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January 1, 2013

Beyond The Legend Of George H. Morris

George H. Morris’ office is lined with silver, memories of some of his favorite victories. Photo by Molly Sorge

Just one year younger than the Chronicle, he’s graced its pages countless times and been a subscriber for more than 60 years. In addition to his major milestones, find out about his acting career, lack of abilities with the microwave and when he listens to Lady Gaga. This article appeared in the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicle of the Horse, the July 9, 2012 issue. Throughout January, we will feature some of the most popular articles that appeared in print in the Chronicle in 2012.

On a crisp morning in Rome, dawn was just breaking over the show jumping course set for the 1960 Olympic Games in the Piazza di Siena. At this early hour, George H. Morris had the course, the stands and the field to himself as he silently battled his biggest challenge: his nerves. 

“It was hardly light, and the dew on the grass was so thick. It was so slippery, and the sun was just coming through the trees and blazing at eye level,” he recalls. “The course looked huge, like I couldn’t jump it. I didn’t think I could jump the course, on any horse.”

He was just 22. But as the day advanced, he put his doubts behind him and rode Sinjon to a team silver medal and into fourth place individually.

While it may seem like he has lived a charmed life, earning international recognition and widespread adulation, there were even more moments when George was unsure, when the person who’s become a legend was just human.

“I suffered my whole life from nerves. If I had to show tomorrow in the pre-green under-saddle, I would be nervous. As much as I loved showing and was addicted to it, I suffered a lot,” he says.

He can still recall a moment from his first European tour with the U.S. Equestrian Team, in 1958. “I very clearly remember seeing a cleaning lady up in the third story shaking a rug out of the window and thinking to myself, ‘I wish I had that job. Then I wouldn’t have to go out and jump those courses.’

“Gordon Wright always said that my stage fright helped me. Some people it paralyzes in the ring, but it helped me. I wouldn’t think I’d be able to do it, no matter what it was,” he says. “Even finding eight fences on a hunter, I’d stew about. I didn’t have a sports psychologist. I just learned how to handle it. It always comes down to your knowledge, your homework, your habits. That’s what pulls you through.”

A Student And Teacher

That team silver medal from the 1960 Rome Olympic Games now hangs prominently in the foyer of George’s home in Wellington, Fla. His trophies from historic wins in both the ASPCA Maclay and AHSA Medal finals in 1952, at age 14, shine as brightly as the day he won them.

In the decades that have passed since then, George has become an icon. Say “George” in the horse show world, and everyone instantly knows you mean George H. Morris. They picture his hawk-like, piercing stare and hear his raspy voice urging “gal-lop” from the in-gate in his measured, precise tones.

Read all about some little-known facts about George H. Morris, including what the "H" stands for...

The walls of his two-story home are lined with memories, photos of horses and students from the past. Many of the photos are inscribed with messages of appreciation for his guidance. Not much in George’s home is just idle decoration—a closer examination of a lovely brass clock on a table next to the sofa reveals it as a trophy from the 1960 Lucerne (Switzerland) horse show.

A picture of him at age 22, accepting a trophy from Queen Elizabeth at the 1960 White City Horse Show in London, sits on a gleaming table next to an image of him walking the show jumping course at the 2004 Olympic Games with the U.S. eventing team and snapshots of himself with favorite students such as Anne Kursinski.

He smiles as he recalls going a bit weak-kneed meeting Queen Elizabeth. Ask him anything about any one of the hundreds of photos, and he can instantly tell you the year and location it was taken, along with the names—including correct spellings—of all those pictured. George’s memories aren’t just hanging on walls or lining trophy cases. They’re filed with ruthless precision and indelible detail in his mind.

Along with the hundreds of photos are countless books, filling the shelves. There are a few fiction titles, by authors such as Dick Francis and Barbara Kingsolver, but the vast majority are tomes about his all-consuming passion: horses and the art of riding.

“I am fascinated by riding,” he says with conviction. “I never stop reading. My room is littered with articles and books and magazines.”

It is, although “littered” isn’t quite accurate. The journals and magazines, which include not only typical hunter/jumper publications, but also titles devoted to natural horsemanship, are placed meticulously. Nothing in George’s life is just flung down or haphazard.

George’s voracious appetite for writings about riding goes hand in hand with his intent observation of horses and riders in action. He might be the king of the hunter/jumper world, but he’s fascinated to see any horse in action, no matter the discipline. “I’m learning. I’m learning how to ride,” he intones.

Read more about George H. Morris's accomplishments....

Big Decisions

After the 1960 Olympic Games, George left the horse world and devoted himself to forging his way as an actor. “I was restless; I had to discover my personal life and what I was going to do to pay the bills,” he says.

George’s family had supported his riding career up to that point, but it became obvious that he would have to find a profession. “I didn’t really consider becoming a professional rider, because at that time you couldn’t have ridden on the team [if you weren’t an amateur]. I could have gone to work on Wall Street with my father, like Billy Steinkraus did, and continued riding as an amateur, but that didn’t appeal to me at all. I never even considered it,” he says.

He also struggled with his personal life. In those days, as a bohemian man living in a conservative world, he felt out of place. “It was not easy for me—never was, never has been, never will be—living a very conventional life,” he says. “Especially in those days, my particular situation was very hush-hush and not accepted nearly the way it is today. So, that was also a big factor. That was affecting my whole life.”

He’d always been interested in the theater, and as it turns out, a horsewoman showed him the way into that world.

“By coincidence, at Ox Ridge, there was a very sweet middle-aged lady who rode a three-gaited saddle horse. He wasn’t a show horse, and nobody paid any attention to her because she rode a saddle horse, and they were all hunter riders. But I befriended her because I liked her, and she liked me,” George says.

That woman was top agent Edith Van Cleve, whose influence helped George enroll in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater.

George spent two years living in a small apartment in New York City, immersed in the theater. He performed in summer stock productions in Cooperstown and Fishkill, N.Y. But he didn’t set the world on fire as an actor, and he wasn’t content to muddle along.

“I think I would have worked, but I didn’t have that obsession and passion that I had with the riding,” he says.

The final straw came when his parents came to watch his leading role in one of the plays.

“For one scene, I was practically naked on stage. My father was mortified. My whole life, he had told me there was no way I was going into the horse business. In those days, being a professional horseman was not ‘on.’ At dinner after seeing that, he said, ‘George, I’m not sure about this theater for you. What about the horse business?’ He said that he and my mother would give me a head start,” George recalls. “A leg up.”

Becoming A Teacher

So George embarked upon a career teaching riding and training horses. Right after he picked up the reins again, Ruth Newberry offered him a place at her farm in New York, where her daughter, Jessica Newberry Ransehousen, would train with Gunnar Andersen. George spent a year there, riding and training.

“I would say that, even including my teen years, it was the most valuable and enriching year of my life,” George says. “Gunnar Andersen was the greatest rider I’ve ever ridden with.”

George briefly considered making a career in dressage. But since his reputation and credentials were in the hunters and jumpers, he forged on and started his own farm in 1964 in Armonk, N.Y., where he sub-let famed hunter rider Dave Kelley’s facility.

George had dabbled in teaching at Ox Ridge in the mid-’50s; he helped his niece and nephew on ponies, and Sue Ashe was one of his first students. He knew he loved to teach.

“I had something to offer because my own education was so good. I’d had Miss V. Felicia Townsend and Otto Heuckeroth at Ox Ridge, then Gordon Wright, Bert de Némethy and Gunnar Andersen’s voices,” he says. “Also, Gordon Wright was a teacher’s teacher. He taught you how to teach, even if you were just 14. So I was brought up like that; my mental disposition leaned toward teaching. I was fascinated with it.” He also began traveling to teach clinics in 1962, in Texas and Georgia.

One thing that was lacking, however, was his stable management. Ox Ridge had been a full care facility, and George had had grooms in his USET days. He’d never cared for a barn full of horses himself. But, in typical George style, he set out to learn every aspect of it. He called on famed USET stable manager and trainer Bob Freels for help.

“About three times a day, I’d telephone him and say, ‘Bob, what do I do now?’ He’d guide me in how to take care of the horses,” George recalls.

George’s business expanded rapidly, especially after one of his first students, Jimmy Kohn, won the 1964 AHSA Medal Final.

Finding His Way

Throughout the latter half of the ’60s, George was a training dynamo. He spent time at various facilities, such as the newly built Old Salem Farm in North Salem, N.Y., and a private farm in Millbrook, N.Y. By 1967, he’d discovered Conrad Homfeld at a clinic in Texas, guided him to the Medal and Maclay final wins and was teaching on a freelance basis without a farm of his own.

George held down a hectic travel schedule weekly, splitting his time between his apartment in New York City, teaching in Connecticut, New York, Long Island and New Jersey, and horse shows on the weekends. It took a toll on his health.

So he took a break, traveling to South Africa. There, a friend advised him, “George, the boat can push off from the dock only so many times.”

“It was great advice. You have to find an anchor. Something was missing in my life,” George said. So, after a long search, George found a 40-acre field in Pittstown, N.J., where he could throw that anchor. He bought what became Hunterdon in 1971 with then-partner Jeremy Wind.

The property had just a dilapidated house, a chicken coop and a pole barn, but George worked to build it into the 100-acre showplace farm that Hunterdon is today. The pole barn remains there to this day, as a small three-stall barn with a large storage area. It’s where George’s horses lived when he first moved to Hunterdon, and it’s where Kappler’s Olympic gold-medal star, Royal Kaliber, lived.

“It still has a special feeling, that property. It has a lovely breeze in the summer,” said George. “No matter what you built or how much money you put into a place, you can’t create what’s there. That place exudes horse friendliness.”

From Hunterdon, George built his training and clinic empire and established himself as the preeminent opinion on hunters, jumpers and equitation.

I Say It

Along the way, George found quite a voice, both in print in the Chronicle, where he has contributed to the Between Rounds section since 1989, and in his teaching life. He’s never been shy in pointing out a flaw, and while some may say his approach has mellowed in recent years, his clinics are not for the faint of heart. His outspoken views on the evolution of the sport frequently point to weaknesses and predict a worrisome future.

“People call it bashing,” George says with a wave of his hand. “I don’t think it’s bashing. That’s how I was brought up. Gordon Wright told me, ‘Don’t spend a lot of time telling people what they do right. You tell them what they do wrong and what they could do better.’ That’s how I teach.

“I don’t spend a lot of time telling a talented rider how fabulous he is. I hone right in on what could be better, in my opinion,” he continues. “That’s how I teach, and that’s how I write articles. If I see something that I think could be or should be better, I say it.”

In his monthly column for Practical Horseman, “Jumping Clinic,” George frequently criticizes an exaggerated crest release and promotes the use of an automatic release. His critics point to the fact that he popularized the crest release and wonder if his criticisms border on the hypocritical.“I will admit, lots of these problems we have today, I helped to start,” he says. “The crest release—I legitimized it. Gordon Wright taught it, Rodney Jenkins used it, but I legitimized it for the masses, and now that’s my fault. I started importing European horses. I started taking private tours to Europe. Lots of the problems that have exploded, I started them. But people have taken everything to the extremes. So perhaps at night I do sometimes have a flash of a guilty conscience. But it doesn’t last long.”

Tunnel Vision

George has literally made horses his life. “I’m a very narrow person. I can’t fix a car. I can’t cook dinner. I can’t work the microwave. I can’t play golf. I don’t look at a computer. Ever. I can’t do anything much. But in the horse world, I think I can do quite a bit,” he says. “Once I’m into something, I am 100 percent committed to it. That’s why I’m successful.”

George’s intensity can be intimidating, and he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Anyone who has attended one of his clinics with dirty boots or while chewing gum has discovered his mercurial temper. But he takes pride in his self-control and willpower—his rigid adherence to his own code. He still goes to the gym at 6 a.m. each morning.

“I’ve been very unbendable with my standards and principles,” he says. “I want people to say, ‘I don’t know if he was a great horseman. He was a pretty good teacher. He was a pretty good rider. But he stuck to his guns with what he believed in.’ That’s what I want the most.”

It’s slightly unnerving to be talking to George about the future of show jumping and suddenly hear the electronic notes of Lady Gaga’s song “Paparazzi” emanate up from the cell phone in his pocket. But that’s George—deadly serious with a wickedly bemusing bent. You can tell when he’s about to tell a good story; he leans in and winks, with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. That’s also his prelude to an off-color joke. He’s not afraid of a party, to put it mildly.

With manners befitting a man raised in upper-class society in the mid-’50s, George is unfailingly polite. He has high-powered friends around the world and has shaken hands with royalty. But there’s little pretension to George. When he walks into his local deli for lunch, the woman behind the counter greets him with a cheery “Hey George!” and they discuss the day’s menu. Despite his stern demeanor and gruff exterior, George is well liked.

He does, however, keep a distance between his social life and the horse world. “I have friends and interests that aren’t at all in the horse business, socially. I’m not the typical horseman, Sunday night going with the guys after judging the show and having dinner. Usually, I’m out of here,” he says. George loves travel and takes great pleasure in meeting and talking to people on his journeys.

As he’s discussing his approach to social life, George pauses. He says quietly, as if just realizing this, “I am really a loner. I’m happiest on a horse. I’m talking to the horse. And the horse is talking to me. The horse is teaching me.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more, consider subscribing. This article ran in the July 9, 2012 issue of the Chronicle

Other popular articles published in the magazine in 2012 include...

Horseman's Forum: Are Drug Rules Putting Our Horses At Greater Danger? The March 12 Horse Show Issue featured this compelling discussion of U.S. Equestrian Federation drug rules by pony trainer Robin Greenwood. "We've become used to seeing hunters cantering around in a lethargic state, and that's become the benchmark for success in the division. I can honestly say that in the 15 years I've been away, I see a marked difference in the degree to which the horses have become 'quiet,'" Greenwood wrote. "Our horses are in danger because of the strictness of the drug rules and the inability to enforce them." 

Battling The Butterflies Lisa Slade examined the often-ignored aspect of riding's mental approach in the Dec. 3 issue. "You’re waiting by the in-gate when your heart starts racing. All of a sudden your palms are sweating, you feel sick, and your mind goes blank—except for a mental video loop showing you crashing through the first oxer on course. Then you’re ushered into the ring, and you pick up a canter only to realize you have no idea what comes after fence 1. You feel disconnected from your body, and your horse, which usually jumps just fine, is suddenly snorting at trolls in the judge’s stand. 

When performance anxiety strikes, competent riders may become frozen passengers. Almost everyone takes lessons in jumping or flatwork, but studying the art of staying calm and focused? It’s not so common. You can learn to battle the nerves that can accompany competition, but it’s a skill that requires practice, just like the rest of your riding."

Where Have All The Amateur Riders Gone?  Fewer and fewer adult amateurs are heading down centerline at dressage shows. Is it the economy, or is the system broken? In our April 30 Dressage Issue, Kelly Sanchez examined why the numbers of amateur dressage riders are dwindling. Judging is a major topic; "As one adult amateur explained, 'You go in and ride an accurate test—it’s to the letter, and all the movements were performed. A score in the 50s is not OK. To get beaten down by the judge—what’s the point? We’re not going to the Olympics.'"

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