Showjumping Dumbed Down – George Morris responds…

by Chris Hector

Photo: Arnd Bronkhurst

American showjumping star Katie Prudent has stirred up a hornet’s nest with her comments on the dumbing down of the sport in a radio interview with Chris Stafford (for the full interview go to here) Here are some edited highlights.

According to Katie:

“Unfortunately, because of money, the fearful, talentless amateur can rise to a certain level. And that’s sort of what the sport has become — how far can the amateur go by buying the greatest horse in the world. It’s not where can a good riding kid go on any horse that comes down the pike? It’s just a totally different sport now.”

“And many coaches have become coaches who just bring along amateur riders and make it easy for them. ‘Oh baby, here’s a bottle of water. Are you too hot? Are you too cold? Let’s get a fan. Let’s get someone else to ride your horse because it’s too difficult.’ It’s just become a sport for rich, talentless people. And I don’t coach like that. I’m a mean teacher.”

 

“I remember many, many years ago, we went to France to show. I probably was just dating my husband or we’d just met. When we went to France, the dollar was 10 to 1 on the French franc. So a great horse from France, and there were many great horses in those days in France, priced in French francs was 1/10 in dollars. So for a short time, horses could be bought in Europe for incredibly good prices. And people came from Europe with great horses, and then all of the sudden everybody started shopping in Europe.”

“If you had an amateur rider or a junior rider, you got on a plane and went to Europe to find a horse. For about a decade it was like that. I think in the beginning, it was because the prices were so good. And as it evolved, it became clear that bad amateur riders who had a lot of money could buy really good horses and compete with the professionals. I think over time, especially in America — I’m not even going to say in the rest of the world, even though I have to say the rest of the world is catching up to us now — rich parents saw a way to buy their children success.”

“One thing led to another, and now we’re in a terrible place…. You look at McLain [Ward], who was the son of a dealer and had a lot of hard times with family problems. You look at Kent Farrington, who was a boy who didn’t have a lot of money and worked for a lot of different people like Leslie [Howard] and Tim Grubb and came up through the ranks just really working hard. And Laura Kraut, who rode anything and everything that came down the pike. And she still can get on any horse and make it go well.”

“We just don’t have those riders coming along anymore. We just don’t. Beezie [Madden], when she started working with John [Madden] and doing all his sales horses, she also can ride any type of horse and turn it around to go her way. Those are our four top riders right now, and they’re always the four top riders for the last decade.”

“Once they’re gone, I don’t know what we’re going to have.”

Stafford: What about that next tier down; I’m thinking of Reed Kessler, Jessica Springsteen, Katie Dinan. There’s a whole tier of these younger girls, some of whom have gone through your hands as well.

Prudent: “They all have great basics. They’re all very good riders. But they have all, the ones you’ve named, only ridden the best horses money can buy. In their lives, from the time they were little children, they have only ridden the best horses that money can buy.”

“That’s how you can’t compare them to a McLain or a Kent or a Beezie. You can’t compare them.”

“Years ago — I’m not even going to mention the rider’s name — one girl rider had had a bad day, and the trainer wanted that rider to ride another horse and maybe work without stirrups. To pay her dues.”

“And the barn manager said, ‘Oh no, she has an appointment to go get her nails done.’ I have to tell you, that is America in a nutshell right there. That is where we’re going in our sport in America. It makes me sick. And I don’t know a way out of it.”

“I have to say that most of the riders whose families have a lot of money, they don’t have the same desire to work at their sport as the kids who grew up without money. I guess that’s maybe the same in everything; I don’t know. But I see it as a problem.”

 

McLean Ward replied in an Op-Ed in Chronicle of the Horse:

Photo: Arnd Bronkhurst

I read what Katie Prudent has to say about the state of U.S. show jumping, and I felt the need to respond.

I have the deepest respect for Katie Prudent as a rider and as a trainer of riders. I think she’s the finest there is, and I appreciate the compliment she pays me in her words. And while I think she has some very valid points for sure, the general tone of the article, I believe, is not on point for the state of the sport in the United States.

