George Morris addresses a captive audience

George Morris addresses a captive audience

For many of us in Horse Junkie-land, the first of the year brings about the most wonderful time of the year: The George Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida! The first day of this year’s event happened to fall on New Years Eve and I admit, I was actually more excited about catching the first day’s sessions on USEF Network than I was about the pending New Year festivities later on!

As per usual, the young riders chosen for the 2014 Sessions (#GHM2014 for those of you flitting about the Twitterverse!) were split into 2 working groups as follows:

Group 1: Olivia Champ, Victoria Colvin, Liza Finsness, Michael Hughes, Lillie Keenan, Matthias Tromp

Group 2: Sunny Drescher, Erin Fry, Samantha Harrison, Robert Leckie, Sydney Shulman, Katherine Strauss

Morris began the first of Tuesday’s sessions with a short commentary to the audience on the seeming reluctance of many equestrians in the US, hunter jumpers especially, to address the concept of Dressage. His point was less in reference to a disregard toward the discipline of Dressage but rather a general nonchalance toward the training concepts that build the crucial foundation for a “trained horse”. Where the word Dressage, French in origin, means training, quite literally, George insists that all schooled horses are in-effect Dressaged. The concepts of impulsion, straightness, flexion and the diagonal balance of inside-rein-outside-leg are as imperative to a horse schooled in western as it is to a horse actually schooled in dressage as it is to a horse schooled in jumpers. Such concepts would become the primary themes and repeated mantras of the day’s sessions.

With the riders, Morris first addressed the length of their stirrups, reiterating the importance of Dressage work in schooling hunter jumpers and emphasizing that there should always be a lengthening from the jumping length when working on the flat. After briefly chastising a rider who had removed his foot from the stirrup to make a length adjustment, Morris took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of maintaining correctness in daily practices.  “It is just as easy” he says “to do things correctly as it is to be idiosyncratic” then implores them not to “practice doing things in a kooky way” but to “practice correctly.”

GM Adresses appropriate stirrup length and position for flat work

GM Adresses appropriate stirrup length and position for flat work

As the horses and riders began their work, Morris immediately established the importance of always maintaining a forward mentality then addressed the relationship between the horse’s head and the rider’s hands. When a horse raises its head, predictably to escape or combat pressure from the rider, the rider should respond by raising their hands, closing their fingers and closing their inside leg to push the horse forward. Always forward. Though he calls it an “old French style” of riding and somewhat contrary to the common practice of dropping ones hands in response to a raised head, Morris explained that rather than pulling the horses head down, effectively hindering the forward intention, this practice serves to push the horse down but also forward with impulsion so the horse “stretches from leg into hand”.

Morris worked the riders through several transition exercises to reinforce that even through downward transitions, the horse should always feel in front of the leg, principally the inside leg, and remain “under the seat and uphill in front”. As a few of the horses, undoubtedly fresh on their first day, demonstrated periodic unruliness, Morris methodically reminded the riders to raise their hands and keep their contact above the horse’s mouth. Though the common temptation, as previously noted, is to drop their hands when the horse fights the bit, Morris explained that this response is contrary to the concept of “discipline and reward” where an action or task is demanded of the horse, then the horse is rewarded for his compliance when the rider “gives” back, as in the release and follow as the horse lowers his head.

Exercises such as Shoulder-in and Shoulder-fore are crucial to establishing suppleness and mobility

Exercises such as Shoulder-in and Shoulder-fore are crucial to establishing suppleness and mobility

Building on the forward, leg-into-hand foundation, Morris had the riders demonstrate maneuvers such as shoulder-in, shoulder-fore, stride lengthenings and diagonal reverses all the while emphasizing the importance of maintaining straightness, impulsion and rhythm in their mounts. He noted that all horses should be taught to turn using the outside “neck rein” – where both of the rider’s hands shift toward the inside of a turn – in order to maintain straightness, but also to regulate pace and rhythm, while the inside rein leads and opens to allow the ever imperative forward.

He reminded the riders that the “outside rein regulates impulsion while the inside rein looks to give”. Morris explained how exercises such as these, not only reinforce the “under the seat and uphill in front” directive, but also increase mobility in the horse’s shoulder while developing suppleness, rhythm and elasticity in the hind end.

Morris is particularly fond of counter-canter exercises for its effectiveness in balancing and collecting the canter. He worked the riders through a few transitions from canter to counter-canter and back again all the while insisting they pay particular attention to the straightness of the horse through the upward transition and changes of lead but also drawing their attention to the bend and shoulder mobility required to maintain a balanced counter-canter. He reminded them to keep their legs ion and to “activate with the inside rein, mobilize with the outside rein” and when the horse responds to yield and give back. He reiterated that for every take there should always be a give and that the riders should “look to give so the horse stays in self carriage”.

GM showin' us how it's done

GM showin’ us how it’s done

Toward the end of the session, Morris commandeered Matthias Tromp’s mount to demonstrate and reinforce his teachings. Though initially stiff and seemingly unsure, within minutes of Morris’s direction through the same suppling and mobility exercises he’d previously asked of the young riders, Tromp’s mount had relaxed and was moving freely forward in the uphill frame indicative of the back-to-front “longitudinal balance” Morris championed. Following his counter-canter work, Morris released his reins, asking the horse to trot long and low on the buckle but reiterating to the young riders that through the push not pull of the leg-into-hand, the horse should continue to travel, active and straight, in self-carriage. “The first criteria of working with a horse” he says “is the horse should always stay in front of you”.

The keywords of the day – impulsion, straightness, contact, rhythm and push vs. pull – were reiterated in his final address to the audience after dismissing the riders and their horses. As he has frequently noted in the past, Morris “abhors gadgets” such as draw reins which pull the head down, restricting the forward, uphill intention where classical, effective riding pushes the head down and allows for the forward give essential to creating self-carriage. He noted that first should always come impulsion, second should come straightness and that always working back-to-front, suppleness of the joints behind then suppleness of the jaw and poll, is imperative to the process.

A parting note: “It’s a very simple sport” he says “because the rules never change. It’s very difficult and takes a lifetime to get to where it’s simple but the basics never change.”

90 Seconds of #GHM2014 Day 1 – from USEF Network

Thank you to USEF Network for making the sessions available for all of us to learn from the master himself. Watch them on demand here!