Wellington, Fla., January 18, 2007 -- Wow, am I getting an education at the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session here at the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club.
Of course, the point wasn't to improve my skills, that's just an added bonus from covering this super learning experience.
It's all about giving a group of eight outstanding young riders a leg up that will help them to the next level of accomplishment. And someday they may well ride on a U.S. show jumping squad, say in the Samsung Super League or maybe even the Olympics.
George is, after all, the U.S. coach, and he's always looking for new talent. But George doesn't want people who are just good riders. He has always valued horsemanship, and that's why today, in addition to a session on jumping gymnastics, we had clinics on bandaging and veterinary pointers. It's part of a system of sporthorse management that is crucial to success in the show ring.
The barn manager for this six-day project is Laurie Pitts, whose grooming experience included stints with Rodney Jenkins, Joe Fargis and Conrad Homfeld, legends every one. Laurie, who now raises young horses for sale, likes things handled the old-fashioned way.
That means attention to detail and no cutting corners. Stretchy polo bandages that close with Velcro? Laurie eschews them, going for serviceable flannel fastened with pins. Why? Stretchy bandages can damage a horse's legs if they are pulled too tightly. And unfortunately, Laurie says, there aren't many grooms around today who know what they're doing, so stretchy bandages in their hands can be dangerous.
That means riders who are serious about what they do need to pay attention to such details as wrapping the horses, which Laurie demonstrated very effectively to the crew this afternoon. From a spider bandage for doing up a knee or hock to poulticing a leg correctly, we got quite a short course as Laurie's nimble hands made it all look easy while her liver-spotted Dalmatian, Nikon, supervised.
The participants do all their own barn work as part of the program, and Laurie was impressed with their knowledge.
Dr. Tim Ober, a veterinarian who often does work for the U.S. team, told us about a system of observation to use on a regular basis that insures a rider will pick up any changes in a horse's physical situation before they become big problems. There are so many things to check regularly. Questions you should ask include: "Does my horse show tension when I mount?" "Is he jumping to one side?" "Is his stride symmetrical when longeing on a small circle?"
He explained how to go over a horse's legs and gave a demonstration of using a hoof tester.
There was plenty of riding too, of course. The day started with gymnastics. George, from his golf cart vantage point, had the riders start slowly. To warm up, he asked them to do the posting trot, which is easier on the horse than the sitting trot. Then they walked and trotted over cavalletti before doing a serpentine over four fences. That preceded the serious jumping, which included a liverpool and an oxer to a triple combination.
(You know, I have to give you the short version here, because I've got to get up early for the next session. But we'll offer you more detail in a future issue of Practical Horseman magazine.)
One thing I did want to bring up, however, was George's emphasis on the pulley rein.
"This is a neglected technique," he said.
Do you know what it is? You brace one hand in the little pocket at the horse's withers and pull back diagonally with the other rein. I use it for emergency halts on the trail.
George, however, used it for a variety of things. It will make a horse lighter if you do it every 10 strides when asking a horse to halt in the ring, he said. (Don't overdo, obviously.)
When you're jumping and want to make a quick turn, brace with one hand and use an opening rein with the other for a quick response. However, if you need to use it in a hunter or equitation class, as opposed to a jumper competition, make sure your pulley rein action is low, so the judge doesn't see it.
There were a good number of spectators by the end of the morning, but it's too bad even more people aren't taking advantage of this clinic. Just watching the gymnastics was so illuminating. Among the most attentive spectators was Sherry Van Atta, a local trainer from Pensacola, Fla., who got my attention by taking copious notes. She had already finished one notebook and was well into a second when I chatted with her.
Sherry had taken a clinic with George 20 years ago, and she was eager for an update to share with her students. She also, like so many of us, finds George to be an inspiration.
"He's the epitome of a horseman," she said. "He thinks of the horse first."
I also talked with Frank Madden, who has several students in the training session, which is presented by one of his sponsors, Bates Saddles. Frank is a disciple of George's, having worked with him long ago in the days when George reigned at his Hunterdon Inc. in New Jersey.
Riders have a long day, starting with barn work at 7:30 a.m. and ending with a 9 p.m. night check, where they top water buckets, dole out hay, pick up stalls and sweep. It's a good opportunity to talk with them informally and find out some behind-the-scenes stuff. Like how George got on Washington International horsemanship champ Jack Hardin Towell Jr. for not shaving the first day, and USEF Talent Search West winner Nick Haness because he needed a haircut (which was supplied subsequently by another clinic attendee, Sloane Coles). Only two riders are supposed to be on night check, but Hardin got assigned as an extra today because he was a few minutes late for the Tim Ober clinic. (He did have an excuse, but George was never one for excuses.)
Poor Julie Welles, the reserve champ in the Maclay finals, and Alex Maida, third in the Bates horsemanship standings among West Coast riders, had to miss one day of the session because they were sick with a very nasty virus that is going around. They came back strong today, though, even in 80-degree heat that had to be harder on them than their compatriots.
I caught up with Californian Zazou Hoffman, who is only 15 and was second on the Bates list for the West Coast. She's named after old-time movie star Zasu Pitts, who has a family connection that is too complicated to go into here, but she is also related to the late actor Edward Everett Horton. Zazou means wild thing in French, according to her mom, Winter, who picked out the name because of its resemblance to Zasu.
Zazou and her mom take care of their own horses at a community stable in Santa Monica, where Stephen Spielberg's daughter, Destry, also rides. Zazou, who trains with Missy Clark when she's in the East and Meredith Fuller when she's in the West, had some interesting insights on the session.
It's fun to be at the showgrounds before the Winter Equestrian Festival starts next week. Things are relatively quiet, and it's a nice time to appreciate the beauty of the grounds without hundreds of horses stirring up a whirlwind of activity.
I'm here through tomorrow, so check EquiSearch.com Saturday and Sunday mornings for updates on this great event.