Mar 16, 2019

The End of an Era: Morris Reflects on her Role at USEF

By Leslie Mintz - USEA Staff
USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

The U.S. Team just stepped on the podium at a major competition, maybe an emerging athlete just cleared the last jump of her first CCI4*-S, or a U.S. rider just returned from a successful trip abroad. The riders will be congratulated, the horses will be praised, the owners thanked – but for the last seven years these accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible without the behind-the-scenes work of Joanie Morris, Managing Director of Eventing for US Equestrian (USEF).

Morris took on the role at the end of 2012 and guided the U.S. team through an Olympics, two World Equestrian Games, a Pan American Games, and numerous Nations Cups. The Managing Director of Eventing oversees all USEF programs related to eventing; serves as the lead liaison to the Eventing Sport Committee; manages the Elite Eventing programs and oversees the Development programs; manages the team selection process; prepares and manages the eventing budget; and oversees logistics and selection for team and individual funded travel – all in all not a small job. Morris has decided to hang up her stirrups as Managing Director after seven years in the position she said was “an incredible privilege.”

For Morris – as it does for so many horse crazy girls – her path to becoming the Managing Director of Eventing all began with a naughty pony. Morris grew up in a non-horsey family and begged to take riding lessons. When she was 10 years old her family moved to England for her dad’s job. “We leased a pony over there and she was a jumping pony, but she was pretty game to do anything, so I started eventing her since my school had an eventing team,” said Morris. “She would always stop once at the water and then she would jump it. That is where I sort of got the bug. It was really fun, and I was just immersed in it.”

Joanie Morris competing at The Fork Horse Trials in 2017. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

After returning to the U.S. Morris went to the 1998 North American Young Rider Championships on Brian Boru II – a horse she leased with the support of her parents – and finished in 17th in the one-star. She was then a working student for Mark Weissbecker and Suzi Gornall in Area I. On a trip to Aiken, S.C. with Gornall, Morris saw Phillip Dutton and his team often in the area. “I thought that was the next level and I wanted to see what it was about,” explained Morris. “I wrote Phillip and Evie [Dutton] a letter and asked them if I could come be a working student for two weeks and then I just sort of never left.” Morris went from being a working student to grooming and traveling with Dutton. She transferred to the University of Delaware to continue her college degree while working for Dutton and competing her own horses. “I had some horrible luck with my own horses – one got hurt and one died of an aneurysm at his third event. All of the sudden I went from thinking I was going to ride at the Olympics to having no horses.”

Morris didn’t let her luck get her down though and she stuck it out in the industry – galloping racehorses, working for ST Publishing for Joe and Sean Clancy, even traveling to Saratoga Racetrack for a summer. “I just kept trying to build as many experiences as I could and meet as many people as I could,” Morris said.

In 2003 Morris was given an opportunity which would help get her closer to her position at the USEF. Will Faudree had been a working student for Dutton at the same time as Morris and when he was selected to ride for the U.S. Team at the 2003 Pan American Games, he asked Morris to groom for his wonderful horse, Antigua. The following year, Faudree and Antigua were selected as traveling alternates for the 2004 Olympics and Morris accompanied them once again. “Those were my first experiences with the U.S. Team since [Dutton] still rode for Australia when I worked for him,” explained Morris. “Because I was grooming the reserve horse in 2004 I had a lot of time on my hands, so I really started helping out Jim Wolf and his team at USEF.”

When a communications position opened up at the USEF in 2007, Morris accepted it and moved to Lexington, Ky. “I hit the ground running,” she said. “I went to the Pan Am games in Rio that summer. I got promoted and became the press officer and went to the Olympics the next year. Having that job and being involved with so many disciplines – I knew all of the eventing people really well, but all of the sudden I was there with people like McClain Ward, Beezie Madden, Anne Kursinski, Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald, and it just opened my eye eyes to so many different aspects of equestrian sport and I learned a tremendous amount doing that job and really, really enjoyed doing that job.”

Joanie Morris (far right) with the U.S. Team at the 2017 Great Meadow International Nations Cup. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

In 2012 Morris moved into the role of Managing Director of Eventing around the same time that David O’Connor took over as coach of the U.S. Team. She saw U.S. eventing through another major transition in 2017 when Erik Duvander took over as High Performance Director. There was a gap between O’Connor and Duvander and Morris added another feather to her cap as she acted as the chef d’equipe for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the Great Meadow International Nation’s Cup. “I always joke that I retired as the only chef with 100% strike rate because when the team came together and won at Great Meadow I was just so proud of them,” said Morris. “They came together and operated as a team and all helped each other. Every single one of them put in an awesome performance. That was a pretty special time for us and for the program.”

One of Morris’ proudest moments of her time as Managing Director came when Phillip Dutton won the individual bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. With Dutton being her past employer and longtime friend, it was a very special time, but Morris said it was even more extraordinary because of Dutton’s horse Mighty Nice. “Phillip winning his medal is something that everyone who was there will remember forever especially with that horse,” said Morris. “That horse was owned by Bruce Duchossois, and his friends all came together and bought him after Bruce passed away. [Mighty Nice] was Phillip’s reserve horse which a lot of people forget. It just goes to show that sometimes everything just aligns. You do all of your homework and your preparation, but luck or timing plays a part in it too. That was pretty special.”

While Morris remembered Dutton’s Olympic medal as a high point in her career, she also recalls her behind-the-scenes work with pride. “We get judged in public by medals and results, but it is the day-to-day small improvements with the horses, or with the riders, or the programs that you might not see immediate results with – but it is all those stepping stones that produce the results in the future. Whether it is seeing a young horse develop with a rider or a young rider someone who like Mia Farley who was 13 when she started in the Emerging Athlete Program and is now competing at the CCI4*-S with a horse she produced herself. I am just as proud of her as for some of the major results that the teams have achieved.”

Joanie Morris with Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin in the barns at the 2016 Olympics. Allen MacMillan Photo.

“I think we as a country while we have faced adversity and it certainly hasn’t all gone our way, I also think we have a lot to be proud of,” continued Morris. “We certainly face our adversity here differently than other countries because we are so big and spread out and have to go to Europe to compete against the Europeans. Those challenges are interesting and they are going to continue, but I also think there is a lot to look forward to and there are a lot of people dedicated to seeing it through and making it successful and I look forward to watching how the future unfolds.”

Although Morris has resigned effective April 1st, she still agreed to do the Pan American Games in August in order to give the U.S. team the best shot of qualifying for the Olympics. She also said that she won’t be moving too far from the industry as she has a farm in Kentucky and her husband, Richard Picken, has many eventing clients. In the meantime the USEF is actively looking for her replacement and Morris is working with Will Connell, USEF Director of Sports Programs, to make the transition as seamless as possible. Morris wants to make sure that her replacement knows how lucky they are to work with all of the volunteer leadership who she calls “heroes” due to their dedication to the sport. She said they work just as hard as USEF employees all while fitting it around their own full-time jobs. The day-to-day details are what really matters said Morris. The major events are culminations of all that work, but it is necessary to make sure that the athletes can focus on just performing their best. “The highs are really high and the lows are really low so you have to build yourself a good support system to ride those out,” said Morris. “You don’t ever want to feel like you are in it on your own.”

“This job has been an incredible privilege and I have not taken one moment of it for granted. Win, lose, or draw I have been very lucky to have developed some great relationships, and I hope that the next person has a similar experience,” concluded Morris.

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