By Rebecca M. Didier
Try this simple exercise: Rest two fingers over the main artery in your wrist and take your resting pulse (count the number of “beats” you feel for 30 seconds, and double it). Now imagine, if you will, that you’re on your way to the most important job interview of your life: You flew into a strange city from a great distance and are preparing to meet a powerful and notoriously difficult individual (potentially your new boss) for the first time. Consider the nervousness you would feel: the anxiety over getting there on time, making the right impression, wearing the right outfit, saying the right thing.
Take your pulse again. Has your heart rate increased?
Now … pretend your potential new boss is George Morris.
No need to check your pulse this time. If you have even a single toe in the very edge of the infinity pool that’s the competitive horse show world, we all know what happened.
How It All Started
Almost three years ago, rider, writer and “by day” pharmaceutical professional Karen Robertson Terry sent a handwritten thank you note to equestrian publisher Trafalgar Square Books of North Pomfret, Vermont, following a discussion of a manuscript she had submitted. The manuscript did not end up being published, but what ensued was an almost unbelievable progression from aspiring but unknown to ghostwriting the autobiography of the most powerful man in the equestrian world.
“I’ve always loved writing and in particular fiction; my degree is in English and after college I worked for a publisher in New York,” said Karen, who, when you first meet her, immediately inspires a sense of recognition. When she quiets her features for a moment in thought, you get it. She’s a dead ringer for movie star Diane Lane. “Years later, I went to a workshop that completely revitalized my desire to write. About a week afterward, I had a really great riding lesson where things really clicked, and I decided to send a book proposal to Trafalgar Square Books, which to my surprise and delight, they thought had merit. After a few conversations about my book idea, though, the editors at Trafalgar started hinting at a different project. They wouldn’t tell me what the project was at first … only that it might require some time spent in Wellington, Florida.”
Karen, in her 30s and career-minded, immediately figured she probably didn’t have the time to commit to something that would keep her away from her home near Sisters, Oregon, or office outside of Boston, for any considerable period. Her full-time day job was a demanding role on drug development teams, and she had a husband, dog, and her own horses requesting her presence — at least on occasion.
“But I was curious!” she admits, pushing her thick, chestnut mane off her shoulders with one hand. “I figured I owed myself at least a chance to hear more, and I agreed to have dinner with the editors from Trafalgar. I told a work friend of mine (who also rides) about the mystery book project. She joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be nuts if they want you to write a book with George Morris or something?’ And we both laughed at the ridiculous prospect.
“I was absolutely unprepared for the offer made to me that night.”
Early Riding Career
Karen’s “growing-up-horse-crazy” story is akin to that shared by many young girls: Although not from a “horsey” family, she was naturally drawn to manes and tails and ponies, and she began riding in Carlisle, Massachusetts, when she was 8 years old. Karen helped a neighbor in her barn, learning the basics about grooming and horse care, and riding a devilish black pony named Charlie Chaplin that bucked her off twice the first time she got on.
“After a while, I moved on to a large barn and rode school horses in a big group lesson every Saturday,” she remembered. “Saturdays turned into long weekends, and eventually into weekdays, too — working and riding anything they’d let me throw a leg over.
“My family moved to Illinois when I was in high school, and I started riding with Greg Franklin, an A circuit hunter-jumper trainer who helped raise the level of sophistication of my horsemanship. Even though I was late to the party and already 16, I absolutely had a blast showing at that level in the Chicago area for my last two junior years.”
Karen’s background was key to the careful matchmaking at hand when she was tapped to team up with George H. Morris — the “Godfather” of the American equestrian story — and help him pen his autobiography. Her intimate familiarity with not just the “horse world” in broad terms but the specific disciplines in which George has excelled and to which he has devoted his life enabled her to interview him in a knowledgeable and effective way, while grasping points of interest and teasing out particulars of value.
George and His George-isms
“Just like most young riders, I grew up studying George Morris’s ‘Jumping Clinic’ column in Practical Horseman magazine every month,” Karen said with a grin, “and again, just like most young riders, I tried to emulate his definition of a perfect position when out riding my own horse. And of course I had an old 1970s edition of his book “Hunter Seat Equitation” on my shelf through the years. But I’d never met George or even seen him teach in person — only on video.”
It’s his “Jumping Clinic” persona for which George is best known: brisk, to-the-point critique of position; the no-nonsense evaluation of ability; and possibly most memorable of all, the exacting expectations when it comes to horse-and-rider turnout. For those unfamiliar with the Practical Horseman column for which he is (in)famous, it features photos supplied by willing (if not abuse-seeking) riders, showing them and their mounts over obstacles. George judges each image, providing precise commentary as to why an individual has neared perfection, attained a passable if not flawed seat, or failed entirely to meet the barest minimum of acceptability. It makes for addictive reading, as is evidenced by both the column’s longevity and the near-constant online stream of mass-approved “George-isms,” including such curious and no-doubt mortifying affronts as, “You sit like a soup sandwich.” A number of these have even been merchandised for charitable purposes in the form of a talking “action figure” (from Breyer® and The Chronicle of the Horse), which utters choice George parlance like, “You’re very beautiful; I hope you have a brain,” and “Darlings, I have no time for wrong.”
