A Weekend With Mr. Morris

This blog was written over a month ago, but due to travel and a few distractions, this is its first posting. Though late, it came straight from the heart.

I intended to write this immediately after the clinic, but I hadn’t found the right moment to let my thoughts out. And because this was such a powerful and nearly perfect experience, I was/am intimidated I wouldn’t/ won’t get it right. Kady Hobbins posted a review of her experience (thanks!) and after reading her summary, I felt it was time to get this out of my head and onto my computer, so at the least it is preserved for me to tell my kids about someday, with some degree of accuracy. So thanks Kady for sharing, and I recommend you check it out because she vividly describes the setting, emotions, and humour we all experienced - http://kadyhobbins.com/2013/05/22/adventures-with-george/. It’s funny to read because her thoughts over the course of the weekend are strangely similar to mine. But at the time, I don't think any of us were aware how the other 5 in our group were interpreting the situation. For my sport friends that aren’t familiar with George Morris, click here to see why he is a legend amongst mortals - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_H._Morris.

I say it was a powerful experience, because George Morris yelled, humbled, and in rare moments, praised my performance. I’ll get to that later, because at this point, describing a weekend with Mr. Morris as powerful is about as useful as describing why you don’t show up with jointed stirrups – it’s fairly obvious… But I describe as nearly perfect because I did not completely fail nor completely succeed. I made enough good mistakes and attempted to correct them with the type of attitude required  when one goes into uncomfortable territory and succeeds; that’s why I can label this as nearly perfect. I grew both as a horseman and as a person.

The clinic had three 1.5 hour sessions, with two groups. Each had 6 participants. After day 1, there were some changes amongst the groups but George’s delivery was similar. I’m not sure how or why, but Winston and I were put into the more experienced of the two groups. If I wasn’t so anxious, I would have appreciated the confidence someone in the selection office had in us… At the time, though, I only looked my five colleagues on big, qualified sport horses, and then down at little Winston whose quirky, warm, gentle face looked back, mildly comforting. Amongst those in my group were professional show jumpers, those who contest courses that I can’t wait to compete on in the future, athletes who are eons ahead of me in knowledge and experience. I put on the application what level Winston had competed to, and what I had trained and competed to. I emphasized my special quality is that I’ve competed in so many catch rides in stressful, international competition as a pentathlete. Winston (and I) were very much outmatched, but I was proud that this type of challenge was put in front of me. I hadn’t had this feeling in a year.

The odds still astound me when I think about our story. My dad bought Winston in 2007 for $400 after a high school friend of mine who worked at the track gave me a call to say she knew a horse that may be a good fit for me. I still remember taking her call in front of Mac Hall at UC. Winston was a wreck – abscess in his foot, mangy coat of nasty hair, a bit ewe necked and without muscle, and sadly little interest in eating. My dad patiently nursed him back to health and a very special horse emerged. Like a lab dog, a loyal companion. And a desire to please like you wouldn't believe when he jumps.

On Winston – no one could have guessed he’d be in this ring with these horses, ever. He was supposed to be in a can of dog food. Instead, on the first day of the clinic, George took him from me to demonstrate. George Morris, on Winston.  Amazing, and beyond anything I’d ever believe could happen. I didn’t give George the best leg up, of which he did not hesitate to inform me and the audience. Haha. He’s the first 70-something I’ve put on a horse and I guess I let him down a bit too quickly. After schooling Winston for a while and showering him with praise, he said he’d reluctantly give me my horse back. Wow. During the three days, Winston caught a few people’s eyes, who were nice enough to ask about him and comment on his demeanour. One asked his breeding, while I was in the class, literally about to ride a line.  I had to laugh… his breeding. She thought he was a small Hanoverian. That’s so oddly sweet of you nice lady - kind of like when someone guesses your age a decade lower than your license shows. Also during this time, I caught some sneers from the audience as they watched me on my little, self-trained thoroughbred. This long quote reminded me of the weekend. Throughout the course of the three days, I went from feeling over my head to comfortable with the idea of surviving this clinic to actually even feeling confident at times. For the most part, I have to say I really felt people willing us to succeed because we were so much less experienced. People love the underdog. To those making comments, the exact feeling I had in those moments was well captured by Roosevelt when he said:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.- Roosevelt

