Thank you so much to Michelle Carter for asking me to write about my experiences with George Morris – as an auditor, a rider and ring crew. I have been very lucky to have had so many learning opportunities with such a legend.
My name is Rhonda Peterson. I am a Level 1 coach, Learn-To-Ride examiner, r hunter/hack and equitation judge, as well as a competitor. I started riding 35 years ago with Claudia Cojocar, in Calgary, who was, and still is, a huge advocate for instilling correct basics to produce the best round. George Morris was already legendary and his book, Hunter Seat Equitation, was one we studied and then practiced being the riders in the pictures. George Morris’ column in Practical Horseman was the first thing I turned to when I received the magazine in the mail. I have copies of this magazine going back to the 1970’s.
The highlight of that time in my life was winning a first place ribbon at Spruce Meadows on my first horse, Abby. Abby ended up going to be Amy and Jonathon’s horse when Ian Millar bought her. Bringing everything full circle, it was really neat that Amy remembered Abby, almost 25 years later, when I asked about her at the George Morris clinic in Ottawa.
My first experience with George Morris was as an auditor, in 2004, when he came to Toronto to do a clinic with Leslie Law. I remember him saying, then, about using your inside aid to canter. I was the blonde in the group and he chuckled when I knew that was the correct way to ask a horse to canter. I was quite tickled that not only did I know about the aid but actually used it. The take home message for me that week-end was to try your best. To be courageous for your horse and that it’s o-kay to make mistakes.
In 2006, when I saw an ad in an American magazine, Chronicles of the Horse, for a clinic he was doing in Buffalo, New York, I signed up immediately. My coach at the time, Carole Minnhinick of Coutry Roads Stable, and I, travelled down from London, Ontario to ride at SBS Farms, Susie B. Schoellkopf’s, at the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. The arena was a converted airplane hangar. I rode my horse, Willow, a 6 year old Rhineland X mare that Carole had bred, and Carole rode her spectacular jumper, Ushi. I will never forget being in the group with Jennifer Alfano and a 3 year-old Jersey Boy, who went on to win United States Equestrian Federation National Horse of the Year 6 years later. We jumped liverpools, hog’s backs, and brick walls. I learned a lot about being brave, and giving with my inside hand through a turn to get a better distance to a line, that week-end.
Next, in 2012, was the first time I had the opportunity to work with the wonderful Danny Forbes and became part of his George Morris fan club.
Danny, DMF Productions (www.dmfpro.com) brought George Morris to Iron Horse in Ontario, only a short drive from London. My coach, Kim Henson of Shadowdale Farm, generously allowed me to take her young horse, Christopher Robin, in the 1.10m group. Although Robin was green, he was scopey and brave. He had a strong dressage background with Kim, so he was easily able to do the flatwork and warm-up that GM asked for: shoulder-ins, leg yields, 15m circles. Note: if you ever ride with GM, make sure you know the difference between a ½ turn and a ½ turn in reverse (p. 81 in his book). He certainly exercised his vocal muscles explaining the difference to a few riders.
Some of the tips I learned that week-end about his preferences in tack and turn-out were:
1) Turn-out: Sparking clean. You, your horse and your tack. No bling.
2) Plain, filis irons: GM does not like light ‘gimmicky’ irons. He feels they are too hard to pick up if you lose a stirrup on course.
3) Leathers: Have a flatwork length that is 2 holes longer than your jumping length. After you jump, lengthen your stirrups back to flatwork length. You should be able to shorten and lengthen your leathers with your foot in the stirrup and do the change in front of your leg.
4) Martingales: Make sure it is correctly fitted. If you don’t normally wear a martingale, have one available at ringside, in case he asks for it. I got caught out on this one and needed to borrow one.
5) Bits: Nothing gimmicky. Simple snaffles. For a hot horse, GM likes a double twisted wire. He feels a single twisted wire is too severe. He also mentioned he does not like a cork screw because it is too rough. If you use a gag bit, make sure you have both the snaffle and curb rein. The curb rein should run inside the snaffle rein when you pick the reins up. He does not like happy mouth bits. “A horse in a happy mouth is not a happy horse.” Know why your horse is in a particular bit and have others available if you can.
6) Have someone available at ring side to wipe the bottom of your boots when you mount (or ask a member of ring crew to do it for you – more on that later).
7) Always wear gloves, spurs and carry a stick.
After we warmed the horses up, we dropped our stirrups, jumped a scary liverpool and then had to pick up our stirrups before the next fence, 6 strides away. He also had us jump a vertical across the middle of the arena and then we had to turn the way he was pointing – without running him over. There were a couple of close calls that day. Another exercise was releasing the contact coming into a 1.10 m line. I found that a bit tricky. My favorite exercise was jumping a big triple bar. One of the riders had what GM called a “hot seat”. We were all nervous after he taped a row of tacks to her saddle to fix the problem.
After I was done riding in my group, I volunteered to be ring crew for the young professionals in the next group. What a talented group of horses and riders. One exercise he made them do was to put their legs in front of their saddle and then w/t/c without using their legs. I’m still not brave enough to try that myself.
In 2013, when Danny brought GM back to Ontario to do a clinic at Angelstone, I was thrilled to be part of the ring crew. What an amazing facility.
Some of the things I learned that week-end about being in the ring with GM were:
1) Don’t EVER let the tape touch the ground. He has one tape that he uses that he travels with. When it touches the ground, it picks up grit and makes it hard to use, ultimately ruining it. It is a big responsibility to be holding the end of the tape.
2) He is a perfectionist when he sets the fences. Every pole he used, every inch he measured, had a purpose. Everywhere he set the fences had a reason. When he set the course, put the pole down first and then get the standards. If you are using trotting poles, put jumps cups on the end in the sand, so if a horse knocks a pole, it is easy to put it back in the correct spot.
