Thursday, October 13, 2016

Double Life of George Morris

Unrelenting, the book

By Pam Gleason

In his new autobiography Unrelenting, George Morris tells tales and he names names. The book purports to reveal “The Real Story: Horses, Bright Lights and my Pursuit of Excellence,” (the subtitle) and it bears this caution between the preface and the first chapter: “Warning: This book is a candid portrayal of my life. Innocents and those faint of heart or closed of mind may wish to proceed no further!”

This warning might seem a bit dramatic for the autobiography of an internationally known showjumping rider, trainer and coach, but for George it is (almost) appropriate. Morris, who recently retired as the chef d’equipe of the United States Olympic showjumping team, is probably the most recognized figure in the hunter/jumper world today. In a career that has spanned seven decades so far, he has also been an equitation rider (at 14, he was the youngest ever to win both the AHSA Medal and the ASPCA Maclay finals in the same year), a member of the U.S. international showjumping team (they won team gold in the Pan American games in 1959 and team silver at the 1960 Olympics in Rome,) the owner of a top hunter/jumper stable and a traveling clinician. He is also known for his writing: his first book, Hunter Seat Equitation, originally published in 1971, is in its third edition and is still considered among the most important books in the hunter/ jumper canon. It is not an exaggeration to say that George Morris, a charismatic figure, has a cult-like following: in some circles he is often referred to as a god, with only a touch of irony.

Over the years, Morris earned a reputation for his excellence in horsemanship, his relentless pursuit of perfection, his critical eye and his biting commentary. He is notorious for his toughness— his clinics have been known to reduce riders to tears. Especially in the past, he was also reputed to have a short fuse, with “a compulsion for control coupled with a tendency to go berserk or become irate for seemingly no reason . . . and sudden, volatile temperamental behavior.” This is according to the preface, written by Chris Kappler, who is his protégé and former business associate as well as an Olympic gold medalist.

Morris’s reputation also includes some other whispered-about aspects, chiefly related to his personal life, although before this book the actual details of that life have not really been common knowledge. Unrelenting shines a light on that life, providing all the gossipy details about the people that Morris dated over the years, both men and women. He explains his relationship with the movie star Tab Hunter – they met at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden when George was 19 and Hunter was 26. He writes about his wild partying life in the 1960s and 1970s when he used to frequent Studio 54 in New York City. He even sometimes went out clubbing directly from a horse show, going so far as to park his loaded horse trailer on a city street while he spent the night partying in a bar. He talks about his drinking, a vice he inherited from his parents. He touches upon his tomcatting adventures while traveling both in America and overseas, and discusses the perception of “alternative lifestyles” and how that has changed over the decades.

Is there anything really astonishing here? Not in 2016, not really. But for Morris, who was born in 1938 and came of age in the 1950s, it probably seems shocking. It is also fair to warn the more traditional of Morris’s devotees that, if they read this book, they might be learning more than they want to know about their hero’s personal life. Some readers have, in fact, objected to the inclusion of so many intimate details, wishing the narrative had stayed in the barn rather than slipping up to the bedroom. In addition, one might wonder if all of the people Morris admits to sleeping with are entirely happy about seeing it all described in print.
Fortunately for those who are not interested in the gossip, the book also includes many genuinely interesting details about George Morris the man, as well as a fascinating history of the horse show world from the 1950s through the 2000s. Morris grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, in a socially prominent, country-club atmosphere. His father, born in Augusta, Ga., was from the Morris Publishing family, making George a close relative of Billy Morris, publisher of the Augusta Chronicle and the founder of the Augusta Futurity, among other things. His mother’s family owned newspapers and other businesses in the New York City area. George was attracted to horses from the time he was very young, seeing them as his “salvation” in a world that made him so anxious and upset that when he was a pre-teenager his parents pulled him out of school for a year to send him for counseling.

George first rode with the New Canaan Mounted Troop (he studied with Margaret Cabell Self, whose books about horsemanship were once essential reading for students of horsemanship), then went on to the Ox Ridge Hunt Club before transitioning to Gordon Wright’s stable. In the 1940s, the forward seat, which George learned, was still an unusual and cutting edge style. In the 1950s, when George started competing in the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, the show was a society event, written up as such in the New York Times. Spectators wore mink coats, top hats and tails. In the 1960s, when Morris became an equestrian professional, it meant that his days of competing for the U.S, were over: in that era, the Olympics were strictly for amateur riders who were not allowed make their living as equestrians.

