COMPETING–Unrelenting by George Morris

from the just published Unrelenting:  The Real Story

intro

from II. WINNING WAYS

In early 1982, I went to Europe to teach a few clinics and J. Michael Halbleib came along with me. My lifestyle was still primarily working, but on Sunday nights I routinely went out to a watering hole and got a little wild. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I did have a drink or two in the evenings and had those big Sunday nights where I occasionally drank to excess. I had learned early in the seventies that if I drank the night before a horse show, I didn’t ride or see the jumps as well.  When I started having success in the hunters, I made sure I didn’t drink the night before. But when there wasn’t a show and I had a night off, I really let loose. After my hard-working lifestyle with the responsibility of such a big business, having a night out was a major tension release for me. But when I drank, I was always on the muscle and on the prowl.

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They called me “Bedroom Eyes!”

One night out in Paris with Michael, I was really in one of my wild moods and there wasn’t a leash that could hold me. Apparently Michael had had enough of my drinking, because after witnessing my antics that night, he told me in the caring way only a close friend can that he thought I should stop drinking. Deep down I knew it wasn’t a healthy lifestyle and with that one conversation, I didn’t drink a drop for fourteen years. I have a very strong tendency to get obsessive and habitual about things I’m focused on at any given time, whether it is drilling horses and going to the gym, or less healthy pursuits like drinking and partying. I refocused the energy back onto horses, my riding, and getting into better shape through running.

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I could turn on the charm when I needed to!

I have, throughout my career, preached to my students about the importance of taking care of one’s physical self. I work out regularly and have felt the great effects of such a regimen for decades. Staying healthy, lean, and fit not only makes you a stronger rider, but it’s a sign of discipline and shows others that you respect yourself. Through the years, I’ve on occasion been tough on young riders who are overweight, but it’s often a sign of issues with self-discipline. Of course, people can’t help the shape they’re born with, but I’m talking about what they can control. My comment about weight to a rider is no different from getting after riders about their position or their work ethic when they’re in a clinic. People don’t ride with me to be told everything they’re doing is right! I’m honest and forthright about what might be holding riders back from reaching their potential, and my goal is to convince every individual to work harder and challenge themselves. Criticism from me has always intended to serve the same sort of influence as Michael’s advice to me about my drinking that evening in Paris. It often takes a kick in the pants to lead to positive change.

from ADVENTURES IN HORSE SHOPPING

After selling Brussels, the money was burning a hole in my pocket. I was foaming at the mouth to find another jumper prospect as a backup for Grand Prix classes. I looked at a few horses with Gerhard Etter near Geneva, Switzerland. Afterward, Gerhard took me on a very long journey to see another horse he’d gotten a tip on. We drove for hundreds of miles across Switzerland, boarded a ferry to cross Lake Constance, and then drove hundreds of miles across Germany to the Czechoslovakian border, east of Munich. After traveling ten hours, we finally arrived.

The farm we had driven that enormous distance to reach was owned by the lovely family of Rupert Moll. Rare for Germany (where they seldom turn out horses), the horse we’d gone to see was in a stall with a run-out paddock, reminiscent of the family barns in New Canaan. I looked in the stall at the horse and immediately fell in love with him. The bay gelding was a son of the Bavarian stallion Rasso, who was by the famous jumper stallion Ramiro. Like an American Thoroughbred, he was tall and lean, with fine bone structure. The owner tacked him up and rode him an eighth of a mile to a jumping field. The horse trotted out with a huge, light stride and when he started jumping, I could see he was light off the ground, very careful, and scopey. I liked him. His jumping style was a little flat and he wasn’t the tightest with his front end, but I still couldn’t wait to get on him.

