March 10-12, 2006
By: Gigha Steinman
The Jan Brink Symposium was divided into three parts: a dinner and lecture, and then two days of teaching, with nine riders at Training thru Fourth Level on the first day, and eight riders at PSG thru GP on the second day, with occasional question answer sessions mixed in.
For those who are not familiar with Mr. Brink, he is not only an excellent rider (ranked #2 in the world behind Anky), but he is also kind, funny, speaks excellent English (and even knows a few of our swear words), and is very "real". He was very diplomatic when presented with a variety of horses and riders of different skill levels, and was very tactful in his corrections of the riders. If ever you have an opportunity to ride with him, I would recommend it, he is not one of those clinic types who will berate the rider or make them look foolish. Even when one FEI level rider did not know where the quarterline was, he had a sense of humor about it, and simply showed her where it was without humiliating her. He even mentioned at one point how it was nice that these riders were willing to do this, and I agree with him completely.
The clinic included a variety of riders, from Training Level to Grand Prix. Basically it was broken down into two riders per level (riding individually in 50 minute sessions), with one professional and one amateur, including primarily local riders. Horses included warmbloods (some were particularly nice), an Arabian, and a Lippizan. A couple of horse/rider combinations which stood out were Allison Brock (who works with Sue Blinks) and the 6 yr. old Polish gelding Peajay (Mr. Brink said this horse was international quality and to remember him), Sharon Jerdeman and the Holsteiner mare Rubaiyat (Mr. Brink said this horse was a good example of modern breeding, and Ms. Jerdeman was a talented young horse rider), Diane Ritz (who rides with Anne Gribbons) and the gelding Juneau (although the horse was small to Mr. Brink at 16h, he said he could sell 1000's of this type of horses because it was such a nice quiet "serious" horse and would match well with women riders and also young riders), and Susanne Benne (licensed international trainer and Pferdewirtschaftsmeisterin (FN)) and her Hanoverian gelding Roger Rabbit. Mr. Brink was also impressed with the talent of Jodie Kelly, a 22 yr. old who has spent many summers training in Europe, including training with Anky; Mr. Brink said this is the type of exposure young riders need. (He also noted how important it is for everyone to be active in the sport, and participate in competitions and attend symposiums and spend time watching and surrounding yourself with talented riders, so riders don't fall behind and lose their skill. He also noted how trainers will come to the U.S. from Europe, and then start to fall behind, because they are no longer pushing themselves, and that the best trainers will push themselves to compete and remain active, and even make trips back to Europe, etc.)
Mr. Brink acknowledges that the horse is a horse, and not all horses are the same. Even as the #2 ranked rider in the world, he is still quick to point out the importance of having help (good instruction.) He also spoke of the importance of mirrors, because sometimes what you think you feel is not what is happening, and he joked that now everyone should go out and buy mirrors when they leave. He is not arrogant, speaking flatteringly often of other top riders, including Anky, Hubertus, and Isabelle, as well as Kyra, all of whom he mentioned by name.
The lecture portion of the symposium touched on some of his basic theories, such as the "comfort zone" theory, and horizontal and vertical training (more commonly known as "deep" and "competition frame"), and the importance of keeping the horse happy with varied work and a pleasant environment. He also spoke of the importance of knowing your horse, and knowing what you can fix and what you cannot. If you have a horse without fancy gaits, you must work more to be a really technically correct rider to gain points. He says you work to make the most of the material you have. He also said sometimes, a horse will surprise you, because it may not have the best conformation but still is a great horse. He used Anky's Bonfire as an example, joking that when he first saw him in the "box" (stall) he thought "Jesus Christ, THIS is the best horse in the world?", but then when he saw Anky on him it was a totally different horse, so he said sometimes you CAN work with a not perfect horse, and again joking said "the competition is not won in the stable!"
