That Time George Morris Wanted To Buy My Horse: Three Days Riding With A Master

Sep 19, 2017 - 9:28 PM

Well, here it is, a massive blog entry about the Thing I Have Been Waiting For All Year. A clinic with George H. Morris.

But first, how about we warm up with some beloved George memes:

….Sweet baby Jesus help me.

Secondly, perhaps you want to know a little something about my horse and me. My name is Lindsey, I’m an active duty Air Force officer, and I grew up riding hunters and equitation in New England. After college I rode professionally for a stint in the Middleburg, Va., area, primarily focusing on foxhunters, and I even dabbled (flailed?) in some training level horse trials.

I later changed careers and bought my horse, Soon, off the track in 2013. He ran 52 times over the course of five years and won several races. He’s now being brought along as a jumper, but he is multitalented. I have done all the training on him myself, more recently with the help of some truly amazing and legendary horsemen.

That’s Soon and I showing at the Upperville Horse Show this year. Photo by Equine Event Photos

Soon and I have had a fun journey—I hope to share more of our adventures with you all. But right now, let’s talk about the Most Terrifying Decision Ever.

It’s been a long road this year with the George Morris clinic as our target. This is something I have wanted to do since I was a kid. I am very lucky now to have the horse, the opportunity, and the amazing support system to help prepare us for this. I remember back in the early spring when I signed up for the clinic the internal debate and outward screaming I was doing when navigating through the sign-up screens. There was definitely screaming when I hit the payment button. But I figured this was my opportunity. I had audited the Beverly Equestrian clinic in 2016 and told myself that Soon and I would definitely be there in 2017.

I had to. I may have to move next year and this may, legitimately, be my one opportunity to ride with George Morris. I was not sure we would be ready. But there’s a little thing I like to tell myself when facing tough circumstances or challenges in order to quell the self-doubt: “Why not?”

It was a tough summer, but a good one. We started working with incredible folks, some of whom we got to see the week leading up to the big GHM clinic. I had a flat lesson with Linda Zang and then a jump school with Joe Fargis in the days just before the clinic. We left feeling very confident and ready for whatever George had to throw at us come Tuesday.

Getting Ready

Before we went anywhere I had to check off all the requirements in the George Morris Clinic Survival Guide: Horse did not look feral. Traditional irons were on the saddle, boots were polished, and tack was spotless. (Soon does not wear a martingale, so no issues with the age old standing vs. running debate.) I had an alias in place in case I embarrassed myself and my family name and had to move to Canada. I knew the difference between a “half turn” and a “half turn in reverse.” We had a counter canter. I could adjust my stirrups “properly.” Soon jumps liverpools (more or less…), and I had done some work without my stirrups this summer.

I did not get around to re-reading GM’s Hunter Seat Equitation book like I had wanted, but I did look at the pictures, and that’s almost as good (right?). I was prepared to ride that third grader logic straight into the ground because at that point, I didn’t have time for the words.

I also reviewed my goals for the clinic: 1) DO NOT FALL OFF….I like to keep this list short, so I do not forget it.

We hauled out to Beverly Equestrian in The Plains, Va., on Monday. I so enjoy going to Beverly; it is such a lovely facility, and I am grateful to have such lovely opportunities within a reasonable distance. We left early enough to arrive before anyone else and got our pick of the available stalls. We got unpacked, and once the horses were settled, we took them for a hack around the property. We found the trails and spent about a half hour just trail riding to get the horses’ legs stretched.

It was a perfect, relaxing ride. If anything, it totally took my mind off the pending doom that awaited the next day. You know the pending doom—the knowledge that you’re about to get your head ripped off by one of the most famous horsemen on the planet, and it’s going to be in front of about 50 other people and possibly the entire internet.

It is a good thing that I’m in the military, and I can take being screamed at. In fact, I don’t know what has helped prepare me more for the GM clinic: my equitation days with a tough, but brilliant trainer and No Stirrup MONTH, or four months of officer training where absolutely nothing you do is right, and sometimes there are three huge dudes on a serious power trip screaming in your face for no reason whatsoever. I’d say that when it comes to being yelled at, these days it’s not even an issue.

GIF 1

Later on Monday afternoon, I found the Most Adorable Cottage Ever that I rented for the week and got ready to attend George’s talk at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg. It was an interesting discussion about classical horsemanship and what is missing in today’s riding. GM offered his favorite excerpts from books by Chamberlain, Wright and others. After having GM sign my copy of his book, Unrelenting, I retreated to the cottage and relaxed for the evening.

So let’s talk about this cottage for a moment: I finally broke down and tried AirBnB after I decided I was way less likely to get murdered in horrible ways if I wasn’t trying to stay in New York City or another large city. Middleburg seemed like a pretty safe, non-murdery place to experiment with paying to stay in a stranger’s house. And it was, by the way. I rented the same cottage for the jumper show next week, and I’m already excited about it.

