By Doris Degner-Foster
George Morris is a charming man with impeccable manners. “What you see is what I am: old breeches, old sweaters, that’s me,” he said modestly. Perhaps someone who didn’t know him might think he was just a kind uncle who had come to the barn to visit his young relatives.
But, they probably wouldn’t think that for long.
George has little patience with students who don’t pay attention. He said he is of the old school and his firm style reflects his own upbringing. He points out that his methods have been very successful and the facts support his statement.
In his first eight years of teaching as a professional, seven of his students were winners of the ASPCA Maclay and AHSA Hunter Seat Finals. Those students were followed by a very long list of other successful students, including, but not limited to, riders who have won medals in the 1984, 1992, 1996 and 2004 Olympic games.
He attributes his success in teaching to his early education with quality trainers. Although he was a teenager when he trained with Gordon Wright, George said Gordon was a teacher’s teacher and influenced him in many ways.
Gordon had said that a good teacher didn’t spend time telling people what they did right, but told them what they were doing wrong so that they could improve. Commenting on others who influenced him, George said, “The great horsemen who came before me, Bert de Nemethy, Jack Le Goff, Bill Steinkraus, Mark Todd of New Zealand, Rodney Jenkins, Michael Matz – these people taught me when I was listening, watching or reading.”
George insists he was not a natural rider. Instead, he had to work at it. The evidence of his effort is clear. He won the ASPCA Maclay Horsemanship Finals and the AHSA Hunt Seat Equitation Medal Finals at Madison Square Garden in 1952 when he was just 14. George explained that he was “13 in horse show age,” meaning he was actually 13 at the age cut off date for juniors. The record has yet to be broken.
George expects the same hard work and diligence from his students. Those who he feels show him a lack of respect in any way will receive the full brunt of his wrath. He is quick to point out faults and ask unfocused students questions like, “Do they put stupid in the water here?” He is also known to tell riders in his clinics that they should loose weight, pointing out the importance of considering their horse’s welfare in carrying the extra pounds. Some say his style is too harsh, others say the former chef d’equipe of the USET jumping team is very deserving of respect – regardless of his methods.
His students have said that if you give it your all, George will stick with you through thick and thin until you succeed. Conrad Homfeld, a former student of George’s and winner of the 1984 team gold medal, has said that George has an effect that reaches beyond riding. The way that he demands hard work and discipline will elevate and change riders forever.
“As much as riding is my first love, teaching is my second love,” George said. “That’s probably what I was meant to do is be a teacher. Teaching is probably where I’m most proud. I think I will be remembered more as a teacher than a rider.”
He added, “I wasn’t born that talented of a rider, but I was born a lucky rider.”
A major turning point occurred in George’s life when he turned to show jumping and continued his success.
Among others wins, he won the grand prix at Aachen and a silver medal in the Olympic Games in 1960. In 1988, while still maintaining his teaching career, he won the grand prix in Calgary.
What people might not know is that as much as he loved showing, George suffered from nerves the whole time. Before performing in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he noticed a cleaning lady working in the distance and wished he had that job so that he wouldn’t have to jump the high obstacles. He managed his nervousness and went on to win the silver medal. He insists, “It all comes down to your knowledge, your homework and your habits. That’s what pulls you through.”
Along with the temptation to switch careers to cleaning, he did consider other careers. “I traveled with my family a great deal growing up and when I was younger I thought of the diplomatic service,” he said. “But, very soon after winning the Medal and Maclay, I thought of the Olympic team – so the diplomatic service didn’t last long. I also liked the theater, where I was OK but not great, so I went back to the horse business.”
Before the 1960 Olympics, George had to maintain his status as an amateur to be on the team. After that accomplishment, it was time to choose a profession – and he didn’t go straight to horses.
Working with his father on Wall Street didn’t appeal to him, but he had always been interested in the theater. Horsewoman and top agent, Edith Van Cleve, befriended him and helped him enroll in acting school.
He worked in the theater for two years and, as much as he liked it, he missed the passion that came with riding. A turning point occurred when his parents attended a play in which he had a leading role. During one scene, George said he was practically naked and his father was mortified. Although his father had always said that he would not support George’s choice to be a professional horseman, after seeing the alternative his father asked him, “What about the horse business?” and helped him get started.
When he resumed riding and training, Ruth Newberry offered him a place at her farm in New York. Her daughter, Jessica Newberry Ransehousen, was training there with legendary Danish dressage trainer, Gunnar Andersen. George said the year he spent there was the most valuable and enriching year of his life, and that Gunnar was the greatest rider he had ever ridden with.
Although George did consider a career in dressage, his excellent reputation was in hunters. He stuck to the plan to teach in that discipline and was a great success from the start. “I worked at different places around New York,” George said. “I’d freelance.”
Although things were going well, George said he had a midlife crisis during the early ‘70s. “Yes, I’ve had lots of midlife crises,” he said with a smile.
Nick Van Heerden, a friend from Rhodesia, told him, “George, you can push the boat away from the dock only so many times.” For George, that was a great piece of advice. “That’s when I bought Hunterdon, my place in New Jersey. I anchored. I was a little bit adrift, but from then on I steered the course of my life,” George said.
Along with his busy teaching schedule, George has held multiple positions with the USET, has been a member of various committees and chef d’equipe for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. He has also been president of the United States Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
George now resides in Wellington, Florida, but does not have his own barn. He explained, “I stop at Beezie Madden’s, Laura Kraut’s or Jane Clark’s. It’s hit and miss because they’re away most of the summer.”
He just turned 75 and, while teaching and holding clinics across the country, he now brings young riders along for the ride. “I try now to find people, really good riders that can pick up the slack. I can’t ride all these horses anymore. I don’t want to take the risk and it helps the young riders. If they’re not riding, they’re learning, listening, watching and it seeps in, even if they don’t know it.”
In 2008, he was asked to be one of the guests of honor at the Equestrian Aide Foundations’ celebrity roast. The foundation assists equestrians in need because of accidents or other catastrophic events. The gala was held at the Palm Beach International Polo Club in Wellington. It honored George and his longtime friend, dressage icon Jessica Ransehousen, as they both turned 70.
Dressage rider Robert Dover, the foundation’s founder, said the purpose of the event was to honor the two beloved equestrians and have a little fun with them, too. It turned out to be just a little too much fun for George. The event had over 500 individuals in attendance who were entertained as 14 people took the stage to tell their funniest stories about George and Jessica. Dozens more spoke by video.
George says, “It ended up being an unpleasant evening for me. It put me in an embarrassing position because it was done in a big room full of strangers.”
Perhaps the loved and sometimes feared legendary George Morris is more like the rest of us than we might think. Like those of us who ride to nourish our souls he says, “I’m quite happy teaching but I’m happier on a horse,” he repeats with emphasis, “On a horse!”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She also enjoys writing fiction and is working on a middle grade book series about teenagers who ride horses and solve mysteries.