Mr. Brink's facility is beautiful (he showed it to us on video.) The stallions are kept in a round barn he designed because he thinks it makes them happy to be able to see each other, because horses are naturally curious. Everything is very open looking, with lots of light and windows, including his indoor arenas, which are also painted with pale pleasing colors. He has multiple indoor and outdoor arenas, as well as a track, and trails, for doing varied work with the horses. He believes very much in the importance of good footing for the longterm soundness of the horse. The footing in the indoors is a textile and coated sand mix (he noted how manure must be removed to maintain the quality of this footing), and the turn-outs have a coated sand footing.
Each horse in Mr. Brink's barn is hand walked twenty minutes daily on asphalt to build up their tendons. He also spoke of the importance of having people work with the horses (instead of using machines), and how he has a staff of nine, because he doesn't want feeding machines and exercising machines (treadmills, walkers) doing all of the work with the horses.
He showed video of several young horses, and of some of his stallions (including Briar), and spoke of how modern horses are so much better bred, and are lighter and more athletic. He mentioned the importance of having a horse that is naturally light in front and uses his whole body, with an active front and a free shoulder and good knee action (at canter also.)
One of Mr. Brink's training philosophies involves the comfort zone, stretch zone, and panic zone. (In translation, "stretch" zone is probably misleading, it refers to pushing the horse/rider beyond the comfort zone to harder work, with mention of more adrenaline etc., it does not actually refer to any sort of stretching.) He feels it is important not to ride in the comfort zone all of the time, but to ask for more. He also noted that the more advanced the rider is, the more they are able to push the horse beyond the comfort zone, without the horse and rider both ending up in the panic zone. This is why an advanced rider can train a horse, but a beginner rider needs a trained horse. An advanced rider can push the horse beyond the comfort zone more easily, without ending up themselves in the panic zone. A beginner rider may be more on the edge of the panic zone themselves as they are learning, and so they need a good horse who can stay in the comfort zone, therefore beginner horse and beginner rider is not a good combination. This theme was repeated throughout both days of the clinic, the idea of asking for more, and riding out of the comfort zone.
Another of Mr. Brink's training philosophies which was repeated throughout the weekend was the horizontal versus vertical training. (Again, in translation, these terms may be confusing, we are more familiar with "deep" and "competition frame".) He believes that the horse is an athlete, and must have varied work, and cannot be worked in competition frame all of the time or they will become sore and/or unhappy. Horses were warmed up deep, and were cooled down this way also, before being sent to "walk for 20 minutes". He says the deep work in the cool down helps to remove build up in the muscles, so the horse will not be sore and unhappy. At times during the work also, or when the horse became tense, he would also ask that it be ridden deeper, to keep the horse up in the back, especially in the piaffe work.
A note on the "deep" work from the clinic, since sometimes there is confusion about this. I would estimate that during the deep work, the horse's nose was at perhaps a 45 degree angle behind the vertical. Pointing more towards the horse's knee, or forearm. When one rider misunderstood, and offered more of what we would call a "stretchy" trot, he was quick to correct her. The horse's neck must be round, not straight out, even with the young horses. He also wanted riders to maintain a soft contact, and to keep the horse active and balanced. It was made clear that the exercise is to influence the back, and although the horses were behind the vertical, they were NOT allowed to be behind the bit.
Horses were also expected to be able to be ridden "up" in competition frame. Mr. Brink clearly wanted horses that could not only be ridden deep, but who could come back up as well. He referred to the horse being "proud" and growing taller in front, from increased engagement of the hindlegs and a lifting of the front end. He was also very clear, the front end is not to be lifted by the hands, nor is the neck made rounder from pulling back on the reins, but rather these things come from the leg and increased engagement of the hindquarters. Having the neck up means nothing if the horse isn't "over his back" or using his hindend. Likewise, having the horse deep means nothing if the horse becomes behind the bit or isn't using his hindend. The horse cannot be pulled round nor pulled "up" with the hand. Over and over, Mr. Brink repeated "keep the horse from your leg up to your hand", "push with your leg into your hand", etc, and the emphasis was really on the hindend.