Kady described the clinic accurately and vividly in a way I can’t match. I will say that, over the three days, we were challenged more each day. The final day could not have been scripted better, for a great finale of failure or success. Ominously, during each session the announcer would pipe up on the speakers to say “George, 15 (or 5 or 3) minutes left” to which George would reply under his breath words I couldn’t make out but assume could not have been friendly. On the final day, we had a 5 jump course where each obstacle was fairly bold, including a difficult angled vertical, a couple oxers, and a liverpool. A double combination capped it off, first over a large oxer and then a vertical, one stride apart. The oxer was, without a doubt, the biggest jump Winston has ever approached. During the lessons throughout the weekend I’d look at Shauna, my girlfriend and ever-experienced rider compared to me, for feedback or a bit of confidence. With 15 minutes remaining on the final day, our group had to do this five jump course and get out so the next clinician could start – the announcer constantly reminded us of this. Prior to George bumping the jumps higher, I thought ’15 minutes left and I’ve survived, what else could he possibly throw at us now?’ Wrong thought to have, and so I instinctively turned to Shauna who was sitting in the crowd and who, with every single previous glance her way shared a subtle, reassuring smile. This time, no smile.  Just wide eyes and an emotion-less face. My exact thought was ‘Shauna believes in me more than I do, so if she’s concerned about this course, I have a major issue to deal with in the next 15 minutes.’ Each of the five riders went through the course and, for the most part, it was smooth. He picked everyone apart as per usual but also complimented the changes and improvement riders demonstrated. In moments of lacking confidence, one becomes a wall-flower. Next thing I knew, there was one remaining rider to go on course – me. As I gathered my reins, the announcer informed us that five minutes remained. There was no negotiation or opportunity to correct errors anymore. When George’s time was up, we were out, and this would be my final note, good or bad. We started the course quite well through the first few challenges. Winston had become bolder and I less defensive. We approached the large yellow and black oxer and I thought this is it, keep pushing forward. We hit the distance nicely and Winston heaved himself over, then immediately back up after one stride to clear the vertical. That was the biggest jump we’ve done as a pair. George will surely finish on that note, I thought to myself. But no, continue through the course again he says. By this point, the amazing thing was how in concert Winston and I were with each other. He was sensitive to the smallest requests I made and I was confident in his intent and ability to jump the course. Though worried, I had not felt this state in a long time. We continued for a second trip through the course and I recall George saying “I should get paid extra for this,” to which the crowd laughed. Somehow I was calm enough to even smile. He was right; we were not the combination we had been on day one. The only blemish of the course came as we approached the combination the second time and he said “Yep, they are getting it” and we took a rail down. George lightly said to the audience “jinxed him” and I even smiled again. The audience hung on his commentary. Naturally, we couldn’t finish on that effort, and unsurprisingly the announcer reminded George one final time to wrap it up. Through the course we went again; an odd angled jump, a liver pool, an oxer, and then toward the line again. For a smaller, relatively less scopey horse like Winston, pace and distance are essential into a bigger fence, and he can’t get flat – the three ingredients I have to balance. The oxer, big and square, approached us very quickly. From three strides out, Winston locked his eyes on it and everything felt right. I repeated a rhythm in my head and then we were suspended in the air, safely over the oxer, and immediately over the vertical. ‘That has to be it’ I thought to myself, and it was. George quickly addressed the audience with closing remarks and his handlers ushered him out of the ring. Shauna and I came prepared though, and cornered him at the exit. This was within 90 seconds of finishing the course so I wasn’t thinking super clearly. Though his handlers were not impressed, he obliged to a photo which I will reflect on warmly for years to come and signed a copy of his book I had. And then, he was gone, flying to Finland in 1.5 hours.

I am thankful for my dad who took Winston on as a project, putting in full effort to bring his health back. I'm so fortunate that at as a young athlete, my mom required me to approach sport through a proper trainer program and always found a way to get me to the necessary competitions. And she's the one without fail, who believed I could achieve any goal I put forward. Pat and Adolph Koosey came to watch and they are my angel sponsors from my early years of riding, having supported my athletic journey for a long period. But it all started with a Pony they lent to me when I was six, named Pony.  And Shauna because she’s taught me more about riding well in the last two years than I’d learned in the previous 20-something. She encouraged me to apply for the clinic and she’s the trainer that built Winston’s program. Not that this was the Olympics, or even a competition, but I feel blessed and have to thank my support crew!

An amazing experience I am so happy to have been a part of. Thank you George.