The sleek bay hunter cantered toward the triple combination, ears forward as it approached the line of three fences. All systems were go. The horse sailed over the first jump, the second, then without warning decided not to jump the third.
The bewildered rider, who maintained her seat, looked for guidance from the master in the center of the riding arena.
George Morris, a former Olympic rider who has coached many to international medals, knew what to do.
"That wasn't a refusal, it was a runout," he said calmly. "When the horse ducks out to the left, turn right and don't let him run past the jump. Come around again."
The rider took a deep breath, circled around and piloted the mount over the jumps--this time without a hitch--as Morris directed her to "keep your left leg on him. Now. Left leg, right rein."
Morris spent three days this week in Orange County, giving a clinic for 30 up-and-coming riders at the Oaks, a San Juan Capistrano hunter-jumper stable. Riders paid $375 to train all three days with Morris, while spectators paid $30 per day (which was donated to the U.S. Equestrian Team).
Although he gives 25 clinics each year, many of them are on the East Coast, near Morris' New Jersey stable, Hunterdon. His clinic at the Oaks was part of his single West Coast appearance this year, which concludes this weekend with a similar clinic in Pasadena.
Southern California riders, eager to work with the internationally renowned trainer, came to ride with Morris from as far as San Diego and the inland valleys near Los Angeles. Amy Wolfe, a junior rider from the San Fernando Valley, who was in the midst of her midyear exam week at school, was flown to the Oaks by helicopter after her last exam so she wouldn't miss an afternoon riding session with Morris.
Morris' Orange County clinic has become an annual event in recent years, due largely to his longtime friendship with Joan Irvine Smith, owner of the Oaks. He refers to her stable as "the premier riding facility in Southern California."
This week he was here on a mission: to give serious hunter-jumper riders some systematic training techniques that may give them an edge in competition--and possibly a leg up on future Olympic trials. Among his students have been Olympic jumping squad medalists Melanie Smith, Katie Monahan and Leslie Burr Lenehan.
Morris has been a household name in hunter-jumper circles since he was 14, when he became the youngest rider ever to win both the national Medal and Maclay finals. He competed as a member of the USET's gold-medal-winning jumping squad in the 1959 Pan American Games and the silver-medal team in the 1960 Olympics. Jimmy Kohn, now head trainer at the Oaks, was Morris' first student to win the national Medal finals.
Such a record does not come easily. Known as a tough taskmaster, Morris was true to form in his clinic. He began a morning session for amateur-owners by having the class ride a lengthy round of sitting trot without stirrups--a demanding exercise for riders--before he sent them over the jumping course.
"It was a tough workout, but I learned a lot," said Leslie Vaillancourt, who works and lives at the Oaks with her husband, Alain, another rider.
"George helped me pick up the pace and get Patch (one of Smith's horses) moving," she added. "He gave me a secure feeling. He's confident that you can do whatever he's asking, so you do it. He wasn't intimidating at all."
Morris, however, is known as a strict disciplinarian. He routinely dismisses students from lessons if they are not properly attired and has banished some parents from observing lessons because they spoke during his instruction.
"Everyone's on their best behavior here because they know George's reputation," said Alain Vaillancourt during the clinic. "You don't see anyone chewing gum, do you?"--a reference to Morris' rule against gum-chewing by riders.
Morris says discipline is a matter of necessity. "Being a particularly dangerous sport, you've got to be more disciplined with riding. And without discipline, things take much longer to accomplish. The best way (to learn to ride) is the disciplined way: dressing properly, following orders, concentrating. Often I find that I have to teach people to concentrate before I can improve their riding."
Morris, who is chef d'equipe (manager-adviser) for the U.S. Equestrian Team, says "the world has to beat us--which they can do (in the Olympics). Canada beat us last year in the Pan American Games. But that's the way it goes in this sport sometimes: It was their day, and it wasn't our day."
To improve the odds, Morris suggests that riders work hard at their trade. His advice to young riders who hope to ride for the gold:
"Find yourself an experienced horseman and train with him. A lot of these horsemen today have knowledge but not experience. They're horsemen on the surface; they're not real horsemen. A real horseman has dealt with every kind of horse under every kind of situation.
"At some of these horse shows, you can fake it. But you can't fake it at the Olympics."
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian events for The Times. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.
ORANGE COUNTY EQUESTRIAN EVENTS
Winter show. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Pacific Coast Horse Shows Assn. B-rated. Western. Spectators free. (714) 751-3247.
TODAY & SUNDAY, JAN. 23-24
Stirrup Cup Show Series, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Coto de Caza Equestrian Center, 1 Coto de Caza Drive, Trabuco Canyon. Orange County Horse Shows Assn.-approved. English. (714) 751-3247.
SATURDAY & SUNDAY, JAN. 30-JAN. 31
Southern Regional 4-H Horsemastership Exhibition. 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center, Costa Mesa. Young equestrians from eight Southern California counties compete in trail, equitation, showmanship and grooming classes, with oral exam. 4-H Horsebowl Quiz at 4 p.m. Spectators free. (714) 774-7120.