George H. Morris grew up in New Canaan, Conn. His mother, Alice Van Anden Frank Morris, lost her first husband in an automobile accident and then remarried to George’s father, Harry H. Morris, Jr.
So when George was born on Feb. 26, 1938, he joined older half-siblings Louise Mitchell Whitcomb, Eliot Whitney Mitchell and Joan Mitchell Norton. Louise got into horses first, putting one in the backyard.
“He was a renegade, a hot, roguey son of a gun,” George says.
George and his siblings began riding with the New Canaan Mounted Troop, and by 1947, George started riding with Miss V. Felicia Townsend and Otto Heuckeroth at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Conn. In early 1948, he won a class at his first show, riding an ex-polo pony named Peanuts. “I had little cowboy boots. I’m not sure, but I might have been wearing blue jeans,” he says.
By 1949, George had started in the equitation division, showing in his first ASPCA Maclay Final at Madison Square Garden in 1950. He didn’t place, but by the time he returned in ’52, he had started riding with legendary teacher Gordon Wright and had his first great horse, Game Cock. George made up Game Cock from a green 6-year-old into the top junior hunter and equitation horse of his time.
“Unless I missed, he won,” he says.
After his equitation triumphs, George caught the notice of Bill Steinkraus and other U.S. Equestrian Team members. He collected a few jumpers to ride and tried out for the 1956 Olympic Games, finishing second in the trials behind Steinkraus and ahead of team members Hugh Wiley and Frank Chapot.
“I’d had a fantastic result in the trials, but they didn’t take me, which broke my heart even though I see now that they shouldn’t have taken me,” he says.
But by 1957, he’d joined the USET on a national summer tour, then jumped with the team at the prestigious fall indoor shows. In 1958, he saw his first European tour, and he joined them for team gold at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago. That led to the team silver and individual fourth at the 1960 Olympic Games.
After a two-year hiatus from horses, in which George explored an acting career, he came back to showing in 1963 as a professional, therefore unable to compete for the USET. He quickly established himself as a top trainer, guiding Conrad Homfeld to the Medal and Maclay final wins in 1967 among other students such as Jimmy Kohn, Kip Rosenthal, Kathy Doyle-Newman and Melanie Smith Taylor.
In 1971, George bought the property in Pittstown, N.J., that became Hunterdon. Over the next three decades, he built a training empire in the hunter, jumper and equitation divisions. In addition, he launched the careers of top professionals like Frank Madden, Bill Cooney, John Madden, Karen Healey, Anne Kursinski, Katie Monahan Prudent, Jeff Cook, Kathy Moore and Chris Kappler as they worked for him. His thriving teaching business carried him all over the world. The 1984 gold-medal Olympic team included three of his former students—Homfeld, Leslie Burr-Howard and Taylor. The team gold and individual silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Kappler, was also a George protégé.
In the early ’80s, 20 years after he’d last jumped at the grand prix level, George had a bit of a renaissance. In the fall of ’83, he traveled to Europe and found Rio. He rode the quirky, big bay on the winning USET Nations Cup team at Falsterbo (Sweden) and won the 1988 $500,000 Du Maurier Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows.
But George had also broken his femur badly in a fall in 1986 and broke his neck in another fall in 1987. In 1989, Rio retired. George rode a few more horses at grand prix but decided to stop showing by the early ’90s.
“When you’re 25 or 30 you can ride donkeys and have terrible wrecks and come back,” he says. “But as you get older, you can’t do that. Everything has to be perfect. I said to myself, ‘I can’t afford this. I have a great teaching life. Focus on that.’ ”
By 2005, George had made the decision to sell Hunterdon and accepted the role of chef d’equipe of the U.S. show jumping team. Under his leadership, they won the 2005 Samsung Super League series, team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games and team gold at the 2008 Olympic Games. At the 2011 Pan American Games, the U.S. team won team gold and individual gold and silver. In addition, a longtime George student, Rich Fellers, won the 2012 Rolex FEI World Cup Final.
The 2012 London Olympics will be the last for George as chef d’equipe; he’s stepping down at the end of the year and handing the title to Robert Ridland. He underwent successful treatment for prostate cancer in early 2012, and he’ll continue to teach through his clinics.
“I think it is time. I am the old school. I operate by, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ I had great success with that; it’s how I was brought up,” George reflects. “I think the country isn’t going to get more out of me, except as a teacher. Robert Ridland is the perfect transition, because he brings the old and the new. He’s super bright, he himself was a great rider, and he’s a great horseman.”