An interview with Sjef Janssen


“My equestrian career started when I was twenty eight years old, married, and on my way to the tennis court several times a week, I took my little daughter with me and we would pass a meadow, and there was a foal in it. She liked that foal, so stupid as I was, I decided to buy it. One thing led to another, a little while later I bought an eighteen month old stallion, Oran, and he was to become my first Grand Prix horse.”

“So I had two horses but I didn’t know what to do with them. The previous owners helped me a little bit.”

“Then I joined some friends of mine who went every Sunday to a riding school for a hack out. But I couldn’t ride, so I had to take a couple of lessons. Then I started going out on Sunday afternoons with these guys – wild in the woods.”

“Then the Riding School went bankrupt. I had a little bit of money left, so I bought it and that is how it all started…”

“It all happened by accident. A friend of mine was supposed to take care of the Riding School. I didn’t know shit about horses. After a year that didn’t work so well, and I got divorced, so I was open to something new, and I decided to do it myself. But I still didn’t know anything.”

“They had just opened a school in classical dressage riding in Belgium, people who had studied at the Spanish Riding School, with Nuno Oliveira in Portugal, people like that. They had about thirty horses that could do passage, piaffe, pirouette, all the so-called difficult stuff. I decided to go to that school. It was seven hours riding a day, two years in a row – so I did a lot of mileage in two years. Those people were very classical and I like that a lot. At the time I had to work in my own barn also – then I decided to start and compete in Holland.”

“I bought a Belgian Hanoverian that could do almost Grand Prix, and that second horse, Oran, that I had bought at the start was now three years old, so I broke him in while I was at the school.”



“I learned a lot about dressage from the people at the school, they had a lot of technique and splendid horses that let you feel the really good piaffe, and the really good passage and really good pirouettes.”

What is your philosophy of training?

“The philosophy behind my work is that number one, I am for classical dressage, the way it is supposed to look in the FEI rules. But my philosophy of training is different, I treat horses like athletes, instead of using the classical training methods because I don’t think they work any more in these modern times. The horses are different, there’s way more Thoroughbred in them, so you have to approach them differently, also mentally. The horses in the past were those really heavy horses, and you didn’t need to train them much in the lower frame because they were very difficult to bend and flex.”

“I think that when you show a horse you bring it up in front, and show it in its full glory, on its haunches, light in the forehand – but I think if you try to train a horse that way every day, he will not be able to physically stand it. He will get a lot of pain, a lot of back pain.”

“A lot of people are against our way of training because they think we over bend the horses and that will hurt the neck and the back, but two professors have conducted a research project, and soon there is an article to be published, and they have proved that riding the horse always up, is very dangerous for the horse, and riding them deep is very good for the horse, especially the neck and the flexibility. So what we did unconsciously in our training has now been proven very good for the horse’s well being.”

Riding the horse deep is very different from the way you would have been taught with the very classical instructors – what made you think of putting the horse in that position?

“I had a very difficult horse, the horse I had bought for my daughter – that yearling colt. He was extremely difficult so he was a very good learning experience for me. I had to invent a lot of stuff, because in the traditional way, I was not able to ride him. I had to experiment a lot, and I started riding him deeper, more over his back, because he had a tendency of hollow his back and go short in the neck – I had to make him round and his frame go longer. That’s actually where it started, and I had very good results with that horse. That was how, he ended up taking me into the Dutch team.”

“It was just a matter of testing and experimenting. I couldn’t get him on the bit, he was extremely difficult in the mouth, very sensitive, you could not even touch him in the mouth or the back would be gone again. I really had to get a connection on my snaffle to make him stretch. It took about a year and a half, and then we finally agreed – okay I’m going to put you real deep and I’m going to get the contact from there and then I can get you longer. He was also very hot and very sensitive to the leg. He was an extremely difficult horse but at the end, we got it.”

Did you get a lot of resistance, this guy coming into the team who had never ridden before he was twenty eight?
“There was a lot of resistance but I stuck to the system I had developed. Every horse you have to change it a little bit, but the basics are the same for every horse. My methods were extremely different, and they hated my guts for a long time, but if you keep coming back and keep coming back, and the horse is always improving and your students are becoming national champions, then at some point they have to accept you, because the results are good.”

