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Grand Prix Dressage Training with Jan Brons

Jan Brons explains his Grand Prix dressage training philosophy for the dressage rider and her horse.

Jan Brons is a fixture in the dressage world. After graduating from the Dutch Equestrian Center in Deurne, the Netherlands, he made a successful move to the United States and became a respected Grand Prix dressage trainer and successful competitor based in Wellington, Florida. Jan Brons is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist and has ridden down centerline at the FEI levels over 350 times. In recognition of being "a talented, committed, qualified rider whose plan is to reach and excel at the elite, international standards of high-performance dressage," he was awarded the $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize in 2009. This allowed him to train extensively with Dutch Olympian Anky van Grunsven. Cheryl Wyllie got a chance to sit down with Brons to learn more about his approach to dressage.

Jan Brons, when evaluating a new student Grand Prix rider and horse, what are you looking for?
Jan Brons: To begin with, I watch them through their normal schooling routine. It is easy for riders to get off track, so it is important to pay close attention to the basics. For example, the horse, during all the transitions, must show he is supple, elastic and responsive without resistance. I try to evaluate what is missing or needs to be changed. Then I start to make small adjustments and offer an explanation.

Does your teaching approach vary for an amateur and a professional?
JB: It is the same thought. Obviously, I will be a bit more lenient with an amateur. It depends on how fit they are and what their goals are. Do they just want to get to and feel the Grand Prix or do they actually want to show at Grand Prix and be competitive? Initially, people just want to do the Grand Prix at home. And then, when this is good, we go to a small show and feel our way through it. As they get comfortable and go through those layers, I become more demanding. I want the rider to get a real clean and crisp result. For a professional, I would initiate this much earlier. I would also require the responses on everything much quicker.

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Can you give an example of what you would do at the beginning of the week?
JB: It will depend on the strength and weakness of the horse. If the horse is very good with the lateral work, then I will not fuss with this on the first day. I will test a little bit what is left over from the last week. I will evaluate if the horse feels similar or real close to it.

On the second day, I work the horse through specific exercises that need improvement. There, too, it depends on the horse's age as to how you try to accomplish that goal.

Always, I give walk breaks in between training sets. Also, as I do myself, I ask the rider to reward the horse often. The horse needs to know when he is doing something right, especially at this degree of difficulty. Very often, lack of preparation from the rider causes the horse not to be in the correct balance for what is being asked. The rider must not reprimand the horse for making a mistake because of this. It is my job to develop the rider's recognition of where the balance needs to be and how to accomplish this so that the horse can do the job.

The third day will be the same. Those first two days are really workdays. And then the fourth day would be a trail ride, so the horse's mind and the muscles can recuperate.

How does your weekly routine vary for a green and Grand Prix horse?
JB: After a sufficient warm-up, I go through all the transitions from one gait to another and within the gaits themselves. This basic plan of going through the transitions is the same for any horse.

For the young horse of 4, it is also about developing the ability to carrying a little bit of weight on the hind legs. For example, when I do a serpentine at the trot, I already want the horse to come back a little bit toward the centerline so that he begins to learn to close up a little bit at that spot. The young horse doesn't necessarily need it as a "piaffe thought" until later. However, you can already set the tone so that he is comfortable with it. Then it doesn't become something that is weird, strange or scary. You can also do this in the canter. You need to suggest that he come back a little bit and be comfortable with the idea. It does not need to be big or dramatic.

With the Grand Prix horse, every day I have to assess where he is. If we have schooled intensely for two days, then the third day I will most likely go on a trail ride. The horse's body has to have time to recover. The same is true when we work out in the gym and we are physically demanding on ourselves. After two days, we feel it. You cannot push the muscles at a high intensity for several days in a row and think that this is OK. I prefer to really work through almost everything the horse is doing and/or add new exercises for two days and then have the next day real simple.

Is it fundamental to establish the thoroughness and suppleness with the Grand Prix horse first before starting any exercises?
JB: Yes. You must take the time to do this with each horse. If it ends up taking 15 minutes longer on a horse to get where you want him to be, then that's what you must be willing to do rather than taking a shortcut to move on to the next horse or student. Some days you may work only on the basics. Other days, you may add only a few of the Grand Prix exercises. I am after the quality of the exercises and therefore, the basics must be addressed and intact before moving on. When the Grand Prix horse is properly muscled and loose in his body and mind, you should be able to simply ask the question and get a clear answer.

What are some points that you do not compromise in your approach to training a Grand Prix horse and rider?
JB: People tend to get a bit ahead of themselves and start to do stuff without really asking themselves this question: "Is this horse really where he should be at this point of my ride to do the exercises I want to do?" You have to be willing to not be in a hurry. The less you are in a hurry, the faster it ends up going. Then it is fun.

