Florida-Based Aussie Dressage Rider Ilse Schwarz Gets Help from THE George Morris

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Ilse Schwarz, an Australian dressage rider married to the editor of dressage-news.com and based in Wellington, Florida, was given some private lessons by George Morris–yes, George Morris THE legend. Ilse reported her experiences in three articles for The Horse Magazine, an Australian national publication. Dressage-news.com is posting the articles. Part 1.

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By ILSE SCHWARZ

WELLINGTON, Florida, Aug. 27, 2015–It was just another afternoon of Grand Prix dressage competition toward the end of January at the Global Dressage Festival. Twelve weeks of equestrian insanity that encompasses seven CDIs and 12 national shows at the one facility in Wellington, Florida. It just so happens that George Morris was present and was watching the Grand Prix. He made the comment, “so many riders don’t know how to train changes,” followed by “it is the same in showjumping.” The person he was sitting with then asked why he doesn’t teach more dressage riders. His answer: “they never ask me.” My husband just happened to be walking past and overheard. He asked, “would you like to teach my wife?” Hence, I found myself scheduled for a lesson with THE George Morris.

Yes, I am an FEI dressage trainer/competitor. Yes, my mare Sauvignon (Savi) is a highly temperamental and extraordinarily special mare (Sandro hit x De Niro x Landadel…the bloodlines say it all) very successful at small tour and now schooling the Grand Prix.

What did we work on? Tempi changes of course, mostly twos and ones…Savi finds them challenging.

There is a reason this man is a legend.

It was wonderful. As Savi worked on throwing her legs everywhere (one of her special skills) and threatened to do her usual “total-lose-it, bound around like a kangaroo on drugs” routine, George kept calmly instructing through his megaphone. Since she couldn’t sway him, I guess she decided she may as well capitulate and just do the bloody changes….into a contact… straight.

The obvious question is, “What did George say that was different from all the other trainers I have worked with?” Essentially he simplified everything and we literally ONLY worked on changes for the whole lesson.

There were no gimmicks or complicated exercises. There were some very useful gymnastics and, to quote George, it was simply “old fashioned” riding.

The lesson started with inclement weather. I was wondering if he would cancel, there was a little thunder and steady but light rain. I had Savi plaited and shining. My tack had received an extra clean, I had removed my politely “blingy” browband and my boots received an extra coat of polish. I had changed into George-worthy clothes, collared shirt and color-coordinated plain colored britches. I believe everyone who rides has at least read some of George’s scathing comments when people arrive at lessons tardy and scruffy. That was not going to be me. He showed up early, as I was redoing one of the braids that Savi had somehow managed to rub out.

Ilse Schwarz on Sauvignon being coached by George Morris. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Ilse Schwarz on Sauvignon being coached by George Morris. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

There was no comment on the weather so I jumped on and started riding. “Do exactly what you would normally do” were my instructions through his megaphone. Anyone who knows my mare would fall over laughing at these instructions. What he should have asked was, “lets see what Savi wants to do today”. George Morris had never met my mare, so I was determined to not let him know that in the first 10 minutes of work she totally controls me. I also should mention that she is extraordinarily girthy, so my saddle stays on purely through balance for that first 10 minutes. I walked, did some leg yields, took a deep breath and put her into canter, always my desired warm up. With the thunder and stormy weather, Savi thought I may be asking a little too much too quickly and threatened to bronc several times before I decided to put her into a trot. More leg yields and then she finally felt I could halt and tighten my girth about six holes or so.

I trotted a little more, a bit of passage and piaffe (wish I could say I asked for that piaffe, but I think Savi was trying to show off). George then asked me to walk. OK, the lesson was starting. “On the diagonal and a volte.” This I could do. “Counter flex her and ride haunches out.” “Stay on the volte, now change rein and repeat, make a volte to the right with the hauches out and flexion to the left.” Then we repeat to the left. “Position her to the right–shoulder to the right and haunch to the left.” We do this back and forth a few times with George insisting that I almost fix my inside leg to the girth through the volte and into the change of direction, that is, the left leg in the counter bent volte to the right. Savi goes against my hand a little as I persistently press the issue of acceptance of the inside leg. As she tries to go above the bit George instructs, “take your hands higher, take the contact. When she goes against the contact raise your hands a little bit and close your fingers so that she really accepts the contact.”

We established that she had to step into the new outside rein, then he asked me for a diagonal of four tempis. Nothing like stepping right into trouble I guess.

I canter and start a line of changes. “When you ask for the change, sit deep in the saddle, inside leg and outside rein, if she puts her head up, lift your hands higher.” Now I thought I stayed fairly well in my seat and was pretty certain that there was no chance I used the new inside rein at all in my changes. I also know that I could be tempted to twist my upper body in the right to left change, George saw that immediately. It also became clear that my idea of staying in the saddle wasn’t nearly deep enough to keep George happy. At the very hint of a croup high change the megaphone was insisting: “When she wants to go croup high in the canter, sit deep in the seat and lean back, when she wants to lift her head high, lift your hands higher.”

