January 2016 - George Morris Clinic

Legendary horseman makes his mark on the West Coast.

by Kim F. Miller • photos by Kristin Lee Photography

“He’s a GOAT – Greatest Of All Time.”

That was my teenage son’s interruption as I tried to explain why I’d spent the day attending a George Morris clinic in Los Angeles. My son doesn’t ride or follow our sport, but he sure nailed that one. While many Los Angelinos are clamoring over Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour with the Lakers, most equestrians were clamoring over spots in or auditor’s seats for what may be a farewell tour for our sport’s GOAT.

George Morris getting underway with the Dec. 8 clinic at Archie Cox’s Brookway Stables in Lake View Terrace.

Beginning the California stops of his annual winter tour at Archie Cox’s stable in Lake View Terrace, “Mr. Morris” was in classic curmudgeon form. I had not attended a GM clinic in some time and had heard that he’d mellowed. That wasn’t immediately clear as he began the day on a mild tirade about obesity and harangued a rider who was not mounted and in the arena before the day’s 9 am start time. We Californians, it seems, are “late,” “soft” and, especially if blonde, “dumb.” Said by the master sometimes with a touch of humor and sometimes not.

But the 24 riders turned out for the three-day session and the crowd of auditors weren’t there for political correctness. They were there for correct horsemanship, and we got lots of that.

Hands Up!

Hand position was an early focus on day-one, Dec. 8. A low hand position that creates a broken line between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hand was one of many bad habits Morris detests.

“Don’t drop your hands when your horse raises its head!” he admonished.

“Hand riding” and see-sawing pressure on the horse’s mouth went with low hand position atop Morris’ “don’t do” list, even though they are widely used and taught these days. The hand, he said, should be held steady in a straight line from the bit, thumb up, and “squeezing the rein like a lemon, not pulling or see-sawing.”

Nicole Husky

Trent McGee

A high head carriage, consistently or sporadically, is an evasion of the aids best countered with correspondingly high hand position and persistent application of the “concert of aids” until the horse accepts them.

Morris got on a particularly high-headed mare to demonstrate the patience required to gain that acceptance. It look a good 10 minutes of steady contact, hands in a straight line with her mouth, and inside leg-to-outside rein to “push her” into soft contact and engagement, versus attempting to pull the horse into that frame. “Watch the tapes of (dressage superstar) Charlotte Dujardin,” he urged. “See how she pushes the horse into contact, not pulls them.” The mare’s issue was by no means fixed when Morris dismounted, but improvement was evident.

Spoiled To The Leg

On a similar theme, Morris asserted that most horses are “so spoiled to the leg,” exhibiting resistance to the leg aid by kicking out, swishing tails and swapping leads. Riders were frequently asked to circle and ride through these resistances, keeping the inside leg on at the girth and the outside leg slightly behind the girth to keep the hindquarters on a bending track. The inside rein was over-used, he emphasized. Its role should be to provide gentle direction and create flexion, and the outside rein maintains collection through gentle, steady connection.

A proper bend, he noted, happens at the ribs, not in the neck, where he too frequently sees it.

In the flat work, Morris told riders not to confuse speed with impulsion. An ordinary trot can be slow so long as it has drive and rhythm. Low trot cavalettis helped riders test their trot rhythm. If their horses met them without having to alter their stride significantly that indicated a good, steady rhythm.

Moving onto short courses, Morris talked about stirrup length and the two- and three-point jumping positions. He said most riders have their stirrups too short on the flat and too long for jumping. Most do well with their jumping stirrup length two holes shorter than their flat length, adding security and encouraging a deep heel position.

As for position when jumping, the two-point and three-point positions are variations of a light forward seat he favors and critical to the American forward riding system he preaches. With the seat out of the saddle, the two-point is generally good for straight-aways and big turns. In tight turns or collected stretches, the three-point is effective. Here, the crotch sinks into the saddle but the rider is not sitting down fully or using weight as a driving aid, Morris clarified.  If the horse is green or hesitating on the jump approach for any reason, the driving aids are leg, cluck, spur or crop, depending on the situation. Sometimes it’s the rider’s job to “put heart into the horse,” he said. “But not with the seat or weight.”

Asking riders to take a somewhat awkward angle to a Liverpool jump, Morris told them to call out, several strides in advance, which aid their horse would need and to execute it at take-off. It was a nice test of each rider’s knowledge of their horse and, for those who had to apply the crop, of their nerve and determination. Morris also noted that the second time over a new or unusual jump is often scarier for the horse than the first time because by then the horse has had a good look at it. Have the right driving aids ready to go even if the horse sailed over a new obstacle the first time, he said.

One Rider’s Perspective

We were only able to attend day-one of the clinic. So, we followed up with one participant to get their main take-aways after three days of working with the master.

Talented 13-year-old Trent McGee was riding in his second George Morris clinic. A big emphasis for him this year was finding the right distance to a jump, with Morris insisting that he begin looking at the jump much earlier than he was in the habit of doing. “The eyes and where they are focused is something that doesn’t come naturally to me,” Trent said. “That really helped me and I know it will improve me in the long run.”

He was told to focus on the jump’s top rail and measure his distance from there. Taking whatever distance appeared first had been a weak spot, so Trent was extra attentive when Morris complemented another rider, Nicole Husky, for a jump approach that was “open for a distance but not forcing it.”

“In my first clinic last year, Mr. Morris commented on how ‘ambitious’ I was,” Trent shared. “I think, in general, that’s a good thing, but it might work against me a bit because sometimes I go ahead and charge at the jump. I want to continue being ambitious, but also learn to be more patient with my eye and not rush a distance.”

Trent’s trainer Scott Lico is a loyal George Morris follower, so Trent was no stranger to the concepts covered. Hearing them from “the living legend” had a big impact.

Trent recalls being nervous when he first rode with Morris last year. He kept that in check, but did wind up taking a tumble. That actually helped put him more at ease with Morris. “The way he reacted actually gave me a big confidence boost. He was very patient and told me what I need to work on,” Trent shares. “You should be nervous when you face an icon of American show jumping, but at the same time, there’s a difference between being nervous and being scared. Nerves are good because they help keep you on edge, which you should be when you’re riding with George Morris!”

Trent rode his Children’s Jumper partner Tasi’s Sophia in the clinic both years, and Morris seemed to like the mare almost as much as Trent does.

A Closing Thought

In the industry at large, there is a lot of lamenting about the decline in horsemanship and worry that when Morris and his first generation of disciples retire, his brand of horsemanship will fade. But the hard working riders, many of them quite young, in this clinic seemed to counter that concern. My sense is that his horsemanship traditions will have strong adherents for many generations to come.

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.