Looking at the state of the sport—yes, the sport has evolved. The sport has changed. There’s no doubt that the great riders of times gone by would still be great today, but they would have to change and evolve the same way the great riders of today would have to do things slightly differently if they were riding back then.

It’s very hard to compare the two times. A six-foot wide oxer with 10 trees in the middle with 20’ poles isn’t harder or easier than a 1.55-meter oxer today with three poles and a false groundline and breakaway cups and a fast time allowed. The sport has had to change internally and because of external pressures, and the greats of any generation will adjust to what the sport is.

Like in any other sport, the highest level is always getting better. And the people who don’t recognize that are the ones who do get left behind. The great riders, the great trainers, recognize that the highest level of the sport, in every sport in the world, is always evolving and getting better and faster and stronger.

I also think it’s unfair to label someone as not being ambitious or tough or having a great work ethic just because they come from means. I’ve had to learn this through my own career. The reality is that in my own riding and my own teaching, I’ve come across a number of young people, including people with whom I’ve worked directly, who come from great means and are every bit as ambitious as I am, every bit as tough as I am and often have a skill set I don’t have.

I was the biggest believer in Lucy Davis for the Olympic Games last year, and that’s a wonderful example. I’ve ridden on the last two championship teams with her, and she’s been nothing but ambitious and professional and hard working.

The reality, and this is something Katie touches on, is whether people from that financial background will sustain that level of intensity. But once they reach certain goals in the sport, maybe it isn’t necessary for them to. Where for someone like myself or Beezie or Kent, it’s how we make a living, so there has to be sustained intensity. That doesn’t mean that those young riders, or anybody from that financial situation, can’t be of the same level not only for a certain point in time but for as long as they desire to be. So I think that’s a little bit unfair.

There have been wealthy kids coming up through the sport for the better part of the last 50 years. To label that as a downward spiral of American show jumping is incorrect about those young riders and is incorrect about the state of show jumping in our country.

So what does George Morris think? Well for a start, George is resolutely pre-digital but he was aware that the controversy was raging…

“I don’t look at the internet so I didn’t see it. Chris Keppler called me and told me about it, then I called Katie and I’ve heard McLain’s response. It’s like riding, it’s all correct. I’ve seen so many decades but what bothers me today is a cultural thing. I don’t care that people don’t know, I care that they don’t want to know. I see it when I teach, it’s a cultural thing with younger people and that’s happened over the decades.”

“The comfortable, well-to-do people of the 50’s and 60’s, up to the 80’s, their parents wanted it tough. Their parents wanted the trainers to be tough. Now if you look twice at a kid, often the parent criticises the trainer and takes the kid to another trainer – they want soft. It’s a cultural thing, the parents want it soft – it’s not the child’s fault, it’s their upbringing.”

“I haven’t listened to the interview, or read the article, so I really can’t comment, but I get the gist.”

What they didn’t touch on, and it is something you’ve been very critical of, over the years, and that is the way courses are being dumbed down so not very good riders on very good horses, can get around safely… the courses have been ‘pussyfied’ so the mega dealers can make more money.

“The origin of jumping sport is bring the country to the arena. The British taught that, Mike Ansell taught us that, Pamela Carruthers taught that. Now there is too much pressure not to bring the country to the arena because it could present something unexpected for a top rider, for a very expensive horse, for a weaker student – so from all sides there is pressure to make the jumps all the same. Go to Shanghai, to Wellington, Sydney, they are all the same jumps. Sticks over air. Rails, little sponsor fences.”

“Now it’s a very difficult sport because you can’t ride at the jumps, they are too delicate. It’s scope now because you can push them. It’s not old fashioned scope where they were two metres wide triple bars. It’s very difficult today, but it’s a different difficult. It doesn’t encourage blood and guts. The most important characteristic of jumping was developing courage in a person, and that’s what riding did and that is what it is supposed to do. And that is not what the sport develops today because the fences don’t ask for that.”

