California Riding Magazine • January, 2008

Views & Reviews
Another New Year

by Nan Meek

It’s here again: Another new year, another chance to make resolutions … will this year’s resolutions be any different than those of previous years? Will we keep those resolutions?

Admittedly, I’ve gotten a bit jaded over the years, resolving to do this or that, sticking with it for a month or two, and then little by little falling back into my old bad habits. That’s normal, you say? Maybe so, but I’d rather keep my resolutions than my bad habits!

A wise friend recently gave me some advice about making resolutions and changing habits, just before I was set to attend the USDF/Succeed® FEI-Level Trainers Conference with dressage superstar Jan Brink. My friend’s advice and Jan’s teaching combined to illuminate some truths about horses, and living, that I consider priceless.

Lessons in Philosophy

My resolution: Do more, and do it better. Isn’t that typical for a type-A personality in our crazy busy world? Living in the age of instant communication creates a faster pace for every aspect of life … and time spent with our wonderful horses is a blessed counter-balance to that.
What does that have to do with the conference? Jan Brink must be one of the busiest people on the planet, and look at all he has accomplished: In just a few months, he’s gotten married, given several conferences, ridden in numerous international Grand Prix dressage competitions and won two (yes, two) cars as prizes!

Two elements of Jan’s philosophy permeated the conference. First: A happy, healthy horse is paramount. Second: Detailed planning, based on thorough knowledge and execution, and tempered by adjustments as necessary, is essential to success.

What does that have to do with my friend’s advice? Keep your eye on the goal, she told me, and take baby steps every day. If you have a setback today, tomorrow is another day – you can start again. In other words, don’t give up! Plan your work, she advised, and work your plan.
Jan and my friend have never met, but their philosophies are symbiotic.

The group of riders with Jan Brink, Michelle Vaughn and Greg Vaughn
at the USDF Jan Brink seminar.
Photo: Sheri Scott Photography

Happy, Healthy Horses

Who hasn’t experienced the challenge of keeping an older horse healthy, or keeping a young horse from injury, or any horse from colic, abscess or 101 other maladies? I give thanks every day if my horse is just standing on four legs, never mind winning a dressage test!

Jan’s philosophy of keeping the horse’s happiness and health as his primary goal is demonstrated by his winning partnership with Briar, the breathtaking 16-year-old stallion with whom he has competed at two Olympics, and hopefully a third this year. Competing for nine years at the highest level of international Grand Prix dressage competition speaks volumes for Briar’s health; his happiness is evident when you watch him compete.

Jan gave examples of farm design and stable management that contribute to his horses’ health and happiness. Being able to see each other in the stable, having turn out time, working out on the track and hacking through the woods in addition to their more formal dressage schooling, all contribute.

(Note to self: Keep your eye on the goal!)

Training techniques obviously play a big role. Jan likes to play with a new movement to introduce it to the horse, not drill it until the horse hates the movement. He’s creative in teaching a horse to do something new, focusing on the prerequisites before introducing something new. Like a baby crawls before it walks, and walks before it runs, a horse must have the strength and coordination, and a clear understanding of what is being asked, before he can do it. He also gives it time – he may play with a new movement off and on over several months or longer before he expects a horse to really get it completely.

(Note to self: Take baby steps every day!)

Management of the horse you have on the day is also key. Jan recommends keeping the trained horse fit and fresh, and not over schooling which will make the horse resistant and unhappy. For the young horse, repetition and reward are important, with praise for the successes, and not punishment for the failures. His patience was constant with the demonstration horses and riders throughout the conference. No problem, he would tell riders when a movement didn’t turn out correctly, we do it again. When it was correct, he reminded the riders to reward the horse with a “good boy” or a pat.

(Note to self: Don’t give up!)

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

Jan illustrated his belief in detailed planning by describing how he makes a detailed training plan for each horse in his barn, each day. It’s ready and waiting each morning when the staff arrives for work, and it’s adjusted as needed when things don’t go according to plan … and that’s okay, he says, that’s life.

Of course, his planning is based on extensive knowledge. He draws upon his own expertise, the training he’s gotten from mentors such as Kyra Kyrklund, and the abilities of his staff. He believes in using people, not machines, to take care of his horses, so he has staff hand-walk his horses, for example, instead of using mechanical exercisers.
(Note to self: Plan your work wisely!)

Jan’s a big believer in “your book” as he calls it. A notebook in which you record what happened during your ride, both good and bad; how the show went, good or bad, in the warm-up and the competition. You can look back later to see your horse’s progress or track the early signs of a problem developing, as well as find keys to the solution of new problems. He frequently told demo riders “this you write in your book” … at one time holding up his own notes, the ones he’d made in advance for the conference and which he updated for each day’s session.

(Note to self: Work your plan consistently!)

Planning his work and working his plan, with adjustments as needed along the way, is obviously an important element in Jan’s recipe for success. Thanks to his teaching at the USDF/Succeed® FEI-Level Trainers Conference – and to my friend’s sage advice – I think I’ll be able to make this year the year that I succeed, as well. It’s advice we can all put to good use in the year ahead.

Happiness and Health for 2008

Here’s wishing you a new year of happiness and good health for you and your horses.