Dressage perspectives with Alex Murray
It’s been a while since we’ve had a featured rider on TSAB. As I was thinking about who I wanted to invite to be part of this project I realised that my friend Alex Murray, with so many different and incredible experiences under her belt, would be perfect.
How did you first get into horses and riding?
My mum started me off fortnightly riding lessons at a small riding school on the Sunshine Coast [Queensland, AU]. She took me there as her friend recommended it to her as a good experience. Little did she know I would beg and beg and beg to go back. Everyday. After I rode there from 4-18 years of age, I still absolutely loved it!
Tell us about your current horses
Germaine aka Harley
My pride and joy! It’s not everyday you get a chance to buy your dream horse, but I did! She is a 16.0 hand brown Hanoverian mare by Gymnastik Star out of UQG Winterlily. From the minute I saw Harley as a few day old foal I knew I wanted her! After riding her as a fresh breaker for a few months I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to purchase her, from my longtime Coach, Mentor, and friend, Lea Bierman, and I have never looked back.
We were training elementary/medium until Harley got sick this year. She was diagnosed with mild inflammatory airway disease, and we are currently back to basics until she feels strong enough to start some more intense training again.
Nivo aka Shiraz aka Sherry
I had it all planned. Buy a property, get another horse and compete it along with Harley. My land of dreams fell away quickly with this story! Long story short, I needed a companion horse for Harley (because she is a princess), I found a cute little stock horse gelding online for sale, organised to pick it up, got halfway there to find out the horse had been shot in the paddock by hunters. Morbid story I know!
After this discovery, and the fact I had travelled a while west, I decided I wasn’t going home empty-floated. I found a cute little Thoroughbred mare a few hours away and went straight away and picked her up. She was pretty, relatively well conformed, and had a super nature!
Unfortunately after doing some research into her racing history (thanks to a reputable farrier and employee of Racing Queensland) I found she had a fractured fetlock. Although I gave her 6 months off and brought her in slowly, if I rode her consecutively for a few days I could feel the unevenness.
So OF COURSE the logical decision was to put her in foal! I’d had my eye on a nice stallion called Fairbanks Rusty for a while and so, at this stage, she will be bred in September and all fingers and toes are crossed!
Teapot aka Dunthomas Sheldon
My little black Shetland colt!
Teapot is only 1.5 years old and has lived in a big paddock with lots of other babies until I got him. He got sick as a young foal and as such is a bit short for his age and a little bit funny looking, but that’s why I love him even more!
He is remarkably well bred, his dad being an import and having sired some super ponies! What he lacks in height he makes up for in colty attitude and cuteness! He loves going for long walks through the paddock and swimming in the dam, preferably in the centre where he knows I can’t catch him!
Has there been a particular horse that has had a big impact on you?
I think I started riding Prince when I was about 16. He was on lease from my coach at the riding school where I worked at the time. I think he was a 14yo and had some serious issues. He didn’t like to be girthed, he didn’t like people getting on. He was spooky as hell and he definitely definitely did not like other horses.
He was the first warmblood I had ever ridden and made me realise thoroughbreds and warmbloods are very, very different. He also taught me patience and persistence.
When I first started riding him we would have to have a bucket of feed placed on top of a barrel that he ate out of for me to even get on. And it still wasn’t easy from there. You had to take your time to get on him and not rush him otherwise he would rear or try to bite you. Prince had had quite a traumatic upbringing from what we knew, so the fact I was even able to get on him was good enough for me.
He actually showed me how much dressage can benefit a horse, but also how important it is to let your horse have a break and have fun every now and then.
When I first started riding him we could only canter from B-M, he lacked confidence in the rider, and was very worried 100% of the time. Over time his personality changed, he became more willing, less of an issue to get on, and started to take confidence from the rider. When I finished riding him we had the majority of the elementary movements and he had started changes.
He made an impact because I had to push past my fear (and trust me I was definitely nervous every time I rode him, he is still to this day the horse I have fallen off most), but he also taught me to never forget why we ride. It’s not just the training or the competitions, it’s because we love the horse.
And if you have a break from your regular routine of riding dressage or jumping, it’s nice to let your horse have a little fun too. I used to do barrels with Prince (albeit very, very slow), take him on trails and do some jumping with him—and it was all of these things that started to relax his mind and release his tension that he had for any form of riding.
When I moved down to NSW [New South Wales, AU] to be a working pupil, Prince was retired and put out to the paddock. He now lives a happy life munching grass which is what he deserves after a hard younger life.
He actually showed me how much dressage can benefit a horse but also how important it is to let your horse have a break and have fun every now and then.
Can you tell us about the experience of riding Lea Bierman’s mare Molly?
Where to start! I started working for Lea Bierman when I was 18. She needed someone to groom and pick paddocks for her. Being straight out of school I jumped at the chance to work at a horse place. Much easier than communicating with people in a customer service job!
