At 7:45 a.m. on Thursday morning, Day 2 of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session hadn’t officially begun yet, but Morris himself was already in the saddle. While the sun was still making its way out of the clouds, Morris rode among the first group of riders, aboard a horse he’d commandeered from GHM participant Olivia Champ.
In his world, if you’re not early, you’re late.
Day 2 began with trotting—lots of it. And then cantering—lots of that, too. A thorough warm-up is absolutely essential when an intense lesson in gymnastic jumping is ahead, Morris intoned.
The Holy Grail
Principles from Day 1's session carried over, of course, and high on the priority list was maintaining three consistent contacts through seat, legs and hands. Impulsion, rhythm and, above all, self-carriage were key concepts.
“The holy grail of my philosophy, which I always taught you, and you, and you,” Morris said, singling certain audience members out with a pointed finger as he passed by, “is self carriage. The horse is happier this way.”
Morris rode the first 25 minutes of each session with the participants, first at the trot and then leading the riders through single and double cavaletti on the ground.
When Champ’s horse didn’t accept the steady contact it was offered, it was deemed “spoiled” by Morris. With transitions of lengthening, shortening, and moving upward and downward between gaits, he made every change a transition, and focused on the detail of each one.
Once riders were warmed up and their horses were accepting of the aids, everyone moved on to the canter. As Champ’s horse exhaled through its nostrils, Morris remarked that when you hear the horse blow out, he’s starting to accept the contacts.
With the rising heat of the day in consideration (temperatures reached 80 degrees in South Florida on Thursday), Group 2 was spared a lengthy flat warm-up. Both groups cycled through a series of short gymnastic lines that built upon each other.
Morris was quicker to admonish riders for making mistakes today, but in turn, they were quicker to correct themselves. And when they did, he supported their efforts with a compliment and referenced the position of riders such as McLain Ward, who exemplifies high, correct hands and a consistent connection.
“What are you doing with your hands?” Morris growled when he saw hands drop toward the lap. “Keep your hands up. This requires balance. If necessary, you shorten your stirrup so that you are in balance.”
Everything progressed to the natural next step. After a simple bounce of a vertical, half-rail to half-rail, the exercise continued on around the corner on the flat. No dropping the reins and stopping in the corner were allowed here. A precise turn and halt in front of a triple combination previewed the element that came next.
Spectators filled every seat and lined the rails to watch Morris turn straightforward gymnastics into an exercise where every stride and every adjustment had meaning.
An assortment of top riders, trainers and owners floated in and out of the audience, including Stacia Madden, Chris Kappler, Betsee Parker, Debbie Stephens and Darragh Kenny. With a pre-Winter Equestrian Festival competition taking place in nearby rings and barn setups under construction, the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center was a busy hub of activity.
Lead changes on a figure eight were performed many times until horses were performing the change smoothly, quietly and without resistance. If a mistake was made, the riders simply repeated the exercise until they got it right.
“Don’t ever forget this is a cavalry sport, people,” Morris said. “Equestrian is an army sport. Don’t ever forget that.”
The second gymnastic eventually led to the last element on a right turn, a square oxer in two strides to a bright red gate. But if riders were unable to perform the triple combination to Morris’ specifications, a booming “Left. Left!” rang out over the ring to indicate that they were to try again.
“It’s much easier to do things sloppy than to do things correct,” Morris said with impatience. “This country’s the king of sloppy. Sloppy. I don’t like sloppy.”
Sloppy also applied to adjusting a ground cavaletti 2 inches too much. Sloppy meant not riding with confidence. All in all, the 12 young riders worked very hard to avoid any sloppy movements. The resting group didn’t do too much resting today; even while standing in the center of the ring they were expected to study the riders and act as jump crew when needed.
Follow The Mouth
The fences went up to 3’6”, and skills in impulsion and confidence became imperative. Getting the horse to jump with impulsion rather than speed and keeping the horse in front of the leg mattered not only in front of the jump, but also at the walk when the horse began, on the landing after a fence, and in the final corner, where some horses took to stopping and backing up better than others.
“I construct these fences so the horses self-rub. It teaches them to get careful,” Morris said.
The automatic release was another big focus, beginning with the single warm-up fence and continuing over the more solid obstacles. Morris encouraged riders to follow the mouth and soften their connection over the fence without dropping the hand too low.
Ana Forssell had a rough ride through the last jumping exercise, and she was told to go left to repeat it half a dozen times. “You have to be proactive,” he told Forssell. He encouraged her to help the horse a little bit and make a definite choice to either go forward or sit still.