Not only did Morris live through many changes in the equestrian world, he also seems to have met, known, ridden with or taught essentially everyone who had an influence on the development of the American style of riding, as well as pretty much anyone who has competed at a top level from the 1950s up to today. Because so much of his career has consisted of traveling to give clinics, this includes horsemen from all over the country, not just the East Coast where he has been based throughout his career. It also includes many riders and trainers with lesser accomplishments and ambitions. If you have ever been serious about horsemanship in the hunter/jumper world, you most likely have a direct connection to George Morris. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of the book is seeing when and if he mentions someone you know. (Morris even once gave a lesson to Pete Bostwick, one of Aiken’s most versatile and iconic horsemen.)

Another, more straightforward pleasure is hearing about many of the individual horses that George rode, owned and loved through his life. There is Game Cock, the horse that took him to the Medal and Maclay championships in the 1950s; Sinjon, the horse the Harry de Leyer (of Snowman fame) gave him to ride that carried him to the Rome Olympics. There are quirky and sensitive horses, such as Rio, a brilliant jumper who had a tendency to panic and bolt whenever his rider mounted or dismounted. Although the book does not delve into his training methods with these horses, his strong bond and sympathy with them shines through – even if there are moments when he seems to forget about this bond to pursue his other appetites.

Other interesting tidbits include the fact that after the 1960 Olympics, Morris left the equestrian life for a time to study acting, and actually performed in summer stock for two years. His initial discomfort with acting school, in which he was required to dress in a skin-tight leotard, is described in a memorable section – he may not have been happy, but he was nothing if not brave.

The book, which was written with the help of Karen Robertson Terry, is very long. It is divided into seven sections, one for each decade, which gives it logical structure, and it includes many wonderful photographs of George as well as of the people and horses he discusses in the text. It also incorporates over 150 short pieces about George by people who have known him over the years, including his colleagues, students and friends.

Some of these short pieces don’t amount to much more than flattery (“What George is so great at is teaching. . . .” etc.) while others offer insight into his training and teaching methods. Still others reveal bizarre, and even potentially damaging information: There is a description of him giving an entire weekend clinic dressed only in a black string bikini. An international competitor remembers finding an illegal poling device hidden in his manure pile on one of his trips overseas to compete. His niece remembers terrifying riding lessons with him, in which he forced her (at age 6) and her brother (7) to jump a triple combination without reins or stirrups, and blindfolded to boot (“He would hit the pony with a crop and we would jump fences we couldn’t see. If we didn’t do it perfectly, we would have to repeat the exercise over again.” Eventually, the little girl fell off and broke her arm while doing this exercise.) The same niece remembers a mortifying experience at a horse show. George had decided her brother’s horse was tired, and actually went to a stranger’s trailer, unloaded a likely looking animal, tacked it up with a saddle and bridle he found, and had her brother ride this (essentially stolen) horse in the next class instead of his own. After the class, when the irate owner confronted George and the nephew about their unauthorized use of her horse, George merely handed back the reins and angrily told the women her horse was a nag and a loser.

Why, exactly, would George Morris want to include these kinds of stories in his autobiography? He does not explain them, or apologize for them, or reflect on them in any way. Perhaps their inclusion is simply to enhance his image as a “bad boy.” Or perhaps it can be attributed to a certain lifelong lack of judgment and self-awareness that has cast a shadow on his reputation since the 1950s.

This brings up another criticism of the book, which is that it could have benefitted greatly from a more authoritative editorial hand. The writing tends to be loose, burdened with clichés and with terms that are sometimes applied incorrectly. The extreme overuse of exclamation points, especially in the first sections, is distracting to say the least. While for the most part, Unrelenting, is eminently readable, it could have been better (and shorter) if it had been edited more thoroughly.

In all, Unrelenting is an interesting book, especially for anyone who knows George Morris or is a part of the hunter/jumper world. Beyond its exploration of equestrian life, it paints the picture of a complex individual who seems to have lived a double life, pulled one way by his talent, perfectionism and devotion to horses, and another by his Bohemian nature, his attraction to fast living and big city life and a potentially self-destructive compulsion to defy convention. Love him or hate him, George Morris has been an important figure on the equestrian scene for seven decades. This book, for the first time, provides real insight into how he got there and the obstacles that have stood in his way . . . many of them of his own making.

Unrelenting: The Real Story: Horses, Bright Lights and My Pursuit of Excellence. By George Morris with Karen Robertson Terry. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, NY. 2016. Hardcover. $35.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.