aids.”  (Basically, if you want to be a rider, you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.) Some riders clucked to get more impulsion, some used their spurs, and some went to the stick.

Adjusting the oxer.

Adjusting the oxer.

Up, up and away!

Up, up and away!

Up, up and away!


Jared's got his "Game Face" on.

Jared’s got his “Game Face” on.

Following the cross rail the group jumped an oxer in a working competition pace on the figure eight, with George admonishing them to circle and put the horse on the inside leg to outside rein if the horse fell in and cut the corner, like Chase’s had a habit of doing.  Lisa’s grey had a habit of falling in to the left, which made getting a straight change challenging, so George asked her to circle and then move progressively outward on the circle using the inside leg. Then he let her go back over the oxer the other way, and we she came back to the left he had her sit up more quickly and half halt right after landing to get his head up, at which point he told her to add the inside leg and VIOLA! Smooth change.

Figure Eight and the Factors of Jumping

The riders learned the hard way that Morris expects extreme attention to detail.  Two of the riders felt the Master’s wrath when their canter departs were less than desirable.  Their sin was a common one– hanging on the inside rein during the canter depart, which affects the straightness.  Morris made them stop and start again.  “Perfect practice makes perfect,” he yelled.  (The lesson was impactful. When I rode later that afternoon and asked for a canter depart – with my inside leg, mind you – I flashed back on Morris’s words, and dropped the inside rein like it was a hot rock!)

George had the riders finish their last jumping efforts and then do at least 30 seconds of dressage and then a warm down, and he went on to recount for the audience how he’d seen eventers Ingrid Klimke and Michael Jung ride in Weisbaden last week.  According to George, both had rides in the 3 day there, as well as advanced level dressage horses competing, and horses in the 1.45 meter jumpers.  It’s not easy to do, he told the audience, but that kind of well-rounded equestrian education is important.

“People are lazy,” he said. “They’re so busy horse showing that they’re too busy to learn anything new that would make them horse show better.”

George left us with his philosophy of warming up at a show: He’ll have his riders do an oxer a couple of times, and 2 verticals, one off the long approach and one off the short turn.  His feeling is that when you see someone doing a lot in the warmup ring, not only do you over-tire the horse, it means they’re desperate and haven’t done their homework.

George on Legs

George on Aids to Back the Legs Up

George is the consummate professor – he is passionate about his topic of study and about passing his knowledge along to others. It seems as if, now that he is in the latter parts of his career, he is doubly intent on making sure he leaves the sport in a good place, and that he can pass along his wealth of experience to anyone who has the potential to act as a steward of the sport he’s dedicated his life to.

The USEF's Sally Ike watches next to journalist and photographer Nancy Jaffer.

The USEF’s Sally Ike watches next to journalist and photographer Nancy Jaffer.

The Master sounded almost wistful as he commented to Sally Ike, the USEF’s managing director of show jumping, “I don’t know anything. I’m just scratching the surface of knowing this sport.  I need a second run.”

As he said this his current batch of student were heading back to the legendary stables of Hamilton Farm, no doubt to cram some more for Sunday’s test in hopes of making their teacher proud.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re enjoying this coverage from Gladstone.

Read all my blog posts here.

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