“I think that because in our system, the horses get very loose and very manoeuvrable, and they seem to be very happy in it, they get more beauty, they get very concentrated on what we are trying to do with them, they accept it very willingly – so if a horse is sound and happy, why change what you are doing?”

“I think that the elasticity of gaits that our horses show is a result of this training. I see a lot of horses that are trained ‘up’ in the FEI test position and after the years of work, they get more stiff and irregular in their movement. Sometimes it looks as if the work is hurting them and their gaits get worse. The results of good dressage training should be that the basic gaits get better.”

“The way we train you never see our horses go behind the bit, they are always very nicely up and on the bit. A lot of horses that are so-called classically trained, I see them in the ring and very often they are too deep. So who’s right here? I think it is very obvious.”

When you were developing your philosophy of working the horse deep, were you aware of the deep and round work Dr Schulten-Baumer was doing with Nicole Uphoff and Isabell Werth?
“That’s totally different. I can only comment on what I see at shows, but it is absolutely not our system. We work on being honestly through, and on the bit, they seem to do it a little different, sometimes the connection and the steadiness of the position is not always the same. Sometimes the connection does not seem to be straight and on two reins, sometimes they get a little too deep, and sometimes a little too much over the bit. Sometimes they tilt their head a little bit. That’s what I think is different about what we do. I think we are way more on a very honest connection.”

When do you like to start your young horses?
“As three year olds. I ride most of the young horses at home, the three, four and five year olds. With the three year olds, we only work them half an hour a day, max. Very light work, very big circles, some transitions. Enough canter – a lot of people forget the canter with the young horses, that’s not good, they should canter enough when they are young because it makes them stronger. The canter is the most difficult gait to balance, so you need to get some mileage with that. We spend equal time on walk and trot and canter, maybe a little less canter – but still not like it was in the past when the canter was done at the end and just a little bit.” When do you start the lateral exercises – travers, renvers, shoulder in?

“Travers and renvers, not that quick. With the four year olds, I do some shoulder fore, not a real shoulder in yet, lots more transitions, leg yield. We have a tendency to do more of the bending and the flexing at the end of the fourth year.”

“How we work the young horses depends on the horse. Some we ride real deep, some we ride ‘half deep’ or however you want to call it. You cannot tell until you go ride the horse. If a horse has a lot of back problems, problems accepting the bit, and very difficult to stretch out, then those horses we very often ride very deep.”

“But what is deep? Most of the time a horse has different blocks in his neck and jaw. Before you get to the deepest point, sometimes then especially with stallions, you have four or five of those frontiers that you will hit before you get him that far down that when you open your hand and give, you have the feeling that he really wants to stretch out without falling on the forehand, you really feel the back come up – they want to go round and stay round. Every time you open your hand and the horse wants to put his head straight up, that’s a sign that he has not been deep enough – it’s as simple as that. So with some horses you have to go very deep before you feel that they really want to stretch out and stay over their back. Some horses have that feeling more naturally, and they have a stronger back – so you don’t need to ride them that deep, but you should be able to do it.”

When do you start introducing the more collected movements?
“When they give it to us. You cannot ride collection, collection is a result of training. If your training is right, you will get collection as a result. Again it depends on the horse, when a horse has a lot of self carriage and a lot of balance, he will give you collection much quicker, maybe even as a five year old – but you never can tell, some horses wait until they are eight. We start asking for a few steps of passage and piaffe when they are five or six.”

You don’t try them out as three year olds to make sure they will be able to piaffe?
“No, we have proven that we can put a piaffe and passage on a donkey, so I’m not too worried about that. The quality might vary from horse to horse but you can put it on them, that’s no problem. The passage is also the result of training. When the collection is getting very good with a lot of self carriage and balance, and when they are really obedient, quick to the aids, and listening to the half halts and the transitions, you will get a passage as a present at a certain moment. That’s my experience in our work, we hardly use a whip or anything like that. I think we do it very natural most of the time, of course, some horses that don’t have the natural ability we have to help a bit, but most of the time you get it for free because the training has been alright.”

You like to work with horses with a lot of Thoroughbred blood?
“Yes, they give you a lot of power to go forward, most of the time. Sometimes you have to regulate it in the beginning because it is difficult to teach them that they have respond to your aids instead of on their own nature. Thoroughbreds are often bad in responding to the leg, but once you teach them that, and have the control over the horse, then everything is way easier because they most of them like to work, they are sensitive and intelligent, and have good bodies to work with. I like very much the combination we have in Holland, the Dutch breeding is a mixture, there’s a lot of German blood, French, Thoroughbred, old Dutch bloodlines.”

