Coach, Trainer and Cheerleader, Leslie Morse Gives It Her All

Sunday, August 19, 2018
Posted by Kelly Sanchez

Lelie Morse

Leslie Morse

Competitors at Southern California’s recent Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC) in Del Mar were treated to a familiar face volunteering at the in-gate: Leslie Morse. On hand to coach a couple of horse-and-rider combinations, the five-time FEI World Cup finalist, five-time U.S. National Champion, and WEG team bronze medalist gladly jumped in to help check bits and serve as a ring steward. For Leslie, who proudly considers herself a product of America’s dressage system, it’s all part of giving back to the sport she loves.

Leslie may be best known in international competition for the Grand Prix Freestyle she performed with her stallion Kingston to the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean (a routine retired FEI judge Axel Steiner calls one to “cherish”), but riders of all levels have come to rely on her experience and expertise as a clinician and teacher. It’s a new chapter that she’s embraced.

The Art of "The Feel"

“I’m probably best with people who are trying to get the feel of riding,” she says. “They already have a seat and a foundation, and they’re wanting to collect their horses and ride them through. Others might teach you how to do the tricks, but the art of the feel is what makes the movements beautiful.”

Whether she’s criss-crossing Southern California for lessons or traveling out of state to give three-day clinics, she sees herself as a problem-solver above all. “I love working with riders and their instructors to zero in on how they can improve. Working on one issue can translate to four different movements. My job is to listen and watch.”

Two years ago amateur rider Lynda Palmer purchased the American-bred mare Tip Top’s Kiki, sired by Leslie’s Swedish stallion Tip Top 962 (her dam sire is Kingston). The pair did well, winning the Dressage Association of Southern California championship at Third Level, but Palmer wasn’t satisfied with their scores, which hovered in the low 60s. “I was stuck, and we were having a lot of trouble with the half pass.”

So Palmer reached out to Leslie for a lesson. “Leslie watched me ride and then she got on Kiki to see what was going on, and in one lesson she’d identified our problem areas and put together a plan. She’s really good at breaking things down.”

Using her occasional sessions with Leslie to augment work with her regular trainer, Palmer and Kiki brought their scores up in just a few months’ time—the pair earned a 69.8 percent and were reserve champions at Third Level at this month’s RAAC.

“And we went from 5s on the half pass to 7s,” Palmer says. “Leslie brings something really unique to the table—from the mental approach behind showing and training to thinking about everything you do in the show ring. With Leslie, every step counts.”

Proving Her Worth

Leslie’s life has revolved around horses for almost as long as she can remember. Growing up near Los Angeles, her first horse was a $650 Appaloosa named Sunspots, “aka “Sunny.”

“Until I was 12, I fell off every day,” Leslie says with a grin. “But I learned unconditional love for the horse. You take care of them on good days as well as bad. You show up. You’re everything to them—psychologist, doctor, nutritionist, and you need to be involved in every aspect of their lives, from the inside out.”

Her parents weren’t horsey, but they supported their daughter’s growing passion, and soon her mom began riding. “When Sunny needed a new blanket, my dad didn’t get lamb chops that week,” Leslie remembers. “My mom would say they didn’t have any at the store.”

Cory Walkey, who had founded two successful riding clubs before building Southern California’s Mill Creek Equestrian Center in 1971, briefly taught Leslie when she was just a youngster. She says that even then, she knew she was seeing something special.

Leslie went on to ride with the Tarzana Pony Club and found herself specializing in the problem horses, earning the nickname “The Tick” because she never came off. Along the way, she worked with local trainers and did clinics. Hilda Gurney petitioned to allow a 14-year-old Leslie to participate in a USET clinic with Col. Bengt Lundquist, who’d led the U.S. dressage team to a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics.

After high school, Leslie left California to study psychology at the University of Kentucky, but horses beckoned and she left after a year.

“I’d gone to Kentucky with one horse and came home with two,” she says. “My parents didn’t think horses could make me a good living, but my dad told me if I was going to stick with it, I’d better find a discipline where you only need one horse. So I picked dressage. I was trying to be economical.”

In search of a job, she showed up at Mill Creek and told Walkey, “You need a dressage instructor, and I’d like to work here. I would be good for your business.” She was just 21.

