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Morris the master

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what's in our latest issue, click here.

George Morris clinic, 2017 - © Katherine Jamison

Jane Riley and Sirspotalot jump, as George watches on.


By Dr Kerry Mack

Photography by Katherine Jamison

“UNRELENTING” is the title of the autobiography of George Morris, possibly the most famous showjumping coach in the world. George is unrelenting, as we learn at his Australian showjumping clinic.

George Morris’ career in showjumping spans six decades, first as a rider and then as a successful coach. Most recently, he coached the Brazilian team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Connecticut-born, George came through the training system of Bert de Nemethy who was trained in classical horsemanship — initially in the Hungarian Cavalry and then in Germany. George was a very successful competitor, riding on eight winning Nations Cup teams up to 1960 when he was also a team silver medallist at the Rome Olympics. He has been a fairly regular contributor to Australian jumping since the late 1980s. In fact, I did several clinics with him a lifetime ago when I was a jumping rider. Many of our top riders have trained under him, notably Vicki Roycroft.


Jane Riley and Sirspotalot.

Thanks to Vicki, once again we had the privilege of seeing him in Australia this January. In Melbourne this was another premium event hosted by the wonderful Boneo Park. At the ripe age of 79, George Morris is still a master horseman. He chose the most sensitive and difficult horses to ride and showed us how to tactfully ride them through to become more stable in the contact.

George is fastidious about the details. He says “training is meticulous and slow”. He is very concerned about position. Each lesson starts with a detailed explanation about what he wants in position and why. “Heels are the anchor… Eyes up, heels down,” he commands. “If your eyes are up it gives you better balance, your aids will work better. Your heels down will give you security. It also gives you the driving aids.”

“This is a jumping clinic. Your body must always be in advance of the base of support. The body is 30 degrees in front of the vertical for rising trot, galloping and for jumping. At the walk the body is five degrees in front of the vertical. You must sit over the strong part of his back, just behind the wither. Relax the knee, don't pinch the knee…”

Every hand action is intermittent, give and take. You ride with your legs and regulate with the hands. “Hands resist, they don't pull,’’ says George. “Grip the rein with your thumb, that’s how you resist the horse. Keep your hands up when he resists you. Close your fingers on the rein and carry your hands. Use your hands like you are squeezing a lemon. You have to acquire perfectly stable hands so you can ride legs against hand.”


Aaron Mawhinney and Snowy River Lindberg.

There are three ways to use your hands. According to the French, the first rein aid is the opening rein (the hand goes towards the inside of the horse, not pulling back). The direct rein turns the horse; the hand does pull back on the corners of the mouth. The right rein affects the right hindleg. We use the direct rein for slowing, backing, stopping and turning.

The third way to use the hand is the indirect rein, like a neck rein. The outside hand pulls a little back and across the neck. The rein pushes the horse in the opposite direction. The right rein moves the shoulder to the left.

“Your horse must accept the hand. If he resists, keep the hand up. Don't put it down on the wither. If he resists, close your fingers on the rein. Carry your hands. You push the head down with your legs. Inside leg to outside hand.”

Stirrups for flatwork are two holes longer than jumping length. The flatwork is very similar to the work we saw Carl Hester teach at his recent Masterclass in Melbourne. George wants the horse to be ridden from the back to the front. “The principles of the sport are ancient; the horse is ridden from behind,” he says.


Ingrid Williamson and Tulara Conika.

The rider’s hands stay relatively high. There is a straight line from the horse’s mouth to the elbow. Hands do not pull the head down. He keeps telling riders to lift their hands up. I don't think he really wants them high; he just doesn't want the hands down low, pulling.

Trot work is all in rising trot, forward position. A few transitions to start. Trot, halt, trot. Canter, walk, canter. Lateral work is a big focus and gets more complicated over the three days. “The dressage exercises build the mind and body of the horse progressively,” explains George.

On the first day he starts with shoulder-fore at walk. Bend is not required initially. The shoulders of the horse come onto an inside track. The hindquarter stays on the outside track. When the horses can do this easily, there are variations. George gets on and demonstrates a serpentine across the width of the arena. Three 10-metre half-circles. The rhythm stays the same but the hindquarters are pushed to the outside in the half-circles. Half-circle left with the quarters pushed out to the right, straight, change diagonal, change the outside rein and the bend, right half-circle, hindquarters pushed to the left. In canter, the rider’s inside leg pushes the horse’s inside hindleg into the track of the outside front leg. This is shoulder-fore position again.