I first became connected with Jan Brons through his clinics at Chesapeake Dressage Institute in Annapolis, Maryland. I was intrigued by his teaching because of the simplicity he brings to dressage training—a field of study that can feel as though it is filled with moments of overwhelming complexity. As a mid-level Adult Amateur rider who is prone to overthinking, I came to particularly value his intense and relentless focus on one important building block at a time.
I was eager to receive his help with my own horse who is an older, laidback schoolmaster-type. For our first several sessions, which took place over the course of many months, the focus was simply on improving my mare’s reaction to my forward-driving leg aid. The first step of this, however, meant that I had to learn how to apply my leg aid, get a reaction and then completely release the aid so that my body became silent the moment she reacted. This is harder than it might seem and actually required a significant amount of strength to actively pull my leg away from my horse’s side—especially since I had a bad habit of clamping my legs to get her to go forward. I learned that the constant application of the leg aid is extremely counterproductive to developing a self-going horse.
The next step in this process was teaching my mare to react to a very small, nearly invisible aid. This can only be achieved by testing the horse’s response to the small aid. I did this by applying a tiny aid first. If she responded, the aid was immediately released as a reward. If she did not respond, I followed up with a louder aid. Once my horse reacted, I had to remember to immediately return to the tiny aid to test the reaction again. This process could be repeated as necessary.
As I became better at improving my horse’s reactivity, the focus shifted to channeling the new energy I created into uphill balance, a building block toward self-carriage. Ultimately, my lessons with Brons showed me how to get more from my horse by actually doing less. That’s a concept I’ve heard repeated by other great riders in the sport, like Laura Graves and Steffen Peters. Following are just a few training tips I’ve taken from Brons over the years that can be helpful for horses and riders of all levels:
1. Only give your horse one aid at a time. As you advance, the aids can come in quicker succession, but it’s still only one aid at a time.
2. Allow your horse to make a mistake, and then correct him once he makes the mistake. If you prevent him from making mistakes, you’re preventing him from learning.
3. Often, it’s not that horses are unable or unwilling to do something. You just have to tell them how to do it correctly.
4. If you are always chasing your horse around the arena with your leg, he isn’t necessarily in front of your leg. He’s just running and dragging himself along with his legs. You must be able to have him shift his weight back to free the shoulders.
5. You need to be able to take away your leg and the horse should still go forward. If you’re kicking and driving your horse into a canter pirouette, he’s still going to have too big of a stride to perform a proper pirouette. He should be able to go forward on his own and you should be able to collect him with your seat.
Born in Vlaardingen, Holland, Jan Brons began riding lessons at age 11. He later attended the Dutch Equestrian Center in Deurne, The Netherlands, developing a broad range of skills as a rider. He did vaulting, driving and some eventing while honing his skills in dressage. He arrived in the United States in 1987. He spent 12 years training under Robert Dover, with whom he credits much of his success. Brons has also trained with Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer Linda Smith and was the first recipient of The Dressage Foundation’s $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize, which allowed him to train intensively in Holland with Anky van Grunsven in 2010 and 2011. He’s earned multiple U.S. national championship titles over the years from young horse divisions through Grand Prix, and he has also claimed several wins at the regional level. In 2001, he established his business in Wellington, Florida. More than 19 years later, it continues to thrive as he actively competes at the international levels, working with personal and client horses. He has a loyal following of students and travels regularly for clinics.