George Morris schooled event riders in the finer points of equitation at Boyd and Silva Martin’s Windurra farm in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, for two days last spring. He started each of the second day’s session with basic flatwork, focusing on correcting rider position and then added some work over trot poles and cavalletti. He moved on to small, simple jumps, building up to more complex courses.
“George’s lessons were a great reminder to me about the importance of the finer points of equitation,” said Boyd. “He pushed us all to learn something new and was very precise in what he wanted from us as riders. He’s a very demanding but fair instructor.”
Focus on Position
In addition to Boyd, the first group included upper-level riders Kate Hicks, Molly Kinnamon, Jessica Brumfield, Jenny Caras and Caitlin Silliman. The lesson started with fine-tuning the riders’ position.
Classically, the correct hand position describes a straight line from the rider’s elbow to the hand through the rein to the horse’s mouth. Again and again George returned to hand position, usually encouraging riders to carry their hands higher. “You want a straight line to the horse’s mouth. If the horse’s head is high, you carry your hands higher,” he said. “Horses hate for you to pull down because it pulls on the bars of their mouths. They’ll fight you. You pick your hands up, they’ll accept that and start to drop the head.”
With his eagle eye, George examined a horse’s bit and commented, “If you have a mouth problem, you try a stronger bit. But first ask if it’s a rider problem. Are you sitting behind the horse?” Adjusting the rider’s stirrups, he continued, “Your leg is your base of support when you’re out of the saddle—posting, galloping, jumping. As you shorten your stirrup, your buttock comes back—if you sit on the loins, the horse hollows his back. The fashion is very often to sit behind the vertical, but classic books say not to do that. Even at a standstill I want to be with my horse, which means that your upper body is slightly in front of the vertical. As I post, gallop and jump, my shoulders shift slightly forward.”
He reminded riders to focus on impulsion, straightness and contact. He asked them to ride transitions between the gaits to get the horses light to the leg and accepting the hand. He reminded Caitlin, “Impulsion is not speed. Don’t start the horse working over his rhythm.” He also reminded her to keep her hands still. “You don’t get the horse to the bit by wagging your hands,” he said. When Caitlin successfully rode forward into a transition, he praised her for doing it right, also reminding her to grip with her calf, not her knee.
As riders trotted through the poles on the ground and then the slightly raised cavalletti, George explained that the goal is for the rhythm to stay the same and the horse not to anticipate the poles, noting, “This is the first exercise to jumping. Cavalletti are little obstacles.”
Following the work over poles, as the horses were more warmed up and using their backs, George had the riders do shoulder-in and haunches-in to supple the horses laterally. Then they lengthened the trot across the diagonal and rode an ordinary trot on the long side of the arena.
“After you ride shoulder-in you have better impulsion, straightness and engagement,” said George, explaining the progression. “The horse, by nature, wants to carry himself with the shoulder out and the haunch in; keep him straight with the inside leg and keep his shoulder subtly in with both hands slightly to the inside.”
As riders lengthened their horses’ stride, he reminded them to carry their hands: “People, this is a classical piece of advice that ensures proper contact! On both of these exercises, carry your hands. Once you have the extension, that is sufficient. Balance the horse and stop pushing.”
Jumping: Sink, Don’t Sit
Moving on to jumping, George explained that there are different leg positions for dressage, flatwork, jumping and galloping—each with progressively shorter stirrup length. For jumping, he said, “The best grip is a distinct contact with the lower leg. You squeeze and when the horse responds, you relax. Don’t tap or kick the horse with your leg and don’t grip with the upper leg. About one-quarter of the rider’s foot should be in the stirrup, which gives flexion to the ankles. That’s an anchor. Don’t press on the stirrup, press your heel down. It’s important that you’re not clashing your aids. As you use your hands, don’t use the heel and spur.”
After a single warm-up fence, riders worked back and forth over a bending line of three jumps with a 75-foot six stride to a 65-foot four stride. Boyd’s horse put in seven strides in the six stride the first time. “The short six gives you the short four strides,” said George. When Boyd rode the line well, George had him do it again, halting after a few strides.
“If you take a jump and stop a horse by sitting down and grabbing his mouth, poor horse,” he said. “Raise your hands up and close your hands. Don’t be afraid of your hands. You want the horse to carry himself. Halt, back up and get him to carry his shoulder. That’s great for that horse.”
The next exercise included jumping a triple bar, then a right-hand turn to a one stride consisting of a plank oxer to a Swedish oxer to a skinny. “Most people set the horse up too much for the triple; let it come to you,” George said. “If the horse jumps up over the second oxer, keep your leg and go with the horse, not behind the horse.”
Describing the two-point jumping position, George said, “The upper body is inclined forward for galloping and jumping. For the three-point position, your body is still inclined forward but your seat is deep and secure. As you approach a fence, assume a squat. If you have to get defensive, you get behind the horse. For example, as you turn to the triple bar you squat and sink down into the saddle—sink—don’t sit back down. In show jumping we use both of these positions. I don’t care what distance you get, you don’t sit. You get to that difficult distance? LEG. And I don’t care where his head is, I care that you carry your hands.” After Jessica’s horse stopped at the triple bar several times, George said, “When things get tough, people, we have to get tough. RIDE HIM! Then stop him soft.”
After the triple bar, he advised riders to use the half-halt to rebalance the horse. “When the horse comes up in front, lower your hands,” he said. “When the horse is heavy on the forehand, raise your hands. Use your cluck with a spooky horse. Trust me, the cluck is your best friend.”
