“Unfortunately, our sport doesn’t require correctness on the flat like dressage does. We worry about correctness over the jump but not between the jumps. As I get older, I’m more and more into what happens between the fences because it’s so important,” George H. Morris intoned on Day 3 of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions in Wellington, Fla.
The third day, Jan. 4, was mostly focused on jumping, but true to his word, Morris made it clear that riders couldn’t forget about what was happening on the flat between the jumps.
The warm-up for both sessions echoed themes from Day 1 and Day 2, with lots of work on lateral suppleness with shoulder-in and haunches-in work at the walk and trot. Morris made sure to intersperse the lateral work with lengthening, emphasizing the need to ride from leg to hand. He also reiterated that the horse’s straightness comes from the leg aids, not the hands. “Use your legs,” was a repeated phrase.
As in the first two days, the phrase “carry your hands,” echoed out over the ring frequently, as Morris exhorted the riders to keep their hands centered over the withers and elevated above the wither. “A great example of beautiful hands in the ring is McLain Ward. He carried his hands quite high, but he has a beautiful contact with the mouth with that hand,” Morris said. “Bill Steinkraus says, ‘Make a contract with your horse. If you carry your hand, he’ll carry his head.’ ”
Despite his focus on the correct contact and the horses’ acceptance of that contact, Morris wasn’t at all concerned about frame. “Don’t be obsessive about flexion," he said. In the second group, Frances Land’s horse was consistently above the bit, but Morris didn’t correct it. He praised her, saying that despite her horse’s hollowness, she wasn’t pulling down on the reins and kept a consistent contact.
“Don’t in any way try and pull the head down; the horse should look like it's dancing behind. He should be mobile in his whole body,” Morris said.
From canter exercises like spiraling in and out on a circle and simple changes every six, five and four strides, the riders moved on to bending lines of cavaletti, with the emphasis on straightness and even pace.
Morris intoned the three basic principles of riding, which are calm, forward and straight.
Jumping Right In
When each group started jumping, they didn’t ease into it with a crossrail or simple single jump. Instead, the first few jumps they jumped were elements of a line set along the long side of the ring. “It’s different, but it’s different on purpose,” Morris said. “If it’s easy, it doesn’t teach you anything.”
The line, which could be jumped both ways, was an oxer-vertical one-stride to three very tight strides to a liverpool vertical to two tight strides to an oxer. Riders started jumping by angling the oxers on the ends, and the liverpool vertical, as single fences. They then jumped the line back and forth.
Morris wanted the riders to ride forward to the first jump, then let their horses back off the remaining fences.
Gabrielle Bausano’s horse got quite aggressive in the line, and Morris pointed out that her defensive seat was actually working as a driving aid. He encouraged her to stay forward despite the horse’s enthusiasm, and the horse settled quickly.
Olivia Champ’s horse also had his blood up, leaving a stride out of the three-stride distance the first time through the line. He told her to turn the horse out of the line, toward the wall of the ring, after the first two jumps. As she jumped back and forth through the line, Morris stayed silent and let Champ work through the problem. After the horse settled, he praised her use of half-halts and a pulley rein action.
“When the going gets tough, you have to get very calm and determined,” he said. “When adversity strikes—and you have to practice adversity—you just get tough.”
In the second group, Ana Forssell’s horse was also bullish, and Morris had her do the turning to the wall exercise too, which helped settle the horse.
Stephen Foran also left a stride out in the three-stride, but Morris identified it as a rider mistake, not a result of the horse’s attitude. “You’re in the doggie motel, which is not a good place to be,” he cautioned Foran.
Make Good Decisions
The riders then had to come up with a course of about 10 jumps on their own, using a triple-bar, a vertical red gate, a Swedish oxer, and an oxer-vertical one-stride combination. All the jumps could be jumped either way.
He repeated his advice to Gabrielle Bausano about not using a driving seat on a hot horse, asking her to lean forward a bit. In contrast, he exhorted Catherine Tyree to elevate her horse’s poll with higher hands. Morris watched intently even as the riders pulled up on a closing circle, not letting them be sloppy in any aids or downward transition. “You’re always either schooling or unschooling the horse,” he said.