Katie was talking about no new riders coming on, and if you look at all the countries, Germany, Great Britain, the USA, it’s all the same old faces that are the backbones of the teams. Sure Lucy Davis is a lovely rider with a wonderful horse, but let’s see her come out on a string of horses, year after year, before we talk about her in the same breath as Laura or Beezie…

“For example, we have here is the same team here in 2017 as I had years ago. Because they were brought up differently. They were brought up hard, they were brought up to have a tough base. Lots of different horses, green horses, good horses, bad horses, ride racehorses, ride dressage horses, It’s a comprehensive scopey base that the riders in the team have – and when the game gets tough, those people come through.”

“Listen, I invented teaching amateurs to ride Grand Prix. I was one of the first ones to bring amateurs all over the world to ride but you have to give them that hard core, and that’s not done today. Today’s riders, when something goes wrong, they don’t know how to handle it, because they are not taught how to handle it. It’s a culture, it’s not riding, it’s a cultural problem.”

 

35 thoughts on “Showjumping Dumbed Down – George Morris responds…

  1. Brilliant article, once again, from the best equestrian journal in the world. I’m worlds away from showjumping as a dressage rider, but the cultural problem described here definitely applies to my experience in US dressage as well. A lot of ammy’s buying incredible, safe horses and pretty much purchasing their medals.

    Wonderful journalism, I really can’t compliment this magazine enough.

  2. So true, George. The culture of our younger generation has changed dramatically, and I think that is a result of the parents not expecting and accepting failure as part of the growing experience…. You are a great person and yes, a great trainer as well. Hope all is well with you… It was such an pleasure and honor to spend a short time with you many years ago.

  3. What”s changed? Not much really. It”s the same older generation looking backwards confident they did it better. That today’s generation doesn’t have what it takes.
    Here’s the real story. It’s the market place. Smart guys have figured out what people want and are giving it to them. Boom!

  4. I’ve read all the articles and replies and realize more than ever that I was truly blessed to have had the chance to train with Rodney. Had to laugh at George’s comments about parents today. So true in Central NY where kids change trainers so often, they’re paired up with a different team at just about every horse show – and in order to survive a lot of these new trainers are constantly feeding the drama and taking shots at each other. That’s why I decided to volunteer my time coaching Pony Club over the last 30 years. Those kids work hard and are grateful for everything you teach them and the parents are not allowed to get involved at rallies. USPC members grow up to be the best Eventers and the toughest Show Jumpers, when they find the resources they need (it’s rarely handed to them). George and Rodney are national treasures.

  5. I am excited and revived by this article!!! I pray that parents everywhere are reading it and running it over and over again in their minds. Praying that it saves at least one child, and offers a future of truly riding well! Toughen your children, quit making their success or failure yours or a representation of you. Let them learn to work for something and appreciate that success.

  6. Keep preaching George! Maybe one day it will sink in. Hopefully before it is too late.

  7. In all of the wisdom that this article brings to the debate, and all three commenters bring so much light to the subject, the most critical and piercing of all for most professionals who inevitably are involved with young amateurs is “I don’t care that people don’t know, I care that they don’t want to know.”

  8. This article fails to mention kids without means who can’t afford a fancy horse. I’ve often observed that the kids with the most talent have the least amount of money, and the kids with the most money have the least talent. Face it, to be in the big league in the equestrian world you need lots of money. And, yes, they’re are exceptions, but they’re few and far between.

  9. I think each of these riders are complaining about the same thing. Children coming up now are coached, taught, instructed ALL THE TIME. The difference between now and then is that then, riders rode alone, in the field, on the road and on whatever they could find. I remember jumping barbed wire, metal barrels, and cattle guards and doing it on a horse, bareback and in a halter. No children now are allowed to do that. We have become a society of scaredy cats. Safety at all costs. You see it in our airports, our cities and in our children’s sport. I don’t think we can turn back the clock to a time where Americans weren’t so concerned about safety at the price of freedom and independence but it would be nice if we could.

  10. I wonder what Reed and Teri Kessler think of Katie calling them “fearful talentless amateurs”. Maybe Katie should put her fork down and get back on s horse.