We completed several lines of competent four tempis, then three’s and finally we moved to the two’s. Ordinarily, I do minimal lines of changes on this mare. Enough to establish the count and then we finish. Multiple lines have a history of leading to chaos. My warm-ups have always been a fine line between schooling one line, or going into the test without having practiced more than a single change.

After several lines of chaotic two tempis I thought everything was rapidly “going south.” Savi lost the ability to count to two and here and there stuck her nose skywards with the intention of leaving the county. From the megaphone the calm but clearly audible instructions continued. “Lift your hands higher, her head will go down.” So, at what felt like warp speed, I did just that. Simultaneously turning her on a rather large circle whilst “keeping my seat in the saddle and leaning back.” Savi returned to earth and we continued as if our brief attempt to enter orbit hadn’t happened. “Shorten your reins, keep your hands in front of you, not that short, she must be able to use her neck.” Two tempis again. No left or right rein aids just leg, leg, leg… after the second attempt to leave earth, Savi gave in, took the most genuine contact and we had nine perfect two tempi’s.  Straight, into the contact, uphill. “Walk, give the horse a break.”

Having already shown successfully though Intermediare 1, a good line of two tempis was clearly in Savi’s skill set. However, I usually have to do way too much organizing and compromising to ensure a clean line. George had managed to talk Savi down from getting over- the-top “hot” and we actually avoided the wildly flailing legs that often accompany that tension.

Ilse Scwarz and Sauvignon. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Ilse Scwarz and Sauvignon. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

We then chat for a moment about what we just did.

“At the moment you have to lean very far back, I don’t like that but I have to do it until the horse accepts my seat and is not light in the croup because when the horse is light in the croup he is going backwards. Then for the change it is legs, exclusively legs. Don’t get to a place of pulling on the front.”

“That’s the show jumpers big mistake, they pull on one rein, they throw them sideways, they get light in the croup, they get late behind. The rider is too tempted to bend the neck, Ohhh that is the Kiss Of Death.”

“Inside leg on, that’s very important, outside leg behind but almost passive. Once the horse is well schooled in the use of the legs, the outside leg comes secondary.”  George continues, “I am very pleased with that feeling in the twos, now lets look at the one tempis”

At this stage it becomes apparent that Ken (my husband) may have exaggerated Sav’is skills in the one tempi’s. In fact, this is the movement that is preventing us from a start at Grand Prix. We can get four or five on some days but not even that number with any repeatability. It has me tremendously frustrated. Part of the problem is that she gets so excited that her legs get tangled. She leaps when things get complicated and I lose both the harmony and her brain. Having seen how George was totally non-reactive to her antics to this point, I start this part of the lesson with quiet optimism.

I explain this to George and I think he is almost more excited at helping a green problem horse than simply improving one that already has confirmed changes.

The instructions from George are to show him some one tempis. “Just three or five on the quarter line and then forwards.” George had again made the assumption that I actually had control over the start and finish of the ones on this mare. No worries, I soon set him straight on that one! George refused to engage with Savi’s antics and twisted legs and over-enthusiasm in counting. “Ride her forwards after she does three” (I wish!). George changes instructions slightly. “Release her, don’t push much, just let her go after the third or fifth.” This, surprisingly, works beautifully. Together, the three of us work on this theme. “We have to teach her right, left, right, left, right.” George remains patient as Savi starts to take over. “First you have to be confident and confirmed in right, left, right”

I have to halt as Savi’s brain explodes and she changes her legs in a manner that makes no sense to anyone, not even to her. George remains CALM. So do I. George re-iterates the plan. “Lean back, keep a very straight neck and just think of your legs. Very straight in front, no neck bending. When she is straight, just change your legs but DON’T think.”

HELP and UH OH

NOT thinking is historically a problem for me. Just ask Steffen Peters who also requested the same from me during several of our lessons. I blame my stupid PhD.

“You can’t think during one tempis.”

At this stage two things come to mind. The first being, when and where has George Morris been training horses to do one tempis? He is clearly confident that we are going to make this happen. The second is that I have never had a successful lesson with this mare where we only focused on changes. Most dressage trainers, myself included, tend to address other problems when the changes go haywire. The lessons which have continued with changes have ended with chaos followed by us going back to just single changes.

George has us go back to two’s. They are wonderful. Straight, on the aids and with a good contact. We do another line of one’s on the quarter line with the word leg, leg, leg coming through the megaphone with increasing excitement as Savi keeps changing in rhythm. We manage eight lovely one tempis and it is the end of today’s lesson.

George and I finish with an agreement to schedule another lesson. We both enjoyed ourselves tremendously and it was clearly successful.

Two weeks after this lesson, Sauvignon and I are almost considering a line of nine to twelve one tempis routine. We still have to do them on the long side or quarter line but I can actually start to think about dong the Grand Prix.

The next lesson is scheduled and I can’t wait.