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.
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.
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.