  11. Katie is absolutely right. Amateurs took riding jobs from professional riders. Money, money money. It’s a generation of giving losers a trophy also so their feelings aren’t hurt.
    George puts more sophisticated. He has charm when he insults people. He’s a master manipulator. He is the best at every aspect.

  12. Yes, Culture. BUT – what is the harm? Are we all just jealous we don’t have trust funds? One can show less expensively or go the A circuit, depending on your budget. They can all be fun, rewarding, and great learning experiences. I really don’t understand the harm here, unless it is the thinking that hard-working “poor” riders don’t get a shot. That’s the way life is – didn’t everyone as a child want to go to Hollywood and become an actor? Life is tough and it has limitations, why would the horse world be any different? It’s a business, like everything else.

  13. What George points to is truly the problem and it’s not just in the horse world. This however is the only sport where you can purchase your talent, experience and expertise. The deeper your pockets are the more you can get. As he states correctly the desire, commitment and will to truly do right by the horse and learn the correct way is mostly absent. It’s all about instant gratification, unfortunately at the expense of the horse. Unlike your smart phone or tablet your horse doesn’t stay programmed if you ask the wrong question too many times and expect the right answer. And at some point the horse cannot do it anymore than there isn’t enough knowledge evern with a lot of trainers to fix it and it’s time to move on to the next horse. This is where the knowledge George is talking about is missing because we are loosing the ability to make horses. They are amazing animals and we need to get better at doing right by them.

  14. I agree with the gist of what most of you are saying. The culture now is geared towards being as risk free as possible. It’s very worrying for equestrian sports of all disciplines. If you ride much, you are going to fall, and if you want to ride well, your are going to fall harder and more often as you learn. It’s part of getting good at this game and developing a deep tool bag of skills you can bring to bear on any horse. Not just the pushbutton packer. Cushioning people from this reality doesn’t serve them well for the long term. As soon as their experience level is challenged they have nothing more to bring. So they want another easier horse. Dealers get rich. Horses get tossed on the scrap heap.

    What frightens me the most is this whole risk averse and promote self-esteem at all costs (when nothing has been done to warrant it) has seeped into the culture completely. I don’t know why or how it happened. But it is a nightmare. In terms of the future of the country, I shudder to think if people were called on to fight a life and death war, as our parents and grand parents did. They had guts, they had respect and the ability to not put their own self interest first. Do we?

  15. I think the best always rise to the top. There are young riders with no money being sponsored. They seem to take a lot of gaffe over it too. It is a plan for them, as they will never find a proper mount on a limited budget. A lot of American thoroughbreds wind up being thrown away (literally). I liked it when I used to see some very keen but underfunded young rider find one and turn it into a beautiful show horse. No more. But basically, I agree with Katie. I see riders every day who not only can’t tack their horse up, they forget to tighten their girth.

  16. I’ve been waiting so long to see what this exact conversation would look like. Whoa–more intense than I could have imagined.
    Where does the horse-lust come into play? Is a little rich girl’s love for horses less genuine than a little girl who’s a barn rat and mucks stalls for lessons? Some of these rich young amateurs have also graduated from Ivy League schools (a different kind of tough).

    Maybe we should look to other disciplines like dressage-great, Debbie McDonald, we were pals at 13 yrs old. She was one determined kid, and not a lot of money.

    I also remember the days of Susie Hutchinson and Anne Kursinski before warmbloods were even in the mix–talk about riding anything. It was very exciting to watch!! The expensive horses of today’s culture will still get into a lot of trouble if their riders put them there, so from an older wanna-be’s perspective, there are no wimps in that level of show jumping.

    Not to sound totally PC, but it’s all true. We boomers have to face it, not to use the Springsteen’s as an example, but it’s like classic rock, there’s never going to be anything like it again, and it’s hard to accept.

  17. To bring a larger perspective that has been in play for a longer time (many generations,) let us not forget the impact of an ever growing population. Land becomes more expensive and development eats up the broad swaths that are truly necessary for an equestrian-friendly lives. Our horses have less turnout area, riders must commute farther and in heavier traffic, so availability is reduced for all.

    In that same vein, horse show facilities have become more crowded in every way, and what is “natural” to the horse is eroding.

