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Fri, 2013-08-30 11:30

George Morris Teaches Eventers: Solid Basics, Precision, and Simplicity of Training Are the Foundation in Any Discipline

Authored By: Amber Heintzberger
All photos: Amber Heintzberger

This week, Boyd and Silva Martin hosted a training session with show jumping legend George Morris at their farm, Windurra, in Cochranville, PA. Local event riders included Boyd Martin, Caitlin Silliman, Lauren Keiffer, Sharon White, Kaitlin Spurlock, Will Coleman, Lauren Kieffer, Lillian Heard, Erin Sylvester, Kevin Keane, Sawyer Gilker, and Dominic Schramm. Beth Lamont, who worked with Morris in the 1970’s, also joined the clinic on her talented jumper. USEF High Performance coach David O’Connor attended the clinic on Saturday to watch the riders, and joined a lively discussion with Morris, clinic participants and auditors during dinner at the farm that evening.

Held over two days, Morris put the riders through their paces on the flat and over fences, enforcing the basics and demanding perfection in the sense that “Perfect practice makes perfect – not practice makes perfect”, an oft-repeated “George-ism” that was drilled into riders’ consciousness. Riders were expected to listen and make adjustments as necessary, though Morris told them not to expect perfection from their horses, as that can take months to achieve.

Morris’ own experience and education are vast, and he seems to remember everything. He repeatedly encouraged riders to think while they were riding, and didn’t hold back with the insults when someone approached a line without a carefully thought-out approach (“And I’m being on my best behavior!” he told participants and auditors.) Riders had to have a thick skin and a sense of humor, but for those who did engage their brains there was plenty of information and exercises to add to their training toolboxes. He also commented that he would like to see today’s young riders spend more time reading books about riding and training. “You can’t learn everything just from riding lessons,” he said.

On the first day he focused on flat work and kept the fences small, adjusting everyone’s stirrup length. He explained that there are four stirrup lengths necessary for eventers - from longest to shortest: dressage, flat work for jumping, stadium jumping, and cross-country. Leg position and hand position are essential for correct riding, and a correct seat will be the result of independent use of the leg and hand – or as he put it, “Leg without hand and hand without leg”. And no matter the length of stirrup, the heel always must be lower than the toe.

The second day also included flat work and jumping, with the lines fairly simple and the jumps only a little bigger, but not too technical. Again the emphasis was on a correct position, riding from the leg rather than the seat. On the flat riders focused on riding from the leg to the hand, using simple lateral exercises to supple the horses. Over fences they worked on riding from the leg and keeping the hands low and steady in the approach to the fences. A figure-eight exercise over a skinny vertical tested turning, bend, and encouraged the horses to find a correct distance off of the turn. He noted that this exercise is also excellent for schooling flying lead changes.

“There is a correct position within a system”, he said. “Good teachers may have different systems but position and seat are first and always will be. You can’t talk about the aids until the position and seat are correct.”

When asked specifically what eventers can learn from hunter/jumper riders, Morris zeroed in on the “detail of the jumping position, and the detail and precision of course analysis: where to angle fences, turn, add strides, and so on.”

He strongly encourages eventers to branch out and work with specialists in their fields: Grand Prix show jumpers and dressage riders who can teach event riders how to excel in each specific phase. “Cross-training is very eminent in Germany,” he said. “When I was at Wiesbaden recently, Michael Jung and Ingrid Klimke each competed in the three-event, had horses show jumping a meter forty, and rode Grand Prix dressage horses.”

Obviously not everyone will achieve this level, but Morris thinks cross-training is important for the future, and that eventers need to show in jumper shows and dressage shows to hone their skills and get more time in the ring. As an example of correct basics enabling a rider to master any discipline, he pointed out that American Grand Prix show jumper Marilyn Little has made an easy transition to competing in upper-level eventing.

“The culture from European influence is too seat-biased,” he said. “But the seat and weight takes care of itself when the hands and legs are educated. I see too much seat riding and not enough leg. A lot of hunter riders today do not have the depth of working without stirrups or riding cross-country. In the rider’s education, first comes position, then use of the aids, and then producing the horse.”

The host of the clinic, Boyd Martin rode two horses: Welcome Shadow and Finn McCool, both Irish Sport Horses owned by Gloria Callen. Martin said, “I think the most important lesson for me is the importance of simplicity in the flat work and jumping. It wasn’t rocket science; it’s absolute correctness, discipline, and the technique you need to be a good jumping rider.”

A few quotes from the clinic:

• “Each horse is different, but all horses have to have the basics. That’s why I’m so picky about things like circles, and how to hold the whip. When you practice correctly and repeatedly, these actions become automatic.”

• “Resist, but don’t pull. As the horse stiffens, my hands go higher – when he relaxes, I release. When he raises his head, he meets resistance. After a few days of this schooling, when I make a half-halt the horse drops his head. Any head-shaking and I close my fingers.”

• “In rein-back, if the horse makes any step back I release. What teaches the horse is that reward – after you close your hand, RELEASE.”

• “I was always a naturalist, no side reins or other auxiliaries. The horse will tell me what he needs. My system is based on the natural mechanics of riding.”

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