How much better can dressage horses get – how much better can you get than Bonfire?

“Not much. Maybe 5%. I think I am a very objective and very critical son-of-a-bitch, but what Bonfire showed at Rome, I’ve never seen him like that in my life. I saw experienced older trainers and they were sitting there with tears in their eyes, even for a simple Grand Prix. That means a lot to me – even our biggest enemy said it was very very good. It must have been very good then…”

“I think what Bonfire can do now is going to be very hard to beat in the future. Things that are very difficult for horses, he can really play with, he enjoys the most difficult things. It will be very hard to find a horse that can do such difficult things with so much expression, that he is happy doing it the whole time… the playing way of showing it, is going to be difficult to beat.”

Do you enjoy teaching riders?
“I hardly teach any more. I used to teach a lot in the past. I think it’s not so easy in dressage because I think we are very backward. I don’t think we are that good, but I think we are better than the rest. Even in Germany and Holland, in the lower levels and at the regional shows, there is a lot of extremely bad riding. A lot of people don’t even know how to approach a horse, how he thinks and how he feels, how he should be handled, how to get a language together – they cannot even treat their dog well, how can they treat a horse well!!! That’s the most important thing that is not so well developed in the horse world, and that is how to handle and speak and work with the horse. The information the horse gives you in the training, these riders don’t know how to handle it. They have been taught a certain system, and if the horse doesn’t immediately do what they expect, they get angry and they punish too much. A lot of these riders just don’t recognise what the horse is trying to tell them.”

“In our training we invite the horse to give us information, when we get information we can do something. Of course you have that basic mileage that you have to put on a horse, but if you want to specialise and get better and do it in a way the horse likes, then you need to talk to them. And you have to be able to handle that information in a way that he will understand. Not many people train like this…”

Do you need a natural rider, or can you teach someone to do this?
“I think that you can teach almost anyone to do this, but you need a lot of patience and you need to be concentrating on your horse, and you need to be open in your body to the information, you need to be able to feel it. I feel there are more people in the jumping world who are able to do in the right way, than there are in the dressage world. I think the quality of the jumping – and some event riders – is way better than most of the so-called good dressage riders.”

“If people can develop a good partnership with their horse, then the quality of the improvement will be tremendous. Of course the horse must be submissive but you can teach that in a way that he will accept it easily – you can also teach it in the wrong way and there will be a lot of resistance and fighting and shit going on. You don’t want to do that because it takes a lot of energy out of you, and out of the horse. Of course you are the boss, and you tell him what is going to happen, but you can do it in a way that he accepts it willingly.”

“One of our main things with training horses is that we want to simplify the whole procedure. When you listen to the old instructors, what they call the classical way, for a half pass or a shoulder in, they want to use ten aids, we try to cut it down to one or two aids. As soon as you set your horse in a certain movement, then you should drop all the aids anyway because you don’t want to keep pumping the horse – just give him the directions, set him in the right way, then sit back and relax. We try to simplify it, use as little aids as possible to tell the horse what to do.”

Were you a natural rider?

“I don’t think I’m a natural rider. I rode a lot, and I had good lessons.”

Anky on being a Natural Rider
Anky: “I think maybe I’m too much of a natural rider. Sjef is the one who has the goals, I’m more like having fun and enjoying myself. I play with horses more. My goal is to do it really well but it can take me another year, f is more like you have to do this now, and have to do it like this. Don’t play around for half an hour, that’s not riding, start riding immediately. That’s why I need him…”

Sjef on judges:
“The has been a lot of thinking about the system but what I think we need is quality judging. There are a lot of good judges, but there are also a lot of bad judges – just like riders, and just like trainers. Everyone can get a lot better with good education. Also there should be the possibility that if a judge does a bad job at a couple of important shows in a row, that they tell him, ‘okay this has been enough for a while, stay home for a year, get some lessons, somebody needs to help you, then we take you back again’. There are not enough opportunities to do that. The most benefit can come from getting all the judges on a higher level. There are some judges of a very high standard, and they are doing a good job, but the problem exists because of a number of judges who are not on the same level as the other guys.”

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