Learning With Leslie

Learning with Leslie

Learning with Leslie

Leslie laughs at the memory. “Cory said she didn’t need a dressage instructor, so I told her I’d prove it and work for free. That was my motto: I will work for free to earn my worth. And if you like me, you will pay me.”

Walkey quickly discovered what a valuable asset Leslie was and brought her on staff. “I was doing the jumpers and cross-country, and Leslie was doing all the dressage,” Walkey says. “We were a formidable team.”

“I’d never taught children before,” Leslie recalls. “Slowly but surely I developed a program, and we had thirty kids going to dressage shows and events. It was so much fun. I’d ride the horses while the kids were in school so they would learn something when they got on.”

“Leslie worked her tush off, and she was great with the kids,” Walkey says. “She’s a brilliant teacher. A lot of people can teach, but they’re not clear. Leslie’s very clear and very concise. And she’ll tell you what you need to do, not what you’re doing wrong.”

Patricia Kinnaman, who hired Leslie to work at her Los Angeles Equestrian Center training business Van Dahn International, where she became Kinnaman’s partner, and later at the Traditional Equitation School (TES), agrees. “She never puts a horse or a rider down. There’s no intimidation with Leslie, only inspiration.”

At Van Dahn, Leslie had 50 horses in training, and riders ranging from beginners to talented up-and-comers like a young Kristina Harrison. Leslie taught them all—ponies, kids, young riders, adult amateurs. “Leslie was always able to turn around the most difficult horses, and the trainers admired her for that,” Kinnaman adds. “We had one horse who was a rearer, but never with Leslie. She took that horse to win her first National Championship. She has a gift.”

Leslie smiles. “I could always see a diamond in the rough.”

She looks at the whole picture when working with horses and riders, considering everything from rider position to equine nutrition. It’s all about building a strong base to build on. “For me, the most important thing is what’s the first problem to fix,”she says. “It’s like building a house: If you look at a cosmetic problem rather than what’s wrong with the foundation, the house will fall down. You have to know what the problem is.”

Lessons with Kyra

Riding with the Finnish Olympian Kyra Kyrklund had been a dream of Leslie’s, and after she and Kingston were crowned Intermediaire I National Champions in 2001, she received a U.S. Equestrian Team grant, and the pair traveled to Kyrklund’s training barn in England.

“I thought I knew dressage, but this was a whole new education for me,” Leslie says. “Moving up to Grand Prix at an international level, on an international stage, and to do it with purpose—Kyra did that. She took me back to the basics: how to make small steps, how a horse should feel off your seat bones, when to use your seat bones. You think you’re sitting light in the saddle? It’s not light enough.”

While in England, she watched Kyrklund work with Tip Top, a three-time winner of the Swedish Young Horse Championship. “He was the total opposite of Kingston, but I fell in love with him. But he wasn’t for sale.”

Leslie persisted, and Kyra finally relented. She stayed on in England for about six months and then brought “TT” home to California in 2003. And then the unthinkable happened. “I couldn’t get him on the bit. He was very hard to ride, and I wasn’t soft enough. I couldn’t get him to go; he’d just stand still. It was so embarrassing. He was so opinionated—just the complete opposite of Kingston.”

Again she persisted, and the following year they won the national championships at Prix St. Georges. “It took a good solid year to get the two of us together, and then there was no stopping us.”

Giving Back

Leslie believes in taking her time to understand the horses she works with so that she can develop each one’s natural abilities. “Boundaries and freedom work together. I’ve always given my horse a lot of freedom within certain flexible boundaries. Within the Training Scale, I let them express themselves.

“Dressage doesn’t have to be complicated,” she adds. “I try to simplify dressage for the rider as well as the horse. If I tell the horse, Go, and he bucks, I go with it. He showed a reaction, so you start with that. Everything has to be rewarded—positive rewards are the most powerful tool a rider has. That’s always been my hallmark.”

For Leslie, the beauty of this stage in her career is the ability to diversify and work with riders of any age and experience level and bring them to the standard she’s spent her life learning. Before she heads off for another lesson, she pauses. “This is an important chapter in my life. I love dressage, and there’s so much I want to share to keep the sport strong and help it grow.

“I came up through Pony Club, where we learned to become horsemen,” she adds. “Later the USEF sent me and people like Debbie McDonald, Robert Dover, and Guenter [Seidel] to Europe to work with top trainers, and we had the privilege of representing our country. Now it’s about giving back.”