When I was a teenager, George Morris, then age 28, sat at a table in my parents’ kitchen in Atlanta, GA, and talked about what he would like to accomplish in his lifetime. “Someday, I would love to coach the American show jumping team,” he said; and so it was with great pleasure that I saw him reach his goal and become the chef d’equipe for the USEF Show Jumping Team in 2005. Now, as 2012 draws to a close, George is retiring from this position, although I’m sure he will continue to be a force in shaping horse sports for years to come. His impact upon hunter seat riding has been greater than any other trainer during the past 50 years, so I think it is important to reflect upon his career and what it has meant to riders in the United States and abroad.
First I should mention George’s extraordinary ability as a rider. He grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, and began riding as a child because a medical problem caused his legs to be weak, and it was thought that exercise would strengthen them. As it turned out, he was a child prodigy in horse sports. In 1952, at the age of 14, he won the ASPCA Maclay Horsemanship Finals and AHSA Hunt Seat Equitation Medal Finals on his horse, “Gamecock,” at Madison Square Garden, making him the youngest rider to do so. After all of these years, that record has still not been broken.
He studied with the late Gordon Wright, a renowned horseman and teacher, who was involved in the formation of the first civilian Olympic Team in show jumping for the United States in 1956. George was named to the U.S. Show Jumping Team and, in 1959, was part of the gold medal team in the Pan American Games. He was also on the silver medal team at the 1960 Rome Olympics and rode on eight winning Nations Cup teams between 1958 and 1960. In 1963, he turned professional because he felt that he should financially stand on his own. There were strict prohibitions against professionals in the Olympic Games at that time, so he had to make a choice. Remarkably, George had coached seven winners of the ASPCA and AHSA Hunter Seat Finals by the time his now-famous book, “Hunter Seat Equitation,” was published in 1971. Part of his success was his assemblage of capable riders one year apart in age, allowing him to have immediate winners, as well as a line of up-and-coming riders to fill their places once they had grown out of the junior division.
- Hunter Seat Equitation (1971, 1979, 1990)
- The American Jumping Style : Modern Techniques of Successful Horsemanship (1993)
- George H. Morris Teaches Beginners to Ride (1981, 2006)
- Because Every Round Counts (2006)
- Designing Courses and Obstacles (as a contributing writer, 1978)
Early on, George used other people’s barns as his base, including Ann Yohai’s “Old Mill Farm” on Long Island and Amory Ripley’s beautiful estate in Millbrook, N.Y., but finally settled into his own operation, “Hunterdon,” in Pittstown, N.J. Throughout the 1970’s, his coaching concentrated on hunters and hunter seat equitation; but in the 1980’s, he turned to the jumper division, where he had success as both a coach and rider. In 1988, he won the richest purse in show jumping, the Grand Prix of Calvary, Canada, on “Rio,” which he considers one of the greatest highlights of his equestrian career. As for his stellar teaching record, his former students include top Grand Prix riders Leslie Burr Howard, Norman Dello Joio, the Leone brothers, Chris Kappler, Katie Prudent, Conrad Homfeld, Melanie Smith-Taylor, Lisa Jacquin, and Anne Kursinski, to name a few. Since 1984, over ten Olympic medal-winning riders were his former students.
George was the first to assemble a team of highly-trained support personnel, including top vets, blacksmiths, stable managers, and grooms, to be a part of his operation. He didn’t just concentrate on lessons, but knew the importance of everything being in place in order to achieve a winning result. First and foremost, was the wellbeing of the horse:
“Love means attention, which means looking after the things we love. We call this stable management.” GEORGE H. MORRIS
In a July 10, 2010 article, “Four Showjumping Masters: Part 1 — George Morris,” in the Australian online magazine, The Horse, George’s observations on what sets the American style of riding apart from all the rest is succinctly described:
“We learned to ride with neither too long nor too short a stirrup, the basic length being the stirrup’s tread touching the ankle bone. We learned to place the stirrup on the ball of the foot in order to more easily drive the heel down and to turn the toes out slightly, consequently flexing the ankles. Our contact with the horse is with the calf of the leg and the inner knee bone, not just with the knee. As a result, this constant, quiet, and very secure lower leg contact is effective yet less disturbing to the horse than a swinging or pivoting leg. We allow the seat to be deep, yet by the forward inclination of the upper body, light in the saddle, we provide flexibility of the upper body by positioning it differently for different gaits and speeds. We learned to keep our heads up and use our eyes positively. Last but not least, we maintained a line from the rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth, thus establishing the most direct and elastic contact possible.” http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2010/07/four-showjumping-masters-%E2%80%93-part-1-george-morris/
Since 1978, George has been a USET director, the USET Vice President for Show Jumping, a member of the USET Executive and Show Jumping Committees, a member of the USEF National Jumper Committee and Planning Committee, the USEF chef d’ equipe at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and the President of the United States Show Jumping Hall of Fame. He has acted as chef d’equipe for numerous winning teams, including the 2005 champions of the Samsung Super League. He coached United States teams to individual and team Silver metals at the 2006 Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games; and in 2008, he was the coach of the Gold Medal Team at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong, as well as of the team member who won the Individual Bronze Metal.
He has held a “Big R” judging license for many years and judged some of the most prestigious horse competitions in the United States. A major advocate for the creation of the Hunter Derby—which harks back to earlier days when horses competed in open fields that simulated the foxhunting experience—he was chosen in 2010 to be one of the four judges for the $25,000 Franktown Meadows Hunter Derby. The following is an excerpt from the announcement in The Chronicle of the Horse:
“One of the original supporters of high performance hunter classes, Morris is passionate about the evolving hunter derby program. Having hunter derbies allows the discipline to be in touch with its roots as it encourages riders to pick up a gallop and navigate an open field of natural, solid obstacles resembling those once found in fox hunting fields. As one of the Franktown Meadows Hunter Derby judges, Morris will be looking for the horse that best portrays the ideal hunter; a forward moving horse that moves well, jumps well, and wears a good expression around the course.” https://www.chronofhorse.com/article/george-h-morris-announced-one-four-judges-25000-franktown-meadows-hunter-derby
For many years, George has educated the general public through his column, “Jumping Clinic,” in the monthly equestrian magazine, Practical Horseman, with critiques of the jumping position of riders in photos that were submitted by readers. He also has had an impact on Olympic teams throughout the world. At the invitation of various countries, he has taught around the globe and spread his methodology . One of the most direct impacts was the training of the highly-successful rider, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, who was his pupil before moving to Germany and competing on the German team.
In 2010, George helped launch the USHJA Trainer Certification Program, which offers clinics and symposiums aimed at educating trainers and certifying them so that their clients will know they are qualified to teach riding and take care of horses at their facilities. This is a huge step in raising the level of expertise nationwide. Through this comprehensive approach, George and other knowledgable professionals are working to pass the baton of excellence to future generations.
From personal experience, I can say these things of George Morris:
- He is the most disciplined man I’ve ever met
- He loves horses and always puts their wellbeing first
- He constantly seeks to improve the sport of hunter-seat riding, with an emphasis on education and ethics
- He will stick with you through thick and thin, as long as you’re really trying
For all of his famous technical advice, his ultimate goal is to elevate the sport of hunter seat riding to an art:
“Think of riding as a science, but love it as an art.” GEORGE MORRIS
Whatever he chooses to do next, I wish him all the best!