Occasionally I find myself in bouts of self-doubt during which I’ve convinced myself I’m doing it wrong and by it I mean everything relating to the equestrian craft… riding, training, showing, all of it.
Whether it’s the result of a particularly rough patch in my training process, some chronically botched distances, or that my tendency to overthink and overcomplicate pretty much everything plays consistent games with my psyche and I start to venture into a dangerous realm of reasoning for gimmicks, gadgets and alternative techniques that I think might solve my problems.
Then every year I watch the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions and gain a renewed sense of, literally, how to do it right and that the right way is neither complicated in concept nor in practice when taught correctly and utilized consistently. It’s simply classical horsemanship; straightforward and effective. As George himself notes, “It is a very simple sport because the rules never change” though it takes years, a lifetime even, to get to where it’s “simple” and to achieve the level of effectiveness to which we as equestrians aspire.
Inevitably I realize that the foundation from which I’m operating is sound because it’s built on the same principles I hear George preach time and time again throughout his clinics. His repeated mantras are so inherently simple in nature: inside leg to outside hand, half-halt up and back, take and give, push not pull, mobilize the haunches, self-carriage is key, and forward, forward, forward.
Each day of the 5 day horsemastership program builds on the day before, beginning with flatwork basics and lateral work, through flatwork sans stirrups and several gymnastic exercises culminating in the final day of complex coursework where the riders are asked to utilize the lessons of the previous 4 days to put together solid courses. Throughout the sessions, Morris expressed the importance of the flatwork foundation stressing the way in which the basic concepts of Dressage – impulsion, straightness, flexion, lateral mobility, rhythm – are crucial to the development of any finished horse regardless of discipline. These basic concepts carry through to every other subsequent aspect. It literally builds and maintains the foundation from which the riders would jump and shape their coursework.
While I love the gymnastic and coursework aspects of the sessions I routinely notice that the aspects to which I’m most drawn are Morris’s instruction on the flatwork. His repeated emphasis on the importance of flat principles is where I gain the insights that re-set my own riding and training processes on the proper path. I’ve long felt that much of the horse training world, regardless of discipline, over-utilizes gadgets, gimmicks and unnecessary means to achieve artificial alternatives to carriage and performance and that those alternatives, in many cases, have become the norm and the desired “image” to which trainers, riders and showman aspire.
While these ever-evolving images may imposter as appealing, they often lack the true aspects of impulsion, actual self-carriage and by their very nature restrict the horse’s ability to truly use themselves. The reality of this frustrates me immensely though in my moments of self-doubt and crises of confidence I find myself wondering If I can’t beat em, join em? Listening to Morris emphasize classical riding and admonish those gimmicks and artificial alternatives not only renews my faith in the correctness of the classical craft but also in its timelessness amongst the many newfangled techniques and gadgets. Though Morris often prefaced his instructions with “it’s an old style” of training, he also emphasized that “the basics of classical riding don’t change”.
Throughout the 5 days Morris instructed the riders through several lateral, bending and transitional exercises to encourage mobility, impulsion, suppleness, straightness and self-carriage, all of which utilized the leg-to-hand driving concept to keep the horse light in the front end and driving through their haunches.
He encouraged the riders to always think forward even through downward transitions and to “take” back and up, as in half-halt, but always then, to “give” and soften downward to allow the horse to stretch and go forward.
As Morris described the leg into hand – raise hands, close fingers, close inside leg and push the horse down and forward – response when a horse raises his head, hollows and attempts to evade the bit and the riders aids, I experienced the same eureka moment I do every time I hear this concept.
Again, so simple, so basic, so inherently effective yet so often ignored and under-utilized in this day and age where it’s just easier to employ draw reins, harsher bits, tougher hands and unnecessary tools to force a horse into fixed frames and artificial carriage.
These flatwork principles were later utilized over short gymnastic courses emphasizing precision and adjustability with bending lines of negotiable distances then finally were employed on the final day of coursework. The flatwork fundamentals are crucial to the negotiation of complex courses where adjustability – shortening or lengthening of stride – mobility and maneuverability through tight turns and ever-changing arrangement over obstacles of varying efforts which require significant adjustment and adaptability between them.
Morris emphasized the way in which “as the riding gets better, the horses jumping will get better” consistently encouraging the riders to set their horses up but then to get out of their way and let the horse carry them over the fences. He emphasized the importance of staying light on the horse’s back, even while working without stirrups, so as not to hinder the horses back in any way. Morris drew a direct correlation between the rider’s position and efficiency in the saddle and the horse’s ability to not only perform their job but perform it well; a nod to the importance of Equitation in masterful horsemanship. This too, was a point upon which I found myself reflecting as it pertains to many current training and riding practices. It is only in a few equestrian circles where proper equitation is emphasized and actively encouraged beyond the junior years. The ultimate purpose of equitation as a practice for truly effective riding is unfortunately lost on far too many in the equestrian world.
Morris praised the young participants on the final day of the sessions calling them “expert pilots” and stating how he hoped to instill in them a professional mentality and that they would leave the sessions with an education on the “whole spectrum of the horse”. Because of the residual waves that will be generated through the many talented young riders fortunate enough to participate in a George Morris clinic I’m genuinely encouraged for the future of this sport.
Morris’s endless wealth of knowledge and true passion for sharing it never ceases to inspire me. In observing his clinics I’m left with a renewed sense of confidence in the knowledge I’ve gained over my 25 years of riding but I’ve also gained invaluable tools to better my technique and effectiveness as an equestrian. Though I’ve referenced Morris’s written works time and time again, I’m grateful to USEF Network for the opportunity to observe the master in action and to visualize the experience. For me, short of participating in a clinic myself, there are few better ways to learn, analyze and evolve as an equestrian.