It’s been quite a life, by George

By Nancy Jaffer
March 20, 2016

George Morris is a much-in demand clinician. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
George Morris is a much-in demand clinician.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

It takes bravery to jump the types of fences that George Morris cleared many thousands of times in a career that stretched from the 1940s until now, but it required even greater courage to reveal himself in his long-awaited, tell-all new book, which was released this month.

We know him as the most influential figure in the development of hunt seat equitation as it is practiced today, and as a great competitor, author, judge, coach and clinician. You may have ridden with him at Hunterdon in Pittstown, where he set up shop in 1971 and made it synonymous with the ultimate in show ring success. Perhaps you read his classic volume, “Hunter Seat Equitation,” or attended one of his clinics, as a spectator or rider. Maybe you were just fascinated by him from afar. Whatever the circumstances, George has always been one to attract great interest, and his book answers any question you wanted to ask (but wouldn’t have dared to).

He has been a dynamic figure in the sport through many decades, often imitated but never duplicated, and served as a mentor to scores of top riders, including Melanie Smith Taylor, Katie Monahan Prudent, Leslie Burr Howard and so many more equestrian household names, throughout the Western Hemisphere and overseas.

At the same time, he has been a living bridge from the past, when showing was developing its modern look in post-World War II America, through the glory days of the U.S. Equestrian Team and Bertalan de Nemethy, into the current era. At age 78, he’s still fit and hasn’t slowed down–his latest venture is coaching the Brazilian Olympic show jumping team.

“Unrelenting–The Real Story: Horses, Bright Lights and My Pursuit of Excellence,” written with Karen Robertson Terry (Trafalgar Square/www.horseandriderbooks.com) is 418 pages (not counting the appendices) that detail every aspect of George’s life. He spares nothing while describing his evolution in riding or his personal life, whether it’s dalliances with the likes of Tab Hunter and well-known figures in the equestrian world or his hard-partying past. Loved the story of his time at New York’s old Studio 54, where he describes Betsee Parker (the owner of many champion hunters today) rollerskating on the dance floor with her braids flying.

Three members of the USA’s 1960 Rome silver medal Olympic squad and pillars of the U.S. Equestrian Team: Billy Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
Three members of the USA’s 1960 Rome silver medal Olympic squad and pillars of the U.S. Equestrian Team: Billy Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

These lines from the book explain the dichotomy that is George, and the choices he made to balance his skill and his nature: “Never fully comfortable in the straight family-oriented horse show world and just as out of place in an alternative subculture with a stereotypical identity crisis, I learned in the sixties to seek my own circle of friends. It hasn’t always been easy, living two very delineated lives and bouncing from one to the other.”

Some may get their kicks from reading about what once was George’s secret life, as he names names and fills in details, but others, like myself, will appreciate this book as a history of the sport, its times and what led up to them.

Born into a socially elite Connecticut family, George was a high-strung and insecure child, suffering what might be defined as a nervous breakdown at age nine.  He saw “horses as salvation,” as one chapter title states. Riding became an avenue to success for a boy who wasn’t good at “ball sports.” Even though he was not a natural talent in the saddle, that paid off for him, because he had to go through all the steps that gave him the building blocks of what it takes to teach riding.

There were missteps along the way of course. I was horrified to read that with ambitions to teach, he blindfolded his niece, took away her reins and stirrups and smacked her pony with a crop so it would take her over three fences. She fell off and broke her arm; it could have been worse.

And then there was the horse he stole out of a trailer at a show to provide a ride for his nephew.

Luckily, those incidents did not characterize the career he would have.

George Morris was saluted at the Winter Equestrian Festival after stepping down as U.S. show jumping coach. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
George Morris was saluted at the Winter Equestrian Festival after stepping down as U.S. show jumping coach.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
George always shows his students how it’s done. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
George always shows his students how it’s done.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

At age 14, he won both the Medal and Maclay finals at the old Madison Square Garden, which put him on the path to glory. He is honest enough to admit that he had an advantage because his toughest competitor didn’t have access to her best horse for those classes. That type of frankness gives this book credence, whether he is talking about a drinking problem, the rather unsavory measures taken to make sure horses jumped high in the 1950s (when he called it a “veritable free-for-all),  or how brutal competition could be in that era. (It was horrifying to read that during the Rome Horse Show in 1959, for instance, the course was so difficult that 20 horses fell and one had to be put down. This was show jumping, not eventing.)

In this century when everyone at least espouses concern about the welfare of the horse, it’s hard to believe it was otherwise not so long ago.

Showing during Morris’ early years was primarily for the elite, all part of a social scene that included luncheons, balls, dinner parties and lots of formal dress.

He takes us through the changing times, when the jumpers (whose riders were once characterized as “the wrong element” by an acquaintance of his mother) became the focus at shows instead of the hunters, and the U.S. Equestrian Team was an organization that those who loved the sport and their country strongly supported.

George’s story isn’t told from his viewpoint alone. There are contributions by dozens of people whose names you’ll recognize, offering memories of their involvement with George. Among them are Ludger Beerbaum, Robert Dover, Bobby Burke, Kathy Moore, Robert Ridland, Bernie Traurig, and on and on. Their thoughts were nearly as fascinating as George’s tales.

The many photos are wonderful, offering additional insight. They include shots of George with stars of the sport, past and present, from his mentor Gordon Wright, the d’Inzeo brothers of Italy and Nelson Pessoa to current figures, such as Rich Fellers and McLain Ward.

Without a knowledge of history, there is no sense of perspective. For those who don’t remember when the National Horse Show was at the Garden, who really aren’t able to place Rodney Jenkins or can’t believe horses once were shipped abroad by sea, this book will provide an education in entertaining style.

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