There were a few different bending line options with striding decisions to be made, and Morris made it clear that the riders couldn’t wait until they’d landed over the first jump to decide about their track and the number of strides they’d ride. “If you want to do six [strides], do it in the air,” he said.
“When did you make that decision?” he asked Frances Land.
“Too late,” Land replied.
“Yes, too late. I can still see,” said Morris in his trademark zing.
Morris really liked Ana Forssell’s plan for her course. While most of the riders dove right in riding the bending lines, she made wide turns to the first few jumps, then put together a few bending lines. “She didn’t start too ambitious,” Morris said. “She jumped some simple, single fences first, then put it together. That’s a horseman’s decision.”
During the flatwork, Morris had criticized Foran for allowing himself to be boxed in behind other horses. He encouraged him to be more aggressive. When Foran was jumping his course, Morris gave him a quick lesson in aggressiveness. He walked back and forth in front of a red gate that Foran was jumping, forcing Foran to yell “Heads up!” on the approach and navigate around him. “Jump the jump!” Morris bellowed. “I’m not precious!”
A Water Finale
After they’d all jumped their courses, riders from both groups jumped a course devised by Morris that finished with an open water jump. The jump had a solid wall on the take-off side, a rail over the middle, and a PVC rail on the far edge of the water as a tape.
Morris encouraged riders to go to their stick at take-off if there was any doubt in the horse’s confidence. He praised Meg O’Mara’s application of that artificial aid. “She was impeccable in her intensity and timing there,” he said.
Morris wasn’t just concerned with if the horses jumped the water, but also in how they jumped it. Catherine Tyree’s horse wowed the crowd with lofty, soaring leaps over the water, and while Morris applauded the horse’s effort, he encouraged Tyree to keep her leg on to prevent the overjumping. He also didn’t allow riders to let their horses drift to the inside on the turn after the water.
Throughout the day, Morris delivered his trademark quips…
• “Impulsion at all costs, people. Impulsion is the mother of equitation.”
• “Don’t practice what’s comfortable. This is a comfort-driven society.”
• “Everything in riding is a paradox—you get a horse straight by turning.”
• “Don’t be obsessive about anything with a horse; that’s how you break them physically and mentally. There’s always tomorrow or next week.”
• “Discipline is out of fashion, but discipline is the basis of all safety and excellence.”
The Theory Behind It All
Dr. Deb Bennett, Ph.D., conducted the second of her three lectures about the physiology and anatomy that go into a horse’s motion. Lesson 1 was about straightness of the body and how that affects the horse’s soundness. “If you let a horse go crooked and are blithefully unaware of it, you will make him lame,” Bennett said. “A side effect of a crooked horse is subtle offness.”
In this session, Bennett addressed the mental straightness of a horse, using her theory of a birdie, which represents the horse’s point of focus. She maintains that the horse must have his “birdie” within himself to be calm and to learn. “To the extent that the body and the birdie are separate, the horse will exhibit signs of distress and undesirable behaviors,” Bennett said. “You want to have a horse that is 100 percent OK on the inside at all times.”
After Bennett’s presentation, the riders watched top farrier Dean Pearson give a presentation based on the old adage of “no hoof, no horse.” Pearson gave a quick lesson on the anatomy of the foot and the mechanics of an out-of-balance foot. He gave all the riders a notebook filled with diagrams, photos and X-ray images.
Pearson emphasized to the riders that they are responsible for their horse’s soundness and the health of his feet. He told them about an Olympic event rider he shod for for many years, who would insist on holding the horse for each shoeing, in order to be informed about his horse’s feet. He encouraged the riders to do the same.
Pearson showed the riders a case of thrush on a demo horse. They all then watched him pull the horse’s shoe off. Pearson emphasized that, as riders, they need to be able to pull off a sprung shoe in an emergency. He gifted them with a canvas bag full of all the tools they’d need to pull a shoe, donated by various manufacturers.
After the demonstration, Pearson followed the riders back to the barn, where he and his assistant helped each of them pull a shoe of their horse. (Pearson replaced the shoe, though he told the riders an old-time horseman would be able to put the shoe back on following the existing nail holes.)
Saturday’s sessions involve intensive flatwork without stirrups, and then the riders will jump again on Sunday.
See stories and photos from all sessions of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.