Riding for George Morris Part 1: Living On a Prayer

A leap of faith and a little luck snagged Meagan DeLisle a catch ride and just three weeks to prepare to ride in a  George Morris clinic. Meagan details her “boot camp” preparation and brings readers along for the crazy ride!

I am what many would call a late bloomer of sorts when it comes to jumping. I didn’t see my first crossrail until I was 18, after joining my IHSA team. From that first teeny tiny jump, I was hooked. I immersed myself in the hunter/jumper community, digging up any resource I could find and soaking it all to make up for my years out of the industry. And then I found George Morris.

Many of the girls in my barn would laugh and joke and live by the motto WWGMD: What Would George Morris Do. Intrigued, I began my thorough researching and found the love of my life. Yes — my husband Wayne is aware that he shares my heart with horses and “King George” as he is referred to in our house. I admired George’s appreciation for the art of riding, how he sees all the little details and fine-tunes each rider to see them as well. He can see a horse and know the horse in an instant. He is a legend.

I cannot tell you how many times I made the comment, “I would saw my arm off to ride with George Morris,” as I stared at my little 2’ course in the arena. That dream felt so farfetched: how in the world would a nobody like me ever have the opportunity to ride with one of the greatest foundations in our industry? So I tucked that little bud of a dream back and rode like heck. I have always been a fighter, but when someone once told me that I was unlikely to become a known name in the horse world because of my location/late start/lack of funding/lack of knowledge I grew more passionate than ever.

Opportunity of a Lifetime

Imagine my surprise when I notice that the King George himself is hosting a clinic at Altamonte Show Stables, Brody Robertson’s base, in October — just a two hour drive from my home barn. For a moment I grasped onto this little bit of fleeting hope that Joey and I would be ready for the 3’ division of his clinic. After Joey’s admission into the hospital for treatment of corneal ulcers, I satisfied my desire for some George time by purchasing an auditor’s pass and planned to attend with notebook in hand, not letting the faintest bit of information slip past.

Prior to Joey’s battle with corneal ulcers, we were confidently schooling 3′ together. I am disappointed to go into this experience without my partner in crime, but know that he will be with me in spirit the entirety of the clinic! Photo by Cassie Zimmerman

A few months passed by and I noticed that Brody’s wife Jen had posted online in regards to a horse available for lease for the clinic. My heart fluttered, but I was doubtful. I hadn’t jumped higher than 2’6” in months, I had never met this horse before, and let’s face it — I am a nobody in this industry. I come from a small town, my last name means nothing to anyone and I have only been riding competitively for the past seven years. I casually brought the thought up to Wayne in passing and he stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Meagan… this has been your dream. Dreams only come true every once in a while. Don’t let this slip by.”

His words hit me hard. He was right. I was scared, but what would it hurt to try. Having ridden with Brody before, I figured that he would not allow me to embarrass myself (or him) in front of George and miraculously he said I was ready. Within a few hours of reaching out regarding the horse, I was set up to catch ride him at a show I was already attending the following weekend to see if we were a good match.

Point South

Thankfully, my years competing IHSA have eradicated from my brain any fear of riding random horses, so when Jena Guldner, trainer at Briarstone Riding Academy and owner of my potential George Morris mount, pulled up at Ridgefield Arena for the show I was calm. Point South is a noble gray Thoroughbred with a kind eye and a hankering for forehead scratches. I was immediately drawn to his goofy personality and his desire to fiddle with everything near him playfully. We tacked up and made our way down the schooling ring for our first ride.

South is unlike any horse I have ever ridden before. An upper level jumper, he has a lot more motor than what I was expecting. I knew I was going to have to really focus to sort out this new ride, but I wasn’t afraid or nervous at all. We flatted for a while as I figured out his powerful canter and the way he prefers his rider to go around and then popped over a few small fences. He was a whole new challenge for me, but I looked forward to sorting him out.

Slowly figuring one another out. Photo by Jena Guldner

Jena is a phenomenal trainer and patiently guided me along with a smile. I was relieved that she didn’t just pull me off her horse and tell me that I was in no way prepared to ride a horse of this caliber or even show my face in front of George, so that was a start. She has this way about her that you know that if you cannot face the challenge ahead, she wouldn’t place it in front of you. Despite only having known her for a few hours, I was confident in our partnership.

We entered in the 2’6” jumper division just to keep things simple as I adjusted to a new type of ride. South is a total packer and saved my butt on more than one occasion that day. He knows his job and once he goes into the ring he is ready to perform. I struggled with finding the pace at his canter, but we made it over every fence. Despite a bit of a hectic Gambler’s Choice round in which I lost a stirrup and got a bit lost around the ring, we still managed to steal second place and South got to take me on my first ever victory gallop!

With that boost of confidence, I went into my next classes with a positive mindset. I am no quitter. All in all, the weekend could have gone better but it also could have gone a lot worse. I left with a new perspective on how I needed to prepare and a determination that no one could falter.

Thanks to South, I got to ride in my first victory gallop this weekend! Photo by Jena Guldner

A Tough Timeline

From the day I committed to the clinic I only had three weeks to truly prepare. At first, I was worried that I would be the one in my group that was obviously underprepared, but I know that all I can do is bust my tail and go in knowing I gave it my all. This isn’t going to be a fun couple of weeks, but I am facing this challenge head on. Thankfully, my coach Cassie Zimmerman is equally as excited as I am for this opportunity and is working diligently to help me prepare. My barn family, wanting me to be in the right mindset, has even taken to speaking to me in a George-like manner which has been entertaining but still very real as I ready myself for the unique criticisms that George has to offer.

I have done a lot of research regarding George’s clinics and what I need to know prior to walking onto that Grand Prix field for the first day. The first big dinger was strengthening my endurance. My trainer has me participating in what she calls “30 Minutes of Torture” — an exercise where I trot for 5 minutes then canter for 5 minutes on repeat for 30 straight minutes.

And if you thought 30 Minutes of Torture wasn’t fun enough, it’s followed by a regular jump lesson. Dying. I. Am. Dying. Photo by Cassie Zimmerman

We have also incorporated a lot of exercises to improve my fitness level, such as stirrupless work (an exercise George uses a lot in his clinics) and lunge line lessons. As I live an hour away from my barn and am unable to ride every day because of work, I have used other resources like bike riding and a few machines at the gym to continue building strength and endurance. I am working hard, but not too hard as the last thing I want is to have a strain or injury right before the clinic. Being fit and in good working condition for the clinic is a must.

In addition to all of this homework, I am spending a three-day weekend in training boot camp at Jena’s home base working with South and pulling two-a-days. I expect I am going to be very sore, but the opportunity to spend three whole days preparing is invaluable. As the clinic approaches, South will be brought to Altamonte Show Stables one day early for a last minute lesson with Brody to tie up any loose ends!

I had figured my nerves would get ahold of me by now, but the constant support and kind words of my friends and family have lifted me up and kept me calm. Hearing professionals in the industry reassure me that with some work, I will be more than prepared has made me more confident in regards to my riding. I know that with my level of passion for this sport that I will go into this experience as ready as I could possibly be and prepared to soak up all of the information I can. This is a dream come true for me and I still can’t believe it’s only a few short weeks away. At this point it may seem like I am just living on a prayer, but I’ve got the heart to see this through!