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Training Youngsters to Grand Prix

With top dressage horses often going for six figures, owning even a single Grand Prix mount is a challenge for most people. Yet amateur rider Alice Tarjan has come up with an economic approach to horse selection coupled with no-pressure training that has produced a string of Grand Prix athletes with others coming up the levels.

grand prix
Alice Tarjan and Serenade MF were named to the U.S. Dressage Team short list for the 2022 FEI Dressage World Championships, in Herning, Denmark, in August.
© Susan J. Stickle

“It is amazing how she can just bring up horse after horse to Grand Prix like that and have them do as well as they do. That is remarkable,” said U.S. dressage development coach Charlotte Bredahl.

At press time, Tarjan, 42, had five horses in the top five of the 2022 Markel/USEF Dressage Young Horse National Championships, including:

  • Ice Princess, fifth in the Four-Year-Old division
  • Ierland’s Eden, third in the Five-Year-Old
  • Gjenganger, second in the Six-Year-Old
  • Summersby II, second in the Seven-Year-Old 
  • Jane, second in the Developing Horse Grand Prix. 

On top of that, Tarjan and Serenade MF were among 10 horse/rider combinations named to the U.S. Dressage Team short list for the 2022 FEI Dressage World Championships, in Herning, Denmark, in August. She and Serenade were chosen to compete this summer on the Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team at the FEI Dressage Nations Cup™ in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, show, an observation event for the world championships squad. And last year, she and Candescent, a 12-year-old Hanoverian mare (Christ 3 x Falkenstern II) finished sixth in the mandatory observation trial for the U.S. Olympic dressage team candidates.

Tarjan’s way of doing things takes time. She points out that choosing youngsters and bringing them through the levels has two major advantages over buying a made horse: “You save money, and you put your type of training on them,” she said.

“She certainly has an eye for a young horse,” said former U.S. dressage technical advisor Debbie McDonald.

That well-trained eye is another key to her success. She picks out prospects at an age when they are a bargain compared to what they would cost after training. 

Most of her horses are purchased off videos, although occasionally she will buy a U.S.-bred horse. The 9-year-old
Hanoverian mare Serenade MF (Sir Donnerhall x Don Principe) is one of those, and Tarjan has bred a few of her own, too.

Selecting Horses 

As of June 1, Tarjan, ranked 77th in the world with the 11-year-old Oldenburg mare Donatella M (Furstenball x Jazz Time) and 85th with Serenade, rarely sees the European imports in person until they arrive in the U.S. and are leaving quarantine. Instead, there are several key elements she considers when making her selection of new talent long distance via video.

“You want horses that naturally have an uphill way of going and articulate their joints,” Tarjan said. “You’re looking for a certain mechanic of the gaits in the way they move their bodies and use their bodies.”

In terms of how they move through their bodies, she looks for horses who are “elastic, like a panther, something that’s slinky.” While watching a horse’s video, she wants to see if “the whole body can coil, not just the legs.”

Scope is also important, but it has to be kept in perspective. “You want an active hind end that is able to carry weight and has a good rhythm to it.”

When assessing that aspect, she asks the question: “Are the hind legs underneath them or pushing out behind them?” And you don’t want a horse that drags his toes.

McDonald, who worked with Tarjan in Florida, remarked, “Amazing how she does it time and time again.”

Tarjan and the 12-year-old Hanoverian mare Candescent
© Stephanie J. Ruff

Letting the Horses Acclimate

The real work begins after the horses arrive, and Tarjan starts training them.

But a first crucial step is giving the horses time to acclimate. “Some of them are bonkers the first day or two,” Tarjan said. “When you get them fresh out of quarantine, they’re a little shellshocked and they’re typically hot because they’ve been sitting in a stall. Once you get them in the routine, you end up with the normal horse.”

Tarjan doesn’t get alarmed about a horse’s behavior after he clears quarantine. “I’m not ever surprised. It’s a lot of stress on the horses, everything changes for them—their diet, the language, the routine. You have to be fair to the horses and let them settle in and see what you have.

Training All Personalities

Tarjan’s next job is “to figure out how to train all personalities,” she said. She keeps an open mind as her horses progress. A case in point is 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood Jane (Desperado NOP x Metall), who won the qualifier for the Lovsta Future Challenge Grand Prix Series Championship Intermediate II at the Adequan Global Equestrian Festival earlier this year and finished third in the Developing Grand Prix finals.

“She’s turned into a really solid horse. When I started with her, I was not as excited about her as I had been with some of the others,” Tarjan acknowledged.

And here’s where the patience comes in. “She’s certainly proven you can do a lot with training, and that horse has really come along. Compared to some of the other horses in the barn, she’s not the scopeiest mover, but she’s super rideable and very uphill and very dependable. The training has helped with the scope, too. She has a very good rhythm and mechanic for the work, so that stands out.”

On the next step in Alice’s pipeline, her 7-year-old mare Summersby II (Sezuan x Sandro Hit), was marked at 71.617 percent to win the Summit Farm Future Challenge at Prix St. Georges level during Global. 