I’m especially excited about that shower. It’s the most glorious thing after a hard day at the barn. The bathroom might take up 45 percent of the cottage, but I don’t care because it was WORTH IT.

Day 1

Thanks to Kim being wonderful and staying with the horses, I didn’t have to show up until almost 8 a.m., so I was able to get some extra sleep. I checked on Soonie, took him for a quick hand-walk, then watched the first hour or so of the 3’6″ group. I elected to do the 3′ group with Soon, since that seemed like an adequate challenge back in March or whenever I signed up for this clinic. More on that later.

I got Soonie ready and came up early to do a light warm-up in the dressage ring, as he seemed a little up. The first day went very well, far better than I expected. Soon is so mature about traveling now—he took everything in stride (even the big group of auditors) and was an absolute superstar.

Flatwork focused on some transitions, then shoulder-fore and then shoulder-in exercises. In the canter, we focused on keeping the horse truly straight—something that made me extremely thankful for our work with Linda Zang! All the while, GM emphasized keeping the hands up with a straight line from bit to elbow.

Jumping the hogsback. Photo by Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

Jumping on the first day was straightforward, with a gymnastic exercise to start, where GM highlighted my following hand (jumping out of hand/”automatic release”), which I was happy he noticed.  I was also happy to hear his praise for my “classical hand” over the jump…when you expect to get killed by your discipline’s most famous trainer, hearing praise of any kind is almost shocking. In a good way? Or is it a trap?

Day 2
I was feeling really great about the first day, so my nerves were slightly less on edge for Day 2… That is until I saw that the first group had all their stirrup irons removed.

Awesome.

There’s that horrible, sickening, sinking feeling when you first realize that you’re in for the infamous No Stirrup Day. It’s not entirely a surprise—you signed up for a freaking GM clinic for crying out loud—but you hope that maybe…maybe…he’ll have an old person moment and forget. Because he only told us 847 times how old he is, it seemed like a logical possibility…

George lecturing. Photo by Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

But it wasn’t. I accepted my fate. I had a whole hour of the first group to mull over it and come to terms with my situation. I figured if I fell off, I might as well keep digging the hole so I can crawl in it and die; just bury me where I face planted. I did work without my stirrups this summer, but not as much as I wanted to. Suffice it to say, I was really reaching back to my equitation days and seriously channeling my 17-year-old self that, for some absurd reason, really loved riding without stirrups.

I was an overachiever then, and my 33-year-old self now really hates that 17-year-old show-off.

I was very happy to know that GM didn’t demand posting trot much – only a lap or two of that – the rest of the trot work was all sitting. But maybe halfway through our flatwork session I was riding around in front of an audience AND George Morris without my stirrups trying to look as professional and poised as possible, but feeling like:

I think the most exciting bit, and surely my death sentence, was having to trot the liverpool with no stirrups. Because we have some well-documented liverpool shenanigans from this year. I started thinking how long it would take me to dig my own grave in the ring with my hands, or if I should ask the barn staff for a shovel. Thankfully the patient liverpool training I did with Soon this summer paid off. His first time over it he hesitated slightly and then jumped huge (I stayed with him), but the other times he went over it just fine. I didn’t have to ask for that shovel after all.

We got our stirrups back after the Canter That Would Not End, and to my surprise, George asked for Soon. Outwardly, I was calm, but in my head I was screaming, “GEORGE MORRIS WANTS TO RIDE MY HORSE! THIS IS NOT A DRILL. BE NORMAL. DON’T SCARE GM.” Now, GM has always ridden in his clinics, but these days he seems to choose the better behaved/schooled horses to ride, and this year he had two Beverly riders on hand to ride the problem ones. So I suppose that was a compliment that he wanted to hop on Soonie himself.

GM jumped Soonie through the grid several times, noting and praising the Thoroughbred, particularly the true TB quality of being “quick on the blood,” meaning that Soon was very responsive to George’s aids. And he was—he was the right amount of forward and reactive but still relaxed and quiet. He went quietly through the line and quietly up into the corners with no drama and stood quietly. Soon was so obedient, and he really showed off.

That’s George. Riding my horse. Photo by Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

I cannot adequately describe how proud of him I was then, and still am. My heart swelled. Ring crew were complimenting him as GM rode around. This little war horse came off the backside of Fairmount Park four years ago, and here he was making George Morris smile.

George wrapped up his ride, and (sadly, after my video had been stopped) as he approached me, asked me, “What’s his price?” I laughed and shook my head, saying he wasn’t for sale. George insisted again, “What’s his price?” and I had to again say that he wasn’t for sale, not for any price (said with a stupidly huge smile on my face). I can’t tell if GM was miffed or amused by that answer, as he replied with, “I’ve never had ANYONE tell me that!”

