I may be paraphrasing Colin Powell in the title, but I think it’s an appropriate comparison to what George Morris was trying to impress upon the riders in the 2015 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Over the course of the week he walked them step-by-step through all of the elements needed to put together a solid and successful system of their own. From Day 1 he made it clear to them that there were no short cuts, and that horse training was a matter of patience, repetition, and above all, empathy for the horse.
The riders were shown the correct way to flat a horse: How to use lateral and longitudinal work to supple and strengthen. How to incorporate gymnastics to improve the horse’s technique, strength and agility, and how their position impacted the horse’s ability to do its job. He taught the riders how to assess their horse’s strengths and weaknesses and then gave them the tools to improve them. Most of all he impressed upon them the need to think critically and act decisively.
Day 5 was not just about the course the riders were jumping, it was about their ability to synthesize all of the information they had assimilated throughout the week and apply that knowledge when tested by Steve Stephen’s course. George began each session seated atop one of the participant’s horses and demonstrated how he’d warm that horse up for a class. What did he show the onlookers? Plenty of lateral work and longitudinal work to sharpen the horse’s forward response to the leg, backwards response to the half halt, and ability to turn right and left. He then took the horse over a few fences, stating that he liked to start with an oxer and finish with a vertical, as it gets the horse thinking forward and then tests his ability to come back. (Honestly, every time I watch or attend one of George’s clinics I start mentally flagellating myself for not planning my rides as purposefully as he does. Morris puts as much thought into each ride as the Allies did in planning the Invasion of Normandy.)
Riders were asked to put their thinking caps on as they came into the ring to attack the course. They were told to plan their entrance carefully to address issues they feel their horse might have. For example, some might want to trot in and tour their mounts by a spooky corner, a big triple bar, or some may choose to spend a a little more time around the water or liverpool- it didn’t matter what they did, as long as they gave their entrance some thought and did what made sense for their horse. When Lucas rode his mare directly at the water during their entrance and the mare balked, George cautioned the riders, telling them it’s generally better to go by the spooky fence in the direction you will jump it rather than confront it directly, which can give the horse a question mark in its mind.
The course was comprised of a vertical on the diagonal to a butterfly oxer on the short side, followed by a left rollback to a skinny gate. Off the skinny they turned right out of the corner and to combination consisting of a big triple bar with one stride to a vertical and then 66′ to a liverpool. The riders then came across the top short side and across the diagonal to an in and out followed by a tight five strides to a wishing well vertical. Off the wishing well they turned left across the short end and turned left up the long side to a water set on the quarter line, which was followed by a bending line to a cutout wall and then a tight right turn back on an airy in and out of verticals.
Although the course and the setting were intended to be similar to that of a horse show, George was not about to miss any training/learning opportunities for both horse and rider. When Lucas lifted his hands to help his mare Georgia over the skinny, Morris stopped him, telling Lucas, “I want her to hit that jump! You literally pulled her up and off that jump.” By protecting the mare and pulling her off the fences, Morris said, Lucas prevents her from thinking for herself and figuring out how to do her job. That kind of protection has its place in a competition, according to Morris, but not in training.
Other riders finished the course and then had the opportunity to iron out some of the rough spots. Sophie Simpson’s horse had a tendency to get flat and on the forehand, so George had her go out and gallop to the base of a vertical off both leads, getting progressively faster and deeper and then dropping him at the fence to make him work harder to figure it out on his own. When Hannah Von Heidegger’s Faustino repeatedly ran through the bridle, Morris had her install some brakes by schooling the course and incorporating frequent halts and rein backs between fences. The purpose, Morris explained, was to get the horse to accept the half halt, to think about airing for the rider’s instructions, and to come back when asked.
Mitch Endicott had a character-building day on his mare when she indicated she was disinclined to jump several fences. I lost track, but I’m pretty sure at one point or another she opted out of almost every fence on the course. Morris got into Mitch, telling him he needed to get tougher and needed to make the mare jump even when she got to a distance she didn’t like. He told Mitch to be more decisive, to act more quickly, and to be stronger with his hand and leg contact. Morris expressed his frustration with Mitch’s difficulties and with the younger generation as a whole, saying, “You people have adversity and you fold like a tent!” As Mitch and the mare worked through their issues, Morris addressed the onlookers, “People, when it gets tough, you gotta get tougher!” The pair were able to finish with a bit of success, but perhaps more impressively, the young man never lost his temper with his mount, and quietly patted her as they walked off course.
Clearly each participant walked away with many tools to add to their riding tool boxes, but if Morris left the riders with one key takeaway, it was that horse training is a process of constant learning. Over the course of the 5 days Morris repeatedly asked the riders to be more thoughtful in their work, to study each horse’s strengths and weaknesses and build a training program based on that learning. Learning, George often reminded his audience, was also not relegated to hours on horseback or in the barn. He advocated reading, watching video and observing other riders, vets, and support team members. If Morris, who is in his 70’s with decades of experience behind him, still feels he has much to learn about horses, well, the rest of us have a long way to go.
Check out the 2015 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session on-demand on the USEFNetwork.