A Persuasive Argument for the American Style Of Riding: Iconic Equitation Trainer Karen Healey’s Remarkable Influence on Dutch Rider Marielle Friesen

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While training a group of sales horses at HITS Coachella Dutch rider Marielle Friesen and her partner Jan Verellen were put in touch with respected Equitation Trainer Karen Healey. There ensued a methodical effort to teach Marielle “the American Style Of Riding”. “The American Style of Riding” has a complete system of controls, one level relating to the next. This system emphasizes cooperation with the horse using soft, precise controls. The method and techniques of controls, along with the position of the rider, form a complete interacting system partially based more on the rider’s balance in his/her stirrups rather than his or her seat. Per some unnamed onlookers Karen started by rubber banding Marielle’s hand together to minimize the wide “hands apart” dressage hand-to-mouth connection and to lighten the seat, doing away forever with the “driving seat”. Mission accomplished!

“I try to teach as classically as I can and really stick to that system that’s served me well for many, many years,” said Healey in a 2015 interview with the Chronicle of the Horse. “I would like to continue to pass that on. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t have his voice in my head, so I’d like to try to continue that legacy a little bit whenever I can.”

Winter Hoffman: What was your childhood like and how were you introduced to riding?

Marielle Friesen: I am a true country girl, lived all my life at the farm. My home province Brabandt, almost on every corner there is a field full of horses. So even though my parents were not really into the horses I have been surrounded them since birth. My neighbor had horses and I used spend every free minute there helping out. At my 6th birthday my greatest wish came true when my uncle gave me a pony as present. My parents let me to keep him but I had to take care of everything by myself. His name was Daylight and I have to say, I learned a lot from that stubborn pony. But I can say my faith was written with that pony, because I knew already then was going spend all my life with horses!!.

WH: How did you come to have a passion for the sport -through your parents? Or through your trainers and Jan Verellen?

MF: My uncle was dealing a little bit of horses so he gave me all the time new young horses to ride. I did some local pony shows as a kid, but when I turned 14 I started to show with my uncle’s horses. I was a part of pony club so we trained there all together. Every week we had a show. That was so much fun. At 16 I went to the Equine college in Deurne to become a professional horse rider. The education took for four years and after that I went to do my practice at Leon Thijssen and John Steeghs. I think that the schooling and practice gave me a solid base to become a professional rider, but I have to say that the most important things I have learned by watching all the best riders training and showing their horses. Many of the world’s greatest riders come from this area, so I was very privileged that I could see every week how the riders like Leon Thijssen, Eric vd Fleuten and Piet Raymakers were schooling and showing their horses. Still today, I watch the other rider how they work and every time I get some ideas how to become better myself.

WH: Did you ever do the equitation? What are your thoughts on equitation as a foundation for show jumping? And your thoughts on the HITS Coachella Horse Show?

MF: I think that equitation a fantastic foundation to show jumping because the riders learn from the start the right balance, nice rhythm and the great style of riding. Equitation is actually something that we lack in Europe but we should develop it more. I never did equitation myself because we did not those classes. In Thermal there are so many different classes, so there is always something for everyone, no matter on which level you are. I find that a great system, like that you have so many heights for amateurs and professionals. In Europe, we have less variation of classes. So that means that the horses and the riders as well, have to be ready very quickly, and to jump quite difficult and high classes. Maybe we could develop that system a bit towards your way, to have more options for riders.

WH: Please tell us how you came to be at HITS Coachella and to be working with Karen Healey on developing an “American seat/style” of riding.

MF: My husband Jan Verellen, who is a trainer and dealer has been doing business with Lise Gregory Quintero and Alex Edelbrock Wilson for many years. We have sent lots of horses to the U.S to compete and to find new owners. But when we heard that sometimes the Dutch horses were a bit too fresh when they arrived, we decided to change our concept in order to help our horses and new owners to get a better start. So, now, when we sent five horses to California, I followed with them and helped the horses to get accustomed to the new system.

Karen Healy
Karen Healy

Meeting with Karen was really fantastic. I did not know her before. But when I arrived in California I used again my old method of learning: I watched good riders to ride and good trainers to train. I soon realized that Karen was really really good. I did not know her before, but I was very impressed of her working and I also realized how much I needed to learn. So, at the end I asked Lise to introduce me to Karen and I simply asked her to help me.

So, you can imagine how happy I was, when she said yes.

WH: What were your impressions of Karen? Will you continue to incorporate it into your riding now that you’re back in Europe?

MF: Karen is truly a great trainer. She explains everything really simple and with these small micro changes she miraculously gets the horses to perform better and better, so that at the end the horse moves really in balance and everything seems to be very easy. I know already that I got a lot of new tools into my tool box to train horses at home in Europe.

WH: Was the Netherlands an advantage or disadvantage for your show career?

MF: The Netherlands is one of the biggest horse countries in the world, so of course it is a great advantage to live and work there. I have showed since young age in all kinds of shows from the small local event to the internationals shows. During my career I have ridden a lot of young horses and produced them from the beginners to the high-level sport horses. So, I must say that all these competitions and experiences have been good for me.

WH: Please tell us how this came about, the high points and what you’ve learned from this experience.

MF: It is a good thing for me to keep producing the horses here in Holland and get them well prepared for the American market.

WH: What is your view of the sport and how does it impact the training plan and path you chose for you and your horses?

MF: It costs so much money to compete in the highest level of sport so we are not pursuing that career but have chosen a different path. Our strategy is to train the horses from young age to a certain level that they can do a nice career as well schooled horses with motivated amateur riders.

To accomplish that, our training philosophy is to always listen to the horse and make our plan based on horse’s individual characteristics. Some horses need more time, while others learn very quickly and are ready sooner. For us having so much experience of showing, I think we can read horses quite well, so that at the end of our work, more or less anyone can ride them.

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WH: How do you manage the peripatetic lifestyle of an equestrian and the stress of traveling to horse shows?

MF: Working with horses requires 24/7 attention. I have been working with horses all my life, so I don’t really think of it that much. I always love to go to the show. But maybe I have become a bit wiser at with age for now a days I really try take better care of myself, keep my mind clear, eat healthy, sleep enough and try not to stress too much but enjoy life more.

WH: What are your thoughts on the current state of showjumping in Holland and the rest of the world?

MF: There are more and more shows and riders globally, but still today the Europe is the center of equestrian sport. In Holland, there are so many good riders who can produce horses and do the sport on the highest level, so the competition is really fierce. As I said earlier, I have chosen the path of not pursuing the high sports career but instead I want to excel my ability to produce the best possible amateur horses. I am highly motivated of doing that. Like now when I was in Thermal I was really happy to see my horses to perform that well. But at the same time, I realized I can still learn a lot, and that’s great.

WH: What is your favorite piece of equestrian equipment for horse? For rider?

MF: I have to say, my saddle, because I spend most of my waking hours sitting on it. Currently at Jan Verellen stables, we use CWD saddles. I am very happy mine. It is excellent quality and soft to sit. For myself, I am really not a material girl, but I I appreciate good quality, like my Cavalleria Toscana breeches and my Parlanti boots.

WH: What advice do you have for ambitious young riders?

MF: Invest in flat riding and take your time to learn to know your horse, for you are in the ring together and you should trust each other and respect each other. Work and never give up. Forget the disappointments and move forward.

WH: What is your day like? Please describe for the readers your training program.

MF: I wake up and go jogging for forty minutes to keep myself in shape. Every morning we drink coffee together with the grooms before we start riding. It is a great way to exchange news, plan the day and just talk to each other. Everybody likes it. After that we start riding our horses. Twice a week I do flat training, I also do weekly gymnastics with small fences and cavalettis and every week I go for the trail ride. After finished my riding, I usually do some office work, entering horses to the shows, making a vet appointments etc. And often in the evening I still drive somewhere to try horses or to teach or to take some young horses for training shows. I try to be in bed by 10, and I can assure you that by 10.01 I am already at sleep.

Roma, Rolex, Piazza di Siena, 2018. Photo by Stefano Secchi

WH: You have outstanding horses, please tell us a little about each one and what qualities you favor in a show jumper? What were the high points of the past year?

MF: At the moment I have three mares between the age of 7 to 9 and one gelding. All mares have lot of blood. They are good quality and I love to show them. Hopefully, these mares are going to be seen in America soon. The gelding is a promising hunter and we are planning to ship him over the Atlantic as soon as he is ready.

The high point of last year was when we sold the mare Kalinka that we produced from the young horse to the international level. Kalinka showed last year successfully in La Baule and Rome with Chris Pratt, a Canadian team rider who we have worked with already for many years. Quite soon after those shows, she was sold to an international rider. Kalinka stayed with us for three years so this was really rewarding.

WH: How did you transition to the jumper division and what do you love about it?

MF:For me, it is unbelievable that horses are willing to do this sport us. That they want to jump when we ask them. That is why it is extremely important to have a good relationship with your horse. I love to jump for it is exciting, high pace and difficult. But at the same time I am thankful for the partnership I have with the horses.

WH: How does your trainer prepare you and your horses? How does their coaching differ from the program you were in before? What do they have you practice?

MF: If I think about what I learned from Karen, I would say the biggest difference was to leave the horse more on their own, keep the head more up and seat on lighter position. We also like to ride our horses in a light way in Holland but the seat is deeper and we keep a steady contact with the mouth. I like a lot the American system, because I feel that the horses tend to be relaxed.

WH: You must have a routine to prepare yourself mentally before you go in the ring, what is it?

MF: When I walk my course I focus myself and I ride the course in my head. I know my horses so well so I can prepare how to ride which differently. Someone needs more support when coming out of the corner while the other one needs to maintain good balance in combinations etc. When I am waiting to go in, I focus on my breathing and then I am ready. I have worked with Anette Paterakis, a mental coach, for some years now. She has taught me to stay better focused.

WH: What are your plans for the future?

MF:I am really exciting of our plans to bring more horses to America and show them there and help our clients. It is also a new world for me, thus a great opportunity to become a better rider.

WH: What do you look for in a jumper prospect?

MF: I want my horses to proportionate exterior and good gallop, but the most important thing is that the horse is level-headed and has good mind. Of course, then comes the scope and the general quality. But when the horse has a good mind, everything is so much more easy and I also know that those horses accept better their new riders when the time comes.

WH: Please describe your favorite place to visit and ride in the Netherlands or another part of the world.

MF: There is this beautiful equestrian center of Peelbergen that opened some five years ago. It is close to our and has shows every weekend. It has several indoor and outdoor arenas, they build every weekend different courses. You can jump there at all levels and many international top riders show there frequently so you can also see a lot of excellent riding. Of course, there are so many beautiful places and facilities in Europe, like Aachen in Germany, Stephex Masters in Brussels, Fontainebleau in France and Samorin in Slovakia, just to name a few. But as I said, if you are visiting in Europe, in almost every country you can find great show grounds.

WH: Who is your favorite amateur jumper rider and your favorite international rider and why?

MF: I have had many students and they all are my favorites. As professional rider, my favorite is the German Marcus Ehning. He is simply genius.

WH: Who is your favorite international horse and why?

MF: I have to say Verdi. He comes from this area and I have watched him to develop with Maikel vd Vleuten from this young horse to the international winner.

WH: Do you and Jan breed prospects for show jumping? If so, which bloodlines do you favor?

MF: Jan and I, we do not do breeding. It takes a lot of time and it’s a business of its own. But we know a lot breeders of course and follow their programs closely. It has become a fact, that it is absolute must to invest in excellent damlines in order to produce a modern quality horse.

WH: Marielle, Jan and Karen thank you so much for being part of this interview. It’s so interesting when American equitation crosses paths with European jumping!

Winter HoffmanAbout the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman (now a professional with Meadow Grove Farm) navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan.

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