Give Your Horse the Right Start

KINDERGARTEN TEACHER: Willy Arts lunges a young horse at a USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum

Reprinted from the May 2017 issue of the USDF Connection magazine.

By Stacy Durham

Established to bridge the training gap between the USDF Sport Horse In-Hand Program and the US Equestrian Young Horse Program, the forum focuses on the correct starting and initial training of the three-year-old dressage prospect.

The well-known sport-horse expert Willy Arts, head trainer at DG Bar Ranch in Hanford, CA, has conducted the past two forums and returns for 2017. He’s joined this year by a new co-presenter: Michael Bragdell, head trainer at Hilltop Farm, Colora, MD, who like Arts has years of experience training and showing young horses both in hand and under saddle.

For this exclusive event preview, USDF Connection asked Arts and Bragdell to share their backgrounds, training philosophies, and goals for the 2017 forum. Read on to learn more about these respected experts, and then head to to learn more and to register to audit the program.

USDF Connection: Tell us about your background.

Michael Bragdell: I’m originally from Sweden, where I rode jumpers and young horses. I had very little experience with dressage. I had recently graduated from engineering school, completed my military service, and wanted to travel to the USA before going back to school. I ended up at Hilltop Farm as a working student in 1995, even though it was primarily a dressage stable. I took a second degree here in the US, and at Hilltop I worked my way up to assistant barn manager, handling stallions for breeding, and have pretty much done every job on the farm. I have started many young horses that have gone on to successful careers, and I have presented many horses in hand in both dressage sport-horse breeding competition and at breed-registry inspections. I am a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist and a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level.


Willy Arts: I was born in Holland and grew up on a farm where horses and breeding horses were part of our lives. I attended the Dutch Equestrian School in Deurne. After four years working at a breeding farm and stallion station, I moved to California in 1984 and started working for the DeGroot family. Together we developed DG Bar Ranch, a breeding, training, and sales barn. I am now co-owner of DG Bar, and we raise about eight foals each year. Over the years I have shown many horses, both homebred and imported, in FEI Young Horse competition. One, the homebred KWPN mare Valeska DG, competed at the 2008 World Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany.

I have also served on the board of directors of the KWPN-NA (North American branch, Royal Dutch Warmblood Studbook) and have organized many breed inspections. For the past six years, I have been manager and trainer for the 70-day stallion-performance test for the Friesian Horse Association of North America.

How did you become involved with the USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum?

MB: Back in 2005, former Hilltop Farm head trainer Scott Hassler organized the first young-horse training symposium at Hilltop, and I was involved with the starting process of the horses. The sport-horse judge and USDF Sport Horse Committee chair Kristi Wysocki approached me about becoming a part of the USDF program. I was delighted to be asked and to have the opportunity to share my experiences. 

WA: Kristi Wysocki contacted me to ask if DG Bar Ranch would be interested in hosting the 2014 forum, which was conducted by Scott Hassler and Ingo Pape. At that event I presented the lungeing of a young horse, and later I became part of the team.

Watch Scott Hassler explain his plan in the video
“Planning for the Warm Up”
from the 2014 Sport Horse Prospect Development Fourm.

What do you feel is the strongest asset you bring to the forum as an instructor?

MB: I hope my experiences and my approach to training the young horse will provide others with more tools to use in their training. 
WA: I have been involved in breeding and developing young horses all my life. I have a wide range of experience with different breeds and quality of horses, and I have learned how important the foundation and the way a young horse is started are for the development of the horse.

Have the two of you worked together in the past?

WA: I have known Michael for many years from Dressage at Devon (PA) and the Markel/USEF Young and Developing Horse Dressage National Championships. We worked together at the 2016 USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum at Pineland Farm in Maine. It is a honor to continue to work with Michael. He comes highly recommended and has a lot of experience in breeding, training, and competing young horses.

How do you select the demonstration riders and horses?

WA: I look for riders who have an independent seat, no fear, and are riding horses in the age group of three and four years old. I like to select a variety of horses, to be able to discuss different qualities and shortcomings.

What are your goals for this year’s forum?

MB: I think this program is a great way to bridge the gap between the unstarted young horse and its first year or two under saddle. I hope to pass along my knowledge to the riders who want to bring the young horses along. 
WA: I like to show and bring across how important the first years of training and the foundation in the development of a horse are. Many horses don’t reach their full potential because of a wrong start.

Stacy Durham is a USDF senior education coordinator and the Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum staff liaison. Contact her at

Podcast Alert

Listen to Michael Bragdell talk about the forum and Kristi Wysocki talk about all types of Sport Horse education available on episode 155 at

Leave a Reply