Three years ago Leslie Morse dropped out of the spotlight. For the previous decade she’d been a top U.S. dressage rider, representing her country aboard Grand Prix stallions Kingston and Tip Top 962.
But after a full career, wherein he was twice named alternate to the Olympic team, Kingston colicked and died in 2010 at Morse’s Hidden Hills, Calif., farm. Tip Top retired to stud the following year, and Morse found herself with a stable full of babies and no established upper level horse in the wings.
So it came as a surprise to dressage fans at the Potomac Valley Dressage Association’s Dancing Horse Challenge in Bowie, Md., when this West Coast rider came down centerline on June 22. Those familiar with Morse’s career might’ve thought they’d been transported back in time when they saw her riding King’s Excalibur, an 8-year-old son of Kingston who closely resembles his father, to the powerful stallion’s freestyle music.
“I had the same feeling I had with Kingston on Excalibur,” said Morse. “He put his ears up, he put his smile on, and he passaged down the ramp. Now, when he got in, the lights shone in his eyes, and the people were there, and he was a little looky around the ring, but once he got in the ring he didn’t even care. He was just like Kingston. ‘They are waiting for me. I want to do this; I want to go there. I am taking you there.’ ”
What was Morse doing in Maryland with her young horse? Getting ready to leap back into the fray with not one but four international dressage prospects. She’s working with Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge Linda Zang, and she brought a group of horses she bred—two by Kingston and two by Tip Top. In addition to “X” (Kingston—Expertin B), Morse has the gelding’s full sister, 10-year-old King’s Ruby, 8-year gelding Tip Top’s Sterling (Tip Top 962—Weltana), and another 6-year-old mare by Tip Top with Kingston on the dam’s side.
Morse has stayed home over the last few years, breeding and training her young stock. She competed in a few Developing Horse classes, but she decided the time had come to start getting help now that they’re nearing Grand Prix.
“I really had to put in the due diligence in the past few years because they’re so young. So now was the time to get the judge’s eye,” she said. When Zang, a longtime friend of Morse’s, offered to host her for the summer, Morse jumped at the opportunity.
She packed her horses up, as well as adopted dog Rocky, and moved to Zang’s Idlewild Farm in Davidsonville, Md., in mid-May.
“This is the first plane ride these horses had. This is like we went from the cradle to out in the real world. This was a big trip for us!” joked Morse.
She plans to spend most of this year with Zang before heading to Europe to train with longtime mentor Kyra Kyrklund.
After her years on the international dressage circuit, Morse admitted that going back to breaking and training babies was tough, albeit rewarding.
“Grand Prix showing and competing is a little different than riding 5-year-olds at first level and second level,” she said. “It’s not just training them, it’s remembering all the stages that young horses go through. I’m being honest so that everybody out there knows it’s not easy.
“I got to watch them develop, and I got to be a part of my future horses,” she continued. “I really got to re-learn the basics, and it was hard for me. I kind of regressed in my riding and had to sort of rebuild back. When you ride young horses, it’s not the greatest thing for your riding. It doesn’t keep your riding as fine-tuned as riding top, international-level Grand Prix.”
But despite the quiet time, Morse couldn’t be more enthusiastic about her prospects. “My two stallions really stamped. Tip Tops look like Tip Top; Kingstons, they look like Kingston,” she said. “And mixing the two, when the world sees them you can really tell. Kingston throws his neck, he throws his face, and his offspring have his personality. When you add Tip Top’s elasticity and suppleness…I have received what I already had. And I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve improved upon, which is the goal of the breeder. I believe my younger horses truly are better than my older ones.”
Morse sold some horses along the way that weren’t the right size or didn’t look like they’d be international Grand Prix horses. King’s Cross, Kingston’s first son, is eventing in California with his junior rider, while others are doing dressage with amateur riders. But Morse has 12 of her own, including Tip Top, and she tracks every horse she’s sold.
“I always had the same goal: to create not just the next generation for myself, but a generation for America to be proud of,” said Morse.
One of those might be Brighton, a 3-year-old Kingston baby by embryo transfer out of Debbie McDonald’s Grand Prix superstar Brentina.
“The Thomases own him, and he’s growing up!” said Morse “He’s very large, and he’s getting big and strong, and he’s broke. They’re doing the right thing, taking their time.”
Morse stressed that she doesn’t put her young horses in serious training until they’re 5.
“They just get trail ridden, and they get a lot of strengthening exercises,” she said. “My horses grow late. You can’t push them too much when they’re young. You have to give them time to grow and develop. Usually my horses are behind the cusp and the curb at that age. And I don’t worry about it because my horses catch up very quickly.”
Morse has settled into a routine in Maryland, generally receiving two lessons a day from Zang. Initially, her mother, Aileen Morse, was planning to stay with her, but she fractured her shoulder on their second day in Maryland, so Leslie’s partner, Laura Petroff, took her home.
“She was helping too much and lost her balance,” said Leslie. “So now we FaceTime every night.”
Petroff is an attorney, with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., so the two catch up regularly when she travels to the East Coast.
“I have everything here. It’s a really fortunate situation,” said Leslie. “I feel really blessed. I’m learning so much, and we’re really getting a plan and a system down for each horse. It’s really fun to work with Linda and see the improvement.”
She’ll start off with some local shows and maybe aim for Dressage At Devon (Pa.).
“Time is ticking, so I’ve got to move fast,” said Leslie. “Next year we’ll be ready. Everyone else has Grand Prix horses, and mine are not quite. They’re really talented, and they can do everything, but…But I have a lot of experience, so that really helps. And Linda has an amazing eye. She just has a way of putting things together. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for anybody.”