August 2017 - Tomorrow’s Stars
Written by CRM
Saturday, 29 July 2017 20:31
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Olympian Jan Ebeling shares his thoughts on getting more kids into dressage.

Olympic dressage rider Jan Ebeling and his wife Amy do not run a summer camp at their Moorpark training facility, The Acres. But you could be forgiven for thinking that if you visited the barn in the summer. Kids are cleaning tack, pulling manes and sweeping aisles. They’re also hacking some of Jan’s young horses, so that’s your clue that these aren’t the typically beginner equestrians that would attend a summer camp. These are dedicated, accomplished young riders, poised to follow their coach’s footprints into the upper echelons of the sport.

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Three members of the USDF Region 7 NAJYRC team are Jan’s students, including he and Amy’s son Ben. Seventeen year old Ben is a NAJYRC returnee, as is his teammate and fellow Acres rider: Christian Simonson, while stablemate Ava Dingley is a first-time NAJYRC-er. The fourth member of the Region 7 Junior squad is Aleyna Dunn, who rode with Jan before moving to San Diego, where she now trains with Christine Traurig.

Throughout his career, Jan has embodied the idea that ribbons are wonderful but not worthwhile if you’re not having fun in the process and that may explain his success with youth. Along with having an unusually high concentration of young stars in his training program, Jan has also been a USDF Young Rider clinician and a Region 7 chef d’equipe.

California Riding Magazine editor Kim F Miller asked the 2012 U.S. Olympic team rider to share his thoughts on getting more young riders into dressage.

Kim: What was your own experience with horses and competing growing up in Germany? 
Jan: When I was these kids’ age, I was part of a group of probably 10 to 15 riders, between 12 and 18 years old, and we sort of were all competing with each other as we tried out for regional and national championships. Europe in general has a lot of different programs for juniors, starting with a pony program for dressage riders that is very competitive.
Most kids are introduced to horses through clubs. These are like a tennis club here, where you join and get to play. Most riding clubs owned school horses that you rented out for individual or group lessons, so you didn’t have the expense that we have here of going right into a private training program and buying a horse.

Kim: How do you assess the state of youth dressage involvement in the U.S. currently?
Jan: I would like to see more and I think it should be a concern for the sport. I don’t think we have enough young blood coming up. And it’s not just a problem in the United States. Even in Germany, they are having problems generating interest in young people. I think it’s a challenge everywhere.

Kim: Do we have some national youth-oriented programs in the States that you feel good about?
Jan: The NAJYRC is a great event that motivates people, but we need to have more events that do that. Robert Dover has been talking about that for years. I think what Lendon Gray is doing with the Dressage4Kids program is great. She’s tailored it after what they do in Europe.

Kim: What can individual trainers do to attract more kids?
Jan: I think we all have to think about what we can do locally or through our regional chapters. Here at The Acres we are talking about holding another open house for the public and tailoring it to kids. I would love to have more kids and we are so grateful for those we do have and for what kind of young riders and horsemen they are.

Kim: How have you attracted so many kids to The Acres?
Jan: We’ve always sort of just had kids around. And I had always worked with juniors and young riders even before Amy and I got married and became parents. It’s possible that having our own son be one of these riders is partly the reason we’ve attracted so many talented riders around the same time.

Kim: What kind of experience did Ava, Christian and Aleyna have when they joined your program?
Jan: All three came to us when they were 12 or 13. They had ridden with local trainers who gave them a good foundation for dressage. They were all very determined and serious about it and also ready to upgrade to horses that were a better fit for their ambitions.

Kim: Do you tailor your coaching in a way that keeps young riders more engaged?
Jan: My teaching depends on what the kids can do and they set the pace. In the case of Ben, Christian, Ava and Alyena, they’ve been so motivated. If they could be at the barn all day, they would be. They are super easy to train because they want it, they understand it and they love it. For them, it’s not just about the riding. It’s about the whole experience.

Kim: Dressage is often perceived as “serious” in a way that might not appeal to young enthusiasts. Yet, you’re well known for dressing up as John Travolta for your Grease pas de deux with Charlotte Bredahl at the 2015 World Cup Finals and other light-hearted interpretations of the sport. Does the fun factor help you attract more young riders?
Jan: We make it a lot of fun, not just for our kids though. We have a very social aspect to the barn. None of our clients, of any age, are the ride and leave type. We have BBQs, go to the movies, have sleepovers for the kids. In the weeks preparing for the NAJYRC, the kids travelled with us to the shows, and we made it a whole fun adventure. It’s been all about the kids these last few months and we love it.

Kim: What was your and Amy’s approach with Ben when it came to horses?
Jan: Ben had no choice but to have a lot of exposure to horses, both at home (we live at The Acres) and on the international show circuit. It was to the point that we thought he might not like it. Our position was that he didn’t have to compete or ride regularly, but he did have to know how to ride a horse and have it on the bit so that, at any time, he could get on a horse and go for a trail ride. I think that was probably a good approach.
It turned out that Ben is an animal lover. He loved hanging out with the horses and dogs in the barn and things just evolved. He really likes dressage, but what he’s really into is the jumpers. He’s been successful in the 1.3 – 1.35M classes. He’s concentrating on learning how to move his horse, Cadillac, into the next level and I think jumpers is where his heart really is.

Kim: Thanks Jan and we look forward to following the Acres’ young stars.
Jan: You’re welcome.