The riders and horses at Angelstone were exceptional. It was inspiring to see that the warm-up was basically the same as at the lower levels. Rhythm, suppleness and balance. Longitudinal, lateral and two-track lateral work. Longitudinal – lengthening and shortening, transitions within and between gaits. Lateral – circles,serpentines. Two-track lateral – shoulder-in/out, haunches in/out, leg yields, half-pass.
Watching GM ride some of the young professional’s horses, watching him teach these horses and ask for more rhythm, more balance, more suppleness and more attention to his aids – never cruel or harsh – just insisting and waiting – then rewarding – was amazing to see. He so obviously loved what he was doing. I didn’t think he was going to give Anne-Sophie Milette her horse back. It was great to see him demonstrating what he was asking the riders to do – practicing what he preaches. His demonstration rider was a young man from New Zealand, Luke Dee, what a talent.
Watching him work with our Canadian Olympic riders was one of best learning experiences that I have ever had. He was so generous and gracious about teaching why he wanted things done a certain way, explaining the precision of the distances and why the fences were constructed the way they were. Being in the ring, watching him school the horses and riders of this caliber, was a turning point for me. Watching him school a horse to be in front of his leg, and realizing I was not expecting that of my own horse, was a watershed moment for me.
As ring crew, we stationed ourselves around the ring, by the fences the riders were jumping. If a pole dropped, we ran like the dickens to put it back up. It was sometimes difficult to hear what GM was saying when he wanted a fence changed and, those times, when there was a miscommunication, things got a bit tense. If you are ever ring crew for him, make sure you count, and then recount and count again, the holes before you raise or lower a pole. Despite incurring his wrath at times, I really enjoyed being ring crew and met some very nice people at this event. At the end, he told our crew that we were the best crew he had ever worked with. That was pretty cool.
When we had lunch with him, he was very committed to staying in shape and being healthy. He was very conscious of being in the best shape he could for his horses. He was also very committed to encouraging others to follow his example. Sometimes, he even encouraged (or discouraged) the dietary habits of the spectators. Note: if you go and watch a GM clinic, turn off your cell phone, don’t talk to your friend beside you and only eat if he can’t see you (jk – sort-of).
Later, in 2013, Danny brought GM back to Ontario to teach at Forest Hill Farm. What a beautiful facility and generous hosts with Dee and Scott Walker. I, once again, took Willow, who was now 13 years old. My spooky, German warmblood, according to GM. She was quite fractious at this clinic but it was fun to bring her out of semi-retirement to ride with him again.
That evening, GM presented a short video and gave a talk about his riding history. His love and passion for the sport shone through.
This past October, 2015, Danny once again brought GM back to Ontario. This last clinic was at Wesley Clover Parks, formerly the Nepean National Equestrian Park, in Ottawa. He had three spectacular groups to work with.
Some of the things he worked on with the riders were:
Speeds: walk (4 mph), trot (6 mph), posting trot (8 mph), canter (10-12 mph), hand gallop (14-16 mph) and racing gallop (16 mph – he didn’t use this speed at the clinic).
Inside leg to outside hand. Always. To get your horse to lower their head, raise your hands. Heels down, light seat. Don’t punish your horse’s back. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
Pace, line, distance, impulsion and balance when you jump. Aids: Leg, cluck, spur, stick.
One of the fun exercises he did with the riders was to have them jump a liverpool and have them copy what he was doing at the end of the ring- putting his hand on his head, patting his stomach, putting his hand behind his back. That got some giggles from the audience.
One of the absolute highlights of the week-end was when Ian, Jonathon and Amy Millar came and rode on Saturday night. Wow. Just wow.
GM rode one or two horse from each group every day. He rode more in three days than I probably ride in a month. He was very effusive about the quality of the horses. He was only concerned about mounting. He said at his age, he is now careful that the horse is easy to get on. Note: If you ring crew, make sure one of you is VERY strong and VERY good at giving a leg up. This is not an easy task.
My job this week-end, in addition to rail picker-upper, was horse-mounting holder and boot polisher.
When you hold the horse for GM to mount, turn and face the horse and hold the bridle lightly on both sides. Take the stick from the rider and hand it to GM after he adjusts the stirrups to the length he wants. Use a rub rag to get the dirt off his boots when he mounts. Do not use a brush because it scratches the bottom of the boots. GM drinks Coke. Not Diet Coke. Have a hoof pick handy in the ring.
If you ever plan on riding in a GM clinic (probably good advice for any clinic), make sure you are up to the task at hand. If you cannot do the exercises, you will hold back the group and may be asked to go home and practice more before you sign up for another clinic. You do not have to be a perfect rider or have a perfect horse, but you have to be ready, willing and able to do what will be asked of you and be open to learning from him. He says you are paying for his advice, so you need to do what he asks you when you are riding for him. Once you go home, you can choose to do it or not. However, in his clinic, if he asks, he expects you to do it to the best of your ability – without comment.
In reviewing my notes and thinking back over what I have learned, I am struck by the simple repetition of the basics. He has not wavered from his message that he writes about in his book, Hunter Seat Equitation. There are no gimmicks, no fancy tack, no fad of the day bits – just the correct application of aids to train the horse. Everyone can do these things.
His commitment, dedication and passion for the sport and the horse is what I strive to impart to my students. His discipline and adherence to making every horse better through simple and achievable basics is truly admirable. Watching him ride, watching him practice what he preaches, and watching the horses melt into that deep ‘snuffle’ takes it beyond theory, beyond money, beyond the tack you have – to basic riding. To a goal that every rider can attain if they work for it.
And, finally, trick question, if he asks what the most important aid a rider has is. The answer: Your brain.