Thursday, May 2, 2013

A 1988 Conversation with George Morris, Part II

Seamus Brady, part of a team.
[image: USET]
Always the coach.
Part II:

The Farrier's Role in a Team Environment
[Note: This interview was perhaps the end-note on my first go-around as a farrier serving the needs of trainers and their charges.  Course, like all forced didn't last long.  I began shoeing in 1972...found the existing business model absurd, the relationships harsh, any real purpose...the kind that fuels the heart -- missing.  Spent a couple of years on the track, became bored with shoeing in a rigid, superstitious environment -- one based on a constant and insatiable need for 'excuses' as to why horses didn't win their races.  So I moved to jumpers and their more abundant sidekicks -- hunters.  I had some advantages in that I also managed a Thoroughbred breeding horses were more to me than just the quick knees-down viewpoint.  I studied how the animal worked, how he did his job -- most importantly, my role in his job, not my role in mine.
In those days, most of our so-called 'sport' horses were TB's, many off the track.  Rejects that grew wings in new places.  Unlike Europe, America had no program to develop horses for a growing sport, so in the early 80's, many top trainers went shopping across the pond -- because 'we' had lost the ability to compete in world class equestrian competitions.  We had the riders, the teachers, but our horses lacked the scope for world class competition.  The story is thankfully a little different today. We have fixed the marriage in this critical partnership of horse and rider.
But to digress a moment.  When I began shoeing jumpers in the west, I felt something was wrong; lacking...too many injuries it seemed.  And horses that jumped with trepidation, not confidence.  In those days, we had few specialists -- farriers or veterinarians -- our information, the basics of our craft, trapped in the box of what was teachable in our archaic system of education.  What was conservative, all encompassing, generic and sadly, safe; the antithesis to what high performance demands of those willing to push the envelope.  The question that burned in my mind was why a horse with obvious talent at this job hit an invisible ceiling in his development; worse yet, getting hurt along the way?  So it seemed reasonable to me to pose that question to the best in the business -- that being George Morris' man, Seamus Brady.  After all, the Olympics were the standard of excellence in show jumping...sort of.  The reality is that an Olympic horse is really a talented, consistent grand prix horse in an Olympic year.  Like the rest of us, he works for a living in between.  So I got on the phone.  (E-mail was just an amusing concept back then.)
Other things within the industry were changing as well.  Farriers themselves were organizing; transitioning from ornery individuals to marginally recalcitrant and rambunctious groups.  Fear was diminishing, social interaction on the rise.  Oh, we still coveted our secrets...until we discovered that most of them weren't classified anyway.  But more importantly, horses and trainers were migrating around the country, through expanded show circuits, horse shopping...a general rise in the quality and level of training outside the Northeast.  And much of this new blood -- at least new to us -- came out of the East, more than a few from the halls of Hunterdon.   And too, contrary to public opinion, trainers are not snobs when it comes to horses and if a good one is found in Seattle, they will get on a plane.  It was a case of equine networking on a grand scale.  And in the west, the opening of Spruce Meadows in Calgary -- along with Ron and Margaret Southern's European approach to marketing the sport here -- brought the very best horses and riders from both Europe and the US.  So I took hard look at the best horses and how they were shod.  And while I never had the opportunity to meet Seamus personally, our conversations were...well, a little hard on what was left of my ego.  But then, that proved to be the ultimate contribution to the rest of my career.  And my horses appreciated the change...not to mention the trainers, even though they took a little more selling than the horses.
The end result was almost a standardization of shoeing in jumpers.  Sure, styles vary from person to person, country to country, but the thinking is far more consistent.  The farriers that work on these horses today have learned to focus on the horse's job and all that surrounds it.  Very much like Seamus Brady shoeing at the back of the barn, "across from the grand prix field," where the real magic of the business is found.  The knowledge that lies outside that constricting box we so often create.]        

(Returning to interview -- vet/farrier relations and more...)
ANDY:  So it never digresses into that old confrontation over who is right?

GEORGE:  Between the vet and the blacksmith?  Not really. They are both so confident, they are both such experts, that you know that they think alike.  If it comes down to a final decision, and if there is any discussion, then I make the decision.

ANDY:  How did such cooperation evolve?