Are there any areas you might be more flexible?
JB: You have to evaluate the horse's weak points. So, right from the beginning of the session, you chip away at that a little bit. For example, conformation faults: determine what the horse's outline needs to be for that moment. If the neck is set a bit low, then you already need to recognize that the horse carries more weight behind and start to close up a bit. Asking him to go deep and low would not necessarily be beneficial. However, the horse should offer to do so if you ask. You have to ask and answer these questions: What horse am I sitting on today? Is he a bit hot and want to lift his head up? Is he a bit low and wants to be a bit slow? What is the inclination of the horse and how should the approach change to achieve success?

Is there a basic approach through your training that you maintain?
JB: The faster the reaction, the easier it is. Obviously, with a 4-year-old, the reaction will be slower. The rider's job is to explain what is necessary. Therefore, you have to understand and know what you want. It will be different to a 4-year-old than a 14-year-old. You are not more lenient about it. You determine what is appropriate for that horse at that time.
It is much easier when you receive a new horse that you don't know anything about. If I ride a new horse that is 12 and a bit slow in his reactions, I might think, OK, you are 12 and you should know a bit better. The changes or corrections are clear.

If you have had a horse for four years and he is now 8, then you may still be treating him as a young horse. Sometimes we are slow to make our horses step up to what is age or level appropriate. You want to baby them but not so much that they never do anything. The picture can be much more blurry. I have to say sometimes what your horse is doing today was great four months ago, but now it may be time to do better or more.

Your basic training foundation is to control the horse's speed. Can you explain this?
JB: Part of controlling the speed (tempo) is to know what speed you really want to be in. I want to be able to increase or decrease the size of the stride or the tempo within an exercise. That is a big part of speed control. This allows you to go really smooth and easy through all the transitions. And as you go up in the ranks, those transitions get hurled at you faster and faster. So you want to be able to deal with them at the appropriate time with the appropriate look, smoothness and ease and the horse still being very reactive.

At any point, you should be able to stop and speed up. As you go on in the training, you need more and more gears inside of the gaits. Can I change the horse's speed in the middle of an exercise? When you can answer that question with a yes—I can easily move him up in the middle of a half pass or bring him back—then you have speed control.

What, in your mind, says the Grand Prix horse is ready to compete?
JB: This is a hard question to answer because it differs from rider to rider. A lot has to do with the confidence of the rider. Does the rider feel ready to compete? Initially when you train the Grand Prix, you train components of it. Then you put the whole thing together at home. Obviously, the first time something is going to show up that was unexpected or needs to be worked on more. You train the test maybe once a week or once every 10 days to see where you are. Once the test feels comfortable at home, it is time to go to some small shows to find out how the rider is going to deal with the situation. From there, you move on to the bigger shows.
At this point, you know where the horse's weakness in the test and the rider is more comfortable with the ride. Then it is a matter of whether or not the rider can deal with the environment and the pressure. Sometimes there is a need for a sports psychologist at this point.

You are really fit. Can you give an example of a daily and weekly fitness regimen for riders?
JB: I do love to ride my bicycle to the barn in the morning, which is about 30 minutes from my house. It is nice and quiet and gets me warmed up and ready to go.

I am fairly religious about going to the gym, even if I do not really want to. I go three to four times a week. I do a combo of cross-fit and work with weights. Years ago I had some problems with my back and my chiropractor gave me a series of exercises to help. So I still follow up with that. There is a lot of cardio involved in my workout. It takes a lot of work to stay cardio-fit and still have enough tone in your muscles and be flexible at the same time. When you ride and work hard in a climate like south Florida, you need to have enough cardio in your system to be able to follow through and get to the end of it.

I work with a personal trainer because if I go to the gym by myself I am not really very motivated. But if I set up an appointment, once I am there, it's OK. I do what I am told and finish the complete workout.

How does your fitness relate to the training of your horses?
JB: When you are more toned, you have more control over what your body is doing and you're more aware or what your body is doing. It takes less effort. I think the cardio is really important.

One of my first instructors in Holland, when I was a little boy, said, "If you are going to start something with the horse, you better be able to follow through all the way to the end." I have never forgotten that. A rider has to have enough confidence and physical ability to be able to follow through to the end when you ask the horse to do something. If there is a question mark in your mind that what you ask might not work out, then you should not ask it. You should either get help or find somebody who does have the ability to follow through.