Mr. Brink also emphasized repeatedly the importance of connection, and how important it is that the rider have a good seat and is able to maintain a soft connection with the horse's mouth. He does not want the horse hanging on the rein, but he doesn't want the contact to be too light or unsteady either. He said rider's have a tendency, when the horse pulls, to want to quickly soften with the hand and get the horse feeling light again, but often they lose the hind legs this way because they are only focused on the hands, and they make the horse too light or sometimes behind the bit. He wants corrections to come first from pushing the horse back up into the contact. It was tactfully suggested during one ride that if the hands are not good the seat is probably not good, and it might be helpful to spend time on the lunge to work on the seat. He also recommended to this rider that she could try "bridging" the reins to help train her hands, and it did seem to help her and make her horse happier and steadier.
Throughout the clinic riders were encouraged to ask for more, to ride out of the comfort zone. It was really fun to see how different the horses looked, when the riders pushed them to be just a little rounder and more "proud" and more active. A couple of the horses almost transformed into different horses just from this. He said this is what adds points to the score, that riders must be willing to ride with more risk. He said pushing the horse a little more is what can make the difference between just getting 5's and 6's, and getting 7's and 8's and higher. You cannot ride in the comfort zone all of the time, and you cannot ride in the comfort zone in competition. He said especially in international competition you have to ride with risk (and risk is the exact work he used.) BUT he also emphasizes, you cannot ride with risk until you can ride CORRECT. So first a rider must learn to ride correctly, and only then can they ask for more and ride out of the comfort zone, and ride with risk. This risk, he says, is what adds points.
Mr. Brink also repeatedly emphasized the importance of keeping the horse straight. Too many riders, he says, overbend to the inside and lose the outside shoulder. He had several of the riders work on circles, 20 meter to 15 meter to 12 meter and back to 20 meter, really focusing on not overbending the neck and keeping the outside rein. He also had some riders work on the quarterline, to make them more aware of their outside aids.
Horses were expected to be very reactive to the leg. Mr. Brink says he really prefers hot horses, but that all horses should be taught to be quicker to the leg, and always must be in front of the leg. This was one of the very first things he addressed each time he rode one of the horses, was getting a quicker response to his leg.
Another thing Mr. Brink stressed was the importance of variety within the gaits. The horse should be able to not only change the length of the stride (longer/shorter) but also the speed of the stride (faster/slower). This also went hand in hand with the philosophy of riding out of the comfort zone. He said riders should not ride in the same speed/stride all of the time. Mix things up, faster and slower, quicker from the hind legs, and with medium to collection and back frequently, etc.. The piaffe will come from making the walk quicker, while the passage will come from the trot. Several times he compared the canter of the pirouette to the piaffe. Mr. Brink also wanted variety in the work itself. He said horses shouldn't be made to practice each of the movements every day. He said some days work on one thing, another day work on another thing, he said riders must have a plan and not do the same thing each day. The horses do not need to work on all of the movements every day. You must do the warm-up and the work for the horse, not to show off or drill every movement -- he joked that nobody is there to "win the warm-up", so you do what you need to do, for yourself and your horse. He also likes to ride the horses on trails (he says, "in the forest"), and on hills (he joked, do we even have those in Florida? Florida is fairly flat, for anyone who has never been here.)
Mr. Brink rode several of the horses. All horses improved (but then, what horse wouldn't, when being ridden by the 2nd best rider in the world!), and some improved so remarkably, so that they did not even look like the same horse! It must be amazing, to have such talent as a rider, to be able to transform a horse, and in such a short time, and when you've never ridden it before! The biggest change was Mr. Brinks ability to get the horse immediately more responsive and active, more engaged, and more "proud" in the neck from the increased activity and improved connection.
One rider was having problems getting her horse to do canter pirouettes. After maybe 20 minutes, Mr. Brink had the horse doing canter pirouettes. And not only from drilling the pirouette itself, but from working to activate the horse's hindquarters and getting it more honest into the outside rein and responsive to the outside leg, etc. Then he headed across the diagonal, and suddenly there was pirouette. A schooling pirouette, but a pirouette nonetheless! The rider seemed quite pleased.
