An Industry of Influence

by Leslie Morse

American Dressage has spanned over more than a century of correct riding, excellent judging, World Championship and Olympic Medals, and excellent coaching that has brought us to its current state. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to be able to see the dressage world and horse industry evolve, take shape, and go up and down over the last 50 years. I have been able to ride and train with many great riders and coaches, and I have been able to see and ride the evolution of modern breeding and witness what it has done to the sport. I have been able to witness self-promotion and branding come from word of mouth to tens of thousands of likes on Instagram.

Having seen this evolution, I often ask myself, whatever happened to the days when good riding and good horsemanship beat out sparkling pads and well-produced TikToks? Where are the days that you were judged on your riding, and not whom you were riding with? Like much of the modern world, The dressage world has found itself in a state in which the next generation is looking for coaches based on their social media presence, not their scores in the ring. Riders are searching out judges as clinicians in hopes of better scores, not even understanding if they can tell you how to make that step an eight versus a seven, only knowing what makes it that score, and the pool of trainers in America is becoming so big that the quality of training is being lost. The influence which some people have in modern dressage has become so overpowering that our quality of riding, training, and competition has fallen by the wayside.

Leslie and TipTop 962 winning the 2006 CDIW Palm Beach Derby Grand Prix! Photo: SusanJStickle.com

The Shiny New Toy

Coming up as a young professional, I often sought out riders and trainers for help and advice, most of these people later became my colleagues, teammates, coaches, and friends. Through our work together as riders and trainers we always had mutual respect for the continuation of our riding educations, constantly sharing tips, riding each other›s horses, and theorizing about what we had seen, ridden, or even listened to on past occasions to apply to our current horses. When searching for a coach I always studied my prospective instructors, watching their every move, from their horse management to their hack days, to see if they were someone I wanted to emulate and learn from. One thing was always prominent in my selection of a coach and that was how they brought it all together in the ring, how they developed their horses overtime to bring them to the biggest stages, and how they produced medals, scores, and placings with their partner. I have found that this kind of “Homework” and study that I did on my trainers is no longer the number one priority. In today›s industry the next generation of riders is drawn to the slow-motion reel, or championship photo op, rather than the hours of training it took to get there. I have found that in all the eras I have ridden through, the social media era has been the most perplexing. My entire life›s work has been my horses, since the day I became a professional I have spent every day trying to make myself that much better than my competition and make sure I could stamp my legacy forever, to become one of those people I looked at when I was searching for a coach in hopes to be that person for someone else. With today›s social media influence, I am finding that people’s vision is being blurred by riders piaffing in the latest fashions on the internet rather than finding out how the horse and rider combination in that video was able to achieve their stunning piaffe. I feel that people today would rather see 100,000 likes instead of what it was like to ride in front of 100,000 people. Our issue is not one of lack of interest, but one of lack of direction for that interest.

Leslie and Kingston CDIW Palm Beach Derby 2005. Photo: SusanJStickle.com

King of The Castle

I have always had immense respect for every single judge I have ridden in front of. No matter how big or small the competition or location around the world, I have read every single comment for every score I have received. I find the education of a judge to be very fascinating, some were very good national Grand Prix riders, others Olympic medalists but all have a very in-depth education to put a numerical value to a movement. I have always enjoyed riding with judges outside of competition to better assess my horse›s progress, and to see if I can receive insight on how to gain optimal points. Like most things in riding and training, there are many moving pieces. I have always found that trainers develop steps while judges score them. With that being said, in my education I have learned from all, taking my time with a judge who scored for example my half-pass a 6, by asking them why I received that score, receiving the technical reasoning, and then bringing it to my trainer for collaboration in which my trainer would tell me things such as ‘you left the corner too late’ or ‘You lost the hind leg by the quarter line to which I would ride the movement having my trainer develop each step with me, to then re-check my progress with the judges. A working combination without ego, but rather to make my riding more complete. It is this collaborative work that helped me and so many other riders develop to such a high level. With that being said, judges are often sought out for training whether it be technical insight, horse and rider development, or simply curiosity, but in a very separate manner. As I said before trainers develop steps while judges add a numerical value to them, each has a distinct role in the whole of dressage, one not better than the other but as working parts to move towards perfection. I feel that we sometimes forget that riding with a judge does not boost your score, nor does riding with a trainer make you a master. We need everyone from every moving part whether you are sitting in the saddle or sitting in the judge›s box, the collaborative work towards your next test should always be a team effort.

But Still, We Rise

In dressage and in life there is always progression, our goal should always be to be constantly learning, and constantly finding ways to make ourselves, our horses, and our sport better. There have been many positive evolutionary things that have happened in American Dressage. The days of the negative and belittling trainers have for the most part diminished, and the animal welfare and regulations of good practices with our horses have been brought to the forefront of the sport. The constant educational opportunities offered by our US federations have increased immensely, giving me confidence that dressage will continue to thrive in this country. My hope is for continued education, to shift our attention from the social media influencers to the producers in the ring, take in their entire program from their farrier to their trainer, and educate yourselves constantly on every aspect of a winning formula, not just how it looks in the news. I hope to see more unified efforts between trainers, judges, instructors, and true riding masters come along in the effort to produce well-balanced and educated horses and riders. But as we all continue to make an impact on American Dressage, we must be cognizant of the influence we have on the development of our beloved discipline.

Leslie and ‘King’s Ruby’, Kingston’s first daughter share a moment after training.