Inside the 2010 George Morris Horsemastership Training Session

Online diary: Participant Zazou Hoffman, 17, shares her observations from the ring on what she and her fellow riders are learning from longtime U.S. show jumping coach George Morris and other guest speakers at his 2010 Horsemastership Training Session.

Editor’s note: Zazou Hoffman, winner of the 2009 ASPCA Maclay National Championships, is one of 10 top junior riders invited to participate in the fourth annual George Morris Horsemastership Training Session, being held January 5-9, 2010, in the International Ring of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla (view public schedule). Zazou, from Santa Monica, Calif., is writing an online diary this week for and


Day 1, Tuesday, January 5, 2010

People have to get a better understanding of contact. This is what goes into training a jumper–this is the main theme of the flatwork session with Mr. George Morris (GM).

GM as beat poet a la Ginsberg or Kerouac–yes, I know who they are from the beat photo show that my dad curated with Allen Ginsberg. The GM mantra: “Give, take, discipline, take, give, repeat, don’t drop your hands, close your hands, repeat.” People have to get a better understanding of contact. Very few riders have educated hands–maybe three to five of GM’s students–which includes top Olympic riders.

Classic GM quote, after getting on Chase Boggio’s horse Perfekt and working his magic: “I’m an old rucksack, and I still like riding.” He really worked hard consistently for 40 minutes, all the while chanting, “Tricks, tricks, tricks, tricks, tricks,” even when Perfekt evaded Mr. Morris’ aids… then in a most charming voice as if dealing with a naughty child “Papa’s here today, Papa’s on top.” And the horse became submissive.

Anne Kursinski’s story was truly inspirational! She gave an extemporaneous timeline of her adventures in riding with the two overlapping influences being Jimmy Williams and George Morris. At the foundation of her story is the tenet that dogged determination is the key to her success. She experienced riding very difficult horses and had it drilled into her by Jimmy Williams that getting the horse over the fence was the primary goal. That tenacity was called upon in a class when she rode Cannonball with the whip up after he stopped out in the first round: She drew upon a trick she remembered from her Jimmy Williams days and finished victorious.

The last session of the day was by team vet Dr. Tim Ober. In addition to a hands-on anatomy lesson, he voiced his concern that an alarming number of horses are not fit enough to do the job expected. Thus the high number of resulting, but avoidable, injuries. He also reminded us of the importance of training on a variety of surfaces, i.e. grass to asphalt to manicured ring.

I learned so much and can’t wait to pass what I learned on to the young riders and adults with whom I train at the community riding ring in Sullivan Canyon, Calif., where I keep my horse. I look forward to tomorrow’s gymnastic session with the maestro!

Day 2, Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cavalletti & Gymnastics
I need to backtrack a little and explain that I arrived at the Wellington showgrounds Tuesday at 7 a.m. straight off the airplane and dosed with Tamiflu. In spite of feeling lousy, I really wanted to participate in these training sessions and NOTHING was going to stop me. The opportunity to work with Mr. Morris in an intimate setting with the top young riders in the country doesn’t come around very often. He is the ultimate historian of the sport as well as an extraordinary teacher. As I write this I am hyper-aware that no amount of words, videos or photos can capture this man in action. Imagine the low timbre of Tom Waits with the odd poetic phrasing of Bob Dylan, and you start to get the picture. One reason his lessons resonate is his theatrical training. He did a brief stint in Hollywood, and it shows.

He started today’s cavalletti and gymnastics lesson by announcing that it would be a true lesson in equitation and peering out into the crowd of spectators and calling, “Henri Prudent, are you out there? This will be a Freeench equitation lesson, a classical riding lesson.” (Henri Prudent is a French Olympic show jumper who is married to Katie Monahan Prudent, a past student of George Morris. She was, and is one of GM’s favorites. She won the Maclay when he trained her as a junior and is also the godmother and trainer of one of my fellow riders Reed Kessler.)

Mr. Morris was referring to Saumur, the headquarters of the French military riding school. There is a direct link to Mr. Morris’s philosophy of riding–and I believe Mr. Morris was the first American ever to be awarded the golden whip by Saumur’s Cadre Noir, a prize for his contribution to the sport.

So back to today: I did my barn work, which, having been a working student for Missy Clark, and taking care of my own horses at home, I could do in my sleep. I tacked up Timo and headed for the ring. Timo is a bit of a mystery horse. I have yet to determine which country he was born in, but suffice it to say he has been around. Lauren Hough, Julie Welles and assorted other Grand Prix riders are familiar with him, including California/Canadian trainer Chris Pratt and his girlfriend, Jenn, who knew Timo from Eric Lamaze’s barn. He is a fantastic jumper with serious power and strength to go along with it. Here’s a link to some video so you can see what I mean. I spent some time trying different bits and equipment on him. For the flat I know Mr. Morris likes to see the horse in a plain snaffle. He has great disdain for gimmicks and gadgets.

