Postcard: Day 4, George Morris Horsemastership

Day 4: The eight participants of the George Morris Horsemastership clinic practice a variety of exercises in the no-stirrups phase.

Wellington, Fla., January 19, 2007 — Oh, my aching legs! Well, not really. I’m actually just feeling sympathy pain after watching two one-hour lessons without stirrups for the eight riders participating in the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Sloane Coles demonstrates posting without stirrups. | ? 2007 by Nancy Jaffer.

They kept going and going, doing posting trot, sitting trot, shoulder-in, haunches in, cantering, cavaletti, you name it. Of course, they’re young, and they don’t feel the ache quite like us older folks.

The aching part doesn’t apply to George Morris, of course. The master himself, age 68 and not showing it a bit, gave us quite a stirrup-less show when he got on Zazou Hoffman’s horse because he wasn’t using his hind end properly.

This chestnut, which like many of the mounts here was borrowed, finally conceded he had met his match in George after getting the best of petite Zazou.

George Morris shows how it

George wanted to make the horse steadier in his hand, and also found he was dead to his legs. Some shoulder-in, a halt or two, and a corkscrew exercise (start with a large circle and then make it smaller and smaller at the trot) got the horse on track. And even at the end, when George was letting the horse relax a little, he tapped him with his crop “because of his habit of walking and dying.” By that, he meant the horse decided to go on vacation as soon as he got a loose rein. Even when a horse is “walking out,” he’s still working if George–riding as tight as any 18-year-old–is in charge.

As he cooled off the horse, George told us, “The back end is where the telephone is connected.” If you call, the horse has to answer you from there.

When you pay attention to the horse’s back end, “you get the whole horse,” he pointed out. If you are just riding the front end, “you only get one-third of the horse.”

It’s all about riding through, which also happens to be the title of a new book I wrote with Debbie McDonald. Riding through means riding back to front, something that’s always a goal in dressage but seemingly too often ignored in other disciplines. Although we go into grand prix dressage and the upper levels in the book, most of it is basics, and it’s meant for equitation kids, eventers (who have to do dressage) and show jumpers, as well as those who want to start out in dressage with an eye toward competing.

But what the book is all about, when you boil it down, is the vital importance of riding right on the flat, something George and I talked about after this morning’s session.

“I’m very strict about the flat work,” he said.

“I’m very strict about what I consider classical riding. Maybe in this country that could be emphasized a little more–very correct dressage. Hunter/jumper people, I would say 90 percent, put on draw reins and off they go. They don’t thoroughly examine dressage.”

In the days when he taught Melanie Smith, Conrad Homfeld, Leslie Burr and others who became Olympians, he often invited former U.S. dressage chef d’equipe Jessica Ransehousen, an Olympic veteran, to teach his students, and invited others from the discipline to help as well.

“I always had Gunnar Anderson, Gunnar Ostergaard, Robert Dover, Guenter (Seidel.) I’d like to see these people (the training session students) once a week, once a month, work with some top dressage people,” he said.

The training session group: Julie Wells, Zazou Hoffman, Nick Haness, Sloane Coles, George Morris, Maria Schaub, Alex Maida, Hardin Towell, Sally Ike, Maggie McAlary | ? 2007 by Nancy Jaffer

I think the training sessions have really opened the riders’ eyes to a lot of things. Of course they’re all skilled; they wouldn’t be here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club for this if they weren’t.

But this week has been an awakening for each of them in some way. George has been very concerned about the kids getting out of the well-programmed junior ranks and not having a good direction after that.

“This is a dangerous time,” he said of the 18-25 age group. “Sometimes they’re not managed and they drift. People are too quick to turn professional. They should apprentice with their trainer or whoever and really get hands-on in horse management and veterinary care.”

Sally Ike, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of show jumping, who’s here helping out, said, “It’s a little like when a jockey loses his bug (apprentice allowance). When they finish their junior years, they’re up against the journeymen professionals in the sport and go against the best in the business.”

That’s hard to do without the proper preparation all the way around, and that’s what this week has been about. We had a session today with equine nutritionist Katie Young, a very cool Ph.D. from Kansas whose fascinating lecture was presented by Purina. She started by pulling out a long white rope and having each of the kids hold it, until it stretched around the room. That was her hands-on way of bringing home the point that the horse’s intestines are 100 feet long.

The young riders help George build a course | ? 2007 by Nancy Jaffer

Katie gave a quick course in body condition scoring, so the riders can judge when their horses need to lose or gain weight, and explained the horse’s digestive system in detail. It’s important for these riders to understand when and what to feed their horses, and exactly what can go wrong to cause colic.

Before the lecture, George and the riders built the course for tomorrow morning’s final lesson, which looked as if it is going to involve some serious jumping.

I asked Nick Haness, one of the young riders, what he thought about it (and working without stirrups.)

And now for a change of subject. Word came down today that a Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge had ordered mediation in the stand-off between Wellington Equestrian Partners, which is buying the showgrounds here, and Stadium Jumping Inc., which puts on the shows here.

The partners contended they had a binding agreement with Stadium Jumping to stay at this facility for 30 years, starting in 2009. Stadium Jumping contended it isn’t binding and, not liking a proposed lease offered by the partners, would go look for another showgrounds. (The company says this one isn’t large enough, because so many bits and pieces have been sold off.)

Anyway, Friends of Stadium Jumping, which is really Wellington Equestrian Partners, sought a temporary injunction that would have barred Stadium Jumping from looking for new property on which to build a showgrounds. The judge denied that, which means Stadium Jumping can pursue that course of action, but he also ordered the parties to go to mediation in the next 30 days. They had stopped negotiating, so this will get them back to the table at least, and maybe the Winter Equestrian Festival and National Horse Show will remain here after 2008, when Stadium Jumping’s lease expires. Or maybe not…

I’ll wrap up the training session tomorrow, so be sure to check back on EquiSearch Saturday night for more information. Now I’m off to take an aspirin; that soreness in my legs, you know.

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