George Morris schooling grand prix …. dressage


I consider the George Morris clinic I audited last fall to be one my top 5 equestrian experiences.  He is an amazing horseman, period.

His emphasis on the importance of correct fundamentals -correct bend, working the horse over its back, suppling and use of the outside rein – also made an impression on me.  Because in his sessions schooling high level jumpers, he talked about dressage a lot – directly and indirectly. Christy echos him when she says that dressage can improve any horse, and any rider.  So does Liz, when she says that she wouldn’t be able to have Cloud out on the trails if she didn’t have the tools she acquired learning dressage.

Dressage – with its foundation in the cavalries of yore, and with its application in the jumper ring and elsewhere today – is about pinpoint, precision control of every aspect of the horse and rider.  It’s about immediate response, and cultivating balance and power.

The video above, of George Morris having a fun ride on Catherine Haddad’s fantastic firecracker Winyamaro, is so fun to watch.  Obviously, George knows his dressage and is an extremely sensitive and tuned-in rider.  And Winyamaro is a fully fledged GP horse, and he’s a hot one, right up George’s alley.   Piaffe, passage and a line of 16 one-tempis are no problem for George.   I’d love to see him in a dressage ring! Who’s with me?

Catherine Haddad & Win hauling in a 74.8% in the Kur at last year’s World Cup:


George Morris suppling a horse (and doing quite a bit of basic dressage along the way)

Love Rules.

Jag. He's still my number one boy.

Like everyone else, I’m thinking about my resolutions for the new year.  However, when it comes to riding, I’ve not yet managed to pin down exactly what I’d like to accomplish, so I”m going to reflect on what the last twelve months taught me.

Looking back, 2010 was a strange year.  One year and ten days ago, I was laying in my bed,  slightly concussed, spectacularly bruised, coughing up arena dirt, and thinking that I’d have to go get my left hand looked at  – it was monstrously swollen and very sore. (It was in fact broken, I would spend the next six weeks in a cast.)

That was also my last ride on Jag, who we later learned had recurring kissing spines and was no longer sound for riding.   As unfortunate as that incident was, it taught me a couple of very important lessons.

1) Listen to the horse, and listen to your gut. That ill-fated ride was on a very cold day – too cold to really work.  So I got on, just planning to walk and stretch.    I was working on asking Jag to bend to to the right, and he was resisting.  I continued to pick, asking for serpentines and circles.  He just didn’t want to give me correct bend.  Now, we had some questions about whether or not this was some sort of new, testing behavior, or if it was a pain issue.   I had a sneaking suspicion it was the latter – chiefly because Jag had always been the most uncomplicated of horses – pleasant and willing under saddle.   The only times in the past he had been unwilling was when he hurt.   But I didn’t listen to my gut, or my good horse.  I kept picking at that right bend, thinking that because we were working at a gentle walk, it wasn’t too taxing for the horse.  Boy, did I get that wrong, and I paid the price.  I unwittingly goaded Jag into a rage, and when he finally had enough, he took off at top speed and dumped me unceremoniously on the mounting block.

So here’s what I took away from this experience: Keep an eye out for new behavior.  Horses are not deep thinkers. They don’t while away hours in their stalls, thinking up new behaviors to tick you off.  If a new, negative behavior crops up, there are two reasons.  1) The horse has a physical issue, and he is communicating this to you; or 2) You have trained this new behavior, either through ignorance or incompetence, and it’s your own damn fault.   Either way, you need to pay attention. Listen to the horse. And if you have a nice, honest, willing horse, behavioral anomalies are big red flags.  Ignore them at your own risk.

I’m glad I learned this lesson.  It came in handy at my first show with Mads, when she pinned her ears and was downright nasty when I went to tack her up for the last class.  A quick inspection revealed to me that she was back sore.  The deep footing and a too-wide gullet had taken their toll.  We scratched the class.  And I shudder to think about what the outcome would be had I pushed it.

2.  Love rules all. If you love your horse, and do right by your horse, everything will be okay.  I know this sounds simplistic.  But this is actually the more important of the four lessons, and I told you a few paragraphs previously how lesson #1 saved my butt.   I was devastated when my vet broke the news that it was time to retire Jag.  I had always planned on giving him a nice retirement, but was hoping to have years of fun in the saddle first.   I started to look for places to board him, and resigned myself to a lot less riding.

In the spring, after his kissing spines were under control and he was back to being a happy, pleasant horse,  Jag went to Wyngate Equestrian, a beautiful barn 30 minutes north of Woodstock (and my current barn).

A bleached-blond Jag basks in the summer sun.

With the help of the talented and caring woman who runs Wyngate, Jag successfully transitioned to living barefoot, and out on grass.  He had a blissful summer and is extremely contented today. I visited him weekly, and soon learned to relish my time with the big guy, grooming, feeding treats, walking around the property, finding delicacies on which to browse.  It turns out that giving a much-loved horse a well deserved and luxurious retirement is very gratifying.

Things have a way of working out.  I made a slow return to the saddle, starting on my friend Kim’s marvelous boy Frankie,  progressing eventually to Maddie, with whom I’ve clicked.  Maddie has made me work hard, and learn a lot (especially about maxim #1.2, training a horse new (and unwelcome) behaviors.)  (More on that later.)

In addition to these two lessons learned courtesy of Jag, two other things I learned last year truly resonated with me.

3. Practice discomfort. George Morris talked a lot about overcoming fear in the clinic I audited in November.  His sage advice? “You have to practice what is not comfortable. If you’re not comfortable going fast, you practice fast. Practice your discomfort.”   He’s absolutely right.  I won’t improve if I don’t push the envelope.  However, GM is not encouraging us to go forth and be stupid.  Which is a good segue into lesson #3.

4. Get the basics DOWN, and perfectly (or as close to it as you can.)  Dressage is built on a progression of skills that require a rider (and horse) to have solid fundamentals to perform well and get good scores.  And while I’ve spent more time working at the trot than I care to think about, the fact is, this deliberate approach has set me up well for Training level, which showcases trot work.    And there are other benefits.  As I master new skills in the trot -from half halts to bending to shoulders-in and leg yields – and learn to feel what correct execution feels like, I can take that education with me to different gaits.   And as I learn, I only become more solid and confident, and wake up one day ready to try something new, because I’ve given myself sufficient strength and confidence to take that next step.  (Special thanks to Christy, who is the architect of this lesson.)

So I’ll take these lessons into 2011, which I guess means that I, Sarah, do hereby resolve to remember and apply the lessons I learned in 2010, and use them to guide my progress in this coming year.

George Morris: “Good enough” isn’t good enough.

George Morris clinic

George Morris suppling a horse

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.

GM addressing the group in the first clinic session

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.

On perfection
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.

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: