Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A 1988 Conversation with George Morris

The Coach: George Morris [USET photo]
The Anvil: Seamus Brady [USET photo]

The Vet: Danny Marks

Part I:
Systems, A Structure to Teaching...Team Work

In the world of show jumping, the name George Morris is synonymous with the very best.  An Olympian in his own right, having competed for the United States at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Morris has trained and coached more Olympic riders than anyone in the world.  A dominant force in the careers of Conrad Homfeld, Katie Monahan-Prudent, Leslie Burr, to name just a few.  Morris has developed a career out of asking just a little more from his students.  At age fifty, Morris continues to dominate the world of show jumping as trainer, coach, and yes -- rider.  At the 1988 Spruce Meadows Masters, held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, George rode the horse Rio to victory in the $500,000 DuMaurier Grand Prix, the richest prize in the world of show jumping.*  George offers an interesting look at the trainer/vet/farrier relationship at a top show barn -- from the boss's chair.
*As of 1988.

1960 Rome Olympics...George Morris in the Irons.

ANDY:  Why don't we start with a brief look at your training establishment.  In the past you were known for both hunters and jumpers.  But now that has changed.
GEORGE:  Yes.  I have operated Hunterdon (Pittstown, New Jersey) for about 18 years.  I have 55 stalls -- all jumpers now.  I no longer have hunters or equitation horses.  Between Anne Kursinski and a few other associate people I am just about up to that level again.  As my energy level became more and more limited, I just couldn't handle three rings, assistants, and different things.  It was just too complicated.
ANDY:  Do you also start some young horses there?
GEORGE:  Yes, in fact I have some homebreds, and we break a couple every year.  We start them as three-year olds or four-year olds.  But that is a very minor part of my business.
ANDY:  Unlike some parts of the country, you show almost year around.
GEORGE:  Between North America and Europe, yes.  From the first of February to November.  I make sure that I have an off-season.  I have more of an off-season than most people.  For the most part we pull up after Madison Square Garden which is the early part of November.  I absolutely don't allow many of my horses to jump a fence until I get down to Florida in early February.  And I am very picky about that.
ANDY:  I imagine that your clientele has changed a lot over the years,  What is it like today?
GEORGE:  A lot of amateurs, some jumpers, and a lot of amateurs that go on to the Grand Prix.  I don't have a preference.  I am basically happy teaching a beginner that is jumping cross rails or working with people at the Olympics.  I like riding a four or five-year old horse as well as riding an experienced horse in the DuMaurier at Spruce Meadows.  They are all about the same.
ANDY:  Does the quality of the student make a difference?
GEORGE:  I am always attracted to a quality, talented student, as I am to a quality, talented horse.  Most students are of  average talent, and most horses are of average talent.  I enjoy progress with them within the range of their ability.  I couldn't lie to you and say that when Conrad Homfeld came along at twelve or Katie Monahan at fifteen that I don't get a kick out of that. 
ANDY:  So these former students remain a feather in a very crowded cap.
GEORGE:  Well, almost anyone could have developed a Conrad or Katie.  All they could have really done is ruin them.  So that is not my greatest accomplishment.  I have had greater accomplishments.  The great accomplishment comes with much less talented people.  They went from very little to quite a bit, whereas Katie and Conrad would have made it no matter what.
ANDY:  So in a way you are these rider's chief mentor, but who was responsible for mentoring George Morris?
GEORGE:  My first life-long and major mentor was Gordon Wright.  And of course, Bert De Nemethy, but Bert was a specialized mentor.  Gordon trained me to handle all aspects of this game.  Hunters, amateur riders, a structure to teaching, and a structure to running an Olympic-level operation, and a superb system for training jumpers.
ANDY:  When did you turn professional?
GEORGE:  I was twenty-six when I actually turned professional.  But now there is no line between a professional-professional and a professional-amateur.  There is a line between those categories and an amateur-amateur, but now the amateurs who are riding in the Olympics are all professionals.
ANDY:  Good or bad?  Any distinction?
GEORGE:  I think it has to be opened.  I think it is hypocritical.  If you cannot control it, then you have to open it up.
[Note:  Remembering of course that this was 1988.  In today's Olympic venue, the NBA simply shows up for the medal ceremonies. :)  This 'openness' as George refers to was especially important for the development of international-level parity by USET competitors.  For decades the playing field was terribly skewed by various, arbitrary standards on what constituted "amateur status" within the guidelines of the competing nations.  And yes, it is and was about access to both talent AND money. American riders and their horses were begging for quarters from strangers, while teams from other nations were being bankrolled through the national coffers of the home nation, or private, often corporate interests.  Neither of which is a negative unless you are denied equal access.] 

ANDY:  You have been at the top of a very intense game for a long time.  What really separates George Morris from other trainers?