GEORGE:  Well you see, Danny Marks...and I have used Delaware Equine Center since 1960, before they were Delaware Equine Center.  We all go back so far, and all think so much alike, and respect each other's territory that there are no problems.  I don't have problems like you are talking about.

ANDY:  What about clients in your barn?

GEORGE:  If their horse is at Hunterdon, then they are all under my jurisdiction.  They don't use different vets and different blacksmiths because once that happens it's a ZOO.  It's a rule when they come in.  If they don't like that system, then they don't come in.

ANDY:  If a client's horse develops a problem that involves the vet and blacksmith, how far are they [the client] involved?

GEORGE:  Not much.  Some of them talk to the vet, normally.  Naturally, some of them don't.  Some talk to the blacksmith.  Some clients are horsemen to a certain extent, and some are not.  For the most part, they let us handle the horses.

ANDY:  Does a client ever try to do a number on anyone?

GEORGE:  Once in a while.  They might not understand something and will say something to me or the blacksmith.  But that is human nature.

ANDY:  What about horses that develop unforeseen problems.  Naturally the trainer is well informed about the situation, but what about the client?

GEORGE:  Brady or Danny would never stir up a client about a horse.  When the horse is vetted, he is vetted so thoroughly that it is all black and white to Brady when he gets the horse.  That's what you don't understand.  What the Delaware Center and Danny Marks find out in vetting the horse, when that is sent to Brady, they concur.  They are all in agreement from the first day.

ANDY:  Is the whole process more thorough or a case of keeping it in-house, so to speak?

GEORGE:  It's more thorough, more intimate, more meticulous;  you see we don't have the situation where a horse comes into the barn that is vetted by a strange vet, or another blacksmith taking over the horse.  We are a team, and it has been that way for over 25 years.

ANDY:  A lot of people are of the opinion that Brady is pretty pricey.  Some farriers even knock him for that.

GEORGE:  I agree with you.  But there are a lot of people that think that I am pretty pricey.  But I agree with you.  I think Seamus is pretty pricey.

ANDY:  But a good investment, particularly for the clients.  Does it bother them? 

GEORGE:  No, because it is just a drop in the bucket compared to what they are buying [into]:  competing for that prize money, paying for these horses.  I mean it's not a drop in the bucket, but it is in the sense of when you talk about actual numbers of dollars that are attached to that horse's foot, then it is very important.  It's worth the price.  If I had someone constructing jumps and was too pricey, I would get them constructed by someone that was less costly, but that is not critical to the horse.  But what you are talking about with the blacksmith is critical.  You know that better than I do.  That is the A of ABC.

ANDY:  Do you think he could ever price his way out the door?

GEORGE:  He might.  But I might too.

ANDY:  Does he travel with your horses?

GEORGE:  He is always in Florida for the winter circuit and he is around a great deal in Europe.  In fact, when we take a tour, he comes over for periods of time; two, three, or four days.  If I am over there all summer, then he comes once a month.

ANDY:  What if he is not around?

GEORGE:  There are other people who have worked with him or other good blacksmiths, but I hate to change blacksmiths.

ANDY:  But if you get into some kind of difficult situation?

GEORGE:  Then you find the best person and get it done.  I am not a blacksmith.  I haven't taken the time to find out from Seamus how to be a blacksmith because my priorities are teaching and riding, and I'm in demand 365 days a year, so I would have to give some of that up.  Maybe I will do that someday, and learn what he has learned.

ANDY:  Any nightmares because he may be unavailable?

GEORGE:  Well, I can always think of potential nightmares.  I have some horses that are so fragile and so valuable, and if I was in Europe and I saw that there was a potential for a nightmare, then I would fly him over.

ANDY:  Do those demands ever affect him [Seamus] negatively?

GEORGE:  He works non-stop, seven days a week.  You invest a lot when you have a quality standard.  I see the same things.  When you are dedicated there really isn't any free time.

ANDY:  For both of you, does the cost ever exceed the worth?

GEORGE:  Yes, for me.  But you don't live for long, and when I think about all the options, they don't sound any better.

ANDY:  Thanks for your time, George.

Hard to believe that was 25 years ago.  Many things have changed since this interview, both in show jumping and the world of farriery -- particularly in the materials and technology now available.  Yet even so, it is as George points out, a matter of study, hard work and standards.  These are the intangibles of any competitive game and they are always what separates the best from...well, whatever follows.   



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