Ask George Morris anything and you’ll get a direct and thoughtful answer.
Even if you spring it on him on a Saturday morning in March while he’s riding a horse in the warm up ring in front of FEI stabling at Live Oak International in Ocala, Florida.
Sure, he might make you wait. He may expect you to sit quietly as he chews his sandwich without interruption or pauses to refresh himself with a post-ride Coca Cola. But for a man widely known for his curmudgeonly sounding quips, he’s more approachable and generous with his time than most. And there’s nothing off limits for discussion. We asked.
Horse Network: You’ve said in the past that you “love horses, people not so much.” I’m interested, what draws you to teaching?
George Morris: Well, I was quite shy. I was drawn to horses from a very early age. Horses were an outlet for my personality. I’m alright with people—I’m not drastically recluse or something—but I’m really a rider first.
I had a great teacher, Gordon Wright, who taught his riders how to teach. He was a teacher’s teacher. I was always very interested in an intellectual approach to riding because I wasn’t a natural rider, so I had to learn every single step of the way. I do still. So because of his influence I was always attracted to teaching as an offshoot of my riding. But my riding will always come first.
He also taught us if we were to become a professional in the horse business, which in the 1950s and 1960s was not common or even accepted, that we’d have to learn to teach.
That’s the basis you’ll see today. Even the great horse dealers of Europe are teaching—they are teaching the people they sell horses to, for better or for worse. They are learning how to teach. All the top professionals today, all the ones at the top of the ranking list, they are teaching, so it’s come full circle.
HN: When you say that it sounds like teaching is a necessity, but it seems like a passion for you too.
Morris: Well, it is my second passion. As I say, riding is my first passion but teaching has also become a passion. Because of this first teacher, Gordon Wright, I have always been passionate about teaching. I can see where I feel I can make people better. And because, of course, I was always taught that your responsibility as a teacher is not making a rider, it’s making a person. That is sometimes neglected today.
My problem today is they are teaching these young people to compete…Very few are being brought up today to be riders, horsemen.
HN: Let’s talk about that—the upcoming generation of riders.
I would say my biggest problem today is they’re teaching riders to compete, not so years ago. That’s where some of the Europeans are ahead of us because they start by the seat of their pants. These Irish boys, these Dutch boys, these South Americans, they start by the seat of their pants—they go hunting, they have these family farms, they break babies.
My problem today is they are teaching these young people to compete and they are great competitors, by the way. They are deadly fierce competitors. They buy them fabulous horses. They take them to the ring with exact instructions. Very few are being brought up today to be riders, horsemen—how to take care of a horse, how to handle a horse, difficult horses, young horses.
But that’s because a lot of these younger people, they go to college. They are very good in college. I respect that and really their specialty with horses is competition. But that, for the future, is not good because there are going to be fewer and fewer professionals that can make the consummate horseman.
HN: Some elite riders feel that the upcoming generation of riders are not interested in learning the horsemanship. They just want to show. But you’re saying it’s a teaching issue?
Morris: I’m not saying it’s the teachers’ fault. I’m saying each generation is headed that way.
There are exceptional ones. I don’t have to mention names. There are exceptional young people that want to run the whole gauntlet. Those, of course, in the long run will go the farthest. Because when it gets hard and you don’t know when it’s going to get hard—the footing may be perfect, the horse, everything can be perfect and something happens, the weather, the rain, the way they built the course, something in the sport can get very hard, very fast—the people that have that hard base are the ones who will succeed.
Beezie [Madden]. Meredith [Michaels-Beerbaum], she had hard teachers—she had Karen Healey, she had Paul Schockemohle, she had the Beerbaums. Nick Skelton. The Whitakers. You can’t name one rider that is really consistent at the top that isn’t hard. And if you don’t have that put into you at some point, you’re always going to fail.
HN: Do you have to learn to fail to become hard?
Morris: Yes. And that in this culture is not allowed.
As a teacher, you always set a problem, be it a turn on the forehand, be it a trot fence, be it a walk fence, be it an additional stride to an oxer, you always set up a situation that’s out of their comfort zone. That’s how you grow. You have to make something a little harder than they are comfortable with.
sometimes we break eggs when we make an omelet.
Not too much harder. Sometimes we do, sometimes we break eggs when we make an omelet. But it always has to be a little harder than they are comfortable with.
It could be something at the walk, a turn on the haunch that they can’t do. There’s failure and then we get through the failure and they’re stronger and better and they feel better about themselves. That’s what’s wrong about the culture—not [just] this country, all countries now.
HN: That ties into the next thing I wanted to talk with you about. You are renown for your creative use of criticism.
Morris: That’s the hard. Yes, when I am in a horse situation, not so much out of a horse situation, but when I’m in a horse situation, I’m hard and that’s for a reason. Discipline. I’ll tell people where to park their car, they’ll park their car wrong. Just so right from the get go it’s hard.
HN: The genius of your delivery, in my mind, is that you’ll tell someone they ride like “soup sandwich” but you say it like a statement of fact, so it never actually sounds malicious.
Morris: I don’t really know how I say it. I just say it how I feel it. Bad riding, bad horsemanship does irritate me. I should take anger management courses but it’s too late. (laughs). And actually when I’m too not like that at a clinic, people are disappointed and want their money back.
HN: You’ve got a reputation to live up to now!
Morris: They like it. (laughs)
HN: Okay, so what’s your parting advice for young riders coming up?
Morris: They compete 24/7. My advice is to do something different, do other things with horses.
Start with staying in the barn. Drive with the vet. Drive with the blacksmith. Have a young horse project. Have a difficult horse project. Take dressage lessons. Buck Brannaman is a very good friend of mine and he had very good mentors—he has Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers, lots of good horsemen of that natural horsemanship. Learn that too. Have as many different experiences with horses as possible.