California is normally where you’d look for Leslie Morse, but this year she decided to take her Grand Prix stallions, Kingston and Tip Top 962, to Florida.
With only five days to acclimate, Morse brought both horses out at the Gold Coast Opener CDI***, Jan. 21-23 in Wellington, Fla., for impressive results. She won the Grand Prix Special with Kingston (69.96%) and took second and third in the Grand Prix with Tip Top (69.20%) and Kingston (67.20%), respectively.
As a reserve for the Athens Olympic team, Morse competed in Europe last fall, and then she gave her horses a break when she returned home to Malibu, Calif. But as she started to prepare for the spring shows, she realized she needed another qualifying score at a CDI for Tip Top to qualify for the U.S. Freestyle championship, to be held in California in April.
“That made me start thinking about coming to Florida,” said Morse. “I have two wonderful Grand Prix horses, and I should go out and show them, take advantage of this. You wait your lifetime for this opportunity.”
Morse packed her bags and flew everybody to Robert Dover’s Romance Farm in Wellington. “We’ve been friends for more than 20 years,” said Morse of Dover. “He’s coached me. He’s seen my horses, he knows how they go, he knows how I ride. It’s wonderful to have an eye on the ground, and I feel very comfortable there.”
Kingston is far more experienced at Grand Prix, but it was the greener Tip Top who settled in easily, finishing second to Dover on his Olympic partner FBW Kennedy (70.16%).
“Tip Top is growing up,” said Morse enthusiastically. “For his third or fourth Grand Prix, he was really good.” The 11-year-old Swedish Warmblood won the Intermediaire I Championships (Calif.) last June, and this year will be his first full season at Grand Prix.
“He was secure in the areas of the test that he is confident, in like the half-passes. The passage was wonderful and so were the extensions,” said Morse. “The one tempis, they’re still green. The pirouettes were good but not great. He got a little wiggly on the centerline after the pirouette.”
Even with the small bobbles, Tip Top outdid Kingston for whom the first time back in the show ring proved to be a bit over-whelming.
“He’s the type of horse that needs to go to shows,” explained Morse. “There were horses everywhere, and that’s a bit of a difficult situation for Kingston. It takes him a couple shows to realize that all these horses are not there just to look at him.”
He focused for the Grand Prix Special on the following day, relaxing and remembering he was there to show. “The Special was the best dressage I’ve ever done,” enthused Morse. “Kingston’s passage was off the ground and animated, and he was light and came right into piaffe. We got 9s from the judges.”
Morse did struggle with the one tempis in both Kingston’s tests. She explained, “I just lost my concentration and my timing was off.”
Riding two horses at Grand Prix can be quite a challenge when they are as different as Kingston and Tip Top. “Kingston has a big ego. He’s very much a show-off,” said Morse with a laugh. “He wants everyone to look at him. I have to empower Tip Top. He’s just a little more inside himself whereas Kingston is outwardly everything and wears his heart on his sleeve.”
One To Watch
Heather Bender is another relative newcomer to Florida. She moved from California three years ago to train with Olympians Michael Poulin and Carol Lavell and work on pursuing her goal of the 2008 Olympics.
“It takes time to make such a big move, but it’s such an amazing team to have in my corner,” said Bender of Poulin and Lavell. “I feel like they’re 100 percent behind me and are really helping me get ready for Grand Prix. It’s more consistent guidance and help than I’ve ever had before.”
Bender and Winwood won the CDI Intermediaire I class (68.15%) and the Intermediaire freestyle (70.20%) as well as placing second in the Prix St. Georges (69.20%).
“The Prix St. Georges on a good day is never going to be my strong test,” said Bender with a laugh. “Winwood is too bored in the Prix St. Georges. He really shines when things get harder.”
Bender has owned the 10-year-old, Hanoverian gelding since he was 3, training him herself. Bender got her start as a trick rider in California and competed in barrel racing and jumping before she settled into dressage.
“I’ve never had a made horse. I’ve brought all my horses all the way up,” said Bender, who purchased Winwood from Debbie McDonald. “He was kind of a red-headed child. He was full of himself as a kid, and it took me a little while to get him on the ground, but now he’s doing great.”
Bender described her first ride as conservative. “I didn’t have him as in front of me as I should have,” she said. “But I felt really good about my go at Intermediaire I. It looks pretty polished this year. Last year I was just hoping I’d survive, not have a blow-up or something.”
The excitable Winwood put in a forward test with 9s on his extended walk and trot. “I could get 8s on his pirouettes if I could canter down there and do them twice. It’s just a matter of getting them more consistent,” said Bender.
She rode her Intermediaire freestyle to music composed by Hollywood musician Eric Bikales. Bender does the choreography and gives him a theme, and then he composes individual music for each of her horses. For Winwood it was a jazz and blues medley.
“I had to try and figure out how to make it really tough,” said Bender of her freestyle. “Winwood does better with the harder movements. He does extended canter into pirouettes. I do a half-pass to a counter-canter 10-meter circle to a change to a counter-canter 10-meter circle to a half-pass out.”
Practicing those difficult movements is paying off as Bender is already looking toward Grand Prix with Winwood. She explained, “He’s in that limbo year where he’s not going to be seriously competitive at Grand Prix, but the work is all there. I don’t want to push him too fast, but it’s exciting because he could do it. I’m trying to play my cards right and make sure he gets the right foundation.”
For Alison Faso, a win at first level was as exciting as any FEI class in her first season in Florida. She won open first level, test 1, with Kathy Oldford’s Detruchels (74.81%).
“It gives you a really good idea to come to Florida and see how you’re doing on a national level,” said Faso. “The competition is so much stronger; you have true professionals down here.”
A native of Atlanta, Ga., Faso, 29, decided that this was her year to raise the stakes and move beyond her local show scene. She worked with Michelle Gibson over the summer and picked up and moved to Florida with her for the winter.
“It was a big risk, but it’s one of those things where you have to take the jump,” explained Faso. “I was stuck, I was going to be a local trainer in Atlanta. I could show FEI, but I wasn’t satisfied.”
Faso brought three horses to Wellington, including “Deeter,” her own horse May Day, and another horse for a client. She has continued to work with Gibson at Dick and Terri Kane’s Diamante Farm.
Deeter, a 7-year-old Oldenburg, was imported from the Netherlands last summer for Oldford, who will take over the ride at the next show.
“He’s just an all around super horse,” said Faso. “It was just one of those tests where he was right there with me. He was straight on his centerlines, he had nice bend in his corners and he was super-responsive. It was a moment where you could actually take a breath in the test and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Bill Warren is another professional trying to get a jump on the season by relocating to sunnier climates. He rode Pineland Farm’s Romantic to a win at third level, placing first in test 3 (71.11%) and second in test 2 (69.52%).
Although it’s Romantic’s first season at third level, he showed poise and confidence. “He’s very solid in his rhythm,” said Warren. “His medium and extended gaits score well as do his flying changes.”
He also praised Romantic’s willingness to go forward. But he focused on the things that need to get better. “I want to improve on the collection, strengthen him and get him more supple in his lateral work,” he explained.
He and his partner Bill McMullen spend half their time in North Smithfield, R.I. and then move to Loxahatchee, Fla., for the colder months.
Romantic, 7, was imported from the Netherlands two years ago. Warren placed fourth with him in the 6-year-old division of the USEF/Markel Young Horse Dressage National Championships (Ky.).
“He’s an honest and hard working horse,” said Warren. “My hope is to move him up the levels as quickly as I can without jeopardizing his good attitude and his physical well-being.”