GEORGE:  Oh, I think that I have always had an innate feeling for horses and riders beyond most people.  I was also in a part of the world where I had access to people like Gordon Wright, Bert DeNemethy...Gunnar Anderson.  I had every advantage.  Besides these trainers, I came from a family that wasn't super rich, but they were wealthy people, and they helped me get to the top as a junior rider and onto the team.  I had a lot of good contacts.  My family had a lot of friends in the Long Island, Connecticut area that had to do with riding.  I had a lot of edges.  Billy Stienkraus was a great supporter of mine when I was young.  I am also a hard worker -- I have always been a hard worker.  I am also a studier.  I have always worked hard most everyday and have always worked hard.  I couldn't chalk this up to great talent.  I do have an innate sense about horses and I love horses.  I am a kind person with horses and horses like me.  I also think I am a good leader with people.  I am also very strict.  Some people don't like that, but that's okay, because the rest do.  All of those things have contributed.  But I am also very meticulous in my standards.  That makes me a perfectionist.  I think it all adds up to my consistent success.  I think those details have to be there.  Once you start chipping away at the details, you start to drop.  I never waiver with my standards.  I am not a good compromiser, so they have to come up to my standards or else they don't stay with me.  So even by approaching my standards, they get better than they would have before.  Another principle that I have always adhered to is that I would rather go to Florida and get fifths and sixths than go on a lesser circuit to win.  I'll go to Madison Square Garden and get a tenth in a jumper class, which is better to me than going around the backyards of New Jersey or Pennsylvania and winning a little mini-prix.  That's why I enjoy going to Europe now with my students, to really see where they are or where I am in world class competition.  Of course in the old days I went to Europe with the team, but now in the 80's I have won a lot with students.

ANDY:  Whenever comparisons are made in America of horses or riders, every finger seems to point to the East.  Why is that?

GEORGE:  Well, the top level is mostly in the Northeast, but of course now you would have to include Virginia.  The Northeast is very intense, very competitive.  When you get into the South or the Midwest, the attitude is much more laid back.  It is not as intensive or as competitive.  The stakes are not as high perhaps.  The Northeast has always been and probably always be an intense part of the country.  The New York metropolitan area is the cultural and financial center of the whole East.  That draws and influences things as far as like I said, Virginia.  I have always attributed this feeling to being around New York as the "push."  You don't quite have that push in other parts of the United States.

ANDY:  And it forces you to be better...

GEORGE:  It worked the best because there was the most competition.  If you lose any strokes around that part of the world, you're beaten.  You are going to lose.

ANDY:  Why doesn't that attitude surface in other areas?

GEORGE:  Oh, it works, but for that area the level is lower.  People that I've influenced in different parts of the country or the world, very often are the best in their area, but they are the best at the level of that area.  The same cannot be said about New York where every weekend you are working against Michael Matz, Rodney Jenkins, Conrad and Joe, Katie, and on and on.  They would have to ride higher.  They might survive in the Midwest, the Northwest or California.  They survive at the top by doing less.  It all makes perfect sense.

ANDY:  What about your shoeing needs?  Who is you main farrier?

GEORGE:  Seamus Brady is our man unless we are really in a crunch is some far away place.  Seamus has worked for us for many years.  First of all, he is a marvelous horseman; he is also a marvelous blacksmith.  Where he shoes my horses at the back of my barn, it looks out onto the grand prix field, and he is always watching the horses school in the spring and summer.  I have great confidence in Seamus as an all-around person.

ANDY:  How many years has he been with you?

GEORGE:  Ralph Snyder was with me in the beginning and he was a very good horseman too.  Seamus has been with me for ten or twelve years.

ANDY:  And have they been happy years?

GEORGE:  I believe in Seamus is all aspects of being a horseman, not just putting the shoes shoes on and taking the shoes off.  I have as much confidence in Brady as I have in Danny Marks, who is one of my oldest friends and my number one vet.  I have equal confidence in each of those men.  They are both tops in their fields and both magic horsemen.  They have tremendous experience -- forty or fifty years being horsemen.  They are not gimmicky.  I ma not a gimmicky horseman.  I don't like gimmicks.  I like everything very simple and natural.

ANDY:  So it is a pretty safe assumption that you feel very lucky to have these people.

GEORGE:  Oh yes.  I have never pretended or tried to be a vet.  And I have never pretended or tried to be a blacksmith.  If I wanted to be a blacksmith or a vet, I'd learn to be one and I'd be a top one.  But I don't try to second-guess one.  Once in a while, and it is very rarely, I will override either Seamus or Danny.  Occasionally.  Very rarely will I say, "No, I really want to kick down and take a chance and do it a little differently.  Take a shot and go to the show."

ANDY:  Does that type of decision cause problems?
GEORGE:  No.  I do it rarely and when I do they know I am going out on a limb.  I did it this year going to Spruce Meadows and it didn't work out.  It cost me a lot of money, but it didn't hurt the horse because he didn't show.  What they predicted happened.  He had some foot problems, and I didn't show him, so I didn't hurt him.  But it cost me a lot of money and they were right.  Another time, before the Valley Forge Grand Prix, they were sure that my horse shouldn't show, and I knew what had happened.  He had been turned out in a hard paddock, and the groom at the time was a little dumb, and I had been away giving a clinic and she lunged him on a little bit of a hard surface.  All he was [was] a little bit foot sore.  He was perfectly capable of going to the grand prix on Sunday.  They advised me not to go.  We went to the grand prix and got a top ribbon, and he was fine.  He went to the shows afterward and was fine.  I didn't hurt him.  In that case I went over their heads.  So you see what I mean.  But it happens very, very rarely.

