BY JON PORTEOUS
There is a man in the U.S. who is known nationally and worldwide as one of the most prominent figures in equestrian sport. He has competed and coached at the very highest level of the sport of showjumping for a very long time. He has won an Olympic medal, his students have won more Grand Prix and prizes than can be counted. There is not a single USET show jumper who would say this man did not influence them in some way, great or small.
He has written multiple books and articles, upheld (as they should be) as the best in the horse world. He is brilliant. A masterful rider, idol for many. He has earned the respect of many for his intelligence. His brilliance. His success.
I have personally met him on a few occasions. I’ve taken lessons from him, and we talked about various and sundry things. He gave me advice, inspired me to keep trying to get better. The fact that he would recognize me at the horse shows and talk to me on occasion was a big honor to me. It made me feel like I could be someone.
Nothing should change these facts. What he has taught about riding and horses is invaluable. He is one of the most brilliant equestrians ever. Nothing can take that away from him.
This man, of course, is George H. Morris.
There is a man in the U. S., a member of the equestrian community, who has committed actions that are sad, dishonorable, hurtful and wrong. Although not acknowledged by many people, the wrongs were still done. People have been hurt by these actions. Mentally hurt. Emotionally hurt. Hurt on levels it is hard for most of us to even comprehend.
We do not know why this man did these things; it could have been any number of things. He could have been deeply hurt himself, or maybe he wasn’t. We must hope that he will come to terms with what he did and why so he can have some personal process of growth. But that desire for his own growth, a strong respect for him, or even a liking should not stop us from acknowledging his wrongs.
For too long, these actions were kept quiet. Some who knew didn’t say, some who suspected ignored, and some just didn’t know. But, thankfully, that time is over. This man has been permanently banned by the U.S. Center for Safe Sport through a well outlined, due process.
This decision is a good thing. It clearly shows that what he did is wrong, unacceptable. It sets a standard of zero tolerance for such behavior in others. In doing so, it hopefully protects and helps—even heals—victims while also helping to prevent similar acts from happening anywhere in our sport in the future.
I personally am only slightly acquainted with this man. I am not a victim, but I heard the rumors. I, like most other people, just ignored or even accepted these things. “That’s just the way it is,” I would say.
For me to say that was wrong. What he did was wrong; to ignore and even accept rumors of such actions is to validate them. That is unacceptable. I am chastised by the fact that I did worse than nothing. I am grateful that somebody actually did speak up.
No matter how brilliant this man is, no matter what else he has done, no matter how many other people he has truly helped, it does not mean that he didn’t do these things. The decision by the Center for Safe Sport to make this man permanently ineligible is the consequence of these actions. That is indisputable. Nothing can change the fact that he did these grievous deeds; nothing can change the fact that they are wrong.
This man, of course, is George H. Morris.
So what are we supposed to do when our idol has fallen? How do we deal with such a contradiction? I would say that the best way forward is to work to avoid these two: division and denial.
Already there has been a lot of both of those things. People have divided over whether he is Morris the master or Morris the molester. They have argued. People on all sides have said hurtful things. They are rubbing salt in an already oozing wound. Such arguments have led to no conclusion. No healing. Nothing.
To stop this division within the community, we must stop the denial—in both directions. We cannot deny anything Morris has done, both the wonderful and the wrong. We also cannot deny that this issue has led to division. We cannot pretend that nothing happened, business as usual.
We have to have this discussion, and acknowledge the two truths that are George Morris. We must set a culture of unity, respect, growth and zero tolerance for any behavior that is hurtful towards horses or people. In doing so, we will eventually grow together—stronger.
Will I still read GHM’s books? Most definitely, yes. Will I still watch videos of him riding and teaching? Most certainly. Will I still be in awe of his achievements? Yes.
Will I hide the fact that he did incredibly wrong and hurtful things? By no means. If people ask about him, will I tell them that he is banned, and why he’s banned? Yes. Do I support the ban? Yes.
I will do everything in my power to stop such abuse. I will read, think about, and discuss the Safe Sport process. While I don’t think it is flawless, I will continue to think, reflect and discuss how to improve, grow and strengthen our sport. Follow the truth, learning, and never ignoring. That is what I try very hard to do.
As members of the equestrian community we are all striving, I hope, to be excellent, well rounded horsemen. As horsemen we should put the interests of the horse at the forefront. We should be teachable. Eager to learn. Hard working. Respectful. Kind. Honest. We should never ignore wrong.
We seek the ultimate goal of connection with another living, breathing creature—the horse. By striving towards these goals, we will improve ourselves as human beings. That is the incredible blessing of horses. We owe horses a huge debt.
I think the secret to repaying that debt is to acknowledge that the way to be a good horseman is to be a good human. The two should be inseparable; they are symbiotic. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve still got a ton of work to do in this regard. Situations like this make things even harder to navigate, but I owe it to the good horses and people in my life to try.
Through missteps, hard discussions and introspection, I’m going to work on myself joyfully. Because true, good horsemanship symbiotically intertwined with doing the right thing is a beautiful goal.
Jonathan Porteous has been a working student in hunter/jumper barns for the last three years. He’s incredibly thankful for all the horses, and people, with whom he gets to interact, learn from, and connect.