    The flip side to “dumbing down” is the creation of more opportunities for horses and riders to compete at their comfort level. Plenty of what Katie says is true, but it was being said always from one generation to the next, as George pointed out.

    Just my two cents.

  18. “Pussyfied”??? While I agree mostly with George’s commentary, the use of such a vulgar and derogatory word diminishes what he is trying to say. Instead it shows him to be sexist, chauvinistic and caught in an era long gone when society thought such words acceptable. Poor journalism on your part to choose to quote that and perpetuate the myth that women are weak

  19. I disagree that all the young riders of today do not take the time to learn and grow as a horse person and that they lack toughness. I agree there are allot of wealthy spoiled kids out there, but there are still a few that dig in and do not accept defeat. I also agree the sport is for the wealthy and many trainer’s today are about the bottom line and not promoting the sport they cater to the client’s that will spend anything asked.
    I am a parent of a 14 year old daughter who is a wonderful equestrian. Her father and I have sacrificed everything for her to have horses and show, but even with all we do it’s not enough. We took our retirement to buy her her dream horse last year which was still a budget work in progress at that. My daughter worked so hard to ready the horse and after 8 months they w
    were winning everything in EQ. Unfortunately after hock injections it became infected and $30,000 in medical bills later the horse had to be put down. We had her fully insured but they refused to pay because it was a result of the hock injections. The end result $110,000 + loss. The emotional loss for our daughter was much more. We could not afford a new horse for her but she found ways. The unfortunate truth is a wealthy kid would have just bought anothe and moved on..
    My daughter took a working student job in Ocala at a sale barn 2 hours from our home. I drove her 4 hrs a day 7 days a week she worked from 9:00-6:00 pm. After 5 months and circuit starting soon she and I rented an RV so she could work more. Her day started at 7:30 cleaning stalls, feeding and riding 9-13 horses a day. She finished at 7:00pm back to RV to do school work till 1:00AM and do it all over again. Why did she do this? To have the opportunity to ride multiply horses and soak up all she could.
    We are back home and she is working for a local trainer schooling imported babies. This experience has taught her so much as well and her riding has grown.
    It is unfortunate that these kids are over looked because of lack of funds. I look at all the sports that a child from poor means can ride and bring themselves out of poverty because of opportunities, why can’t the Equiestrian community do the same? There are plenty of kids that are tough and willing to work and learn unfortunately they will never be seen .

  20. Sad, but a talented rider with no money still has to be in the right place to be scouted by a (great) professional. Otherwise, they get chewed up and spit out as working students or grooms by the sadistic “professionals” that churn through staff on a regular basis.
    All of these professionals are right.

  21. Beautiful, until you consider, Mr. Morris was born with the traditional Silver Spoon…
    he was not a bold, gifted child rider who would ride anything with four legs.
    His riding career may never have happened without the considerable cash input by his parents.
    So we are not comparing two identcal view points ….

  22. Riding horses was my ticket to a better life. Was first schooled by Harrison Wilson, Benny O’Meara’s first teacher. Have MS, now operate Fair Hill Therpeutic Riding Center. Let’s talk about how to reinvigorate ‘heart’ -feeling – horsemanship into the riding world
    Like · R

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  24. i guess it is in your mind – pussy for me is a cat, pussified is making something softer, more kitten like. Chris Hector

  25. What’s going on in the show jumping world is what’s going on in almost every endeavor in the world. Kids, particularly American kids, are not being given the experience of failing. All the kids on a losing team (soccer, football, etc.) get “Participation Trophies” just for playing. The winning team members get the same thing. Kids need to learn that failure at something is not a disgrace or a disaster, but a learning experience. But there will always be those kids who want it so badly that they’ll do whatever it takes to succeed. They’ll muck stalls and groom in exchange for lessons.
    They’ll ride whatever comes along–trained, green, tough-to-ride, crazy, and they’ll do well because they want it so much. That’s where tomorrow’s stars will come from, and that’s precisely where today’s stars cam
    e from. There will always be riders whose parents were able to pave the way for them by buying them the best horses and sending them to the best instructors, but they won’t make it unless they have that drive and that talent that has marked nearly all of our top riders today.

