No, George Morris did not stop training elite equestrians to chuck it all in and head on down to the BlueBell Home for the Aged to teach Hippotherapy to the hip replacement crowd. What he’s saying is that he does not teach anything new or gimmicky; he teaches the age-old equestrian truisms that have been passed down to equestrians since Xenophon hopped on his first pony.
Day One of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training session started with attention to details. With George, no detail is too big or too small when it comes to horses and riding. The sessions open with a discussion of tack, equipment, and turnout, and you can bet nothing missed George’s eagle eye. One rider was told her horse’s mane was too long. “Get someone to teach you how to pull a mane,” she was told. The correct length? “A little wider than your hand.”
Stirrups uneven but in the same numbered hole on each side? Swap them, so the left stirrup gets moved to the right side and vice versa. Mount from the ground with your whip in the right hand? Oh, HELL NO! Hop off and try it again, this time with your whip in your left hand and resting on the horse’s withers, in front of the pommel. Your right hand is on the cantle and you better be facing that horse’s butt before you start to pull yourself up. Sink into the saddle, don’t drop down onto that horse’s fragile back like a sack of potatoes. (NOTE: The sass is all me. The sentiments are all George.)
Next came the review of the rider’s position, as a correct position is the foundation of correct riding. While the riders worked on the rail George went over where the upper body at the walk, trot and canter, and some of the reasons behind the various positions. For example, posting at the trot and two point at the canter or gallop are to relieve concussion and save the horse’s back. Makes sense, right?
After correct position came the correct way to work the horse. First off, always pay attention to the walk. The horse needs to walk forward and with purpose. “Most people walk like constipated cats,” said George. (I’m pretty sure he meant those people were on horseback at the time, but then again, maybe not.) The horse needs to be fully submissive to the aids, even at the walk. “If we can’t do something at a standstill or walk, we’re not going to do it when we go faster!”
The riders were told that every training session should be comprised of both lateral and longitudinal exercises. Lateral work to quickly collect the horse, supple the hind end, and get the horse reactive to the leg. There are two categories of lateral work according to Morris. There are exercises that lighten the shoulder, or exercises that lighten the haunch. Longitudinal work, which is a test of the impulsion created by the lateral work, is also a reward to the horse after collection, as well as a test of the horse’s response to the leg and the rider’s ability to lengthen and shorten the horse’s stride as needed.
The participants were told to ask their horses for leg yields, shoulder-in and shoulder-out, and haunches-in and haunches-out. Afterward they practiced transitions, alternating canter departs with downward transitions to the walk. As the riders were working, George continually reminded them to give with the hand after taking, and to push the horse into the frame using their legs, not pull the horse into the frame with their hands.
As he has in the past, George picked a horse from each group to ride, and as always, it was a pleasure to see him school a horse. We had a little excitement when George’s mount from the first group attempted to show his displeasure by doing his best to eject Morris from the saddle. The horse learned quickly that he’d messed with the wrong person as Morris tactfully but firmly put him in his place. The man is amazing. Seriously, he’s seventy-something and can ride a hellacious buck like nobody’s business. They’d be picking most of us out of the palms that line the side of the arena if we had to deal with a buck like that.
Speaking of the correct way to work a horse, riders, auditors, and those of us tuning in via USEF Network were treated to a gorgeous demonstration of classical schooling by Beezie Madden. There’s a reason Beezie is where she is in the equestrian world. It’s clear that even before she gets on horse that she has a plan for that particular training session, a plan tailored specifically to that horse and her goals for that horse.
She was mounted on a gorgeous stallion. (I’m not exaggerating. He was so darn pretty it took me a few minutes to stop drooling over him and pay attention to what Beezie was saying.) As George had earlier in the day, Beezie stressed the importance of having the right equipment. For example: “Always carry a stick on the flat so you’re always ready to take on what you need to take on.” Additionally, she reiterated how important the concept of giving and taking is when training a horse.
A core concept of Beezie’s training is that of inside leg to outside hand, and she demonstrated how that works with lateral work. Madden uses lateral work to collect and animate the horse, and to get the feeling she has enough power under her to go to a big fence. We saw examples of lateral work by the clinic participants earlier in the morning, but Madden takes her lateral work to a whole new level by adding transitions within lateral movements. She rode shoulder-ins at the trot down into shoulder-ins at the walk, and then back up into shoulder-ins at the trot, and then seamlessly transitioned to upward and downward transitions in the half-pass.
Beezie told the riders that every now and then she’ll give the horse horse a little “attack” with the spur to condition him to immediately respond to leg aids. (She used the word “attack” which ca sound harsh out of context. What she demonstrated was a quick poke of the spur to gain the horse’s attention.) The reason for this, she explained, is that a horse needs to concentrate on the fence when jumping. If they are getting lots of input from the rider, then they lose concentration. In other words, you want to be able to get the job done as early as possible and with as little aid as possible so you allow the horse to do his job without distraction.
We all deal with horses that aren’t “good enough,” said Madden, meaning that not every horse is an Authentic or a Sapphire. The key is to develop your horse’s strengths and improve its weaknesses by correct flatwork. That is what will elevate your horse’s performance to it’s highest potential. Beezie worked transitions from half-pass in canter to half-pass in trot, then back up to canter again. She then moved into counter canter to confirm the horse’s understanding of the inside leg to outside hand connection. She then schooled the stallion in flying changes, which she says should be done alternating between on the diagonal and on a straight line. After all the collected work she allowed the horse to stretch his frame and lengthen his stride, which he did while remaining ever attentive to Beezie’s aids. They finished the demonstration with the stallion looking relaxed and content while on a long rein.
Madden and Morris both preach the same gospel – meticulous attention to detail and classical, purposeful training sessions with the horse’s needs and development in mind. For example, when Beezie shows her two top horses, she has differing plans regarding their preparation for a class. Cortes, she says, is better off if she gives him a serious flat work the day before a show. Simon, however, usually needs to be reminded who’s running the show, so she’ll flat him a little harder the day of a show.
Earlier in the day, Morris told the crowd, “Good horsemen do it for the horse. Great horsemen get the horse to do it for them.” It’s not that hard to figure out which category Morris and Madden fall into, or why.