I was lucky enough to ride in the George Morris clinic held at Black Horse Farm in Warren, R.I., Nov. 15-17.
Pat Joe, the owner of the farm, is a lovely woman who is a true horse person. To get ready for the clinic, I tried to ride more, eat healthy and not freak out!
I was able to do one out of the three. I rode more but—as happens in stressful life situations—I actually gained weight. And I freaked out (sorry to my trainer, Mary Beth McGee!).
Everyone has an opinion when you sign up for a clinic, and I heard more “George Morris… he is so mean” stories than I can count. Luckily, I knew someone who had ridden for George in past clinics, and he was able to allay my fears a little bit.
I’m a full-time nurse at Boston Medical Center, and I had to work three 12-hours shifts in a row before the clinic, so I arranged to have my 13-year-old Hanoverian, King Of Hearts (Escudo II—Dorle), ridden by Mary Beth in preparation.
I rode in the 2’6”-3’ group, but George started the sessions going from rider to rider looking at stirrup length and how your foot was placed in the stirrups. He did comment on the stirrups with rubber on the side that allows flexion—he wasn’t a fan. He said you needed to be able to push down on the stirrup, and the flex didn’t allow that. He commented to the audience on my quick release stirrups, saying that they were usually for children but OK for circumstances to not get your foot stuck. He asked if I had had a broken ankle and said “just do the best you can” (insert sigh of relief here).
For anyone with a gag type bit or three-ring with only one rein, he would ask them to add another rein. He also wanted everyone to ride with a stick.
“Would you go to war without a gun?” he asked when one rider in my group said her horse wouldn’t put up with a stick. He said you need to teach them to accept it. Take a stick and gently rub his neck with it because they may have been abused by the stick when they were younger.
For someone with fancy spurs in a later session, he called them “Disco Spurs.” George then went on to relate how he knew about discos. He was the King of Studio 54! Pretty funny quips like that were the norm throughout the clinic.
“People, people get with it! Pay attention,” he said often. When George would give you an exercise, he expected you to organize away from the jump line pretty quickly and to get out of the gap if someone needed to get by. Yes, I know that all makes sense, but when you are in the arena, George is talking, you look at the bleachers full of people, and you’re trying to stay separated from the seven or eight other riders, things get hazy.
My take was that he focused on a rider’s hip angle. He told riders to get out of the saddle and have your hands up and in front of you—that would encourage a horse’s head down. It was a lot more “up” than some riders were used to.
George and his assistant, Oakley, rode several horses in most of the sessions either to show riders what they were doing over fences or to correct a horse. The second day Oakley rode my horse over the triple, demonstrating riders who sat back too quickly or ducked forward.
George said if you can see something happen with a rider, it was probably wrong. He emphasized using your leg to bend a horse and using the inner leg to set up a flying change, not pulling them onto a change. He also stressed getting “into position,” a half seat over jumps, and not sitting back behind the motion.
He said you see a lot of posting at the canter in the derbies these days, and not in a good way. The horses needed to be responsive to leg and to go forward. “Leg him” was heard often over the weekend. If a horse was not responsive, we needed to cluck at him or use the stick, behind the saddle, not on the shoulder. Riding isn’t hard—go forward!
He talked to the “teachers” quite a bit. “You teachers need to teach correctness. It’s not about the ribbons. Do your homework; read horse books. Not Black Beauty, but books on theory,” he said.
He pointed to riders who are professionals in every sense of the word—focused, hungry, thinking, etc. We should emulate McLain Ward for example. We need to not push horses faster than we should; we should give them time. He said one grand prix rider who gets a horse in from Europe starts them over smaller jumps and goes slowly, adding height. Even if they were doing grand prixs in Europe, make sure they have a base and know their jobs. He’s not a fan of medication. You need to ride and train your horses. “Those German horses are spooky. Ride them. Train them,” he said.
Saturday night I got a call that no horse owner ever wants to get. Pat Joe called to say my horse had gotten cast. She related how he was a super star and as soon as he saw people there to help him, he stopped struggling and didn’t move while they got him untangled and up. He seemed fine, walked sound and was eating hay. Thank goodness he was blanketed and wrapped. He didn’t have a scratch on him and was fine for the last day of the clinic.
On Sunday, my vet was at the clinic and as I was getting on, I related how my horse had cast himself and could he watch him a little bit? At that point I saw George in the aisle waving his hands at me to get on. I got on quickly without thinking and had my stick in the wrong hand.
That’s when it was apparent that George is an “equal opportunity zinger.” While on Friday he had praised my mounting style, to throw my leg over and with a step or two to put my foot in the stirrup and then lightly sit, he zinged me for having my stick in my right hand and moving the stick over the horse’s back when I threw my leg over. I think the words used included “half a brain.” Point taken: Don’t rush, think!
All three days had a triple combination that he put to crossrails to start most of the groups. For the third day, it was a wide oxer, vertical, wide plank oxer.
The 3’6” group practiced adding in the one-stride to the two-stride back and forth, making their horses do two to three and teaching them to collect and listen. Any horse and rider who didn’t do the add was told to stop and back up. It is easy to flow, harder to collect. He emphasized release with some people, others position over fences. He didn’t care if the horse shuffled a little bit in this exercise, but you were chastised if you let the horse pull you through or if you looked like you gave up. He also emphasized opening rein to move a horse over first on the flat, then over the triple he had placed on the rail. He also wanted your stick on the inside hand when going up the triple and to take time to switch your stick.
The first day, the triple was about two steps from the corner. The second day the triple had more room on the landing, but another skinny fence was set on an angle in the corner, and we had to turn into the wall over it (backwards into the wall. It was TIGHT). We then turned the short corner by the bleachers, and he wanted us to have a collected gallop (you don’t jump jumps off a canter) over the rolltop (which looked HUGE) bending seven to a gate in the far corner. The advanced groups started over it at seven, showing control then let the six flow.
We jumped the liverpool all three days, starting at a trot over it set low and then cantering it higher. The second day, the 4’ group practiced jumping it over smaller circles several times in a row. For the third day we put the line together. Rolltop, bending five strides to a gate, bending controlled four to the liverpool.
He emphasized the four to the three was there, but he wanted a controlled five to four. How you jumped the middle gate really helped or hurt you getting to the liverpool. If you were turning left over the gate it was very hard to get the four strides for some horses.
There was a course change all three days. The oxers were not skinny. Each group had some greener horses. It seemed like he would have our group do a jump smaller, then he would add the top rail. He also dropped rails to make crossrails if the horses had trouble. The brush oxer had two rails over it squared, which seems like no problem right? But it was this close to the corner and the liverpool.
I saw a lot of fabulous riding. Oakley was amazing, and he said he liked riding my horse, so OF course I liked him. It was also a gift to see George get on several of the horses.
I heard several “That’s it Sheila’s,” and also heard, “That horse is perfect for you” and “There is only one problem. Whatever you paid for him, you didn’t pay enough. If you paid $2 million, it wasn’t enough.”
Thanks to Pat Joe and to Wendy Smith who organized the clinic.