It’s also worth mentioning that Morris basically wrote the bible of hunter seat equitation. It’s called, not surprisingly, “Hunter Seat Equitation.” I have had a copy since I was a kid and read it cover to cover at least three times, going back to reference certain sections when I need them. If you don’t own a copy, I highly suggest that you get yourself on Amazon.com and buy one tonight! It is the only book on equitation I own, and quite frankly, the only one I need.
I watched about six hours of teaching at this clinic, so I’ll just try to relay what I think were the key take home messages. Morris placed a tremendous emphasis in all three groups he taught on impulsion and forward motion. Without impulsion, he said, you have nothing. One of the exercises he set was a two stride to a three stride with a wide triple bar as the first jump, then a single, then a square oxer. The jumps were set on a horse show step (35’ to 47’). He wanted the horses to really gallop forward. He despises the backward, sleepy rides of the modern hunter ring. He explained that soft arms make a good distance at the jumps. He encouraged riders to push their horses forward through the turn and then soften their arms so not to hinder the horse in finding a distance. And if a spot was wrong? Well, he said “make a decision and live with it.” Even if the spot was too long or short, he wanted riders to be decisive and follow through. The rider must produce the pace to the jump, but the horse must learn to be self-sufficient at the jump. Morris did not want to see riders continually picking at their horses in front of the fence. Rather, he wanted the rider to set the horse up with a good pace and track, but it was the horse’s job to actually jump the fence and the rider’s job to go with him. Also about finding distances Morris said, “if you see the distance move up, if you don’t, wait.” Morris likes a bold, forward ride, so it is no wonder he likes a good thoroughbred. There were several at the clinic. “I can smell a thoroughbred,” he said, admiring a tall young bay in the 2’6” group. He continued on to lament that we have a surplus of talented ex-thoroughbred racehorses in America and it is a pity that we are not utilizing them more often. He dislikes how the use of heavier warmblood breeds have influenced the sport.
Morris also placed an emphasis on equitation, correcting equitation flaws in the riders even though many were quite accomplished. Throughout the day, he told several riders to fix how their foot was placed in the stirrup to make their legs “prettier.” To be a great rider, he told them, “focus on the details.” He also noted that when the upper body is vertical, in the walk or canter, for example, it should actually be angled slightly in front of the vertical in order to “go with” the horse. One rider in the 2’6” group was a ducker who severely over-exaggerated her two-point position. “Acrobatics! Unnecessary acrobatics!” He shouted. “The upper body should do nothing.” Throughout the course of her session, the rider was able to correct her ducking habit with Morris’ help.
Morris had the more advanced groups jump a liverpool. Some of the horses refused the unfamiliar water jump. One horse threw it’s rider during a refusal and then threw the professional rider who got on to school it. However, the horse was not allowed to get out of jumping the obstacle. It was asked to jump a tarp and then finally the liverpool again. Morris said that jumping the liverpool was about challenging the horses and riders. He prides himself in finding challenges, even for the most accomplished riders in the world, in order to improve their skills. He also said of the riders falling off, that while instructors should not want riders to fall off, it is an inevitable part of the sport and that riders should be prepared for it. Morris also worked on the automatic crest release with the advanced group. To perform the release, he had them ride through a low gymnastic line and told them to think of lowering their hands while maintaining direct contact with the horse’s mouth. I found this to be a useful cue and tried practicing the automatic release on Patrick when I got home. Another exercise I used when I got home was a figure eight over a single square oxer. Holly has had me do a figure eight pattern over a single jump before, but I found that adding the square oxer really sharpened Patrick up. In the advanced group, Morris encouraged riders to angle the jump (which was about 3’6” in height) and to make the circles of the eight smaller and smaller. It was a pleasure to watch the advanced group ride. All or most of the four riders were professionals who were exemplary riders.
At the end of the day, Morris addressed the auditors with some closing remarks. I feel that he was speaking, in particular, to the coaches who are responsible for developing future riders. He said that working with riders over low jumps was useful, but “our goal is higher [fences].” He favors a strict, no-nonsense, and brutally honest teaching style. Throughout the day, he said that many American riders are “desperate housewives” and “Pampered! pampered, all of them!” He doesn’t believe that riders should be handled with kid gloves, but rather, that they should be challenged.
He talked about the two types of fear, physical fear and emotional fear. He explained that physical fear is a fear of getting injured and is valid, while emotional fear is the fear of making a mistake and has no place in riding. “Emotional fear is rampant in this country,” he said. Even though physical fear is valid, he said that riders must constantly fight it. He noted that some riders have more physical fear than others. Of his personal experience he said, “I had to ride horses, but I was scared to death. I fought chicken.”
My impression is that George Morris is probably most interested in getting his message out to professionals who are responsible for training other riders and to riders who are in a position to climb to the upper levels of the sport. I think that is an appropriate mindset for someone in his position. He is looking at the big picture for the sport. However, he treated all of the riders and horses in his clinic with the same level of dignity and gave them all a great lesson regardless of whether they were pros or “desperate housewives.”
So what can somebody like me take away from this experience? While I have goals, they are fairly humble. I do not intend to climb to the upper echelons of the sport. What I got out of this clinic was that I need to keep stretching myself and my horse and getting outside of my comfort zone. This might mean doing bigger or different fences than I’m used to or exercises that are harder than I’m used to. I need to keep checking myself so that I don’t get sloppy with the details of my equitation. Morris’ message about fighting physical fear also struck home. As most of you know by now, I’m kind of a chicken. In order to accomplish my goals I will have to keep fighting the legitimate worry about getting hurt. I know that if you gallop at a big oxer and worry about getting hurt, it might not end well. That’s a given. However, it was comforting to know that I’m not alone in the struggle against physical fear and that many accomplished riders also struggle to control this emotion. After watching the clinic, I felt bold and inspired. I went home and had a great ride.