COTH Horse Show Dad: Wherein I Learned How Little George Morris Knows

Dec 4, 2015 - 4:32 AM

In the past year I have audited three George Morris clinics, including most recently this past weekend. To put the profound weirdness of that in perspective, consider this: Over that same time period I have sat on exactly zero horses.  Indeed, if my memory is accurate, over my entire life I have attended one George Morris clinic for every three times I have been on a horse. 

What accounts for this? Parenthood, of course, has a lot to do with it. Plus a number of happy coincidences. All three clinics have taken place at Brookwood Farm, almost literally a stone’s throw away from our barn home at Millcreek Farm in Antioch, Ill. Serah Vogus, the girls’ trainer, has ridden each time. And Diane Carney, who has been working with George to put on clinics in the Chicago area for 30 years, was instrumental in connecting us with Serah. Under the circumstances it would be odd if we didn’t go. 


Here we are—from left—Diane Carney, the master himself, George, our trainer Serah Vogus, myself, and my daughters Audrey and Ada.

Oddly enough, I’ve never been bored. There’s something about watching an acknowledged master impart his craft that draws me in. What’s more, in these clinics he’s taught people who are already accomplished riders, which makes it all the more fascinating.

“I hate teaching. It is so … impossible. I like riding. I put up with you people.”

And of course Morris is a showman. He has a distinct way of speaking, a cadence all his own, punctuated by an appreciative “thaaaaaaat’sit” whenever a rider does something well. At times he seems to retreat entirely into his own mind, his hands out in front as if he is holding reins, working through whatever it is that he is teaching at the moment. (I was reminded of watching Garrison Keillor wandering the stage bringing the news from Lake Wobegon, his eyes closed, lost in a world of his own creation.)

My notes from the three sessions include plenty of quotes worthy of motivational posters.  “If it’s a little wrong or a lot wrong, it’s the same.” “Detail, detail, detail.” “The horse jumps. We don’t jump.  We accompany the horse.” “Don’t practice helpless.” “Rough usually has temper. Rough is not fair to the horse.” “There’s always something to do to influence the horse.” “The most beautiful animal God ever created is the Thoroughbred horse.” “Our goal is higher. Every rider, every horse, our goal is higher.”

“I’m not going to be nice to you, because you’re paying me to get better.”

Part of the entertainment, of course, is famously of the uncomfortable sort that comes at someone else’s expense. Here, too, Morris did not disappoint. “I should be a dentist. To teach you is like pulling teeth.” “Your work ethic is very subpar.” “You have posture like a 90-year-old.” “You’re the victim of a very good horse.” “You young people know nothing.” “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” “You’re such a dud.”

The auditors were not immune. This past weekend someone, apparently, was texting. Suffice it to say that that did not go over well. (It’s worth noting here that you’re reading the words of a person who has banned laptops in his seminars. So I appreciate the impulse.)

“The basics are simple but they’re hard to acquire. This sport comes very slow.”

There’s much more going on than entertainment, to be sure. I hope you won’t mind if I get philosophical for a bit.

Perhaps the most interesting to me about watching these clinics is this: I’ve understood every word that George Morris said. 

I’ve also, of course, understood none of it.

Here’s what I mean: There were no concepts that flew over my head, no references to movements that I couldn’t imagine myself performing. 

At the same time, I know full well that I if I were to climb into a saddle I wouldn’t be able to put much of this knowledge to work. Even for the experienced rider, I imagine, there is a gulf between understanding and doing.

And I suspect there’s something deeper still going on. Something about the nature of the craft of riding. 

Riding, like so many other activities (including, or so I and many others have argued, legal decision making), draws upon something that philosopher Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge.” Polanyi encapsulated the idea in the phrase, “We know more than we can tell.”  More: “The aim of a skillful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.”

When George Morris rides, in other words, he’s drawing on a vast well of knowledge that he can use but not fully articulate. Part of what makes a good riding instructor, of course, is the ability to put a tremendous amount of that knowledge into words, to see patterns and tendencies that others cannot, and to communicate them to students in a way that the students can understand.

Morris obviously has that talent. But even then, toward the end of three days of instruction, with a group of high-level grand prix riders, we get this: “My message, people, is you have to use your legs and use your hands.” George Morris does not lie when he says that teaching is impossible.

When I was younger, when I thought not only that I was pretty smart, but worse than that that being that kind of smart was the only thing to be, I might have heard all this and reasoned that there was really nothing to it. I would have heard about the importance of the inside leg and the outside rein and concluded that there’s nothing there that I can’t wrap my brain around.

I would have understood every word that George Morris said. 

I would have understood none of it. But I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate that.

I’ve spent the past quarter-century living in the world of law. I’ve gone from student to lawyer to professor, and I’ve now spent over half my professional life as a teacher and scholar. Those roles have required me to develop a deep understanding of my subject. I’m not the equivalent of George Morris, but I’ve come to know quite a bit about how the law works.

Here’s the funny thing. It’s not the slightest bit uncommon for me to find wisdom—true, deep insight—in a text aimed at beginning law students, in phrases that are the legal equivalent of “keep your heels down” or “the half halt is a concert of aids.” I couldn’t possibly have appreciated the significance of these phrases at the beginning of my career. The basics look different from the perspective provided by 25 years. The experienced eye can pick up on things that are beyond the notice, let alone the comprehension, of the newbie. 

“I know far from everything.”

There’s no mistaking the fact that George Morris has a healthy ego. “Every horse that I ride,” he told us, “is totally transformed.” And so it is.

But there’s a fundamental humility present, too. My notes didn’t capture it completely, but I’m certain that at one of the clinics he said something to the effect of “I don’t know anything about horses.” I would guess that most people in the audience regarded it as a bit of extraordinarily false humility, a line designed to generate a laugh rather than illustrate anything.

But I think he was being quite sincere, and that it was the most significant thing that he said.  It has been my experience, too, that the more I have learned, the more I appreciate how little I know. Chris Kappler put the point this way in a session during the Emerging Athletes Program this past summer: “It’s one of those sports where the deeper you go in the woods the more trees there are. It’s all about converting mechanical riding to feel.”

That rings true to me. I believe George Morris when he says he knows nothing about horses. I believe him when he says that he spends a bit of time reading about riding each night before he goes to bed. 

I’m sure that he’s read everything worthwhile that’s been written, most of it more than once. I’m just as sure that the best of it reads a little bit differently each time, and always gets him reflecting on what he understands, and what he doesn’t, and what he might want to start thinking about when he wakes up the next morning.

One of the highlights of the first clinic we attended was discovering that one of the horses involved was one that Ada had recently been riding in her lessons. The horse was giving its rider a bit of trouble, and midway through the session George got on him. The transformation was amazing, and evident even to one with horse-eyes as dull as my own. Toward the end of his time on that horse, having demonstrated his magic, George remarked simply “that’s the clinic.”

It was a great demonstration, and it certainly seems to have been the thing that stuck with most of the people in attendance. But I think the true lesson, the bit of wisdom that best puts one in a position to get to the point of being able to perform that same sort of magic with a horse, is that George Morris—George Morris!—believes–no, understands—that he knows nothing about horses.

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s blogs for the Chronicle.

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