So one of the first things I realize about Timo is that his quirk is that he spooks, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with energy level or carry over into his jumping. He likes to jump and forgets to spook once he’s on course. He also has no brakes, which prompted GM to suggest I try the pull-up technique in the gymnastics when Timo was dragging me to the jumps. Pull-up is when you head a horse to the jump, pull up right before and back up. This encourages the horse to listen to the rider and reinforces the half-halt, while also making him aware that the jump is an obstacle that the horse must respect. Mr. Morris also suggested a kimberwick bit for the next session. The kimberwick is often associated with bratty ponies, a subject I am very familiar with.

So we started with the bank, jumping up and over an in-and-out set on top and down the opposite side. Back and forth we went both directions using different seats. This exercise was followed by a series of gymnastics and bending lines, which required lengthening and shortening, the goal being to develop suppleness and rhythm. GM likes to see us up and off the horse’s back. The emphasis is on a light seat, trying to emulate Rodrigo Pessoa or William Steinkraus. The parallel theme was to stop being so dependent upon the crest release and to learn to jump out of hand. This was difficult because we simultaneously had to have a “get it done” attitude as the lines and distances were not set on a simple pattern. He thinks these two concepts are not being taught today and that they are essential skills to be able to draw upon, particularly as an advanced jumper rider.

Everything we have done so far at the barn, in the ring and during our lectures has had its purpose and all factors into what it takes to be at the top. Doing these exercises each day (even though my arms felt like they were going to fall off after being dragged around the first day) has been so helpful to me in expanding my own personal mental catalog of training show jumpers. I am super excited about my newfound Timo brakes, and I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Day 3, Thursday, January 7, 2010

So I remember this guy, Herodotus from Halicarnassus, from my World History class. He’s considered the father of the history of Western Culture. He collected stories and information in a systematic manner so it could be passed on to the next generation. George Morris is the Herodotus of our sport, the sport of classical riding and show jumping. Because he now has the advantage of credibility as a result of his achievements and long life (no he’s not a relic, but he is an icon), he can be outspoken. He’s earned the right to speak out, yell out, and “howl” if he wants.

One of the themes of today’s session was the water jump. The water jump is a show jumping institution in every country except the U.S., and GM’s conviction is that Americans do not know how to jump water because horse shows don’t want to be bothered installing and maintaining water jumps. GM cited Olympic competitions where America lost because our horses and riders couldn’t successfully jump the open water. He thinks the water should be an option on every jumper course and that a 6′ water should be available even in the warm-up ring. Here’s the historian in GM speaking. He knows the history of our sport in such depth that he can point out our weaknesses.

And on he went constructing a lesson that culminated in each of us jumping our horses over the open water.

The session started with preparation and instruction in the use of the “pulley rein.” Mr. Morris feels that this is a tool we should have in our show jumping kit. He says instructors under-teach it these days. Then we moved on to a bending line to a tabletop bank (or banquette, i.e., a petit bank or mini bank), something that is a friendly height. The bank was set with a small pole on standards at each end and a gate in the center. Monsieur Morris had us adjust our horses, lengthening and shortening through the set of jumps, insisting that the horse listen to the riders’ request to hold. We did this exercise several times, at the end dropping our stirrups over the bank and picking them up without looking when we landed on the other side. Jennifer (Waxman) had a little trouble with Play On, who loves banks so much that he was a little too eager to get up and over it. He kept leaving out strides, but they worked it out.

When it came to the open water Mr. Morris is really straightforward. He said 1) you need sufficient pace, 2) ride the distance and 3) ride the tape. He said you need to teach the horse to stretch out over the water so the horse DOES NOT hit the tape. Timo, it turns out, is great over open water, but I didn’t know that because I never rode him before this week. I have experience over open water from USET Talent Search Finals at Gladstone and a couple of derbies, but GM saw that I was tentative and encouraged me to pick up the pace and stay forward. “To build confidence we need to practice the open water,” he said. He was emphatic about that. He also cautioned me not to be too soft midway over the jump because it allows the horse to peek at the water, which can be a problem. Here’s a link to some video so you can see how we did. The day was a success and he pronounced Timo an intelligent, “class” horse. I think I heard Timo nicker with pride when Mr. Morris spoke those words. I love learning in this environment. It’s hard work but it’s so worth it. Tomorrow no stirrups!

