On the final day of the Gladstone Program it was as if Mother Nature had decided to reward participants and auditors for putting up with several days of difficult weather. Her reward to us was a gloriously sunny day, perfect for negotiating show jumping courses and watching a master instructor collate all the lessons taught in one intensive week of training in one final session.
The day was cool and the horses were fresh, so Morris recommended that the riders start the warmup in trot, using lots of transitions, changes of direction, and circles. He cautioned against doing lateral work right away, as it is too collected for immediate work. After the horses had gone for several minutes (maybe 10?) Morris approved the addition of shoulder in, shoulder out, leg yield, renvers and travers. While still in trot, the riders were asked to incorporate some cavaletti. George considers cavaletti an essential stepping stone to jumping and told the group that one can do hundreds of cavaletti or poles without taxing a horse. He went on to say that at his Hunterdon stables he always had lots of poles set in different configurations with different distances, with cavaletti incorporated.
Trot work led to canter, where the riders were encouraged to include the exercises they felt would best suit their horse. The audience watched as the participants worked on transitions within the gaits, counter canter, circles at intervals, serpentines, outward spirals, and flying changes. If you’ve been following the recaps, you’ll know this is a pretty standard warmup. Morris believes that in all things you must be fair to the horse, and this includes setting him up for success by giving him a proper progressive warmup.
A horse must be submissive to the leg at all times, and that means going forward off the leg as well as turning away from it. Morris asked the riders to practice turn on the forehand from a collected walk, telling them to position the horse first and then with the outside leg move the haunch over so that the front and hind ends travel in two parallel circles. Once this was accomplished to Morris’ liking the riders were asked to shorten their stirrups for jumping.
Warmup for the course was over a brown oxer going towards the far end of the ring, a spooky, shadowed area that Morris said was similar to the far corner at Devon, a well-known show going on concurrently with the Gladstone Program. The end away from the ingate is difficult for horses, so Morris recommends schooling them for this will prep them better. After the oxer the riders moved on to jumping the liverpool in both directions, paying special attention to the right lead, as that led them back past the in gate. “When you finish a round in any class, you always go past the ingate and circle or go up the ring.” Chase’s horse, a sensitive Thoroughbred type, was a touch quicker than usual, so Morris asked him to switch from the spurs he’d worn all week to either smaller Prince of Wales or dummy spurs. This is why the man is a master, this obsessive attention to detail. In other circles, obsession might be considered a negative trait. Clearly, it’s a positive thing in Morris’ world.
So here’s the course: Brown oxer at the top of the ring then a long line on a bend to the red gate. Come around past the ingate and go up over the triple bar and then 6 bending strides to the triple combination. Immediate turn after the combination to turn inside the oxer and come back down over the USEF skinny vertical then a 4 or 5 stride option to the black swedish oxer. Go around past the ingate again and up the long side to a liverpool, 5 strides to the water, and then 5 strides to the wall.
Here’s how it looked when Meg rode it.
It was a testament to their backgrounds and the preparation of the last week that, for the most part, the riders made the course look easy. George had Lisa jump her grey around three times until he felt the horse was 100% confident and confirmed. George praised Hillary and Chase for the tact with which they rode their mounts, two “blood” types that required a more sensitive ride. He also compared Hillary’s balance to that of Beezie Madden, saying that one balances a horse, especially a hot horse, in a squat, much like Laura Kraut or Beezie Madden.
George left the first group with a few words of wisdom before moving on to the second group:
“A horse has to be well conditioned before he can be well ridden. A horse has to be well managed. Plan for showing, rest, and recovery.”
“Once a horse is confirmed, you rarely need to jump. You have a good sharp school before an event. Over-jumping creates stale, bored, and unsound horses.”
The second group started out with a lesson on the leg, as he felt Katie’s horse needed confirmation in that area. Morris told the riders that the first lesson with a horse is does he respond when you close the leg? Morris wants a horse to be so attuned to the rider that if the rider thinks forward, the horse goes forward. He wants a horse that goes left when the rider so much as thinks left, and so on.
The riders were asked to warm up much like the first group did, with the exception that when they went to practice the liverpool they initially went over a smaller one set up by the cavaletti, a position George assured Katie was very much intentional. Morris was setting Katie and her horse up for success by giving the gelding an easier, confidence building fence before asking him to approach the larger liverpool that was part of the course.
Morris showed his absolute insistence on attention to detail when a couple of the riders detoured from the plan. He admonished Shawn, “You’re not a detail man! McLain is an absolute detail man. This sport is so sophisticated it requires absolute attention to detail!” Rest assured that Shawn went back to the drawing board and fought to ride the exercise according to plan.
When Jordan rode the triple bar to the triple combination in 5 instead of six, Morris had her do it over because the plan called for six strides. Morris also complimented the riders when he felt they showed the attention to detail he was looking for, at one point telling the audience to note Shawn’s habit of setting the perfect pace before he hit the first fence, or how Jordan, when she found herself deep to the triple, gutted it out and got her mare through. “That’s a good indication of her character,” he said.
Morris amended his plans when the occasion warranted it. Katie’s horse had been a challenge all week over the liverpool and water, so instead of the ending on the liverpool-water-wall, Katie was asked to finish the course by jumping the smaller liverpool next to the cavaletti and then the wall. Shawn had a funky distance to the triple bar which made his ride to triple combination difficult. His uber-careful gelding pulled a rail, which rattled the conscientious horse and he stopped at the skinny. George had the pair regroup and regain confidence by coming down over the brown oxer first and then jumping the skinny. Morris then had them go back over the course, and once Shawn piloted the gelding successfully around he had them end on that note. “That’s horsemanship,” Morris told the audience. ‘That’s riding. That’s what we did with Katie, too.”
At the end of the session, Morris told the audience that his goal with these high performance sessions is to help identify future contributors to US teams. He shared that while obviously talent is key, to some degree if you’re riding at that level it’s clear you have talent.
For Morris, a big part of what he’s looking for in a rider is character, or how they respond to adversity. Everybody is great when things are going well, Morris says, but how do they respond when things aren’t going well. That’s who Morris is looking for, the riders who grit their teeth and gut it out. He specifically praised Katie, Lisa, and Shawn for rising to the occasion when they were faced with challenges during the week.
“My job as a teacher and a horse trainer is to present progressive adversity…Today’s society takes away adversity, which is contrary to sport.”
He went on to tell the crowd, “Your best aid in riding is books, but people don’t read books. I always have a book about horses on my nightstand. I have about 350-400 books at home. After I gallop away, they’ll go to the Middleburg library.”
All too soon the master finished his closing remarks and headed off towards the iconic stables, but not before his trademark wit made a final appearance.
“This golf cart is not really in front of the leg. It’s a very good golf cart, but when I close my legs, it takes a beat to go forward.”
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed our coverage from Gladstone.
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