Certainly, George Morris has gained notoriety for his high standards and expectation of perfection. Of course it’s this very behavior — which heckles and frightens and shocks and instigates reaction — that’s partly responsible for his incredible record of turning out winning riders throughout his 60-year career as a teacher and coach. Not only has George competed for and won numerous medals for the United States in international competition, he’s had a hand in training many if not most of the top equestrians in the sport of show jumping today.
Until now, George Morris has seemed content to allow his publicly traded persona to reign, keeping his private life behind closed doors. But having completed his tenure as the Chef d’Equipe of the U.S. Show Jumping Team in 2013 and with an Olympic year approaching in 2016, it suddenly seemed time to tell his own story — no holds barred. The result is UNRELENTING The Real Story: Horses, Bright Lights, and My Pursuit of Excellence, which is not only a glimpse inside the mind of the enigmatic leader, but also a fascinating retrospective of the international equestrian scene, tracing the trajectory of horse sport in the United States (and beyond its borders) from the 1940s through the present day.
“Months passed while I waited for George to be ready to start the book,” remembered Karen, arranging her body on a stool the way she might settle her seat atop a horse — shoulders back, eyes up, weight distributed evenly from left to right. “I saved his cell number in my contacts … that alone was totally wild. Initial phone calls with him were surreal: Nervous and pacing around the room, I tried to be brief and pleasant — and would sigh with relief every time a call ended where I hadn’t embarrassed myself!”
It was a humid Florida morning the first time Karen was scheduled to meet George Morris in person. Knowing he’s a stickler for punctuality and unsure of the rush-hour morning traffic, she admits leaving for his home ludicrously early.
“In fact, so early that I was turning onto his street a full 90 minutes ahead of schedule!” she said with a laugh. “There I was, waiting in his driveway and sweating prodigiously in my professional-but-cute outfit (picked out while every bone in my body wanted to put on breeches, tall boots and a polo shirt), and George pulled up to the house in his car and motioned for me to get in with him. I sat down in the passenger seat and every moment stretched out and seemed to last forever — my mind was at absolute full attention.”
George’s personal residence is pristine and beautiful, and as one might expect, a veritable museum of horse history. Karen’s first few days working with him were spent sifting through boxes of clippings and photographs and scanning memorabilia, all the while trying to resist the temptation to lose herself for hours reading personal letters and old articles. She took George’s lead, feeling out how best to work with him. And although they were both a bit tentative at first, they soon realized their lives had some interesting parallels.
“By the end of the week we were swapping stories of our wild days in New York City,” Karen confessed, “and I flew home to Oregon deliriously happy, a bit starry eyed, and with over 30 hours of recorded audio interviews to get the writing process started.”
George Morris is, to say the least, a pretty busy guy. Even after handing over the reins of Chef d’Equipe to current U.S. Show Jumping Team Coach Robert Ridland, he continues to travel internationally, and constantly, to help clients and teach clinics. And Karen, as mentioned, has a full-time job, as well as personal commitments. The two live on opposite coasts, and George neither owns a computer nor uses email. All these factors meant that following the success of their “honeymoon-like” first week working together, the logistics were bound to get tricky.
“For me personally, working on the book was a very challenging balancing act,” Karen acknowledged. “My day job was really demanding, and I found myself working a couple of hours in the evenings and doing anywhere from a little to a lot on weekends. I had to set minor, manageable goals throughout the process so I wouldn’t get too overwhelmed. My husband and I had just moved into a new house and brought my horses home for the first time right after the book got started — my competitive riding had to be put on hold, as well as plans for ‘time off,’ since my vacation days went toward trips to work with George.
“Even though I felt overwhelmed sometimes about the work, there was never a doubt I would press on. I had to do it. George was counting on me, and I wanted to show him that I could create the book we had begun to envision together.”
Creating the Book
The process for working on UNRELENTING took shape over time: a mixed bag of conversations face-to-face and on the phone, and sending documents back and forth via regular mail or fax. Karen traveled to Wellington on several occasions, and once George stopped over in Oregon between clinics. Karen also met him at Pacific Northwest clinic locations to sneak in working sessions. They spent countless hours on the phone together, making their way through George’s life, decade by decade — which is naturally how the finished book ultimately came to be organized. Karen has (amazingly) recorded 345 hours of “Just George”: remembering, reminiscing, gradually piecing together times, places and events.
“Besides my long talks with George, I interviewed over a hundred others — his friends, family members, colleagues, students,” Karen said, her eyes widening a bit at the memory, perhaps indicating what a challenge such an undertaking may have been. “Their voices became integral to how we tell the story of George’s life and career; really, I was incredibly fortunate to have more than enough material for the book. The difficult part turned out to be fitting in all the colorful anecdotes while maintaining a cohesive narrative.”
Perhaps what’s most anticipated in George Morris’ autobiography, though, is his decision to unveil something beyond the disciplined, professional self with whom most are familiar, and indeed, let loose details of his “wild side” — a George who partied hard and chased men, sometimes to the detriment of his career as a professional rider and coach.