While George’s temper is quick to flare when riders aren’t paying attention or a horse is disobedient, his short outbursts are followed by calm. This mirrors how he wants riders to react to their horses: If there’s a problem, deal with it, then calmly move on. He encourages riders to be aggressive if necessary but not to keep badgering the horse relentlessly. When things are going well, he frequently encourages, “That’s it. Thaaat’s it.”
Balance the Horse
The second group of riders included Boyd, Phillip Dutton, Lauren Balcomb and Matt Brown, Canadian eventer Waylon Roberts and winning Irish steeplechase jockey Mark Beecher, who rode a young event horse that was bred at his family’s farm, Loughnatousa Stud in County Waterford and is currently in training with Boyd.
George said with admiration, “Phillip is consistent with his program and that is success.”
An avid reader as well as author of several esteemed books, George encouraged clinic participants to read the works of Alois Podhajsky, who was the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and an Olympic dressage rider.
As George discussed position with these riders, he reiterated that he is unimpressed with riding fads and fashion. “Classical is based on mechanical proofs, not fashion or exaggeration. Classical is based on old principles.”
As an example, he discussed the half-halt. “There are lots of different half-halts,” he said. “The half-halt puts the horse together and elevates the shoulder. Mostly it engages the horse, which is very important.”
He explained, “There are three ways to balance the horse, who naturally carries about 70 percent of the weight on the forehand:
“1. Lighten the front end.
“2. Engage the hind leg so that the center of gravity shifts back and the horse is more uphill. This is why we do shoulder-in and haunches-in.
“3. Engage the hind end and lighten the front end. Think of [world champion dressage horse] Valegro. Every transition, you’re educating the horse. Yes, I am very particular of every detail. You have to coordinate the leg, seat and hand aids. Transitions can be halt–walk, trot–walk and so on. If a horse doesn’t respond to the leg, we don’t tap or click, we cluck.”
In riding, function follows proper form in the saddle. George is a stickler for proper basics as well as appearance. “Showmanship is subconscious with the judge,” he stated. “They don’t mark it, but they see it. Position is elegance. As Jack Le Goff said, ‘Show your dignity.’”
He advised Mark, whose horse was getting slightly strong, “I want the hand over the withers. Close your hand and back up two or three steps. Release the hands. Leg. This is the first principle: leg without hands, hands without legs.”
Over the cavalletti, he said, “If the horse rushes, it’s not OK. If the horse raises his head, raise your hand. If he accepts the contact, lower your hands. If the horse gets quick, use a little voice: ‘Ho-ho.’”
The first basic exercise on the flat was shoulder-in, which George explained lightens the horse’s front end. “The basis of riding is in shoulder-in,” he said.
Next the horses came down the centerline and did half-pass right. Mark’s horse was getting crooked at the canter, and George said, “Straightness in the canter is very difficult. He wants to put his haunches in. Think inside leg and outside rein and see how straight the strike-off can be. Keep your body close to vertical, not behind it. The half-halt is give and take.”
The next exercise consisted of a serpentine: Riders cantered left over a pole, trotted at the first loop of the serpentine, rode straight over three cavalletti, then picked up the canter on the next loop of the serpentine and rode on the right lead over another pole at the other end of the arena.
George got on Matt Brown’s horse to school flying changes. After finding the stirrups were on different holes, he admonished Matt to check his tack thoroughly when someone else tacks up his horse. “It’s easy to fall if you’re on a lopsided seat. If your stirrup leathers are stretched and uneven, get new ones.”
After working the horse on a circle in both directions until he accepted the bit, George picked up the canter and tried a flying lead change. The horse resisted, and George said that he wanted the horse to do the change exclusively from the leg aids at first with the full weight of his seat in the saddle and then with a lighter seat. Coming out of the turn, he sat and kept the horse straight with his inside leg at the girth to the outside rein. To ask for the change, he moved the new inside leg to the girth and gave a little push and took a feel with the new outside rein. His outside leg was back and passive. He continued working in both directions until the horse produced a few clean lead changes, then dismounted and gave the reins back to Matt.
“Matt’s a great student and that’s why he’s going to make great improvements,” George said.
As the riders started jumping over the bending line, George gave Matt the following advice: “Every transition makes the horse better or worse. Don’t stop the horse with just your hands and once you see a distance, don’t leg him, just soften and keep your position. Be consistent and let him come out of the turn.”
As Mark cantered through the exercise, George remarked on his excellent position, joking that he ought to fake an entry to get into the Maclay Equitation Finals. “You want to get your heel down though,” he advised the jockey. “No matter how short the stirrup, the heel has to be lower than the toe.” When the horse hit a rail, George encouraged Mark to let him make mistakes and learn from them.
Lauren kept going for a long distance to the third fence in the bending line, and George had her gallop to the fence, wait with her upper body and put the horse to a short distance. “She hates that ride!” he said.
To Boyd, he described the sequence of applying the aids: “Inside leg, outside rein, outside leg behind and light inside hand, always in that order. Don’t even talk about hand without the inside leg.”
Phillip’s young horse was clearly working hard to figure out the exercise, and George had him go through several times until he had it figured out. “Repetition with this very careful horse gives him confidence, which gives him scope,” said George.
Finally the riders put together a course: the triple bar, left over a vertical to a related distance, a sharp right into the rail with a tight approach to a triple combination (two stride to one stride), left over an oxer, back through the same triple combination in the opposite direction (one stride to two stride).
When Waylon went off course, George barked, “You’re a ditz-brain, Waylon! All the pretty girls are distracting you!” Along with the useful advice, these are the quips that keep auditors coming back for more and more George Morris. Waylon quickly sorted out the course in his head and put in a foot-perfect round.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.