California Riding Magazine • August, 2012

Horse People: Brian Hafner
Young professional makes a
cross-country trek to Brentina Cup
Championships pay off.

by Kim F. Miller

This year's Brentina Cup could not have gone to a better poster person for the USEF's Young Adult Brentina Cup Program. The competition was created to "assist and encourage U.S. Young Riders in making the transition to a Senior Grand Prix competitor." With a handful of open Grands Prix under his belt, the 2012 winner, Brian Hafner, is smack dab in the middle of that transition.

This accomplishment and the many that preceded it are all the sweeter because Brian did it the hard way: on a self-made horse, the 12-year-old Hanoverian Lombardo LHF, and on a largely self-supported journey to success.

After a close qualifying season, Brian and Lombardo entered and ended the national Young Adult (16-25) championship as the top-ranked pair. "It was a dream come true," says Brian, who moved his dressage training business to Woodbridge Farm in Petaluma this past May.

His top ranking going into the event did not make him over confident because the standings were super close all season. The ranking did help tip the balance in favor of making the expensive trip to Gladstone, NJ, where the Championships were held during the USEF Festival Of Champions in June. A scholarship from the California Dressage Society was a significant help, but even so, it was a big decision to go for it in Gladstone. A 69.860 in day-one's special Brentina test and a 70.667 in day-two's FEI Young Rider Grand Prix test kept the pair on top with total a 70.264 score and made the excursion more than worthwhile.

Brian with Heidi Gaian and Rebecca Hafner.

Twenty-three year old Brian is a native of Minnesota, "not exactly a hot spot of dressage," he notes. He moved to San Diego in 2006 to further his ambitions in the sport and has already achieved many milestones. These include team gold, individual bronze and Freestyle silver for Region 7 in the 2009 North American Young Riders Championships and earning his USDF bronze, silver and gold medals.

They were all attained with Lombardo, who Brian bought as a 4-year-old. "We've learned together," Brian says. "In retrospect maybe it wasn't the ideal situation. There have been times where I've had to go back and correct some mistakes, but it's been an incredible learning experience."

"He was an easy young horse, but not super flashy and I never imagined early on that he would become the horse that he has." Brian recalls spending nearly a year to get a single flying lead change, but once over that hurdle, they advanced more steadily. The harder things got, the better Lombardo performed. The trickiest aspect of this otherwise straight-forward horse is that he tries so hard he sometimes over-thinks things.

"I am so lucky because I never could afford to go out and buy a horse of the quality he has become," Brian comments.

Home Made Luck

Like most "lucky" people, he's often made his own luck. He turned professional shortly after the NAYRC in 2009, realizing the need to go pro or get a "real job" in order to afford the sport. He helped his first client start a new facility in Paso Robles while also finishing his business degree, earned over several years of attending college part time. The degree has already come in handy with the non-riding aspects of running his business and he likes having something to fall back on in the unlikely event that things don't pan out.

Brian jumped on chances to get the industry's help. In 2010 he applied for and was selected as one of four participants in the Dressage Foundation's Olympic Dream project. The prize was a 10-day tour of Europe, visiting top riders and training barns. Clinics with Debbie McDonald in the USEF's Developing Rider program have been huge helps, he says. The biggest credit behind his success is his current coach Heidi Gaian of Hollister. "She has really helped us get over the hump and into the big arena."

The young professional is on track to be a life-long learner. "I'm not one of those trainers who goes pro then doesn't get any help anymore. I always want to be learning and getting stronger."

He is thrilled with his set-up at Woodbridge Farm in Petaluma. The beautifully landscaped facility has a nice covered arena and the area is rural enough to remind Brian of Minnesota and close enough to San Francisco to feel connected to a big city. "I like that mix," he says.
Brian typically rides between eight and 10 horses a day and coaches his junior and amateur students. He teaches the way he likes to be taught. "I was never one to learn from being talked at or yelled at," he explains. "I try to explain things and I am easy going and laid back, though I push when we need to push either horse or rider.

"There's enough tension when dealing with animals that can be unpredictable," he continues. "Students don't need to be yelled at or frustrated. I keep things easy and simple as possible."

Amateur rider Louise Ham was a hunter/jumper devotee when she was first struck by Brian's approach. "I liked the way he interacted with his horse," she says. "His horse was quiet, calm and at peace and without agitation." She'd been dabbling in dressage and, when circumstances required her to quit jumping, she switched to the discipline under Brian's direction.

"Brian is a classic 'type B' personality, with a 'type A' will and drive to win, though that doesn't pass on to his horses," Louise explains. "He is always asking, not forcing, in a calm, quiet way. He never gets riled up or upset."

Louise enjoyed working with Brian so much she continues doing so even since he moved from Templeton Farms in Central California to Petaluma four hours north. Her 4-year-old Ice is off to a great start at Training Level with Brian and she travels north to lesson with him as often as possible. "Brian is as much of a friend as he is a trainer and he takes great care of me and my horses," she says. "I have a feeling he's going to go really far in this sport."

Rocky Beginnings

As for the future, Brian plans to continue campaigning Lombardo toward full-fledged Grand Prix success. Building his business is another priority, particularly in the form of sponsors that might enable him to develop a string of top horses.

He's very pleased to have product sponsors in Grand Meadows supplements and Albion Saddles distributor Contact Saddles. "Brian is a very talented and serious dressage trainer and rider," says Grand Meadows founder Angela Slater.

She was also impressed with the depth of his curiosity about their products' ingredients and his commitment to helping his horses maintain peak form.

In addition to his coaches and the various industry programs and organizations that have supported him, Brian is grateful for his family's encouragement, especially that of his mother Rebecca Hafner. She travels from Minnesota to see her son and Lombardo in action frequently and it's possible "she may miss Lombardo more than she misses me," Brian laughs.

Rebecca owned an Arabian that piqued Brian's interest in riding. He quit for a while and when he wanted to re-start, Rebecca told him he'd have to pay for half the cost of lessons because she thought he wouldn't stick with it. He worked off his share of lessons by picking rocks out of the arena used by a dressage trainer down the street. Brian suspects his efforts didn't have much of an impact on the arena's rock problem, but the dressage lessons sure had an impact on him.

For more information on Brian Hafner, visit