  26. George is spot on with this and I agree with some of what Katie says as well. This is essentially the difference between the riders in my generation (and prior) and the riders today. The trend is not new; it had its beginnings in the late 70s when riders with considerably less skill (and courage) but more financial resources began buying completely trained (“made”) horses. In prior generations, we rode whatever was available and did the training ourselves, improving our skills and courage as we learned and worked with the help of a professional instructor. Today, trainers do this job for a significant fee. Equestrian sports on a competitive level are not and have never been available to the average Jack or Jill. This is the primary reason I left the sport in my early 20s. There are other competive sports which provide that bold-ass adrenalin rush without the advantages or disadvantages of an unfair economic platform. Triathalons, ultra marathoning are excellent examples. In short, to compete with the best, it has always been a sport for the privileged. Many of us were simply too “poor”, though we absolutely had the courage and the skills to compete with the best of privileged.

  27. This is so true , and it also has the views of the different parties involved today. Which is the same throughout the entire world. Money Talks. Views from the old days when you rode what you had , because that’s All you had . And views from the money side . Where you rode what you wanted to ride because you could. Yes Things Have Definitely Changed…

  28. I completely agree with George’s comments. I see that all the time in my *old* pony club, where not only the trainers/instructors baby the kids, but the parents baby them and try to get in the way of the teaching. Being raised the way I was, I always knew to always push, and drive. That is why I will do so much better with trainers who push me and are somewhat mean, to a point. I like the ones who will yell at you, but not out of meanness, but trying to help you. It is all just opinion though!

  29. Mavis Spencer will be in that category with legends. She rode OTTB growing up and her parents bought her only one horse. She’s worked her tail off as a groom for years because her parents don’t pay her way. Stop by her barn at the show and you will see her mucking stalls, bathing horses, etc.

  30. A worthwhile discussion. I addressed this in my novel Catch Rider, not in terms of tough v. soft instruction, or rich v. poor, but in terms of knowing how to take care of the whole horse and how to do any barn work required. Some of my best memories are of washing horses at the end of the day, cleaning tack and telling stories with other riders, watering at night, learning how to give shots and holding horses for the vet and farrier. If you’re a rider who has someone doing this for you, offer to help next time. You’ll learn, become a better rider, gain the respect of the workers in the barn, and you’ll have fun.

  31. I loved both articles and thought it was great to hear some real words and strong ones! I do not think of Katie calling all riders fearful or talentless she is simply stating that the sport has in some ways started to cater to them. She is also saying that it is truly difficult to call yourself a great rider or continue successfully at the highest level if you haven’t had to deal with issues along the way. If you haven’t taken a difficult horse and “made” him or her but have only ridden top horses you come from a different background and approach when riding, and that is all– and the true greats have “made” horses whether the horses started capable or not.

  32. Money has always and will always have a place in the sport of show jumping .. If you don’t have it, you most likely will have a tougher time remaining and thriving in the sport, even if you have the raw talent, courage and ambition. If, on the other hand, you have the means, you can keep at the sport for a very long time, you can afford the great horses, you can train with the best trainers, you can get your ribbons. I have always witnessed the ‘money’ thing in the equestrian world, ever since I was a kid who hopped on a horse and started taking lessons .. there were the wealthy set and then there was the rest of us … I feel like it was one of the first lessons I ever learned in class, it wasn’t subtle, it was real, it was sort of a bummer to sense this disadvantage at such a young age …however, the lack of money did inspire those without it to work harder, to learn more, to achieve, just to prove themselves worthy competitors … some of these riders have gone on to make it in a very big way, these are the individuals we likely most respect and admire – something about character … we know the role money plays in the sport, and how money can make you soft and skew your priorities. Money is in the sport and so are it’s influences .. remove it, and riders would be tougher, they would have to be .. it would bring out the better parts of our nature … It should be about the love of horses and the sheer joy of experiencing the bond of horse and rider and what all the hard work can eventually bring … not what money can buy …

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