California Riding Magazine • February, 2010

On Course with Zazou
The George Morris
Horsemastership Sessions

by Zazou Hoffman

Zazou and Timo have no trouble over the water.
Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

I was one of 10 junior riders invited to participate in the fourth annual George Morris Horsemastership Training Session, held Jan. 5-9 in the International Ring of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Florida. I received the invitation because I was the third highest ranked rider on the National Equitation list and the highest ranked West Coast rider.

I arrived at the Wellington show grounds Tuesday at 7 a.m., straight off the airplane and dosed with Tamiflu. In spite of feeling lousy, I was determined to participate in these training sessions and nothing was going to stop me. The opportunity to work with Mr. Morris in an intimate setting with the top young riders in the country doesn’t come around very often.

Zazou with George Morris.
Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

He is the ultimate historian of the sport as well as an extraordinary teacher. As I write this I am hyper aware that no amount of words, videos or photos can capture this man in action. Imagine the low timbre of Tom Waits with the odd poetic phrasing of Bob Dylan, and you start to get the picture. One reason his lessons resonate is his theatrical training. He did a brief stint in Hollywood and it shows.

He started today’s lesson by announcing that it would be a true lesson in equitation and peering out into the crowd of spectators and calling, “Henri Prudent, are you out there? This will be a Freeench equitation lesson, a classical riding lesson.” (Henri Prudent is a French Olympic show jumper who is married to Katie Monahan Prudent, a past student of George Morris. She was and is one of GM’s favorites. She won the Maclay when he trained her as a junior and is also the godmother and trainer of one of my fellow riders, Reed Kessler.). Follow this YouTube link for a video of me and my mount, Timo, on the clinic’s first day.

Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

After some flatwork and cavaletti, we started with the bank, jumping up and over an in-and-out set on top and down the opposite side. Back and forth we went in both directions, using different seats. This exercise was followed by a series of gymnastics and bending lines, which required lengthening and shortening, the goal being to develop suppleness and rhythm. This link will take you to us doing this exercise.

George Morris likes to see us up and off the horse’s back. The emphasis is on a light seat, trying to emulate Rodrigo Pessoa or William Steinkraus. The parallel theme was to stop being so dependent upon the crest release and to learn to jump out of hand. This was difficult because we simultaneously had to have a “get it done” attitude as the lines and distances were not set on a simple pattern. He thinks these two concepts are not being taught today and that they are essential skills to be able to draw upon, particularly as an advanced jumper rider.

Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

Mr. Morris is the Herodotus of our sport, the sport of classical riding and show jumping. Because he now has the advantage of credibility as a result of his achievements and long life (no he’s not a relic, but he is an icon), he can be outspoken. He’s earned the right to speak out, yell out and howl if he wants.

Over The Water

One of the themes of the following day’s session was the water jump. The water jump is a show jumping institution in every country except the U.S., and GM’s conviction is that Americans do not know how to jump water because horse shows don’t want to be bothered installing and maintaining water jumps. GM cited Olympic competitions where America lost because our horses and riders couldn’t successfully jump the open water. He thinks the water should be an option on every jumper course and that a 6-foot water should be available even in the warm-up ring. Here’s the historian in GM speaking. He knows the history of our sport in such depth that he can point out our weaknesses.

Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

Our session culminated in each rider jumping the open water. When it comes to the open water, Mr. Morris is really straightforward. He says: 1) you need sufficient pace; 2) ride the distance; and 3) ride the tape. He says you need to teach the horse to stretch out over the water so the horse does not hit the tape. My horse Timo, courtesy of trainer Missy Clark, it turns out, is great over open water. I didn’t know that because I never rode him before this week. I have experience over open water from the USET Talent Search Finals at Gladstone and a couple of derbies, but GM saw that I was tentative and encouraged me to pick up the pace and stay forward.

“To build confidence we need to practice the open water,” he said. He was emphatic about that. He also cautioned me not to be too soft midway over the jump because it allows the horse to peek at the water, which can be a problem. The day was a success and he pronounced Timo an intelligent, “class” horse. I think I heard Timo nicker with pride when Mr. Morris spoke those words. I love learning in this environment. It’s hard work but it’s so worth it. This link will show you our efforts over the water.

Zazou and Timo do the bank. Go, Timo, Go!
Photo: Aubrie Holmberg

The last day was very, very cold (the coldest it’s been in West Palm Beach in years). Mr. Morris had us jump a very complicated course. He challenged us to apply all the techniques that we learned during the week. The course incorporated related and unrelated distances, the gymnastic quadruple with frozen water in the liverpools and the frozen open water, as well as a figure eight in which Mr. Morris wanted to see us use the “pulley rein” to shave seconds off the turn: a turn in the air over the fence, a tactic essential for a quick jump-off time.

The Sessions were an absolute success! The intent of the program is to give young talented riders the foundation to get to the next level of international competition and eventually to create Olympians. It was most definitely a step in that direction. So thank you, Mr. Morris!

Photo: Lindsay Yousay McCall/PMG

And thank you to the many entities that support The George Morris Horsemanship Sessions: the EQUUS Foundation, the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Equestrian Sports Productions, Practical Horseman magazine and Purina Mills.

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