By Laurie Berglie
For Joanie Morris, United States Equestrian Federation’s (US Equestrian) managing director of eventing, her work and play collide — and she wouldn’t have it any other way. A lover and fierce competitor of the sport of eventing since childhood, Joanie is inspired by those around her and strives to do her part to improve every aspect of the sport.
Joanie didn’t grow up in an equestrian family, but that didn’t stop her from begging for riding lessons. She rode at a local barn, competed with the Old North Bridge Pony Club and evented up to the Intermediate level on a wonderful horse named Brian Boru.
By then, eventing was in her blood. “I did one year at the University of Vermont and then life evolved quickly toward the eventing scene,” Joanie said. “My wonderful grandmother gave all of her grandchildren $500 to ‘do something, not buy something’ that Christmas, and I wrote Phillip Dutton a letter to see if I could be a working student for two weeks. This was 1998, and I had seen his team in Aiken, South Carolina, the year before, and they looked like they worked hard and had fun. Phillip and Evie said I could come to Pennsylvania, so I drove down with my horse in my little tag-along trailer behind my SUV — and so it all began.”
The Eventing Community
After her time with the Duttons, Joanie decided to stay put and not head back to Vermont for school. Instead, she transferred to the University of Delaware and learned all she could both in and out of the classroom. Life threw a few curveballs her way, but Joanie quickly learned how helpful and supportive the eventing community truly was.
“Almost immediately after my move, Brian Boru got hurt the week before Radnor CCI2* and my 6-year-old ex-racehorse died of an aneurysm the week before that. Suddenly, I was without anything to ride, was still struggling to see a distance, and pretty devastated to discover how difficult the sport actually was. However, everyone in the eventing community, at Phillip’s and beyond, was really good to me. I stuck it out and got my degree in history, did a lot of grooming and riding and was able to do some competing on a variety of horses both borrowed and leased. I did some freelance grooming during this time for Will Faudree, who was also based with Phillip. We went to the 2003 Pan Am Games when he was the traveling reserve for the 2004 Olympic Team, so I got an idea of what the U.S. team was all about and made some connections that helped me with the next step in my life.”
After about five years at True Prospect Farm, Joanie teamed up with Joe and Sean Clancy and went to work part time for them at ST-Publishing, now This Is Horse Racing. “They went to Saratoga in the summer, so I went with them in 2006 and was exposed to an entirely different part of the horse business. After that, I thought there might be some more opportunities for me outside the barn, and in 2007 I started as the communications director for US Equestrian.”
Joanie got her start in the communications department and learned a significant amount about the other disciplines and how the organization works. “Serving as press officer at the Olympic Games, WEG and World Cup Finals for all disciplines opened my eyes to how big the sport is and how little I knew about parts of it. I then served as the event director for NAYC from 2008–2012, through which I learned about improvisation and teamwork. In autumn 2012, I moved into the sport department as the managing director of eventing. Now, no two days are ever the same. I know that’s very cliché, but some days I’m in the office neck deep in a spreadsheet on WEG health requirements or working a calendar request, and the next day I’m setting up a dressage ring at a training session or trying to locate a team rider’s missing coat. My work environment is forever changing.”
Joanie credits herself as incredibly lucky to have a great staff in the eventing department that seems to be constantly coming up with new projects and challenges. “Every decision is made in an effort to improve what we do for the team and for the sport of eventing,” she said. “The whole team is committed to making the sport better, and they spend a lot of time on conference calls as their committee volunteers are the driving force on the decisions that they make.
“I truly enjoy my job and appreciate the athletes, grooms, team staff, USEF staff, owners and volunteers that I get to work with. We went through a lot of change in eventing and organizationally in 2017, and the strength of our core group has stayed the course. I feel lucky for that and people like Derek di Grazia, Bobby Costello, Diane Pitts, Jonathan Elliot, Mike Huber — it’s a long list of volunteers who do a huge amount of work on the team, programs, calendar, safety, rules, etc. It’s a never-ending list and everything is related. We are working on projects and making decisions that will have a lasting impact, so we do our diligence in the hopes that we are charting a course on which the sport and the teams will thrive going forward. These guys do it for the love of the game, and that’s pretty inspiring. We’ll never get it all right, but certainly that is not for lack of trying to make the sport better.”
A Chance at Success
Even when not at work, Joanie is still immersed in the sport. “I really enjoy competing my young horses and spending time with my husband, Richard, on our farm in Paris, Kentucky. I was given a wonderful ex-steeplechase horse named Four Schools who got me back to the 1* level after 15 years. He’s not very straightforward to ride, but he’s the sweetest horse in the world. He did his last event in May and is now running the farm and living the most wonderful retired life at 16. He’s galloped thousands of miles in 40-plus races and 30-plus events, and I wanted him to retire while he was still feeling well. We also have two other young ones off the track. Parker’s Choice is a big, goofy 5-year-old who has been slow to develop because he just thinks everything is so much fun. He’s lovely and is coming into his own. Betterthanexpected is a 4-year-old by Malibu Moon. He’s all class and won his first young event horse class and has been first and second in his last two events. He’s a total pro and takes his job very seriously. He’s been very easy to bring along, and Richard and I both ride him. Richard is going to do the Thoroughbred Makeover on him in October!”
For Joanie, whether at work or at play, it all comes down to the horses. She has the utmost respect for all of them — the ones who represent our country as well as the retired ones in her backyard. “I’m proud of them all,” she said. “I like being really hands-on and all my years of experience as a horse person lends well to the fact that their well-being is always a priority — both with my own horses and when coordinating the team effort. They have a hard job, and you have to give them every chance to be successful. There’s nothing we won’t do to give the horses every chance to be their best.”