Book Excerpt: George H. Morris: The Foundation

Book Excerpt: George H. Morris: The Foundation
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George rides his first horse, Shorty, in Wilton, Connecticut, in 1949.

George rides his first horse, Shorty, in Wilton, Connecticut, in 1949.

My good friend Glenna Lee Maduro from the Ox Ridge Hunt Club had become my main competition in the area for top junior rider. A year older than me, Glenna was a naturally talented rider, and 1952 was meant to be her year for a chance at the year-end trophy. Glenna’s mother, Mrs. Lillian Maduro, was a knowledgeable horsewoman and very encouraging to both of us. She would sit in the bleachers and push Glenna to properly school her mare, Teacher’s Hope, a beautiful 15.3-hand, chestnut Thoroughbred and the top junior hunter of the time. Teacher’s Hope moved beautifully, would win the hacks and was very hard to beat with Glenna in the tack.

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The spring show season started as expected with Glenna and me going toe to toe in the equitation classes. She had a definite edge over me, but little did we know fate was about to deal a blow that would change everything! On the short trip home from a one-day recognized show at Secor Farms, there was a horrible van accident and poor Teacher’s Hope broke her neck in the trailer. Glenna called me with the tragic news. I couldn’t believe her beautiful horse had been killed just like that. We were all desperately sad about it but none more than poor Glenna, who lost her beautiful mare and partner, not to mention her best shot at winning the Medal finals that year. Life is fragile and no one, however blessed with fortune, can avoid tragedy in one’s life.

Although there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done to give Glenna her beloved Teacher’s Hope back if I had the ability, I found my own chances that year immensely improved by that turn of events. In essence, it eliminated my toughest competition. Glenna tried to establish successful partnerships with other horses, such as Step On. Step On was quite hot and although the horse was a fair replacement in the equitation, by no means was he equal to Teacher’s Hope. As with any new horse-and-rider combination, Glenna wasn’t as consistent in the ring, and I found that Game Cock and I were now bringing home top ribbons more often.

Greenwich, Ox Ridge and Fairfield Hunt Club shows were the biggest local shows on the circuit, and when they began I found that Game Cock and I had really hit our stride. Our partnership had become so strong; when I rode him, we were of one mind. He was an equitation machine who aimed to please. He was, in fact, so trainable and phlegmatic that I even somehow taught him to do tempi changes! Game Cock learned all sorts of tricks on command, and everyone at the shows grew to recognize and love him.

George rides Game Cock over the snake fence on the Ox Ridge Hunt Club outside course.

George rides Game Cock over the snake fence on the Ox Ridge Hunt Club outside course.

Riding the trails and fields at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club and lessons with Gordon Wright with their intellectual focus gave me confidence on Game Cock, which resulted in consistency in the show ring and more blue ribbons. At Fairfield that year, we won eight classes and were second in one other. I must have truly sat on Game Cock’s head at a fence to get second—that’s how dominating we were that year. At the Litchfield, Connecticut, show we won every class. The judges loved us. Of course, I was a boy and that helped give me an edge. Just like today, being a boy among so many girls helped me to stand out. “Penis power” simply cannot be denied!

I was a rider who subscribed to the “when in doubt, leave it out” maxim, and if I made a mistake in those days, it was a hard chip with me flouncing up the horse’s neck. There weren’t as many nuances to the jumping classes: Counter-cantering wasn’t penalized and attention wasn’t much paid to leads and making all the distances match throughout a trip. It was very much about style and being bold to the fences. Game Cock and I always rode in and jumped around with confidence. As the summer waned, I found myself qualified not only for the ASPCA Maclay but also for the AHSA Medal Finals.

In early October, I heard the news that three good friends of my mother’s—Hope Scott, Mrs. MacDonald and Ivy Madison Wilson—were judging the Maclay and the Medal Finals that autumn. I was gleeful at my good fortune for they knew and liked me. A couple of years prior, I wouldn’t have dreamed of using this as an advantage. In previous years, my parents offered to say hello to judges whom they were acquainted with at the shows, and I teased them, calling their ethics into question. Clearly my own standards had over time become a bit muddy because by that ’52 season, things had changed. I’d nudge my mother over to the coffee stand to say hello to a judge or I’d send my father over to rub elbows and talk business. The subjectivity of judging was no secret and, intent on putting my best foot forward, I had learned to play the game! 

Once again, fate was creeping in from the wings to deal a blow. I was out on the trails in early October enjoying a beautiful fall day, me on my trusty Game Cock and my friend riding a school horse named Vanilla. Vanilla was a roguish albino polo pony mare with a roached mane who bit, kicked and had a dirty stop at the jumps. As we made our way from the trail into a field, I opened a gate for us to ride through and the two of us navigated through close together on our horses. Suddenly, Vanilla squealed and kicked out, hitting me square in the left knee. Oh and did it hurt! I limped straight home and to the doctor’s office. I hadn’t broken my knee, but I was told to stay in bed for three whole weeks with my leg propped up, and of course, they were the three weeks leading up to the Finals at the Garden! There I was with the sun, moon and stars lined up, and I was injured right before my big chance at the National Horse Show. I was beside myself, but there was nothing to be done but abide by the doctor’s orders.

George and some of his riding friends from the 1950s: (standing from left) Julie Kellam, Victor Hugo-Vidal, George, Ronnie Mutch, Kathy Taft; (seated from left) Linda Fitz Randolph, Barbara Kellam, Patricia Kelly, Glenna Lee Maduro

George and some of his riding friends from the 1950s: (standing from left) Julie Kellam, Victor Hugo-Vidal, George, Ronnie Mutch, Kathy Taft; (seated from left) Linda Fitz Randolph, Barbara Kellam, Patricia Kelly, Glenna Lee Maduro

The week before the National Horse Show arrived and finally, I was allowed to ride again. My friend Kathy Taft had been riding Game Cock on the flat for me every day while I was lying in bed going stir crazy. I leaped out of bed and drove down for two lessons at Secor Farms with Gordon. Gordon’s goal was to sharpen me for the Finals and prepare me for being called back to test. We practiced canter-to-trot transitions and Gordon taught me a strategy for the age-old test of cantering the first jump in a line and trotting out over the second. He showed me how to angle very slightly into the wall to shift the horse’s eye and get the trot transition more easily before the second jump. In future years I would teach that same preparation to my students many, many times. As a result of those three weeks off from jumping, Game Cock was dead sound and dead fresh. 

It was finally time for the National Horse Show. With the horses prepared and my show clothes cleaned and pressed, my parents and I traveled into New York City, soaking up the familiar electricity. Madison Square Garden was alive with pomp and circumstance and as usual, the weekdays began with the professional classes and the various exhibition events. The first night of riding for the juniors was the Hunt Team on Friday night, a very popular class and a favorite for the crowd. I rode on a team with Cynthia Stone and Glenna Lee Maduro and we all rode well and won the class, giving us a wonderful start to the weekend.

The following day was the Junior Hunter Under Saddle class and all the riders hacked together. Hope Scott, one of the judges, stood at the in-gate as I tried to walk into a ring so packed with horses that it was hard to even find a chance to step into the crowd; there must have been close to 80 horses. As I walked by Hope Scott, she asked, “Georgie, what’s your number?” I jokingly replied, “80!” and she laughed. I was the darling of those horse show ladies!

1952 Hunt Team winners at the National Horse Show: (from left) George, trainer Gordon Wright, Glenna Lee Maduro and Cynthia Stone

1952 Hunt Team winners at the National Horse Show: (from left) George, trainer Gordon Wright, Glenna Lee Maduro and Cynthia Stone

Game Cock’s ears were pricked forward as I rode him into the ring, feeling how fresh he was. He floated over the ground, gleaming with rest and care, and when we lined up with the others spanned out across the length of that big ring, I was eager to hear the announcer read the numbers. Out of all dozens of junior hunters, Game Cock was pinned first! I was so proud to have such a spectacular partner and to feel the result of all of our training and hard work. All the girls at the horse show came up to pet Game Cock and kiss the white snip on his nose. He got so many kisses that he had red lipstick smudges on his muzzle, which I rubbed off to save him the embarrassment!

Sunday was the big day at Madison Square Garden with both the ASPCA Maclay and AHSA Medal classes. The crowd sparkled—full of beautiful people in their Sunday best. The first round of the Maclay was held in the morning with around 100 entries vying for 15 spots for the second round. Game Cock and I put in a solid round in the Maclay once again. I was a little nervous about a repeat of the prior year’s surprising disappointment but was very excited to see that I made the list for the afternoon round. My friends Ronnie Mutch and Glenna were also among those called back, and we were all smiles, excited to be in it together. Although Ronnie had won the Medal two years prior, he was still trying for a win in the Maclay and I knew he’d be hard to beat.

Also held on Sunday morning was the Medal. Fewer riders, approximately 50, had qualified, but the difficulty level rose. The Medal course was quite technical for those days with an end jump and lines set both on straight and diagonal lines. The jumps themselves were very simple hunter fences with plain white rails. Gordon gave me a few words of advice, and I rode into the ring on Game Cock, picking up our bold galloping stride. We had another consistent, forward round and it felt great! I was thrilled to hear we were called back to test along with five other riders.

For the Medal test, which was immediately after the initial round was completed, the judges asked us to switch horses. To my excitement, I was switched with Glenna. She was on a horse named Shady Pete from Secor Farms, a classy looking, dark brown horse that I had ridden before. With a nice, soft mouth and a great stride, Shady Pete was a total pleasure to ride; he never stopped and he purred around like a Rolls Royce. I had a beautiful round on Shady Pete and watched the other riders also ride well. As we waited for the judges to decide, I tried to stay calm. Then they made the announcement—I had won! Despite all the other wonderful riders and horses, the judges gave me the top spot. I had won the Medal Finals! 

George riding Game Cock in a Junior Olympic Jumper Class

George riding Game Cock in a Junior Olympic Jumper Class

After the Medal awards ceremony, there was a lunch reception at the Waldorf Astoria and all our friends from the area hunt clubs were there. I beamed from ear to ear, trying to be modest and gentlemanly in my formal attire but doing cartwheels of celebration on the inside. I couldn’t wait to get back in the ring on Game Cock for the second round of the Maclay that afternoon. We sat at a big table all together, and my mother, who rarely spoke a word at these occasions, asked Gordon, “Well, how’s George going to do this afternoon?” to which Gordon replied, “Well, Mrs. Morris, he’ll have to fall off to lose it!”

My personal superstitions about competing, some of which I’ve had my entire life, had already begun in those early years. My lucky number at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club schooling shows was 22, and when I registered at other shows, I could often request that number. I was given number 62 at the Garden that year, which still felt like a good number. Later, when I rode in the 1960 Olympics I was given the number 44, which felt very lucky because it was double 22. 

In those days, I was also superstitious about having to go into the ring first. There wasn’t a set order—riders would line up outside the in-gate and ride in as soon as each was ready to go. Over lunch at the Waldorf Astoria, my hometown friends had hatched a plan to try to change my luck. Knowing I wanted to go first in the second round of the Maclay, Ronnie and Glenna sat by the in-gate on their horses long before the class began in order to block me from going into the ring first. I saw what they were up to! I warmed up Game Cock quickly on the ramp and stood right up behind them at the in-gate. 

Just as the class began and the gate was starting to open, Ronnie made his move to walk into the ring as the first to go. It was then that I gave Game Cock a signal—one we’d practiced back at home—and put my hand on his croup. He leaped forward, doing a massive capriole and sailing clear over the in-gate and right past Glenna and Ronnie, kicking out behind him! Riders and horses scattered and we trotted into the ring first once again. To this day, I still don’t know how I taught Game Cock those tricks. Our partnership was special, and he was one of the most trainable horses I’ve ever ridden.

At age 14 (13 horse-show age), George, with Game Cock, was the youngest rider to ever win both the AHSA Hunt Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1952.

At age 14 (13 horse-show age), George, with Game Cock, was the youngest rider to ever win both the AHSA Hunt Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1952.

I put in a quality second round in the Maclay and again was among six riders called back to test. For the test, just like the Medal, the judges asked riders to swap horses and jump the course again. I was instructed to swap with Jill Diner, one of two Diner sisters I knew from the local shows. Incredibly, Jill was riding none other than Victor Hugo-Vidal’s former equitation horse Touraine. I knew Touraine very well, of course, from helping Victor get her kinks out at the shows. With Touraine having jumped the course already with Jill and settled into her job, we had an absolutely brilliant round for the test. The crowd cheered, and I saw the smiles on my parents’ faces as they announced the judges’ decision. Incredibly, I had won the Maclay Finals, too! It was surreal after the previous year’s disappointment, not to mention unprecedented for a 14-year-old to have won both in the same year. 

Glenna Maduro de Rham 

George and I used to get our dogs together and build jumps and make my little fox terrier Trixie and his sheltie named Kiltie jump the courses. We had such fun! We both took lessons at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club, but knowing I needed advanced instruction, my mother took me down to White Plains to ride with Gordon Wright. She recommended to George’s mother that he ride with Gordon as well, and then George started driving down to White Plains with us for lessons.

George’s mother would say to mine, “Now Lillian, you know George has asthma and you must take these pills with you in the car and give them to him if he has an asthma attack.” My mother would humor her and take the pills, but I remember one day George came running up and said, “Mrs. Maduro, I think I’m going to have an asthma attack!” and she replied, “No you’re not going to have an attack; get on that horse and keep riding!” He was so much younger than his half-siblings and his parents were a bit older and more prone to being concerned with his health. I think my mother influenced George in a positive way. One time, she was sitting watching us ride and George’s horse stumbled on a fence and was halfway over the jump. George was pulling on the reins, hanging on for dear life, and my mother called out, “Let go! Let go!” and he did, and the horse untangled and George escaped any harm. Those kind of moments helped George feel more confident. I was always the one who would jump anything and be the first to try anything; I remember George being a bit more timid. George was always the hard worker—he used to stand on a step and push and push to train his heels to go down.

Winifred Gray

When George rode in the Medal and the Maclay in ’52, I was 12, and even though George invited me to the city to watch him, my parents wouldn’t allow me to go because I was so young and still in school. I remember waking up the morning after he won the Maclay and seeing his picture in the New York Times. Then just as I was finishing the article, the phone rang and it was George calling from New York. He said, “I won!” I told him I knew it and that I’d just read all about it in the paper. And he replied, “Oh I haven’t seen the papers yet … .” And after a pause, “Winnie, look at the picture carefully for me.” “Yes?” I said. And completely serious, George asked, “Are my heels down?” “Yes,” I replied earnestly. “Yes, George, your heels are down.”

Unrelenting by George H. Morris will be released March 15. You can follow book updates on social media—on Facebook by searching for “Unrelenting by George H. Morris,” on Twitter at @UNrelentingGHM and also on Instagram at unrelentingghm.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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