Talking dressage with Sjef Janssen


Sjef Janssen came to horses relatively late in life, but lost no time in first carving a career for himself as an international Grand Prix competitor, then, with his partner, Anky van Grunsven, establishing himself as one of the world’s great dressage trainers. Chris Hector took time out to chat with Sjef – and clarify a few of the training techniques that Sjef and Anky demonstrated at last year’s Dressage with the Stars Master-Class.

I think one thing that puzzled a lot of Australians who were at Anky’s Master Class last December, was when Anky said that you do not push a horse with your leg into a halt?

“What they didn’t understand, perhaps, was that Anky also talked a lot about transitions, and if you make a million upward and downward transitions, then when the horse makes a downward transition, he is thinking so much forward, then when he listens correctly to the half halt, he comes under himself automatically, you don’t have to push him any more.”

“You can see 90% of the time, pushing the horse into the halt is not going to help anyway, because if the horse is not through enough, when you push the horse is just going to dive more on the forehand, and more into the bit – they may stand square, but it doesn’t have anything to do with a correct halt.”

So the way to make the horse halt correctly is have him think, ‘at any second, I might have to go forward’….

“Even if you make a stop they should think forward.”

You also have some strong ideas on horses and rhythm…

“Every horse has its natural rhythm that it is born with, but by the time he grows up, and becomes fully developed in his body, then the rhythm, a lot of the time, changes. When the horse is fully mature, and through training, in balance, then you can find the ideal rhythm.”

“You should be able to change rhythms a lot in your training – but you should always be able to give the horse the rhythm he likes the best and the rhythm that is the best for him – the one the judges will like the best – whenever you want, and especially in the last couple of days before a competition you train more in that rhythm than all the other ones.”

“But we don’t always ride the horse in that rhythm – we’ll just touch base every now and then to see that rhythm is in place – but we ride a lot of different rhythms.”

“We try to make them quicker, not that often slower because we don’t want to teach horses to think backwards – that happens a lot, then you see a lot of springy-passagey trot… and that is the most dangerous part of your whole dressage training. This false passage corrupts the trot and corrupts the passage – once they get used to that springy trot, and they feel they can handle it easily, then they can hide in it. Then they start thinking backwards, they don’t react to your legs any more – then you have a problem that is going to take a lot of time to fix.”

Would you rather push the horse a little above its natural rhythm in its work?

“It depends on the horse. Bonfire likes to be quick, so we slow him down a lot. It’s always the other way round, so you should be able with a horse like Bonfire who is so athletic that he has four or five rhythms, then you have to train them. Change the rhythm the whole time – because in every different trot in every different rhythm, he has to use different muscles. By changing the rhythm, you train more of the body than you would if you always stay in one gait.”

Because of the problem with the ‘false passage’ do you prefer to train piaffe before you train passage?

“It depends, all the books say they like to do piaffe first, but I don’t believe in that. We use what we get presented. If I expect the horse to have more problems in piaffe than passage, then I’ll pick up piaffe earlier, because you can expect that by the time they are five or six, they’ll have a good passage anyway. If you suspect that the horse is going to have way more problems with the passage, then you start the passage earlier.”

Let’s talk about contact – do you ever ride a horse on a longer lighter rein?

“Yeah, it’s the same as changing the rhythm, you should be able to go on a light connection, a medium connection and you should be able to go on a heavy connection – you don’t want to have that too often, but you should be able to do it. With Bonfire, we like to have a heavy connection in the extended walk, because then the horse really stretches out. I like to ride my horses a lot on a very light rein, you won’t see it, but I have almost nothing in my hand. Some horses need more connection in the trot because it makes them feel nicer, and they go a little longer in the frame, and go a little more over the back. Some horses you have to ride with almost no contact on the rein in a collected walk, you have to be able to make them wait on a looser rein so they won’t pace. There are ten thousand variations…”

In the collected paces should the contact be lighter or heavier?

“Normally collection means that the horse gets more weight on his hindquarters, and more elevated in his front, and that means that the connection can never be heavier. It can get heavier at times, but it will not stay that way. If you do try to keep that heavier contact in collection, they are going to stop using their back in a very short time. Even in high collection, even when the horse is in a very elevated frame, you should feel that the horse has the tendency to want to go over the back and stretch out. The horse has to be ready to stretch out again immediately – in extended trot, or canter or walk, and to do this, the horse has to be able to follow the connection with the rider – and to my regret, I don’t see that too often.”

“The general rule is that when you have high collection, you should not have much connection – and generally there is more connection in extension, but again, there are some horses that extend on a looser connection, but most of them, especially in extended trot, extended walk, when they lengthen their frame a little, you need more connection, because without connection they cannot follow. You must train the horse to follow the connection, if your hands go forward with a certain connection to the mouth, and you push him a little into it, he should stretch out immediately, with a rounding, stretching, tendency.”

“That’s what you do all the time, you pick them up, you collect, you make them round again, relax them again, make them stretch again, then collect again – it’s all the time gymnastics. There are no secrets, it’s very plain ordinary work, work every athlete does – soccer players, track and field, swimmers. If you watch the development of modern training techniques in all kinds of sports, they all look the same. If it works for the people, it will work for the horses again.”

How much depends on the horse?

“Of course you need a good one. You can make a bad one, reasonable; you can make a good one, special or very good. You should never forget that if you have a horse with certain basic gaits, if your training is right, the basic gaits will come better. If you see a four year old who has fantastic gaits, then when you see him when he is a six year old, he is moving a lot worse, it can only be a result of bad training.”

What sort of horse do you like to start with?

“The more Thoroughbred the better the horse is. They are more intelligent most of the time and they have a lot of energy sometimes. They are a good example for connection training, because they tend to have connection problems because of tension or nervousness – sometimes they like to lengthen their frame in a different way, in a stiff way, so that gives you a hell of a lot of work, but the chances are it is worthwhile, because in the end, they are still very electric, very happy, very quick, even when they get older – look at Bonfire, he only got better when he got older, and he has a lot of Thoroughbred blood in him.”

When you buy a horse, would you like to see it trained to a certain level?

“Absolutely not, I like to buy them as three and four year olds, we sometimes buy five, six and seven year olds because they have so much talent, but most of the time, it takes you a year to re-train them so you get them where you want them. I prefer a four year old, trained in my program, that way you never get into problems yourself.”

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