George Morris: “Good enough” isn’t good enough.
November 29, 2010 10 Comments
When a couple friends invited me to audit a George Morris clinic with them, the first thought that popped into my mind was this: “What would a dressage rider get out of auditing a George Morris clinic?”
What a stupid question that was. Fact is, any rider can learn from George Morris. Any.
While much of the clinic’s focus – upper level jumping – was far over my head and well out of my realm, I was struck at the emphasis GM put on the fundamentals – many of which are echoed by Christy during my dressage lessons. Take the outside rein, for example. My struggles with developing honest contact and using the outside rein to bend are well documented. And I do – I really do – understand how it works. But seeing the outside rein in action today was illuminating.
In one exercise, the riders had to jump an in-and-out, and then turn and go to a big oxer in four or five strides. GM talked the group through how one walks a course and plots strategy. In a jumpoff, saving one stride saves micro-seconds on the clock, and in most cases, would be preferable. Horse after horse came through the course, and as they turned, it was easy for me to see which had been turned more correctly – bending into the outside rein – and which had turned because their heads were hauled around. Horses that had executed a more tactful, well-organized turn were markedly better balanced, taking a true line to – and over – the jump. GM asked all of the riders to halt almost immediately after the jump, as well – and those that were well balanced before and over the jump were able to halt with style and accuracy. Many of the others had to avail themselves of the arena wall to halt. The key to executing that critical turn with grace? Proper bending into ye olde outside rein. Importantly, however, GM stressed the importance of holding onto the outside rein and maintaining contact, even when traveling in a straight line. “Straightness is the result of balance between the inside leg and outside rein, ” he told us.
All throughout this exercise (and many others) GM repeated the “outside rein” mantra, while also reminding riders to close their fingers and take a feel on their horses’ mouths. Elastic contact was another principle that was repeated throughout the day. GM emphasized the importance of getting the horse on the bit – and of doing so correctly. “Contact isn’t just pulling the rein. It’s pushing. Push first, then take rein and bend,” he said. “Push-take-bend.” He went on to emphasize what dressage riders call “riding back to front” – generating push from the hind end, over the back, and through the reins to develop honest, forward and elastic contact. Elasticity of contact was also stressed. “Softness comes from give, not from holding,” GM told the group. Develop elastic contact by softening when the horse gives. He encouraged all riders to soften their elbows, while keeping their fingers closed.
To help everyone get their horses onto the bit, GM started the sessions with suppling, stating that it’s important to supple the whole horse, not just the neck. Riders rode shoulder-in, shoulder-out, haunches-in, haunches-out, counter canter and a variety of circles and serpentines to bring their horses onto the bit (while making correct use of the inside leg and outside rein.) In the second session, he got on one of the horses and within minutes had the big jumper moving easily and what the dressage world would call “through” – fully connected to the bit and over the back. According to GM, “A horse bends from the ribcage. This new bending at the neck I see everywhere…I don’t know where this came from, but it’s WRONG!”
During the clinics, GM reminded riders often about pushing the horse to the bit with the legs, maintaining contact and bending into the outside rein, especially as the exercises got more demanding. At the end of the last session I watched, the riders were asked to jump a vertical that was set above 4″. They had to gallop to it, and then, because it was set almost to the corner of the arena, they needed to immediately turn or stop. GM was asking them to stop. Now, all of these riders were using automatic releases – but GM still issued frequent reminders about maintaining feel to and over the jump, which was undoubtedly necessary if in order to maintain communication in order to make that halt so soon after galloping to and then clearing that big vertical.
A few times during the clinics GM stopped to explain his insistence on perfection. “I’ve had great successin this business by being a perfectionist,” he told the group, repeating the old adage, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” On the subject of practice, GM noted that the first time you do anything, it’s difficult. Eventually it becomes easy. Then it becomes habit. Finally, it becomes beautiful. In order to get there, he advocates a specific approach to training and practice: Explanation-Application-Correction-Practice. The new skill is explained (and demonstrated if necessary.) The rider gives it a try. The trainer makes any necessary corrections. The rider practices the skill correctly.
It’s clear that GM is an intensely competitive guy, even today. Throughout the day, he lamented the watering down of courses, especially with respect to the controversial removal of liverpools from top-level events. “That’s catering to spooky horses,” he snorted. “If you can’t jump a liverpool, you shouldn’t be there. (He then made sure that every rider in his clinics could jump a liverpool, focusing specifically on educating horses on spooky jumps).
“Good enough” isn’t good enough, he stressed. “Getting through the day isn’t the objective. The goal is quality. Excellence counts.”
Updated: one of GM’s riders has a blog detailing her experience. Well done, Megan, it was fun watching you ride! Here’s the link to her recap. http://thegmchronicles.blogspot.com/2010/11/chicago-clinic-is-wrap.html
A special shout-out to Thoroughbreds:
Most of the horses in the clinic were supremely fancy warmbloods. However, the the two boldest jumpers in the later, more advanced clinic, were both Thoroughbreds. They never as much as looked at a jump, clearing each with enthusiasm and answering every question asked of them. “Put your stick away,” he told both riders at certain points, as neither horse needed any reinforcement. “I love Thoroughbreds,” GM said more than once.
George Morris schooling riders on how to educate horses to spooky jumps: