The Psychology of George Morris
By April Clay M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
“Are you just going to sit there like a soup sandwich?” George Morris asks wryly. And so another clinic with the legendary horseman begins, an experience full of memorable quips, some of which are uncomfortable for riders to hear and make the audience squirm. At age 78, Morris still commands respect with ease, and even the auditors seem to sit up somewhat straighter in his presence.
Love him or not, you can’t argue with his impressive resume. In 1952 at age fourteen, Morris was the youngest rider to win both the American Horse Show Association (AHSA) Hunt Seat Equitation Medal Final and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Maclay Horsemanship Finals.
Morris has represented the United States in international competition as both a coach and a rider. His team won the gold medal in the 1959 Pan American Games, and he won a team silver medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Students trained by Morris have won medals in several Olympic Games, and he has acted as chef d’equipe for numerous winning teams.
Morris coached United States teams to individual and team silver medals at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, and he coached the team that won the Team Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong and the team member who won the Individual Bronze Medal. Morris is president of the United States Show Jumping Hall of Fame, and serves on the USEF National Jumper Committee and Planning Committee.
And he is considered by most to be the founding father of hunt seat equitation.
George Morris is, without a doubt, a taskmaster with the highest standards – disciplined, exacting, and purposeful in his approach – and these aspects of his psychology are obvious and on display. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Morris and ask him a few questions about his mental game.
Biggest Mental Challenge
When asked about the psychological challenges of his riding career, George freely admits his biggest mental obstacle was nerves.
“On my mother’s side of the family there was a tendency toward a nervous constitution. Some people are born with a nervous constitution and some are laid back, but I inherited the former.
“Physical fear and mental fear are two different things. Physical fear is about getting hurt and mental fear is about making a mistake. I still have some physical fear, and as I get older [I have] more physical fear but I always had mental fear, that nervousness to make a mistake.”
Morris says he did not have the resources and sport psychologists to help back then. He simply had to figure it out on his own, to learn to cope.
One of the most important things he learned was to face fear head on, and to practice being under pressure.
“Do what you fear and hate the most. If I fear public speaking, I have to do public speaking. If I fear chipping in the show ring, doing a boo-boo in the show ring, I go in the show ring over and over. You conquer fear progressively, gradually, by getting a little out of your comfort zone. All my teachers were army teachers and they taught with pressure, sometimes almost unbearable pressure, and you were always out of your comfort zone. That hardens someone psychologically, it conditions someone psychologically that they can exist under pressure.”
When asked if he overcame his nerves, Morris was very clear that nerves have never left him.
“I have never overcome them, I have learned to live with them and to deal with them. Every time I give a clinic, every time I give a lecture, I am nervous. So I have learned to live with it by facing it.”
“Horses have greater mental telepathy than people. If you think fear, the horse knows it. If you think aggressive, the horse knows it. If you think tentative, the horse knows it. There is a very, very strong connection between a rider’s mind and the horse’s mind.” – George Morris
Strategic Mental Approach
I asked Morris whether he had a particular pre-ride routine when he was competing, or certain mental strategies he relied on.
“First of all I cannot be distracted, distraction is not good. When people distract me I am quite rude. When I am under that pressure at a show, even a little show, I have to concentrate.”
Like many riders, it seems Morris’ nerves may have in part been fueled by a strong desire to ride correctly. As we spoke, it was clear how important it is to him to generate a mental picture of the ride and then to practice it, to make it so familiar that it eases his fears.
“The greatest combatant to stage fright is to concentrate on the positive. Exactly how you are going to ride that course, exactly how you are going to ride that under-saddle class. You concentrate on what you should do, and how you want it to go: Take a long five strides here, not too far right after triple, don't over-ride triple.”
George believes that visualizing the ride over and over distracts you from your fears.
“The subconscious will help you,” he says of repeating your ride over and over in your mind. “You won’t go off course - you will probably ride it better because it is so grooved.” He likens it to how many top riders also walk their courses two or three times in preparation “because they want it in their subconscious that no matter what happens or what goes wrong, how they need to ride will take over.”
Definition of Toughness
Who does George consider to be a mentally tough rider?
“Beezie Madden in particular has ice water in her veins. She doesn’t have a nervous constitution. Rich Fellers doesn’t. Everyone has a different temperament, but those people at the top learn how to handle mental fear. Each in their own way, they have a handle on it.”
During the course of the clinic George related a story about Leslie Burr Howard. He recalled how days before an Olympic Games he caught her riding. “What are you doing? I asked her. She told me she was ‘practicing her guts.’ So I thought if Leslie Burr Howard needs to practice her guts, we all do.”
It seems clear that Morris considers toughness to be a practiced skill, as in the case of Leslie. It is more about coping with challenges again and again consistently, about learning to be a problem solver and moving on.
“When you make a mistake, don’t think back on it. Think forward. Think of the next jump, the next run. After the class you can think of it. In this sport things come up too quick.”
When asked if a nervous rider can still be a tough rider, George responded by referring to his own experience.
“Well, I had a very good career having a nervous constitution.”
That is indisputable; both in the show ring and out, what a great career it has been. This is and should be a comfort for us all – to be nervous is not the end of things, merely a condition to be coped with along the way. Skills and strategies necessary can be developed to help to reach your goals.
It’s All About the Horses
In his own pointed fashion, George states he is “not crazy about people.” It’s the horses that have always attracted and fueled his passion. He is not much for placating owners or rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. Plain and simple, he just relates to the horses.
“I am passionate about riding and about training horses. I don’t love horses like I love dogs. I love them but not in an intimate way. I have had four or five dogs that are like significant others. It is different. But with the horse it is a partnership. I love to ride and train horses. I read about it always and just have an obsession about riding and schooling horses.”
And while he may be what some would call rude at times with riders, his manner gruff and his patience short, you will never see this displayed on a horse. He is unflappable and tolerant with his equine partners. Whenever demonstrating on a clinic rider’s horse, he knows and states clearly his purpose and approach. And then inevitably he will wait, and wait, for the correct response. The last stage being in his own words “repetition, repetition” in training.
Indeed, George becomes animated and passionate when asked about how the rider’s mind and the horse’s mind come to interact.
“Horses have greater mental telepathy than people. If you think fear, the horse knows it. If you think aggressive, the horse knows it. If you think tentative, the horse knows it. There is a very, very strong connection between a rider’s mind and the horse’s mind.”
And that, it would seem, is exactly why George Morris seems as disciplined in his mental processes and his physical riding skills: Respect for the horse.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
The author with George Morris at his clinic in Blackfalds, Alberta, in November 2015. Photo courtesy of April Clay.