By Britney Grover
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Sidelines is thrilled to introduce George Williams as our new monthly dressage columnist.
George has dedicated his life to dressage as a rider, coach, clinician and volunteer. After beginning his dressage education with Egon von Neindorff in Germany, George followed his mentor, Karl Mikolka, to ride and train with the Tempel Lipizzans for 20 years, including being program director for 13. He then pursued his own competitive goals to ride on a U.S. team and succeeded with Rocher, earning many championships and culminating in fifth place at the 2003 World Cup in Sweden, team bronze at CHIO Aachen in 2005 and USDF Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle Horse of the Year.
Since winding down his competitive career, George has trained many young riders to prestigious finals and served as a board member for various bodies including the US Equestrian Dressage Committee, the US Equestrian Board of Directors and the United States Dressage Federation, where he served as president for nine years.
Now, George travels to teach clinics and is the US Equestrian Dressage Youth Coach and on the FEI Dressage Committee. He shares his interest in watching the youth develop in U.S. dressage with his wife, Roberta, who serves as the USDF FEI Junior/Young Rider Committee Chair. Their daughter, Noel, is a grand prix rider and professional, making dressage a full family affair. When not traveling to competitions or clinics, George and Roberta live in Wellington, Florida, in the winter, in the past have spent their summers in Northeast Ohio and now spend their summers in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sidelines caught up with George to learn more about him, before he begins writing the dressage column next month.
How did you first get into horses?
I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire with horses; my parents had horses, my mother, primarily, rode, as well my siblings. I came up initially through 4-H and then Pony Club. From the beginning, horses were an important part of my life, and the Pony Club experience had a big impact on my whole life as a child.
How did you get into dressage — did your mother ride dressage?
Not really; when my mother was younger, she rode a little bit of everything, what I would call English style. She did some foxhunting and things before I was born. Later, when I was a teenager, she focused purely on dressage. It’s sort of an unusual story: Dressage was always part of our riding because we had a blacksmith who was very interested in dressage. I’m not sure how he got introduced to it, but after World War II in the ’50s and ’60s, he had German dressage instructors living at his farm. I always found it fascinating, listening to his stories about dressage. He was a part of the trip our 4-H group took when I was 9 years old, and we went to Boston to watch the performance of the Spanish Riding School in 1964. It made a big impression on me.
What did your early dressage education entail?
I became interested in dressage very early on, and there wasn’t a lot around us where I grew up in New England. There was our blacksmith, and one or two instructors that had dressage backgrounds. In Pony Club, of course we did eventing, and had the dressage segment that we did. As I got older and did more with Pony Club, the dressage was my forte. So after high school, I went to Germany to study and ride at Egon von Neindorff’s stable, then came back and did the working student routine and worked my way up from there.
What are your most meaningful competitive accomplishments?
For me, it was Rocher: That’s the horse I was able to compete internationally on, did the World Cup and was able to be at Aachen with the Nations Cup team. When I was very young, my father was more into skiing and my mother was more into riding; I was 9 during the 1964 Olympics and I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to be in the Olympics as a skier and also as a rider? So from early on, I had this dream that I wanted to ride in the Olympics — it ended up not happening, but the horse Rocher was the closest I came. We unfortunately had soundness issues on the years of the Olympics, so it didn’t work out. But competing and getting to represent the United States in the World Cup in Gothenburg and also in Aachen was really the highlight for me. It really was my dreams coming true.
You mentioned Rocher; have there been any other particularly special or influential horses?
She was by far the most influential, because of what I was able to accomplish competition-wise. But very early on, I competed another horse by the name of Rahel, also a mare, that was first and second Level U.S. National Champion in the late ’70s. That gave me my first real taste of competition and wanting to be very competitive. Over the years, there have been many horses that have played an important role in making me who I am today. I don’t know to how many I have said, “You are my favorite.”
You’ve dedicated so much of your life to furthering dressage in the U.S. — why is that so important to you?
I think it probably goes back to my parents in that I feel it’s very important to give back to the sport, or to whatever it is that gives you a lot of pleasure, and dressage has obviously been the focus of my life. Being able to give back to the organizations is important; with being president of the USDF, it went maybe further than I ever thought it would, but I definitely enjoyed it. It’s also a little addicting in the sense that you start to get involved and enjoy it a lot and love watching the sport develop, and seeing how we can help it develop in this country. The state of the sport of dressage has changed dramatically in my lifetime: It has improved immensely, in the quality of the horses and the riding. There’s so much more knowledge and understanding. As a youth coach, I have to give a lot of credit to Pony Club: When I was in Pony Club, you were expected to help the younger members. For me it’s enjoyable to see younger generations coming into the sport and enjoying it, and being able to share my passion for the sport with another generation.
What does it mean to you to see your own daughter, Noel, embrace and excel in dressage?
First, I have to say I’m very proud of her. It’s wonderful to be able to share the interest and love of the sport, but it’s also about sharing the ups and downs. When things are going well and the horses are good, it’s wonderful. But as everyone knows, when you have a lameness issue or a health issue with a horse, it can have its moments where it’s devastating. I’ve been very lucky because my wife is also very involved in the sport, so we as a family live the sport every day.
What are your current roles and positions?
My main position is as the dressage youth coach for US Equestrian. The Discover Dressage USDF/US Equestrian Emerging Athlete Program has really allowed me in my position as youth coach to expand what we’re able to do. Through that, we’re able to do the European Young Rider Tour, which is a tremendous experience for the three riders that we take to Europe. As the youth coach, I sit on some of the US Equestrian Committees. I’m on the Dressage at Devon board, and also on the Virginia Horse Center board.
I’m also on the FEI Dressage Committee; basically, we oversee the rules for dressage and competitions, such as for the World Cup. Internationally they’re just getting used to the e-scribing we’ve had here for a while, and the Tokyo Olympic format in 2020 is going to be quite different from what it’s been before for the Olympics. Those are the types of things that the Dressage Committee is involved in.
Do you have any other hobbies when you have time off?
Unfortunately, not anymore. Growing up we skied, but once I started really competing internationally, I set that aside. We don’t have any other hobbies. It’s all about dressage — my life is my hobby.
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise