August 16, 2016 — Look up at the “kiss-and-cry” stand for team officials and family next to the arena at the Deodoro Equestrian Center in Rio, and you’ll see George Morris. He’s been a familiar face in similar locations around the world at major show jumping championships for decades, but this time, he’s playing a different role there.
The former U.S. chef d’equipe is coaching the home side, working with the Brazilian riders and loving it.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he told me this afternoon, adding it’s also “serious, but it’s a fine experience.”
That was particularly so after his squad tied for first place at the Games today on 0 faults with the powerhouses of the sport–the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands.
Did he realize that Brazil had such potential?
“In April, I didn’t know, but as it got closer, at Falsterbo (Sweden) I was very impressed. I was hoping. They are very good riders. It is peaking at the right time.”
George hastened to add how happy he is for the US.
“I have two teams,” he emphasized.
“I’m beholden to the States,” he said, and of course, that’s a two-way street, as he has spent his entire life trying to improve the way Americans ride and compete.
During his time in Brazil, he hasn’t been revising the riding style of the Brazilian team members. Rather, he calls himself “a supporter,” who tries “to keep it all structured.”
One of his methods is going over and over the course with each rider.
“That is what relaxes people, it sinks into their subconscious. When the pressure is on, that is what takes over,” he explained.
He talks about every stride, the time, the turns, how to ride this or that fence.
“I think in that way, I give them great confidence and great support. I am not here to change their system,” he said.
Course designer Guilherme Jorge put together a route for today that enabled 21 of 69 starters to sail through with no penalties, while posing puzzles that stumped many of those at the lower end of the scale.
Reminiscing about the courses at past Olympics (George has been involved with the Games since winning team silver at Rome in 1960) he recalled there was a time when both courses for the Nations’ Cup were identical and could be “raw blood and guts.”
But since the 2008 Games, he said, the first round of the Nations’ Cup has been “very careful,” with a tight time, something that can accommodate every horse and every rider.
“You can’t have big scope test the first day of the Nations’ Cup,” he said.
“Once you’ve sorted out the top eight teams, tomorrow will be a considerably bigger course. But today was big enough. It wasn’t technically difficult, it was careful.”
He noted at the same time, however, that “the bottom (of the sport) is better than ever, with better riding, better horses, better breeding.
Even so, there were more problems evident in the first part of the day, when the lower-ranked teams and riders were competing. A key trouble spot was the 4.3-meter-wide water obstacle, set seven strides after an oxer.
Among those who faulted there was defending Olympic gold medalist Steve Guerdat of Switzerland.
George noted that in the first round on Sunday, and today, he found it very interesting that the water was set on a line going away from the ingate; at an unrelated distance then and a related distance today, but requiring a strong ride in both instances.
It’s harder going away from the in-gate, but he anticipated that the third time the water is used in Rio, it will be going toward the in-gate, which is easier and puts a little more wind in the horses’ sails, as they cope with other challenges along a more complicated route.
Asked who impressed him in the class, George noted he was focusing on his own riders, but he did say that U.S.-based Argentine Ramiro Quintana “gave a riding lesson” when he went early in the order and had just a single time fault.
There have been four disqualifications for blood on the horse, which is an automatic action by officials as horse welfare is one of the key watchwords of this era. Two Dqs took place yesterday. The two today were Cassio Rivetti of Ukraine and Brazil’s Stephan de Freitas Barcha, who was the 8-fault drop score for his team.
George said Stephan’s Landpeter Do Feroleto had a drop of blood on one side, comparing it to the controversial situation when Ireland’s Bertram Allen was disqualified at Olympia in London last year for the same issue after winning the class.
Stephan’s spurs “are little tiny dummy spurs,” said George.
“He didn’t have hammerheads, he didn’t have rowels. They were 1/8 of an inch. The horse has been body clipped in this heat, and he’s a thin-skinned horse. The horse had a little mark. It’s ridiculous. It’s gotten so extreme.”