Mr. Brink also spoke of breeding, and what we are aiming for with the more modern warmbloods. He also spoke of the importance of communication between trainers, competitors, and breeders, so that breeders are breeding what trainers and competitors want. He said symposiums such as this one, and bigger things like the Global Dressage Forum, are great for the sport. He likes horses to be lighter in their build, and also lighter and more active in their movement. He also prefers larger horses, although he did mention he doesn't think it is a good idea when tiny women ride huge warmbloods. He said the horse "must fill out the ring". He says if a horse is really small it must be really, really nice. By small, he said especially if the horse is less than 160 cm, but that he wasn't familiar with our measurments. (160 cm. is 15.3 hands.) He said the work is easier for lighter, hotter horses. He said bigger built horses have more muscle to carry around, and get tired faster, and will need more breaks. (Roger Rabbit was an example of this type of horse, although he was very beautiful and talented, but Mr. Brink said you must be really careful not to tire this type of horse.)
I haven't broken this clinic report down by rider, because it would be quite long for one thing, and also so as not to single out riders. It was very generous and brave of them to do this, and Mr. Brink acknowledged this also, so I don't want to put anyone on the spot since I don't know where this clinic report may turn up (quoted, misquoted, and inappropriately edited, unfortunately.)
Mr. Brink did however work on some specific exercises, which I will mention. I've already mentioned the circle exercise, and the importance of variety within the gaits (stride length and also speed), so I won't cover that again, but there were some other exercises also.
Perhaps Mr. Brink's favorite exercise for improving the piaffe was to work the horse on the piaffe pirouette. This keeps the horse's hind legs more active. He also frequently had riders ride the horse deeper in the piaffe work and sometimes sit lighter in the seat also, to keep it "fun" and the horse "happy" and so the piaffe was like a "game" for the horse, and he used himself (with Briar) and Anky as examples of riders who do this successfully. He wanted riders to not be afraid to ask for more. He says horses are athletes, and piaffe and passage take adrenaline, and the horses must be pumped up, and wanted riders to ride more to the limits. For the transition from passage to piaffe, he said shorten and quicken the passage first to prepare. He also had the rider frequently refresh the horse with regular trot and also with big trot. He compared the piaffe to the canter of the pirouette. He worked one horse on making transitions from canter to piaffe to canter to piaffe, all while doing the pirouette, to improve the quality of the piaffe, and also the quality (sit/size) of the canter pirouette.
Another thing Mr. Brink did often when riding was pat the horse when it did well during the exercises. He said too often riders wait until they slow to walk to pat and reward the horse. One horse he rode wanted to stop when it was patted. He says he likes to pat them while they are working, so they know right away they're doing well. He says with Briar, he can pat him while doing piaffe, and Briar will offer more piaffe, because he knows he's doing well. He said this is also a quick "release" for the horse, so it is also a sort of reward in itself. (Note, in translation, he often called it "clapping" the horse, but was referring to what we call "patting".)
To get the horse more honestly on the aids, Mr. Brink had some of the riders ride shoulder-in on the quarterline. He was very clear that when you ask for shoulder-in, you must get shoulder-in, not just the neck overbent. He said this goes back to basics, and the work on the circles. If the horse is overbending and falling out on the shoulder on the circles, the shoulder-in won't be good either. The horse must not only respond to the inside leg, but it must also be respectful of the outside leg.
One horse had a particularly poor walk. Mr. Brink said sometimes this can come from tension in the back, and sometimes horses just have bad walks. (He also noted sometimes bigger walks are harder to collect and can become uncoordinated.) He used Bonfire as an example, he said the horse always had a bad walk, like a 3 or a 4. Even though Anky would never make a 7 or 8 out of it, she made the most of it, and had it up to 5's and 6's, which was great for that horse. He again reiterated that you must work with what you have, and not spend too much time on what you cannot fix, sometimes you've got to work on other areas instead, and this was the case with Anky's horse. With the horse in the demo, Mr. Brink had him work on always pushing the horse to the outside, off the leg. He joked that sometimes even in the ring you can "hide" a bad walk by riding it this way. He also had the rider work on doing leg-yields across the diagonal, with transitions from walk to trot to walk to trot, all while in the leg-yield. The horse's walk did improve somewhat, but as soon as they'd relax and let the horse walk straight, the natural poor walk would return. Fortunately, the horse had a very nice trot, and a talented rider.