I got on, and the jumping went just as well as the first day, with the exception of me completely forgetting to finish one of the exercises, which got me rightfully CHEWED OUT by George Morris. That’s OK; that was completely deserved. I think I was still somewhere at 37,000 feet riding that high off GM’s compliments for Soon. But, to be fair, it was the only time out of the three days I got chewed out or yelled at. So, that has to be a win.

Soon and me posing for the obligatory photo with George.

We ended Day 2 on a strong note. I didn’t feel that I rode as well as I did on Day 1, but still a solid performance, and of course Soon was the star. Afterward, I asked GM for a quick photo with him and Soon. He told me again, “I really like your horse!” and Dr. Betsee Parker was kind enough to say, “He’s a lovely horse!” Two A-List horsey celebrities loving on a $1,500 off-the-track Thoroughbred right there!

Day 3

By now, most of the nerves of having to ride in front of GM had completely worn off. I was tired, my body was sore, and there was a part of me that was just ready to be done. Three days of two-hour clinic sessions can be a lot, especially now that I’m only riding one horse most of the time. Ten years ago this would have been nothing, but I was also riding four to eight horses a day then! Not so much now.

Half of me wanted to fast forward to the part where the clinic was over, and part of me wanted to soak up every second and enjoy it. This may never happen again.

There was also a part of me that was worried that No Stirrups Day Part Deux might be a thing, but thankfully, it wasn’t.

GIF 2
My reaction to keeping our stirrups on Day 3.
GIF 3
Soon’s reaction to Day 3 in general.

The flatwork Day 3 was straightforward, just some school figures and practicing changing the bend. In canter, we worked on lengthening/shortening the stride in the two-point contact, while maintaining straightness both through the turn and down the long side. The jumping went well. Soon and I were praised by GM for being so straight down the tight four-stride to four-stride combo.

We also did well on the long, galloping approach to the triple bar. I made sure to open up Soon’s stride and let him come forward out of the turn, as GM had told me the past two days. It worked—I closed my leg and softened my hand and met the triple in the perfect spot each time. We did have a stop at the liverpool the first time, but after a quick correction, Soon hopped right over it and rode well to it the rest of the day. Compared to where he first started with liverpools, that is a huge achievement.

Next was the bending five-stride line to the two-stride to the one-stride. Soon and I gauged this well and got complimented on how we rode it. We went through that three times, and then wrapped up the session for the last time.

It was over. We had done it. We had completed three days with arguably the most infamous clinician on the planet, and come out all the better for it.

GM asked the last group at the end of their session where in their comfort zone they felt the clinic fell. I considered how I might answer that question, and the reality is, it was well within our comfort zone, to the point of the exercises being very straightforward. I actually got a lot more positive comments from GM than negative, so I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or if perhaps I should have considered the 3’6″ class with Soon.

That said, as a trainer I know that the 3′ class was absolutely the right decision this time out. It was our first big clinic experience together, and our first time riding in front of GM in a relatively high pressure situation. It was good to be able to look at the questions and say, “Oh that’s no problem at all.” It took some of the pressure off. It allowed us to really shine rather than just scrape by.

We were still challenged enough to walk away with some good exercises and a list of things to improve/polish, which I believe is important. You don’t go to a clinic to have someone say, “Yeah you were fine.” You go there to learn how to be better. That seems to be one of George’s biggest talking points: You can always be better.

Takeaways

  • Carry the hands.  I sometimes worry that Soon gets overbent and breaks over in the neck or gets too low—carrying the hands, paired with the outside hand/leg to straighten and collect all helps keep him up in front.
  • Do not look for the lead. I don’t know why I do that—it’s such a second grade thing to do—but I sometimes look down at my lead, and I got nailed for it on the third day. I will work on some exercises to reinforce the feel.
  • Let the horse flow out of the turn. This is consistent with what Stephen Bradley and Joe Fargis have both been telling me, to keep the leg on around the corner and allow the horse to come forward out of the corner to the fence.

After my last session concluded, I made sure to approach GM again. I shook his hand and told him thank you, that it was a privilege to ride with him, and I thanked him for his time. He took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eye and said thank you in return, and that I was “a great student. A great student.” That means the world to me. To have looked forward to this for so long, to have worked so hard and with so many great trainers to get to this moment…to have that feedback on both Soon and myself was the best sort of validation for both our efforts.

Soon’s reward.

We got home Thursday night, and Soon got turned out immediately. He got nearly 24 straight hours of turnout, followed by a massage session. He seemed very pleased about that—he does love his massages! The boy deserves some pampering. Also, I fed him approximately 8,374 carrots since Monday, so he seemed quite pleased about that too.

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