“As the story unfolded in front of me, it was amazing how much I could relate to George’s personal journey,” Karen intimated with an arch look (and you know in that brief moment that she isn’t all work and no play, either). “I think others are going to have that same realization when they read it. They’ll probably be surprised by how personal George gets. He lets readers inside his head and his heart. We all have our inner demons; it’s powerful seeing a person you revere struggling with real, significant challenges and overcoming them to achieve legendary things.”
Karen has now watched George Morris teach in person or on video and read his written instructional material perhaps as much as or more than most of those who have actually trained with him over the years. In the process of learning his “voice” in order to accurately “be” him as she transcribed his words, she attained a unique position as, what some might term, the “ultimate student.” In this sense, as the writer who had to get inside his head and let him inside hers, she can perhaps help us understand what it is about George’s teaching style — the very one that frightens and earns him such infamy — that makes him so effective.
“Here’s what it is,” she says firmly. “George gets the absolute best out of everyone because his powerful presence demands complete attention and focus. He can size up riders and horses so quickly, finding the key to push them beyond what they think they’re capable of. That’s why, ‘Under, over, or through!’ is my favorite ‘George-ism,’ because as a rider who has the occasional indecisive moment when I don’t see a distance to a fence, I appreciate the sentiment of forwardness at all costs. The need for leg and support is even greater when the distance to a jump isn’t ideal. A lack of perfection isn’t a reason to freeze and not be there for my horse. He can still jump well from a less-than-good spot … it’s my job to help him make it happen.”
So does this mean that after all this, Karen would willingly do the one thing she hasn’t done as the ultimate student of George Morris: ride in one of his clinics?
Wise, Sensitive and Mischievous
“Oh yes, absolutely!” she exclaims. “I see the riders in his clinics reach a new level of confidence and ability and having that experience for myself would be incredible. Before I met him I was overawed — if I had to describe him in three words back then I would have said ‘perfectionist,’ ‘master,’ and ‘intimidating.’ Now, having written UNRELENTING with him, I’d describe him as ‘wise,’ ‘sensitive’ and ‘mischievous.’
“Working on George’s book has been like getting a college education on the history of riding! His life and the evolution of the sport are entwined with one another.
Every time I watch him teach, I learn something critical to bring home. Becoming close to George and learning his philosophy in a deeper, more meaningful way through the book has helped put horsemanship and competing in a new perspective. My riding has already been, in a sense, purified by my exposure to him — without him ever even seeing me on a horse.”
When you ask Karen to describe one memorable experience she wouldn’t have had if the opportunity to work with George Morris on UNRELENTING hadn’t arisen, she sighs and shakes her head, indicating with her hands and expression that there have been just too many to count.
“One that stands out happened last February,” she said, finally narrowing it down. “When I go to Wellington these days, I stay at George’s house (which is wonderful), and we went to the Grand Prix one Sunday together, along with another friend of his, a horseman named Tyler Klees. George coached a student in the class and afterward came and sat with us in his box seats, and we watched the rest of the class together — I so enjoyed hearing his comments about the course and the horses and riders.
“Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Beezie Madden and Georgina Bloomberg all finished in the top five, and as soon as the last rider completed the jump-off, George indicated it was time to go. Tyler and I followed him across to the in-gate and down the stairs to the on-deck and warm-up area behind the international ring. There was Meredith on her amazing gray Fibonacci, flushed and out of breath after having just jumped-off to win the class, and she smiled even wider when George walked up to congratulate her. Then he spoke with both Beezie and Georgina, telling them how wonderfully they rode, and they were both thrilled and excited, beaming at his praise.
“Tyler and I followed along behind George like a couple of ducklings, watching and nodding our own congratulations,” Karen said. “I was grinning like an idiot, in awe to be witnessing scenes from George’s autobiography come alive before my eyes, and seeing the friendship and connection between each rider and this man I had grown to not only hold in esteem, but really care for … it was something I’ll never forget.”
Life as a Ghostwriter
In the end, when a ghostwriter has finished her once-thought-endless list of tasks, closed her computer and filed her interviews, it’s likely such memorable moments along the way fuel further ambition to do it all again, with someone else, some other day. It’s not the finished book, nor the eventual reviews, that make the sacrifice — shelving so much of your own life in order to live and breathe someone else’s — worthwhile. It’s the closeness; the understanding; the affinity that develops over time and shared space. It’s the stories that didn’t end up going into the book, that George knows and now Karen knows, and perhaps no one else need ever hear.
And ultimately, most importantly, it’s that the feared, revered and ever-eminent George H. Morris eyeballs your position, weighs your ability, considers your turnout, and judges it all up to snuff.
“Very few people in the world could have written UNRELENTING like Karen has done,” said George. “Her writing mimics my own voice as much as anyone’s writing could. This book simply wouldn’t have been possible without her. She’s done a magnificent job.”
Picture, along with me, Karen beaming at his praise, as we follow behind like ducklings.