ANDY:  So decisions have to be made.

GEORGE:  Yes.  But I always surround myself with experts.  If I feel that they are not experts, I replace them.  Or if they are not doing their job as well as they could.  I have experts who are secretaries, gardeners, housekeepers or accountants, and if ever I feel they are not an expert, I get someone else, because I am very busy.

ANDY:  So you delegate freely?

GEORGE:  Yes.  I am a delegator.  I am a good delegator.

ANDY:  But what if that judgement falls short?  How tolerant can you afford to be?

GEORGE:  If my judgement about the other person falls short?

ANDY:  Yes.

GEORGE:  Even with some of the experts I have to give them hell.  I don't care who they are.  If they are experts and they fall short, it's just as it is in my field; if I am an expert and I fall short because I am stupid or lazy about something, I should get hell, and I do get hell.  And I give experts hell if they fall short.

ANDY:  That never compromises a relationship?

GEORGE:  No.  Kathy Moore, who runs my place, I have given her hell for about fourteen years and she still laughs and she does a good job.

ANDY:  What about horses that have feet problems or physical problems.  How much time are you willing to give one?  Or better yet, how much time can you give one?

GEORGE:  Well, I am going through that now with a very nice young horse.  He has problem feet.  And I'll give that horse six months to a year and that's it.  He is a very nice horse, and when you are talking about Danny Marks, Seamus Brady and myself riding the horse, you have the best professionals and the most careful shot the horse could get.

ANDY:  So you figure with those people and that period of time if the horse can't make it then...

GEORGE:  Then I cut my losses.  This horse I bought with my own money, for a fairly decent price and he is a hell of a horse; he's a grand prix horse; a seven-year old now.  If in the next four or five months; if he doesn't cut it, I will have to cut my losses.

ANDY:  Do you ever purchase horses on the assumption that your people can move them up or fix them?

[Here, I go fishing. A good many of the "issues" surrounding vet/farrier relations tend to go sideways post pre-purchase exam, such 'vetting' an evolving process in its own right. That said, a notable gap exists in protocol, more accurately philosophies, between the top echelons of show jumping and the rest of the sport. This is based to a great extent on the Olympic experience; you compete as an individual, but are an integral member of a team. And as George pointed out in Part I, a top show barn must be a 'team of experts' -- all matters of personal self-serving left in the parking lot. And yeah, I got out-fished a bit here.]

GEORGE:  If I really like a horse physically I'll go out on a limb, knowing that I have Brady and Danny Marks in the wings.

ANDY:  You have that much confidence in them?


ANDY:  What about purchasing horses?  Is Brady involved at all?

GEORGE:  No.  I never involve other people in the selection of my horses.  Unless I have the horse vetted.  Or if the rider/client tries the horse.  Sometimes I buy horses for riders who have never seen the horse, but usually I go on my instincts.  I wouldn't mind involving the vet and the farrier, but that would mean flying Brady and Danny all over world and I can't afford that.

ANDY:  I think most shoers would shy away from any direct involvement in the selection process; I mean, if for no other reason, the tendency to get burned if things go awry.

GEORGE:  No, because often the vet will tell me, "don't buy it,"  and I'll see it down the road with somebody else winning grand prix -- or, they say, "do buy it" and it ends up being a problem.  That happens.

ANDY:  So you remain the ultimate insurer?  But what about a horse that may be purchased for a client, say because the client can get the horse around a course...the horse vets ok, but Brady finds a hole in it that a small bus could drive through.  Then what?

GEORGE:  Well, Danny and Seamus are very old friends and have worked together for years.

ANDY:  So they can agree to disagree?

GEORGE:  They are so close in their thinking.  That's never cropped up with those people.

Part II:
Tomorrow perhaps...however, it is of note that Seamus Brady passed away in 2009; as such I reprint a portion of his obituary here.  
Seamus Brady, former farrier for the US Equestrian teams, died on July 27, 2009 in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey.  He was 77.
Mr Brady was born in County Cavan, Ireland, and trained at the Irish Army Equitation School in Dublin.  He immigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago to work for USET Director Arthur McCashin at his Four Furlongs Farm in Pluckemin, NJ.
Mr. Brady was the official USET farrier for all three disciplines and was the team farrier at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.  He was also the farrier at a number of show barns, from Ronnie Mutch's Nimrod Farm to the Leone family's Ri-Arm Farm.  He was also the farrier for George Morris' Hunterdon farm for fourteen years.
"He was a great asset to the USET and really part of the USET in a way.  He was one of the pillars of Hunterdon.: said Morris.  "He was famous as a great guy and a great friend."
Excerpted from:  The Chronicle of the Horse, September 4, 2009.
 Copyright: A. Juell 1989,2013


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