Days 4 and 5, January 8-9, 2010

Steady rain, freezing wind–forecast for the entire day. We arrived, did our barn chores in our rain pants and we were preparing for our respective riding groups when Mr. Morris called a meeting and said he would like to try to change the jumping session to tomorrow. He said he would never consider changing the plan in a competition unless it jeopardized the horses’ well-being, but that this is different. He does not think it necessary to risk the horses, riders or himself getting ill in this situation when they do indeed have other options. He recounted how as a child his eagerness to get to the stable and ride was actually selfish. He said he tormented his mother with his insistence on going to the riding club on holidays, birthdays-even on Christmas he wanted to ride first thing in the morning. The implication is that it’s important to step back from the situation, evaluate it and do what’s best for the horse, as well as the horse and rider combination. So we are hand-walking our horses, and the plan is to regroup tomorrow for the jumping lesson and riders who have to get to the airport will go in the first group.

Yesterday was flatwork with no stirrups so our horses could have a rest from jumping. Mr. Morris had us do a series of bending exercises to supple our horse. We did them with the reins bridged and in one hand. We did them both directions and the goal was to feel our horses and strengthen our legs and our position on the horse. GM got on Jessica’s horse and Christy’s horse. He looked like he was really enjoying it. You can tell he genuinely loves horses and riding. The other day he let it slip that he hates clothes shopping. He finds it a bore but he LOVES horse shopping.

So for today, Saturday, I will catch up on my schoolwork and reflect on what I’ve learned from working with the master and from the accompanying lectures…hmmm…I think I’ll reflect first and do my homework later.

Yesterday afternoon we had a meeting to hear from the ASPCA. They sponsor the ASPCA Maclay Equitation Medal Final, which I won, so I was curious to listen to what the representatives wanted to talk about. The group is very instrumental in placing unwanted animals, spay/neuter programs, and more recently in helping to fund horse sanctuaries. They also have a mobile crime lab, which they brought to show us. It factored into the conviction of Michael Vick for his involvement in illegal dog fighting. The lecture was open to the public and there were about 300 attendees. Some were from local high schools; most were just passionate animal lovers. The discussions became heated and way too emotional when horse slaughter, jockeys carrying whips, banning carriage horses in Manhattan, and humane methods of controlling animal populations were raised. It was sad to watch things devolve as a few individuals tried, rather rudely, to commandeer the discussion. The issue of horsemeat and horse slaughter is extremely complex and one of the most interesting individuals to voice an opinion is Temple Grandin. She was not present yesterday. If you don’t know who she is then try to familiarize yourself with her. She is a famous humanitarian and she is also autistic. She revolutionized the machinery in slaughterhouses, thus decreasing monumentally the stress on animals being processed for human consumption. She created the hugging machine to soothe autistic humans and livestock. A movie is about to be released about her life starring Claire Danes.

One of the best articles on the subject is The Slaughter Debate: A Two Sided Issue.

It includes the following quote from Temple Grandin:
“There are worse fates than going to an American or Canadian slaughterhouse. Horses are being shipped live on boats to Japan. They are sold in Mexico and hitched to a cart and worked until they drop dead, or sent to the really terrible Mexico City slaughterhouse. Horses here are neglected on the back forty, and mustangs on the American Indian reservations are loose and starving.”

It was annoying to hear one woman slam the ASPCA for getting involved in horse issues. She felt their focus should be on dogs and cats. She went on to imply that wealthy owners of competition horses abandon them when they have no further use for them. This notion bothers me on several fronts. Anna Sewell wrote one of my favorite books, Black Beauty. That book was singularly responsible for making the public aware of the issue of animal welfare. The ASPCA was created from that awareness. So as I see it the horses helped the dogs and cats.

Next subject: owners of competition horses abandoning them after they’re done with them-ridiculous! A well-trained pony or horse is always in demand. They are sought after and many of them live long, pampered lives–often better lives than inner-city kids in the U.S. Nevertheless, I see parents instilling children, particularly beginning riders, with the fictitious notion that their first pony or horse will be in their lives, a part of their family, forever. This is misguided and misleading. The pony or horse, if it is well trained, should go on to teach another rider. If it’s a pony, the child will physically outgrow it and the parent should prepare the child for that, and lastly the pony or horse is not a pet. It is a powerful dangerous creature and should be approached as such. Safety first. This gets right to the heart of the subject, which is education. If people are not educated about horse care, horse training and horse handling, they can easily misinterpret the use of a crop or a spur as cruel or abusive. Mr. Morris, who was on the panel, said there’s a fine line and that training methods should not be legislated. All the while he commended the ASPCA for their contribution to the sport. My personal conclusion- make a wide berth away from the zealots and animal rights activists and embrace the ASPCA. There is a huge gulf between the two. I’m glad this topic was part of our Horsemanship Sessions. It is a big “heads up” to competitive riders and horse owners.

U.S. Jumping Team Captures 6th in Nations Cup La Baule CSIO5*
U.S. Olympic Eventing Team Announced for Paris 2024
Young Riders Pay It Forward at Devon
Arena Eventing Rocks the House at Devon With Martin Win