The owner dismounted and it was my turn to try the big bay. As soon as I had my feet in the stirrups and began sinking into the saddle, he completely freaked out! I barely had picked up the reins when he started panicking. My only option was to whirl him in tight circles and look for an opportunity to get off him. The horse was clearly mentally unstable—all I could think of was get-ting off, getting back in the car, and driving the ten hours back to Geneva! As we spun in circles, I began driving him forward with my leg and making him canter over poles on the ground in an attempt to distract him from his panic. Little by little, he started to settle down and accept me and I continued riding him. I kept him working and thinking, and he eventually relaxed. Despite the rocky start, in the end I had a great ride on him. We jumped a little and I liked him well enough that I thought it was worth trying him again the next day.

We slept overnight at Rupert Moll’s home and in the morning, I went out and got back on the bay horse. He freaked out all over again when I got on him, but settled down faster than the previous day. I knew his tricks and had him figured out by then. We set up a gymnastic that I always use as a scope test when I try horses, a vertical-oxer-oxer line, and it went beautifully. He had so much scope and was so light and balanced with an excellent, soft mouth. He definitely had his own style and wasn’t an orthodox juniper, but he was great nonetheless. I wrote out a check that day for $85,000. His name was Rio. I took Rio to Harrisburg and Washington with me that year since I was there riding hunters and coaching equitation students. One day I jumped Rio in the schooling ring and after watching us, Kenny Wheeler agreed my new horse could really jump. I told him I’d make a deal with him and suggested he and his wife Sallie buy half of him and co-own him with me. Well, he turned me down without consulting with Sallie and for years afterward, Sallie teased Kenny that he’d missed out on a big opportunity!

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With Victoria Colvin and Andre Dignelli

Kenny Wheeler

George and I were both riding in the 1950s and ’60s and he has always been such a beautiful rider. I’m from Virginia, but we’d go up to the Ox Ridge and Fairfield Hunt Clubs where George was always showing. When he went to the University of Virginia, I trained for Peggy Augustus and he used to come and ride; we got to be great buddies then. From the very beginning he was a natural, gifted teacher, too. We judged in Buffalo together, which I really enjoyed. Throughout his life, George has done so much for the horse show business. He has always been truly committed with his whole heart and soul in it—that’s why he’s so good. George is all class and couldn’t be a better friend.

Running Hunterdon no longer interested me as much as it had before, but I still had my hand in that part of the business a little bit. I felt like the hunter and equitation divisions were tiring of me, just as I was tiring of them. There were other great professional hunter/equitation trainers and riders doing well like Paul Valliere and Ronnie Mutch. Hunterdon still had very good junior riders like Lisa Tarnopol (later: Deslauriers) and Paul Newman’s daughter, Clea. who both just missed winning the equitation Finals in the early eighties.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were wonderful clients—they were the easiest, nicest people and never got upset about anything. It helped that Clea was a good rider and always did very well, but her parents were so unassuming. I still remember before the Maclay Finals I went walking into the barn area early in the morning to work the horses and I saw a strange man pulling Clea New-man’s (later: Newman Soderlund) boots off. Now, she was a very high profile young girl, and I wasn’t going to have some guy trying to get cozy with her! I yelled down the aisle,”Hey, leave that girl alone:’ The guy turned around-and it was the first time I met Paul Newman. Shortly after Clea started riding with me, she had a terrible fall at Madison Square Garden at an in-and-out with solid log fences. She crashed so hard and was knocked unconscious for a long time; we were all terrified she had been killed. Thankfully, she was fine. The next year I invited the Newmans over for lunch and I had an old housekeeper named Mrs. Ronk who was helping serve. It was a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches, and while we sat out by the pool, Mrs. Ronk brought the lunch out on trays. As she walked across the patio, I noticed the soup trembling violently on the tray. The woman almost fainted she was so nervous about serving lunch to the Newmans! I painfully watched that soup slowly bobble all the way down to the table.

Clea Newman Soderlund

I lived on both coasts when I was growing up. Luckily, George happened to be judging a horse show I was competing at in California and after-ward he went up to my parents and invited me to ride with him when I came back East. I was so excited because he was known for being the best in the country, but I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I could rise to the occasion. Happily, George and I had a wonderful relationship and he taught me so much. Although he could be pretty tough, he really was very patient with me.

