Her trademark consistency, encouraging attitude, and attention to detail are on full display when Olympian Allison Brock teaches. We play railbird for a morning of lessons.
Story and Photographs by Beth Baumert
Reprinted from the September/October 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine
Long before Allison “Ali” Brock was an Olympian, she began her equestrian journey as a Pony Clubber in her home state of Hawaii, where she was introduced to dressage at the age of nine. But she remained a well-rounded rider: She jumped, rode Western, exercised polo ponies, and did a lot of trail riding. The depth of her passion for horses meant that she needed to move to the mainland in order to grow, so at 17 she made the move and began her equestrian career as a working student.
In January 2001, while in Wellington, Florida, Brock met 2000 US Olympic dressage team bronze medalist Sue Blinks, who at the time was working for Fritz and Claudine Kundrun. Brock ended up riding with Blinks for three years.
“For me,” says Brock, “Sue imparted discipline. You don’t skip steps with Sue, and the best-trained horses I’ve ever sat on were trained by her.”
When Blinks moved to California in 2004, Brock took over her position working for Fritz Kundrun, and in that capacity she got the opportunity to study with some top European trainers. She spent a year in Sweden with Olympian Jan Brink and more than a year in England with Finnish Olympian Kyra Kyrklund and Kyrklund’s future husband, the British international trainer Richard White. Brock credits the pair with forming her as a Grand Prix rider, saying that “I still rely heavily on them for technical and biomechanical training.”
In the years leading up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brock rode with 2008 US Olympic dressage team alternate Michael Barisone, who “gave me confidence. He took my technical knowledge and helped me feel like I belonged in the ring.”
And belong she did. In Rio, aboard Kundrun’s Hanoverian stallion, Rosevelt (Rotspon x Lauries Crusador XX), Brock helped capture the bronze medal for Team USA, finishing fifteenth individually.
“It was an incredible time in my life,” says Brock. “I’m so grateful to Fritz and Claudine Kundrun and the rest of my ‘village’ of supporters. No horse and rider can go through the process of qualification, selection, and competition at a Games by themselves, and there is tremendous sacrifice by the people who help a combination get to and through a major event.”
“Also,” she adds, “people don’t realize how long it takes to reach the pinnacle of this sport. I didn’t ride my first Grand Prix until I was 30. Then it was another four years before I was doing Grand Prix on an international level. It was nine years before I started earning my keep at an international level!”
I spent a wonderful morning this past spring watching Ali Brock teach in Florida and found myself very, very enriched. Brock’s message wasn’t anything new—with the greats, it never is, because the principles are always the same. In Brock’s case, it was the degree of execution that intrigued me. It was the consistency and the quiet, kind persistence. It was the encouraging attitude. What’s more, Ali Brock is so clever! She is way smarter than her horses. (That sounds rather obvious, but not all trainers act much smarter than their horses.) It was her goal to make life interesting and challenging for her horses and for the riders, too. Let me tell you all about it.
The lessons begin with Kya Endreson riding Fritz Kundrun’s eight-year-old bay stallion, Igby. Igby is by Desperados out of a Sir Sinclair mare—and more important, he is Kundrun’s pride and joy. Kundrun is watching with me, and he’s loving every moment, his eyes twinkling with appreciation. (Kundrun has made an enormous contribution to the sport of dressage, having helped with the development of not only Blinks and Brock, but also with their Olympic mounts, Flim Flam and Rosevelt.)
Igby is very well educated, but Brock and her student confirm and reconfirm the basics. “Clear, consequent riding,” says Brock. By “consequent,” she means that she wants Endreson to be as specific as possible with her aids so Igby has the maximum chance to respond specifically. The “consequence” of Endreson’s aids should be very predictable.
Next Brock tells Endreson to check that Igby is in front of the leg. They do transitions forward and back. Igby gets a bit “on the muscle,” and Brock suggests that Endreson ask him for a bit of lateral work. “Let’s make sure haunches-in is easy,” she says. It certainly looks easy to me.
Brock reminds the rider that the horse’s activity must go perfectly through his back. “Throughness,” she says. Igby looks happy and fabulously expressive as well as “through” and in front of the rider’s leg.
Brock comments to me: “If they don’t have these basics, they can’t go on to more difficult work.”
It’s that simple.
Beth Baumert: Talk to me a bit about the basics.
Ali Brock: I’m very systematic about checking the basics. For example, my riders check to be sure that the horse is yielding before they even get on.
Do you mean leg-yield as in turn on the forehand, or do you mean flexion in the poll—or both?
Depending on the level of education of the horse, I like to make sure a young horse will yield his hindquarters on the ground in both directions (turns on the forehand). I also expect him to back up in hand easily. If both exercises are done correctly, the horse will flex, yield, and be soft in his poll, jaw, and neck. If I have to use any strength or pressure beyond picking up the reins and indicating with my body language to yield and move sideways, or to yield and move backwards, the horse doesn’t understand or isn’t sensitized enough to my baseline standard.
With older, more educated horses, I usually don’t have to spend much time because they know the exercises and will usually give me a couple outstanding steps to indicate that they are mentally and physically with me. Confirming the basics is just dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. It’s a human inclination to spend less time checking on the basics as the training progresses to the higher levels. When I was riding with Sue, she was unwilling to compromise about these basics.
The 9-to-1 Principle
Next up in the ring is Katherine MacDonald, who is warming up Claudine Kundrun’s 10-year-old PRE gelding, Centurion FG. They’re competing at Prix St. Georges and working on movements in the Grand Prix.
“I want living art,” Brock tells the rider. “I want him to use himself.” She comments that in the past the horse could get too high and use his lower neck, or he could get too low and not connect correctly. “Trot-canter-trot transitions are the way to know if the horse is ‘through’ and the back is involved,” she says, “and he couldn’t do them when he came to us. If you can’t do that, it haunts you all the way to Grand Prix, so I always train it.”
MacDonald and Centurion FG demonstrate the transitions with fluid precision. Brock comments that it should look as if the gait changes but nothing else, with the horse relaxed but immediately answering the rider. “When you have it right,” says Brock, “it’s a great feeling, and you can ride the horse’s body and not his mouth.”
At this point in Centurion FG’s development, he is connected nicely and working through his back. The rider’s and trainer’s next goal is to build the gaits with true impulsion and swing—as Brock puts it, “to put the ‘second trot’ into the horse.”
Can you define the second trot?
It’s somewhere between the collected and the medium trots. The increased impulsion enables you to play with the balance. We carefully push the limits. If you never let horses explore what they can do with their bodies, you never know what they are capable of.
Next, Brock wants MacDonald to be obsessive about riding the corners—that the horse’s outside shoulder stays up. Brock has made it easy: From the second trot, MacDonald can shorten the stride before the corner for an easier corner executed with better balance.
“It’s like dancing,” Brock says. “They keep the same tempo but shorten the stride slightly, and it doesn’t disturb the balance.”
Next, they practice transitions between medium trot and piaffe, staying perfectly straight in shoulder-fore positioning.
“Nine-to-one!” says Brock. “Put your leg on to half-halt and recycle.”
It’s not the first time today that I’ve heard the persistent admonition about riding “9 to 1,” so I need to ask.
What’s up with “nine-to-one”?
Nine pounds in the leg to one pound in the hand. That says to the horse, “You don’t get to haul me around.” When a horse gets too strong in the hand, many riders lighten the leg and “fiddle” them off the contact. Or they tend to get very strong in the hand and not use enough seat or lower leg.
If my horse is too strong and not accepting the half-halt, it means he is not accepting the forward aid—and usually also the lateral aid. I need a better commitment from my horse. The rider’s leg should say, “Lift your back, Buddy! Go up to the bridle, change your balance underneath me, and recycle.” So instead of overusing the hand, I will increase the forward and sideways pressure of my leg until I feel the horse yield under me and quicken his feet. I try not to increase the pressure in my hand. I might have a fixed hand as an outside rein—one that doesn’t give or pull. It has the same pressure regardless of what the horse does, and I increase my leg aid with the intention of having nine pounds of leg to one pound of hand—knowing that the horse will yield and I will be able to release both aids.
I personally don’t like to ride with a strong contact or a lot of leg pressure. I think of my aids as being on a dimmer switch. I can start with just an indication of what I want and increase the pressure incrementally until the horse goes either forward, sideways, backward, or yields onto the bit; and then I can release the pressure back to a very soft contact or, in some cases, a full release of the aids.
Bottom line: I always try to make increasing the leg aid the priority. I want to ride the horse’s body, hind legs, withers, shoulders, and neck up to the mouth, as opposed to bringing the mouth and neck back to the body.
Poking the Bear
Now I’m watching Adrienne Pagalilauan ride Viva Westfalia, a nine-year-old chestnut Prix St. Georges-level gelding by Vitalis. Their warmup includes tempi changes that appear to put the horse in front of the leg.
Brock comments: “You know your horse is well trained when he does a movement like that correctly the first time you ask.”
That’s what you need at a horse show, I think, and so I ask her:
How do you typically prepare for a show?
I’m adamant that people ride through the test at home. Avoidance makes no sense because showing is about repeatable performances. Riders have so many excuses. “My horse knows the pattern,” they say. To which I reply, “Well, ride it on the aids then.” You have to be able to “poke the bear” and know what’s going to happen. Test it at home first, not at the show. Have a specific plan every day when you’re preparing for a test. Do a movement and take a break. If you start and it’s a mess, start again.
It takes time to get to that place where the horse does it right the first time, but you can’t avoid the difficulties because you think you might make a mistake.
According to Brock, Viva Westfalia initially had contact issues. “It was difficult for him, and that kind of a situation tests the rider mentally. When you feel you’re never going to achieve a training goal, you need to go at it with optimism and not accept that it’s hard. If you think your horse will never get it, then he won’t.
“That was the gift that Rosevelt gave me,” she continues. “The one-tempis were very difficult for him, and Kyra [Kyrklund] helped me work through it. You need the technical ingredients plus belief. You have to believe it will happen and look for a way.”
In “Viva’s” case, work on the long lines helped him face the bridle and realize that he could neither run through the bit nor spit it out. “With the long lines,” Brock explains, “he learned to fill up the bridle and take the rider forward.”
Now Kya Endreson is back in the ring, this time with Johnny Be Good, an elegant seven-year-old, one-quarter Friesian/three-quarters Dutch gelding who is inclined to be too forward. “He must be able to turn!” says Brock. “Tell him to rebalance himself before each turn.” She suggests doing turns on the forehand to prevent the horse from running through the rein contact. “The rein is the last resort,” Brock reminds Endreson. “Ask yourself, Can I halt from my seat?”
With the focus on going forward from the leg, I wonder how Brock feels about use of the whip.
What’s your philosophy about the whip?
I like horses to be respectful but not afraid of the whip. I don’t like to ride with one. If I need it, fine, but the goal is that your horse should be on the aids enough from the leg that you don’t need it to go forward. I prefer that it’s a tool to help say, “Lower your croup and step under yourself,” versus “I need this for you to keep in front of my leg.” I worry when riders carry a whip all the time and the horse and rider become unconscious about it. As a result, the rider needs increasingly stronger aids and gets less for them.
Tessa Holloran comes from Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids program, and today she rides Ike, a gray eight-year-old who has come from the jumper world. Brock remarks that jumpers and event horses are often behind the leg. “They go fast,” she says, “but they’re not necessarily on the aids.” The solution, of course, involves “9 to 1,” and Brock peppers Holloran with advice.
“Close your lower leg until he becomes round.”
“Use your leg before you go to the hand.”
“Half-halt; give; hands down. Leg, leg, leg. Put your lower leg on.”
“Ask yourself: When I put my leg on, does he become round? Or am I too tight on top?”
“Ask yourself, Can I use my inside leg and ask him to yield to my outside rein?”
“Keep your body supple. Keep soft fists, as if you had baby birds in them.”
During a break, Brock returns to the mental part of training horses—the part about belief. “These are important moments,” she says. “Don’t change your tactics. Take time, be consistent, and be patient. The gold standard is when you can put your hands forward and he stays the same. You’ll get there.”
Holloran asks the horse to stretch and is quite successful, so I say…
Talk to me about stretching.
It depends on the horse whether I spend a lot of time on it. If he’s already so supple and elastic that it feels like he has no bones, I don’t need to ask him to stretch. It depends on the body type and the temperament.
Horses come and go, with the same four riders. Pagalilauan rides a bay mare named DeeClare, who is by Sir Sinclair out of a Dutch Harness Horse. She works on her own, doing leg-yields and turns on the forehand. Endreson rides a Swedish horse named Cheraton. She is doing Spanish walk with “Cherry,” developing more supple shoulders. In teaching Spanish walk, Brock has helped the riders by finding an interesting way to improve the horse’s weakness—a way that both horse and rider find fun. “Some horses just don’t get it unless they’re super-gifted,” Brock says. “I try to explain what we want in a way that is fun for them.”
While I’m being impressed, Pagalilauan and “Dee” clock off 15 expressive one-tempis on the diagonal. It was the end of a fun and very inspiring morning.
Beth Baumert is a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF L program graduate with distinction. She is the author of When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics and of How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage. She currently serves as president and CEO of The Dressage Foundation. For many years she owned and operated Cloverlea Dressage in Connecticut and served as the technical editor of Dressage Today magazine.