Morning Session, Group 1
Day 3 of the George Morris Gladstone Program began under cloudy skies. Nearby towns were experiencing rainstorms, but although the skies over Gladstone were grey, it never rained at the USET Foundation Headquarters. No surprise there – George Morris would not have allowed it to rain.
The first morning session found George aboard Sloan Coles’ horse, leading the riders in a warmup that was reminiscent of Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, where Mrs. Mallard leads her ducklings in single file through the streets of Boston to their new home at the Boston Public Gardens. George went around the ring doing shoulder in, shoulder fore, haunches in, and serpentines while the riders followed one by one behind him. As they rode Morris reminded them of the importance of contact, tempo, the need for constant give and take, and the importance of the inside leg to the outside rein.
Here’s another thing that sets Morris above the rest (not that he needed anything else, mind you): Morris is 76, and yet he rode canter, counter canter, and canter serpentines for an extended period of time and all the while he was speaking to the riders and auditors. I’m sure many of us will be honest enough to admit that after several minutes of serious riding we are gasping for oxygen. Note to self: Put the Ben & Jerry’s down and go to the gym more.
During the flatwork portion of the session Morris paid particular attention to the flying change. Many of us were taught to do flying changes by changing the bend by pulling on the inside rein and applying the new outside leg. Well, forget that way of doing things. Morris had the riders going down the quarter line, getting their horses straight, and then changing legs while putting the horse on the outside rein. This method of changing leads, Morris assures us, produces a true change with the inside hind leg coming through.
After the group finished their warmup Sloan remounted, and the riders shortened to their jumping stirrups in preparation for the gymnastics series. If you think about the progression of the week’s flatwork sessions, each has built upon the skills worked on in the preceding lesson. The same with the jumping. Thursday’s session tested horse and rider’s understanding of the questions set before them: Were they able to lengthen and shorten the horse’s stride, could they turn in balance, could they maintain the correct amount of impulsion. Morris very clearly sets both the riders and their mounts up for success, placing before them an exercise that challenges them without overfacing them, all the while building their skill sets so they can tackle the final test.
Morris had them start by jumping a liverpool set just off the wall in the upper right hand quadrant of the ring. His purpose in doing this was to get the pairs thinking forward. Oftentimes a horse comes to the first fence somewhat lackadaisically. A liverpool requires the horse to be in front of the leg, which gets the horse thinking forward. Morris had the riders approach in a defensive seat, and asked a few to go to the stick just before the fence in order to send the horse forward. He had them repeat this once or twice more until he felt the horses were confirmed over the fence, at which point he told the riders they could now approach in a lighter, more forward seat.
He then had them to a gate set on the center line and then a related 5 strides on an angle to a water jump. Building on that, Morris had the riders jump the liverpool, immediately turn left toward the wall and going back around to a gate set on the center line and then 5 strides on an angle to a water jump, finishing by continuing on a left drift down to the corner of the ring and turning back to the right to come to a halt just before a yellow plank by the in gate. The halt before the plank, Morris told the group, would stop the horse from getting fast after the water and rushing/anticipating the next fence. Some horses needed to jump the gate to the water several times in order to confirm, them, which prompted Morris to say, “They say the first half of a horse’s life you teach him to jump the water, and the second half getting him to go clean.” Morris asked the riders to do the whole previous course, but this time jump the plank and halt in front of the arena wall. Morris had the riders use the wall as an auxiliary half halt aid several times throughout the session to great effect.
Next the riders jumped the plank on the left rein and turned right towards the in-gate to come back around to a double of oxers set on two strides. After the oxers they were to turn around and come back over the oxers and plank going home, again using the wall as a stopping aid. At one point Morris said something that seemed to sum up the session, perhaps even the entire program, in a nutshell: “We have to think of the future when we train a horse not the present.” While Morris is most certainly thinking more long term, in the short term this session has prepared both horses and riders for the challenges they will face when they jump a full course on the final day of the program.
Morning Session, Group 2
While the first session was crammed with takeaways for riders, horses, and auditors, you can never get enough George, right? So there we all sat, under increasingly grey and threatening skies, watching as George hopped on another horse, Katie’s this time, to lead another Make Way for Ducklings warm up. The group went through a very similar warm up as the first group, although the second group added circles and half turns. Again, Morris and the riders went through a series of classical exercises to achieve their goals – horses that were in front of the legs yet resposnive to the half halt, and horses that were sensitive to the turning leg aids and rein aids. Morris reminded riders who met with resistance from their mounts to “Resist the resistance” in direct proportion and to watch their transitions so that the horse “doesn’t fall on his head.” In addition to counter canter and serpentines at the canter, Group 2 added shoulder fore and haunches in at the canter to increase suppleness and submission.
The group then moved on to cavaletti, which were set 3 strides-1 stride – 4 strides. They went back and forth through those for a while, establishing a good rhythm and eye for distance, and then moved on to school thier flying changes. At this point the group began as the first group had, over the liverpool. When one rider hestitated and then found herself in trouble, Morris told her, “I don’t care what distance it is – very short or very long – make a decision!”
Morris then had the second group ride the grey wall on an angle going into the wall, which he called “tricky, but very doable.” Some riders had difficulty with it, and Morris’ understood the difficulty, but did not let up. “If you hate something,” he told them, “DO IT!” When Katie’s horse gave her trouble and she got flustered, Morris commented, “You’re like a roller coaster with emotion,” and told her to work on that.
This group also started with the liverpool, then moved on to do the crossrail oxer by the in gate to the in and out on the rail and then the 6 strides to the liverpool. After that they did a volte to the right, then came back across the diagonal to catch the in and out and the liverpool again, and finished on a volte to the right. When Karina has a little trouble finding the right take off spot, George reminder her, “Once you see the distance you forget that jump, and think about the next one.” He also told her she needed to see her distance in the turn, and to come out of the turn with more impulsion.
When the group started schooling the water Alex had a slight issue with it. Morris told him he was coming too direct, and to go out a bit more, which solved the problem. As the riders finished the day over the oxers, Karina again got into trouble by holding too much off the turn, and when she came again Morris urged her to “Let go, let go!” out of the turn and on the approach, which worked out better for her . Alex had some trouble in the oxers going away from home when his horse wiggled in between, so he had to fix the straightness going back home. Morris gleefully watched the riders fight through their issues, saying “he liked to frustrate the riders and drive them crazy“. My educated guess on this is because he feels it does what gymnastic challenges do for the horses – makes them self-sufficient and clever when problem solving.
And that is the kind of rider Morris wants to see on future international teams.