My last junior year was 1983. I was picked to ride first in the order in the Maclay Finals, which was a horrible draw. Bill Cooney and Prank Madden were so nervous and chatty as we were walking the course with George. Typically, I wasn’t a worrier, but George told them that he and I were going to walk the course alone and it was just what I needed. I remember so clearly that the last line walked in between strides, where you could choose to add or leave one out. George looked at me and asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “George, I think I want to leave it as an option.” He was about to argue that I should make a decision ahead of time, but I told him, “If I hunt out of the last turn and have the distance coming in, I’ll leave it out. If not, we’ll add and make it look beautiful.” Then he just smiled and nodded. It was so wonderful that he trusted me. I’ll never forget that.

Bill and Frank were spinning around me at the in-gate and George said to them, “Let’s leave Clea alone now,” and then when I walked into the ring they all went up to the grandstand to watch. Everything worked out as I planned, and after I got off my horse, I walked up into the seats to see them. Every round you ever ride with George, he will always have noticed something you could have improved on. Even with a beautiful round, he’d see your heel slip up over the third fence or something like that. I’ll never forget what George said to me that day. He said, “That was the most beautiful round—I’d give you a 100!” I ended up second in the Finals—they had me on top all day and kept testing me and testing me until I made a mistake. George was disappointed but I wasn’t upset. I had such a great year with great horses and training. I learned so much from all of them.

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Celebrating the 2011 Pan Am Games gold medal with (left to right) Kent Farrington, Christine McCrea, Beezie Madden, and McLain Ward. (c) Shannon Brinkman

from COMING FULL CIRCLE

Across the board in this country, professionals are very wrapped up in their local scene and are too specialized. Most professionals today don’t have the vision to connect their business on a local level to our country’s bigger goals in the sport. They try to earn the little bit of profit that is possible to make in their business, and I realize how difficult it is to punch out of the local scene and take clients up to a national and international level.

After Hong Kong, I had hoped our success was going to inject the country with ambition and work ethic. As the years ticked by, I started to become disillusioned with what the country could bring to the party. Half of the big horse owners here choose to own horses for riders outside of the United States, and frankly, I can understand the attraction. Those riders hustle and they will ride anything; they earn their owners’ support with their ambition!

There is a void in this country waiting to be filled with ambitious riders. The United States should have the ability to field three medal-quality teams for every big championship. We will continue to have great moments; after all, we have a great system and foundation of horsemanship in this nation. Wonder-ful teachers grew up, as I did, with quality American horsemanship and those teachers will produce some fabulous riders who will have an opportunity to form special partnerships with truly great horses. As Americans, I know we’re already on the path to have moments of brilliance. However, if we continue as we are now, we’ll always be part of the crowd.  To achieve a streak of dominance again won’t be easy now that nations with vast riches have entered the arena. With some of the unlimited budgets we now see, those owners can practically buy their medals! For the more prudent American investors, buying a horse has to make sense: they can’t take the risk and pay $10 million for a horse.

We had a short window of absolute domination with the U.S. Show Jumping Team but it’s not easy to keep up with Europe, with their wealth of historic sport-horse breeding and incredibly wonderful horse shows. After all, they invented the sport! To match or exceed their results, we as a country must have a perfect recipe of investment and hard work and talent. It’s heartbreaking for me to see how much the standards have fallen in our sport in recent years. I see it in how riders are turned out, how they jump their horses, how they use gimmicks to take shortcuts. We all must take responsibility to raise these standards because it’s only perseverance and attention to those details, every day, that will result in another era of dominance for our show jumping team. It is absolutely possible to achieve—after all, we have done it before—and we gave the Europeans a kick in the pants in the eighties when they were forced to raise their game! I wholly believe that even with the changes in our sport since then, we are capable of being that dominant again. It won’t be done by thinking about it or talking about it. Enough horsemen and -women in our industry must strain to reach that level and devote themselves with a renewed fervor for it to come to fruition.

Excerpted from, Unrelenting:  The Real Story
copyright © 2016 George Morris
This excerpt reprinted by permission of Trafalgar Square Book

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