Ahead of Tokyo 2020, Jan Ebeling speaks to Cavalor about the importance of horses being happy athletes...
Top American Dressage rider and Olympian Jan Ebeling grew up in Germany in a family that initially had no connection with horses.
Young Jan was drawn towards soccer as a child, but his grandmother soon changed his path – riding was a better idea in her opinion. He later became an apprentice to the late German Master Herbert Rehbein before emigrating to the US in 1984.
Jan is a top international Dressage rider and a member of the High Performance Dressage Eligible Athlete Committee.
He conducts clinics both nationally and internationally while running a training and sales facility in Moorpark, California as well as in Wellington, Florida together with his wife, Amy and son, Ben...
Valor, the magazine published by FEI nutrition partner Cavalor, spoke with Jan about his opinions on training and how a horse that is a happy athlete will lead you to success...
Where do you think the challenge lies in being so dedicated to your work, day in and day out?
JE: I train horses first and foremost because I love working with them. Of course, I also enjoy going to competitions, but the fundamentals lie in working together on an everyday basis. I consider myself lucky to be able to do something I love so much each and every day.
Although my working days are long and hard, they do not really feel that way. Every new horse is a challenge to explore. I need to figure out how to improve the horse while slowly and meticulously moving toward the upper levels, so that I can improve the horse physically, mentally, and athletically. Every horse is unique, so tapping into the understanding of each horse and how each one learns is key to progress.
How do you ensure your horse uses its energy correctly each day?
JE: The competition horses of today have a lot of blood and are more athletic than 50 years ago. This energy must be put to use correctly. Inexperienced riders are often overwhelmed or over faced by this and a tired horse makes them feel safe.
However, the biggest mistake a rider can make is to think that a tired horse means they have had a good exercise session. In this case, the rider is confusing tiredness with submission , while the horse is in fact showing signs that its energy reserves have been depleted. I always try to avoid getting to this point when exercising a horse. This means the horse may still feel fresh at the end of a session, but this is just a good sign that it still has sufficient energy and has not resorted to reserves.
In Dressage, there is a lot of discussion about when a horse is a ‘happy athlete’ and when they are not. How can we recognize when a horse is feeling happy?
JE: Horses are such incredible and noble animals. Oftentimes riders make the mistake to ask for more than the horse is capable of giving. Riding Dressage at any level requires there to be positive tension in the horse so that one can tap into the horse’s power and grace. A horse that is a happy athlete has enough tension in its muscles when working but is focused and relaxed. They could be compared to tightrope artists.
I am always astounded at how controlled and relaxed they are when venturing onto a tightrope at such incredible heights. But these athletes are simply so good at what they do and experience no fear because they have achieved a balance by applying a level of positive tension in their body and are extremely focused. They have built up self-confidence through lots of practice. I try to help my horses achieve the same. I try to give them the confidence of sensing that what I ask of them is not impossible.
A horse is a happy athlete if it is self-confident, not forced into doing its job in a relaxed state of focus and has the correct level of tension in its muscles.
You aim to compete, but not only to win the prize. What motivates you to go back into the arena time and again?
JE: I’ve been a competitor all my life, I am a very ambitious and successful rider. When I ride, of course I want to win or place, but that’s not what motivates me. Riding and developing horses is what drives me, not winning prizes.
I meet other top riders at competitions and enjoy watching their methods and observing different training regimes. I often try to apply tips or techniques that I observe from other riders to my own training. Furthermore, the goals I have set myself with each horse come first. Testing the horse in a competition shows me how the overall training is going, steadily progressing up the levels. I don’t always go out into competition with the idea that I must win, but often, I challenge the horse and myself to improve on the previous outing. For me, seeing a horse improve steadily is the key to training and being patient is important.
Not everyone has the opportunity to learn on highly experienced horses. Do you have any advice for how a rider can become the best they possibly can?
JE: You learn riding by riding. Of course the more you ride good horses with good help from a trainer the better your chances are of improving. Fortunately nowadays, most information can be accessed on the internet and we can easily access the best trainers in the world.
If you have an inexperienced horse, my advice is to find a good instructor who will also improve your horse with his/her own riding and who gives you correct feedback. The same advice is true if you have a very experienced horse.
Ensure that you and your trainer develop a plan for how to achieve your goals and that you go back and adjust these at regular intervals. Allow your horse to lead you in this process and you will succeed. If you have a solid plan it will lead to success, however you define that.