Lea had two horses in work at the time—Gem her PSG competition horse, and Molly a young horse she had bred. I’m not sure if it’s possible to fall in love at first sight with a horse, but I did with Molly.
She was an absolute character on the ground. She would snarl and pin her ears at you if you walked past her stall and didn’t notice her. And when you were picking her paddock she would come up and turn her bum to you demanding to be scratched. I think the first time I thought she was going to double barrel me [kick], but then I realised she just really loved a good tail scratch!
A few weeks into the job I decided to say to Lea that if she ever needed me to cool down one of the horses I could hop on and walk them around for her (in secret I was just dying to sit on these beautiful horses).
To my surprise she said yes and before I knew it I was on Gem having a lesson. And then after that suddenly I was on Molly and would help Lea work her during the week. It was definitely a highlight of my life riding that mare.
She was smooth as water to ride, and when you sat trot you got the feeling you could do it for years and not have a worry. Lea started to coach me on her each week and soon I was pretty regularly riding her. It was then that Lea offered me the opportunity to compete her. Obviously I said yes! In the two years I got to ride her she went from Prelim to Medium level and I learnt the most about dressage during this time from Lea.
Molly also taught me a lot!
- Mares are clever, if you ride a test too many times they will know it and take charge!
- Toes to the front! Don’t touch a chestnut mare’s side with a spur or face her wrath!
- Dressage is amazing and beautiful!
After this, Molly went into training with Emma Flavelle and she turned into a real powerhouse. Down the track I had the chance to ride her again and the amount of power and buttons at your disposal was insane! She was an amazing mare and very, very special. She was sold two years ago to a NZ home who I’m sure are having great fun with her.
What was your time as a working student for an event rider like?
First word that comes to mind is hard haha! Being a working pupil is no walk in the park. It’s long days, hard work and you have to be willing to stick it out.
After Molly left to train with Emma I had decided I wanted to see more of this dressage world. Lea had a contact in Germany, Peter Weston, and she emailed him asking if he had any spots open. Unfortunately he was all filled so Lea suggested I try somewhere in Australia. A client of Lea’s got in touch with her and mentioned the eventing stable and off I went.
I only intended to be at the eventing place for 6 months or so until I could go to Germany, but ended up staying the year and loving it. I learnt so much about jumping and eventing as a sport. And as much as I love dressage, going to an eventing comp the social side was much better! Eventers are wild and oh so humble! Guessing they have to be considering the nature of the sport.
For those wondering, my job basically entailed getting up at 6am, feeding stabled horses, feed the 30 odd paddocked horses, coming back making feeds for the arvo, cleaning stables, tack/untack horses for my boss, sometimes helping with jumps, turning out horses, cleaning tack and cleaning paddocks. Then at the end of the day, around 5pm, I would ride my horse. I also had a lesson once a week and we would compete at least once or twice a month around the state.
I bought a beautiful mare down there named Aurum Atlantis, or Sam for short, who jumped like a gazelle and was a horse you were never worried about rails. It was an awesome experience and one I’m so glad I did, but it also made me appreciate the fact you need to be earning good money to support your dreams, so at the end of the year I left and came back home and began studying to be a teacher.
What made you stick with dressage over jumping?
It’s weird isn’t it how we start riding and do absolutely everything and then something narrows our focus to one aspect of the sport? I actually loved jumping as a kid, and honestly if I had a horse that could jump I would probably give it a crack again. As the jumps get higher, however, I’m definitely a bit of a pansy! I’ve ridden enough horses who have stopped, crashed through or ducked out to make me not love it when heights get above 80cm [30+ inches].
I also just love the idea of training these wonderful animals to go sideways, to change leads, to listen so carefully to every small shift or movement of your body and respond. I like the accuracy of dressage, and I like the skill required.
I owe a lot of my interest to Lea who let me ride her horses and ride the higher level movements. Once you get that feeling of what is possible it’s so hard not to want it on your own horse and want to work to achieve it.
What made you decide to start coaching and how have you found that experience?
At the time I worked for Lea, she offered me coach training as part of my payment. I had been helping out at the riding school I worked at when I was younger, and had always enjoyed helping kids learn to trot or do their first canter. I wanted more than anything to learn how to properly teach all that, so coaching seemed a great idea.
In saying that, it’s a very competitive industry, and it’s hard to make a name for yourself when there are such big names out there. I was lucky enough to work at a riding school in Brisbane for many years whilst studying teaching and then afterwards scored a job as an Interschool coach which was awesome and helped expand my knowledge of Interschool in general as it is a whole other world compared to pony club.
I’m currently not registered as I moved to a new place, but would love to buy a schoolmaster horse and pony I could offer lessons on at some stage.
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