Jane surprised Tarjan with how much progress she made. They won the qualifier for the Lovsta Future Challenge Grand Prix Series Championship Intermediate II at the Adequan Global Equestrian Festival earlier this year.
© Nancy Jaffer

Mistakes Are Part of the Process

Although Tarjan has a reputation for selecting young horses with talent, that wouldn’t take her very far without her training philosophy that develops them the way they should go, without stress. “The horses perform better when they have a good understanding of what they’re doing,” she explained. 

“For me, the goal is to have the horses be confident in the work and be happy and understand what they’re being asked to do. I start young horses in the Young Horse test. The advantage is you can make mistakes and they don’t penalize you for it as much as in the regular test.” 

Describing her training methods, Tarjan said, “When I bring my horses up, I am very open to them making mistakes. As long as they try to give me an answer, they can give me the wrong answer, and that’s OK. 

“It’s my job to explain to the horses better what I’m asking them for. We get some brilliant work, and then you get a lot of stuff that doesn’t look like anything. You start doing a [flying] change and it’s late, I just ignore it. I don’t worry about it. They all come along, and they all figure it out, and you can put ones [one tempis] on them.

“As a result, horses are much less worried in the training.” 

That philosophy carries up through the levels. “Alice has such a talent for putting piaffe/passage on all her horses,” Bredahl said. “She does it really well …. You don’t see any resistance in the piaffe/passage tour like you often see with others. Her horses are always ready to perform in that.”

Tarjan believes most horses want to take the path of least resistance. “People say the horse is being naughty. I don’t believe that. I think the horses are confused and don’t understand what to do. If they understood what to do, it would be much easier for them to choose the right path.”

Part of Tarjan’s success is her focus on each individual horse. She tries to understand each horse and bring him along in a way the horse accepts.
© Nancy Jaffer

Training Young Horses

Marcus Orlob, Tarjan’s main trainer who also rides her stallions Glory Day and Maximus, is a native of Germany now based in New Jersey. That gives him a unique perspective.

In Germany, riders often work with young horses and aim at the world championships for that group. In America, many riders hope “for a big-money sponsor that can buy them a made Grand Prix horse. I think it’s really sad that, in general, the U.S. doesn’t focus on young horses,” he said.

One problem, he believes, is the lack of young horse trainers in the U.S. Another hitch is that in this country, a young horse may not be ridden like a sporthorse. “It’s sad to see riders who are afraid to ride the young horse forward; it might spook, it might take off,” he said. Tarjan isn’t in that category.

“She’s on them if they’re wild or not wild; she’s not a wimp,” said Lars Petersen, a Danish Olympian who also has had a hand in training Tarjan.

Understanding Each Horse

Her program goes beyond riding to proper consideration of her horses’ needs. Orlob notes some people are reluctant to utilize proper turnout, which is vital for young horses. 

At his farm, “whenever they want to come in, they come in, and Alice does the same. You let them play outside. When they let energy out, you have a much better ride on them because they can focus and are relaxed.” 

Asked to analyze what Tarjan does, he said, “Her talent or gift, she’s focused on each individual horse and tries to understand him and brings him along in the way the horse accepts it.

“We work the horses three to four times a week for a half-hour. It’s quality, not quantity. I think she really understands each horse. You see the end results. She has another top 6-year-old, another top 5-year-old. The quality is right there for the big ring.

“I think it is so unusual in this sport that she just does her own program, and it works for her.” 

Having her horses, such as Ierlands Eden, spend time turned out is important to Tarjan. When the horses play outside and let out their energy, they can focus when they are being ridden.
© Nancy Jaffer

Grit and Determination

Alice Tarjan has a penchant for black horses with white stockings—they dominate her stable. A preference for that color combo is rooted in her years with Licorice, her “evil” childhood pony that she took care of herself. 

At age 11, she would haul water from the house to the barn, muck the stall and not hold it against Licorice when he ran off with her.

Riding at the grassroots level and participating in the Somerset Hills Pony Club (eventer Doug Payne and show jumper Devin Ryan are also alums) gave Tarjan the base that has helped make her into the horsewoman she is today. 

In the 1990s, Tarjan was a long-listed eventer but then turned to dressage. She worked with Christina Gray and Silke Rembacz as well as Olympian Robert Dover to develop her skills in the discipline. Grit and determination are trademarks of Tarjan, who is a cancer survivor.

She trains her own young horses to Grand Prix at farms in Oldwick, New Jersey, and Loxahatchee, Florida. A lawyer who works with her husband, Dennis Sargenti, Tarjan is involved in their trucking and rigging business as well as real estate. The couple still enjoy foxhunting, which is how they met.

Licorice is the black pony with white markings who started Tarjan on her riding career.
Courtesy, Alice Tarjan

Bloodlines

Bloodlines don’t play a major role in Tarjan’s decisions about which horse to buy. “I have bloodlines that I think are interesting, but at the end of the day, I buy the individual horse,” she said. She notes the bloodlines simply offer an idea of potential. 

“Maybe with foals you’re likely to lean a little bit more on bloodlines,” she added. “Once there’s a horse on the ground to look at, then you’re looking at the horse on the ground.”

She acknowledged that a Dutch cross on the German line “is probably a good mix,” but cautioned, “it depends on the horse in front of you.”

As Tarjan emphasized, “Once they’re under saddle, it doesn’t matter what their bloodlines are. It could be a donkey crossed with a zebra, but if it does the Grand Prix for a 75 percent because of the way it goes, people don’t care.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Practical Horseman.

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