Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

Energy And Information In Abundance At Trainer’s Conference

Our columnist reveals training tips and philosophies she observed during Jan Brink’s inspirational seminar.

The strong winds and brisk temperature seemed somewhat appropriate for an inspiring seminar given by Jan Brink during the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers’ Conference. The weather didn’t chase any of the audience away from the lovely venue made available in January by Marianne and Walter McPhail in Loxahatchee, Fla. We just bundled up and reminded ourselves that the rest of the country was iced in, so we were still ahead.
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Our columnist reveals training tips and philosophies she observed during Jan Brink’s inspirational seminar.

The strong winds and brisk temperature seemed somewhat appropriate for an inspiring seminar given by Jan Brink during the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers’ Conference. The weather didn’t chase any of the audience away from the lovely venue made available in January by Marianne and Walter McPhail in Loxahatchee, Fla. We just bundled up and reminded ourselves that the rest of the country was iced in, so we were still ahead.

Jan Brink, a five-time Swedish national dressage champion, has earned most of his international fame on the stallion Briar, who has been a consistent presence in the top placings on the European dressage circuit for the past five years.

I’ve known Jan since he was a working student at George Theodorescu’s stable in the 1980s and have followed his rising star since then, both competing against him in Europe and judging him  on several occasions. He’s built a beautiful and successful operation in southern Sweden and is a large presence in breeding dressage horses, training and showing young horses, as well as competing with great success in international competition.

Jan had a select group of riders available to him, including Carol Lavell, Courtney King-Dye, Shawna Harding, Yvonne Barteau, Allison Brock and Diane Ritz. He repeatedly commented that the combinations he had to work with were “too good,” meaning that they didn’t demonstrate any problems he wanted to correct.

That fact in no way hindered Jan from covering every aspect from warm-up to the Grand Prix movements in great detail, however, and after a while his words flowing forth in “Swenglish” was perfectly understandable not only to me, who speaks it well, but to everyone.

There was a lot to digest, and the information was clear, no nonsense and honest, interspersed with anecdotes to add color and charm. 

With almost every horse, Jan started a regime of shortening and lengthening the trot and canter on the 20-meter circle, to check on the “gears” and make the horse supple over the topline and active in  his hind legs.

He then went into different exercises to better prepare for the various movements required in the test. To improve on the zigzag  half passes (which some of us consider imported from hell) in the FEI tests, he asked the riders to work a pattern beginning with a half pass to the right, straighten the horse, back to half pass, straighten the horse and so on across the ring until the anticipation in the horse wears off, and he remains totally straight before the change.

If the horse isn’t completely straight before the change, the movement becomes flat, or the haunches lead into the new direction, and the movement starts to go out of control. Jan even recommended moving the haunches slightly to the opposite side of the change right before asking for it, to prevent the haunches from getting ahead.

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For pirouette work, Jan used the familiar quarter pirouettes on a “square,” but also diminishing circles, and added a personal touch by suggesting that the rider “pat” his horse with the outside hand to help him around and give him a feeling of security that he’s on the right track.

Start small, Jan instructed, and then think forward and larger as the pirouette proceeds to avoid that horrid “spin” when the horse gets behind the leg and loses its balance.

Yet another pirouette exercise, which Jan attributed to Herbert Rehbein, is to start the horse on a small walk pirouette, develop a piaffe while turning and then canter on. Jan got on a couple of horses and demonstrated this technique, and in several cases, it worked like a charm.

This is also how Jan introduces the piaffe to horses who have a problem starting the movement straight or do not easily become “quick” enough behind.

On the subject of flying changes, Jan said that all the counter canter we religiously tend to torture ourselves and our horses with before attempting the first flying change, may be overrated as a preparation. If the horse has a well balanced three-beat canter going and feels like he’s ready to change, Jan sees no reason to wait and keep counter-cantering.

Instead, he would rather see the horse start early with the changes, since there’s a long haul from the first deliberate and controlled flying change to the delivery of a set of 15 one-tempis.

One thing he warned about was the strong correction of a horse starting to learn the tempi changes. “Don’t stop the horse if he makes a mistake,” he said, “just continue and let him figure it out.”

By pulling up and interrupting the horse, more tension is created, and teaching the tempi changes is exciting enough for the horse. In the build-up to teach the horse one-tempi changes, Jan recommended short lines of changes to start, preferably on the quarter-line or the short diagonals, and not to pressure the horse for too many one-tempis in a row too soon.

In between demonstrations with the horses, Jan expressed his thoughts and philosophies about training and showing, and he answered questions from participants.

One person asked how he warms up for a show. Recognizing that this is a personal issue between a horse and a rider, Jan told us that he observes many riders warming up early in the morning and then just spending a short while at the trot before the test, and they are ready.

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“That routine may work great for them,” he said, but Jan prefers to spend at least 50 minutes on his horse before a test, really working on the suppleness and the flow of energy between him and the horse. He acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to determine just how much to warm up to have the horse ready but not tired.

“There’s nothing worse,” he said, “than having a horse in the test which is hot in the head but tired in the body.”

I knew exactly what he meant and then had the misfortune to have just that happen to me a couple of weeks later, when my horse gave me a decent Grand Prix and then had a mental overdrive but physical meltdown in the Special. It’s quite evasive, that exact moment when it all gels.

The work on the 20-meter circle with multiple transitions was a central theme that Jan returned to time and again, and I saw a lot of Kyra Kyrklund in his approach  to suppleness, contact and responsiveness.
Kyra is, of course, Jan’s main teacher and mentor, and he mentioned her several times during the seminar. She’s a phenomenal stickler for details and at the same time has, like Jan, a somewhat unorthodox approach to training. Kyra likes horses to do things slowly at first to make sure they understand, and I saw that same attitude in Jan’s teaching.

Concentrating on developing the extended trot, Jan worked on “small” extensions first, and then he asked for more as the horse warmed up to the idea.

He warned about displaying a passage-like trot on the short side, since the over-cadenced trot can easily lose its airtime and become flat and hurried over the diagonal, which makes the expectations turn to dust, and the contrast between the trots create a minus in the judge’s protocol.

The symmetry and coordination between the hind and front leg, is, according to Jan, the most important feature in the extended trot, plus the position and slight lengthening of the neck and frame. “Let the neck go,” he said, “and make it all harmonious without overloading the trot at either end.”

Although we were frozen at times, the lecture kept our attention and the chairs were filled to the end. I haven’t been to every trainer’s conference, but I think this one can go in the records as one of the USDF success stories. 

Anne Gribbons



Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained 11 horses to Grand Prix.  She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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