There's a wrong way, and there's George's way.

There’s a wrong way, and there’s George’s way.

One of the best things about riding in a  multi-day clinic is that each day builds on the skills practiced the day before.  It reminds me of learning to swim: The first lesson you learn how to blow bubbles, the second you learn the arm and leg motions, and by the third lesson you’re putting it all together and swimming.

Such was the case on the last day of the 2014 George Morris Horsemastership Sessions.  Granted, these riders were not beginners, but I’d wager each one would say they benefitted from the refinement Morris brought to their riding.  Continuing with the swimming analogy, it’s like you or I swimming laps in a pool versus Michael Phelps doing so.  He brings a whole new level of understanding of the physics of the whole thing, the most efficient stroke techniques, and the most effective conditioning routines.  Morris brings that level of understanding to riding.

Although the day was to be a summary of all that had been learned over the course of the 5 days, the session started with a discussion of the basics.  Using Michael Hughes as a model, George spoke about the importance of position, and how it affects the functionality of the horse and the effectiveness of the rider.  For example, allowing your weight to sink into a lowered heel allows the joints to work as shock absorbers, gives you more balance and security in the tack, and, ideally, places your in the most effective position for you to cue the horse.  Why do we want a the hands carried up and over the withers?  For a straight line from elbow to the horse’s mouth for effective communication, but also because lowered hands pull the shoulder down, roach the back and render weight aids ineffectual.

Morris sent the participants out to warm the horses up at will, reiterating that he feels a warmup should include lateral work to engage the horse’s hind end and promote acceptance of the leg. Warmups should also contain lots of turning exercises (circles, half turns, figure eights, serpentines) and transitions, both within and between gaits.

Warmups should also contain lots of turning exercises

Warmups should also contain lots of turning exercises

Following the warmup Morris briefly demonstrated the pulley rein, a very strong rein aid that acts as a lever against a galloping horse’s mouth.  The riders were asked to fix their inside hand against the neck in the slight dip found right  before the withers.  The outside hand, Morris stated, works by moving upward and back.  He also showed another variation of the pulley rein, useful for turning a galloping horse, where the rider fixes the outside hand against the neck and uses the inside rein to turn the horse.  Morris then told a story how in Aachen he’d shown Anky Van Grunsven, the Netherlands’ multiple gold medallist in dressage, how to use a pulley rein after her Olympic partner Salinero ran back to the barn with her.

Then it was time for jumping. Riders were asked to warm up over a cross rail over a liverpool.  This type of fence gets the horse thinking forward and moving off the rider’s leg. Morris had the riders practice approaching in a half seat with the horse’s motion, and then again moving to a more defensive position, sinking into the tack 6-8 strides out and opening their hip angle.

It was at this point in the day that the riders started working on the course set by 2008 Olympic course designer Steve Stephens.  Morris had them begin by riding individual elements, breaking up the course so that they could first focus on the basics of riding and secondly so that the horses would get comfortable. The group started with the first line, a vertical to a bending 7 to a another vertical, and then a straight 4 to an oxer.  Morris asked the riders to pay particular attention to their pace, and the use of their eyes.  As they saw the distance to the first fence, he told them, they should be looking at the second fence.  Eyes, he told the group, are what gives the direction and the distance.

Next on the agenda was the triple combination.  Before anyone actually began jumping the combination Morris discussed the the importance of the automatic release, also called the following hand because the horse “takes” your hand over the fence and your hand follows the horse’s mouth.  Morris asked Lillie Keenan to demonstrate the automatic release as she negotiated the triple, and he directed the audience’s attention to her hands, which were alongside the neck, and the elasticity from the back of her shoulders to the horse’s mouth. ” Watch her position here,” he commented. “That’s classic, that’s classic.”  Repetition, he stated, is what will give the body muscle memory and the ability to correctly execute the automatic release.

Before the riders tackled the next obstacles Morris evoked the memory of the D’Inzeo brothers of Italy, Italian military officers who won individual gold and silver medals in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He related how he’d idolized Piero D’Inzeo and his very forward riding style, and how Piero would allow the horse to “take” him forward off a turn. Using an Italian accent Morris recalled D’Inzeo’s words to him, “Jumping, George, is very easy.  You just follow your horse and wait for your horse.”

CHIO Aachen 1955 – Raimondo and Piero d’Inzeo

Next up was an oxer off a turn to a skinny vertical.  Morris broke the approach down, walking out to the track and telling the group not to square off the turn, as it will affect time in a jumper course, and that the first half of the turn was their “homework,” or the time they had to arrange the horse, correct a lead, or rebalance.  After that point, he said, it was too late.  At that point in the turn, everything became about line and distance, and to get that distance, he said, “you need to follow the horse.”  The goal is to relax, ease off, and go with the horse, which he acknowledged is very difficult to do on a jumping horse.  He suggested coming up with an anchor word to use when necessary to remind one’s self of the need to let go of the horse, saying that then one is able to measure the fence infinitely better.

The riders practiced the oxer to skinny line a few time, with George encouraging them to get to the base of the jump. “I loooooovvve the base of the jump,” he said, going on to say how the this teaches the horse how to set himself to the base of the fence, which teaches the horse self sufficiency and self preservation.  When one horse refused Morris told the rider, “You were 90% definite.”  He went on to say the rider had just a shadow of doubt in her mind and the horse felt it.  “Horses have mental telepathy,” he told the group, telling them the relationship between a horse and its rider is almost stronger than that of a married couple.

Finally it was time to put it all together and do the whole course.  While in general the course rode well, some areas gave riders difficulty.  The water jump lead to a vertical that could be ridden in a long 5 or a short 6. Morris advised that the long option could leave the horse flat, and the short option was a test of the adjustability.  When one rider half halted too abruptly for the 6, Morris had her redo it, finessing her approach to the water so it left her better situated for the vertical.  When some riders had issues with 5 strides to an in-and-out, Morris again had them change the approach to the preceding fence by angling it.

The session ended with an exercise over a tall vertical.  The object was to come with pace to the base of the fence, which would encourage the horse to jump round and with good bascule.  This was the last ride of the warmup, Morris said, that he wanted before entering the ring for a class – a pace with plenty of impulsion that got a deep distance, and then the rider with a following hand then getting out of the horse’s way.

One rider kept finding the gap, and Morris had her re-approach until she managed to find the base.  One of the horses clearly didn’t like the new exercise and declined to participate, which elicited from Morris what I call his Sesame Street George-ism, “He goes over it, under it, or through it!”

After 5 days of intense sessions Morris closed on a high note, praising the organizers and everyone involved in making the program a success.  He thanked the trainers that generously provided horses and those that let him him borrow their students.  Finally he praised the riders, calling them “expert pilots” and saying that “you don’t see better kids than this.”  His end goal, after providing them with a week like this, is that it engenders in them a professional mentality and educates them on what he called the whole spectrum of the horse.

Here’s a 90 second highlight reel from USEF Network.

Check out this session, or all 5 days of the Horsemastership sessions, on USEF Network.