Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Our International High Performance Program

Even after a golden performance at the Olympic Games, our columnist warns that we must not become complacent.

Just after the Spruce Meadows Masters in mid-September, Signe Ostby and her husband, Scott Cook, hosted a lovely fundraiser dinner party for the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation at their home in Woodside, Calif.

About 50 people attended, lots of old friends and some new ones too—Jane Clark, Bonnie Jenkins, Mikey Murphy Hoag, Nonie Ramsey, and many others just to name a few.
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Even after a golden performance at the Olympic Games, our columnist warns that we must not become complacent.

Just after the Spruce Meadows Masters in mid-September, Signe Ostby and her husband, Scott Cook, hosted a lovely fundraiser dinner party for the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation at their home in Woodside, Calif.

About 50 people attended, lots of old friends and some new ones too—Jane Clark, Bonnie Jenkins, Mikey Murphy Hoag, Nonie Ramsey, and many others just to name a few.

During dinner I talked to the guests and benefactors about our U.S. Equestrian Federation International High Performance Program. First I asked a question: What is each and every person’s international ambition? Very, very few people pose that question to themselves. And I am talking about riders, trainers, teachers, sponsors and horse show organizers. They “think” locally and perhaps nationally but rarely internationally, which is only natural.

I grew up during and just after World War II when 19th century nationalism around the world was most pronounced and to be expected. This was still an age of military discipline, neatness, manners, spit-and-polish turn out and work ethic. These qualities were expected of all strata of society, but especially of the wealthy and socially prominent.

Now, of course, world culture and society is much different, often looser, lazier, and often lacking respect. Now the world has shrunk drastically, which has dissipated and diluted many national characteristics, but that is also a good thing.

We were always brought up to revere country and team. Winning for the USET, raising the American flag, and playing the “Star Spangled Banner” was what it was all about.

Now let me assure you, most Americans still think that way 100 percent. However, there are some people who don’t, and it makes me scratch my head. I’m sure there are two sides to the story, personal disappointments, and special friendships to contend with, but I still don’t always get it.

What gets me up in the morning goes farther than country, flag and USET. I have always been rabidly passionate and protective of the American system of riding as well as its style and quality of horsemanship. When we do well we are an example to the world of the kind of equitation (1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games) and when we do badly we are letting our system down.

The United States has an incredible, individual, unique horsemanship like no other in the world. Yes, it is a riding history derived from Europe, but it is not European. It is ours and it is special. Our mentality appreciates the light, the soft, and the smooth. And we’ve had enormous success competing internationally for the better part of a century.

Education Is Key

What do we need as an ongoing basis for our International High Performance Program to be successful? Firstly and lastly, education.

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People from every country complain to me of a lack of real and deep education. That is the first and foremost reason for all accidents today. Riding and jumping horses at best is a very high-risk sport. Lack of education and lack of discipline is an accident begging to happen.

“To stand near a horse will make a man poor,” so says an old Arab saying. And we all know from being around horses how true this is. Any horse endeavor is expensive, let alone an Olympic quest. And that is why we count on our precious owners, sponsors and benefactors who buy the horses and pay the bills. We love them and appreciate them.

However, as a rule, they are not expert professional riders or trainers. Really good owners consult with their riders and trainers, do not call the shots, and cheer everyone on. That outlook produces the best results in the long run for everyone concerned.

We, like every other country, really need good owners for our international horses. They must be educated to think internationally.

The World Cup horse, the Super League horse, the World Equestrian Games horse and Olympic horse—that is a precious commodity. If we want and expect to do well internationally we must collect these “special” horses and not lose them to other countries, which unfortunately happens.

The real truth is that a true international player needs at least one “string” of horses composed of two grand prix horses and one speed or younger horse. I’ve always thought of this composition of horses as making up an international string. Germany’s Ludger Beerbaum at times has had two top strings.

Right now we have many top riders 30 years old and older. We always have a wealth of riders under 21 years old who win in our equitation and junior/amateur divisions. It’s that in-between gap that worries me. People in their 20s should have mentors or associates, not be all on their own. It’s a big mistake. I had mentors and teachers until I was almost 30 years old.

The Recipe For Success

What is a good rider? I’ve written this many times before: ambition, emotion, management, selection, talent—in that order.

Many people think and talk about the Super League, the WEG and the Olympic Games. They never get there. The reason? A lack of true ambition. Some people simply don’t have the emotional make up for training a horse and competing at the top level. Develop it.

I’ve always suffered terribly from “nerves,” but got it working for me instead of against me.

Top horse management is a dying art. People don’t take care, custody and control of a horse very well today. It’s a factory mentality. I think often people are born with an “eye for a horse.” Virginia horseman Kenny Wheeler is one example. Of course, it can be developed and cultivated, however.

Talent is last on the list. There’s lots of talent you’ve never heard of. In a way it’s the least important. Often people with a modest talent go further. They are hungrier.

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In North America we must never, never forget that in Olympic equestrian sport we always, always have been, and always will be, the underdog. It is simply a fact. We must always try harder.

Like A Business

Let’s analyze our disabilities and our assets, our weak points and strong points.

Liabilities:

    •    Location (We are far from the center of the sport—Northern Europe.)
    •    Sport Horse Breeding (It’s coming, but it’s not there yet; in Europe it’s a huge and established   
          industry.)
    •    An Internal Supply Of Horse Flesh (We used to have it with the Thoroughbred, but it’s dried up.
          We are dependent on our competition. Bad thing.)
    •    Top International Horse Shows (We have few, very few!)
    •   “Hard” Competition (We had it through the mid-1980s. Fences were bigger on a weekly basis. Our
            fall circuit was real and tough and competitive. Except for the Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament, it’s
            no longer the case)
    •    Lack Of Depth At The Championship Level (Every country complains of lack of depth. We don’t
          need to have this problem, but we do.)

Assets:

    •    Horsemanship (Our method of horsemanship has done well and as we were originally taught is
          second to none. Years ago it was the envy of the world.)
    •    Money (We are the wealthiest country on Earth!)
    •    People (Great riders, owners, teachers, trainers, veterinarians, etc.)
    •    Home Element (A wonderful home element—not too hot, not too cold. Good basic everyday horse
          shows. In fact, our weekly horse shows are a great training ground for young horses and young
          riders.)
    •    Technology And Efficiency (The Europeans have learned as much from us in this department as
          we from them.)

We must be over-achievers. We must constantly use our assets to overcome our liabilities. At this level of competition it is the “kiss of death” to give up a stroke. Very, very rarely do I see foreigners owning horses for U.S. riders. Why is that when the reverse is only too often true? We must be very guarded about protecting what “elite” horseflesh we might have and not let these horses slip through our fingers.

Now, (yesterday), is when we start building for the next quadrennial—Lexington (2010), Guadalajara (2011), London (2012). Next year (2009) is a terribly important preparatory year.

My friends: it is very, very important! We have a lot of riding on our coattails. 

George H. Morris



George H. Morris, a former Olympian and top international rider, is one of most revered
trainers in the world. He is currently chef d’equipe for the U.S. show jumping team, which won the team gold and individual bronze medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. He has helped a long list of successful riders, trainers, and horses compete at the highest levels. He began contributing to the
Chronicle’s Between Rounds column in 1989.

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