Mr. Brink said one of the hardest exercises in the Intermediare-1 is the canter zig-zag, which stays in the test thru Grand Prix. He said common problems are that the horse anticipates, and/or starts leading with the haunches. Haunches trailing is also a problem (lack of collection), but haunches leading is a bigger problem in the zig-zag usually, he said. One exercise he used, was having the rider ride shoulder-in at canter, into canter half-pass, back into shoulder-in at canter. He also worked on having the riders do half-pass part of the way across the diagonal, and then go straight a few strides, and then half-pass a few strides, then straighten a few strides. If they got better at this, he'd ask the rider to do the flying change. Another thing he said rider's can think about, is at the end of the half-pass (right before straightening to do the change and then go in the opposite direction), is pushing the haunches over a little more on purpose (haunches leading) just to set the horse up for the change and for a good half-pass in the new direction (instead of changing crooked and heading off into the new half-pass with the haunches leading.) I interpreted this as sort of compromising the last stride of the first half-pass, but for the sake of a good change and setting the horse up so the new half-pass would be better (not haunches leading.)
One horse had a tendency to get short in the neck and a little braced in the topline, and it was causing problems with the flying changes, and the changes would get progressively worse in a line of tempis. Mr. Brink had the rider first improve the canter by getting the horse rounder and deeper in the neck and getting a bigger more active canter. (He even had the rider take the horse deep in the canter for a few minutes, to improve how he was using his back, but he did not have them stay this deep for the tempis.) This made a big improvement both in the horse's canter, and in his changes. The change in the quality of this horse's canter was really impressive when he was ridden just a little rounder and more active, mostly because he was using his back better, and it effected the entire gait. He also had the rider work on getting the horse to use his back better in the trot, and in the piaffe and passage, by riding him more active and rounder, and with more changes of stride and speed within the gait to help the activity, and again I was impressed with the improvement this pair made.
This was the type of clinic where if you only watched one or two riders, you might leave with one thought, and if you only watched one or two others, you might leave with another thought. Meaning, sometimes things might seem contradictory on the surface, but really were not. For example, with some riders Mr. Brink said they were too passive and too kind, and he wanted them to ride more on the "offense" and more out of the comfort zone. So this might lead some people to misunderstand that he wanted riders to be rough. But then some of the riders were stronger with their aids, and he was also quick to correct that, reminding everyone that all of the aids should be very clear and consistent, that overly strong aids (or unclear ones) will make the horse dull, and you cannot force the horse or he will not be happy. It was the same way with wanting the horses round. With many of the horses, he wanted them specifically rounder in the neck. So someone might leave with the impression that it's all about the neck. But then some riders came in with the horses overly round in the neck and behind the bit, and he was also quick to correct that. He was very clear that the round neck is to influence the back, and that the rider must be able to maintain the horse's balance and a soft contact even as the horse is ridden deeper, and the rider cannot pull the horse rounder, because if the rider pulls the horse rounder and then he comes behind the bit that isn't good either. Many, many, many times he repeated the theme of forward from your leg into your hand. So it appeared to me that he had a clear idea of what he wanted, a perfect balance of activity and connection, without laziness or tension, without too heavy or too light of a contact, with sometimes strides faster or slower, and sometimes with them longer or shorter, and sometimes horses with more bend, sometimes with less, and occasionally with counterflexion. I guess what I'm saying is this wasn't a black and white type of clinic. It's obvious he knows exactly what his goal is, and he has the confidence and skill to think "outside the box", and can quickly adapt to find the weaknesses and strengths and address them, and he is quick to acknowledge that every horse is not the same, and so they cannot all be ridden exactly the same either. I only hope my notes have done him credit.
Last updated on: 6/20/2006