It's only fair to make sure you clearly explain to the horse what needs to happen without a long struggle. The horse may need only a couple of rides from a qualified person that will say, "Come on now, you can really do this." It's important to stay positive. You want to avoid a drawn-out event that doesn't get anywhere.

What should a new Grand Prix rider keep in mind when competing for the first time?
JB: Make it to the end of the test, I tell my riders with a smile, and do it without major mess-ups. It takes several classes, even for me on a new horse, before I am comfortable and can really ride through the test instead of just coaching it through.

Initially, you sort of just coach and fumble through it. Things go wrong. Once you're comfortable, then you can really ride and make changes to it or make things better. Mileage in the ring is critical. You cannot get around it, however long it takes. If it takes 10 rides in the show ring, then that is what it takes. For each person it is different.

Can you describe what "focus" means to you and how you apply it when you are competing?
JB: Focus is your ability to see four or five steps ahead of what's happening, so that when something is not totally right, you have already dealt with it before it goes wrong. Then you can truly be with the horse because you are a little bit ahead and prepared for whatever comes your way.

You must have a clear picture of what it is you want the horse to do each step of the way. This takes concentration. At home, when I am teaching, I sometimes see a student wandering around the arena. When I ask "What did you want from the horse?" many times I do not get a clear answer. That makes it hard for the horse and he thinks: If you don't know what you are doing up there, honey, for sure I am not going to know. That's being unfocussed and lacking clarity.

My job is to teach the rider to have a clear picture so she can develop her own instinctual abilities. I do not want to tell the rider every step of the ride. Sometimes riders underperform or try something that is way too hard, but at least they are trying. It is always better to reach a little higher and to have to come back down. At least you know where your goal is. Just because you have not reached it yet doesn't mean you won't. You just have to figure out the way to get there.

How do you help a student handle disappointment coming out of the show arena?
JB: Forgetting a movement happens to Olympic riders. It can happen to anybody. You have to expect that at some point in your riding career that it is going to happen. You deal with it in a positive way. The point is not to let it affect the rest of your test.

A low score is a bit trickier. It takes time to develop the ability to really ride through the test and give the judge confidence to give you a higher score. So if there is a spot that lacks confidence and then on top of that something goes wrong, many times I see the judges be a bit harsher. If you come in and ride a big chunk of your test with great confidence but then something goes wrong at some point, I find those tests tend to score higher than I anticipated.

Decide what your goal is for a particular show. For example, sometimes in the middle of the summer, I do not need the horse to sparkle like I would in February for the bigger shows. I don't want to ask him to stay at the super level all year round, but he should not just be sitting around. I might take a horse to a show to find any weak spots and then have time to work on them before they become problems. One reason to change your show goal is if you end up at a show without good footing and you don't want to go full blast.

How would you define microtraining?
JB: This builds up over time and as you get closer to your high-performance goals. Once the horse/rider pair is fit and everything is where it ought to be, then you get into the nitty gritty small details that earn extra points. This is not something you do a year out. If you look at your horse as a work of art, then these are the final details. You may change a shoeing detail to get one more little thing out of it. Or you may get a winning detail from your vet, chiropractor or acupuncturist. The whole team gets involved in the micro-details. How can I make this horse feel his absolute best?

Being goal-oriented is a common denominator among top athletes. How would you define this?
JB: This varies from student to student. If you have professionals riding with you, then their goals are also related to maintaining their businesses. You have to be out there doing your job for people to see. Your first goal may be the regional championships and then the nationals or a selection trial. For the amateur, the goal may be simply to ride better. I may set the goals for them, which do not necessarily involve any horse shows. It may be just a safety issue. I want to know that when I am not there nothing bad is going to happen. If I am doing consecutive clinics, then I want to know when I come back in a month that everything will be just fine. So I organize a program for the student that is safe and manageable but will also allow good progress.

How do you find your rhythm when riding in the show arena?
JB: First I remember that I am dealing with a horse. Sometimes he is not at his best and it becomes the rider's job to drag the horse with him a little bit. If something is going wrong, it is up to the rider to make it happen. If the tempo is not there then the rider has to create it. For example, you come up to a line of tempi changes and your horse has blocked you somewhere. Well guess what, you better pull it off. The judge is not going to allow you to do a circle to get it organized. You just have to do it. If it is not pretty then so be it, but at least it got done.

Maybe the horse is working a little against you and is distracted but still needs to learn to keep going. A lot of the riding really happens in your head. Your body comes in handy when it is fit. You have the strength and stamina and can react fast enough. But when you are more organized in your head, you are clearer about what you want it to look and feel like, so you can get there faster. For me as the trainer, it is my job to guide a student to that feeling if she does not have it.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Dressage Today.

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