Special Report: Adelinde Cornelissen’s Training Learned in Teaching Kids and Watching

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Adelinde Cornelissen and Vivace de Jeu. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Adelinde Cornelissen talking with Vivace de Jeu. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Story and photos by KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Training the difficult Parzival to the top of the dressage world took all of Adelinde Cornelissen’s experience teaching high school and hanging out at warm up arenas watching the pros as she didn’t have enough money for regular lessons.

Although she and Parzival began 2010 ranked second in the world–they were leaders for two months in 2009–to the megastar combination of Moorlands Totilas and Edward Gal, the 30-year-old Dutch rider presents a face of dressage that riders from the elite to the wannabes can admire and aspire to emulate.

Taking a horse that no one could ride to pursue her hobby, she and the 13-year-old chestnut gelding won team gold and individual gold in the Grand Prix Special to set a world record score of 84.04 per cent and become the only combination to beat Totilas and Edward at Grand Prix level. In the freestyle, they won silver to gold for Totilas and Edward.

European Championships Grand Prix Special medalists (l to r) Edward Gal, silver, Adelinde Cornelissen, gold, Laura Bechtolsheimer, bronze. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
European Championships Grand Prix Special medalists (l to r) Edward Gal, silver, Adelinde Cornelissen, gold, Laura Bechtolsheimer, bronze. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

With savings, help from her parents and sponsorship of clothing from Anky van Grunsven’s fashion line and feed from Havens, she quit her job as a school teacher to pursue her goal of being the best.

Always ready to laugh, mostly at herself, and a total lack of pretension–being at the top is “unreal… like you’re talking about someone else”–she nevertheless has a steely resolve to succeed and hates to lose.

While she builds a business teaching riding in the small village of Beilen in the north of Holland so she can continue to improve her own riding, she is helping a 20-year-old who is in the same boat she was: no horse and little money but talent and a lot of desire.

Adelinde’s career no longer rests solely on Parzival, as it did in 2009 when she won the FEI World Cup West European League but had to scratch from the Final in Las Vegas the day before the start when the horse came up lame.

Adelinde and Parzival in the warmup before scratching from the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas in 2009
Adelinde and Parzival in the warmup before scratching from the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas in 2009. © 2009 Dirk Caremans/Hippo Foto

Now, from the breeder Emmy de Jeu she has the eight-year-old Contango chestnut gelding Vivace de Jeu for whom she has high hopes. Emmy de Jeu is also the owner of Sisther de Jeu, the 11-year-old Gribaldi mare that Edward Gal trains and competes at Grand Prix.

Adelinde owns half of Ulissa, a 2001 dark bay mare by Olivi out of a Jetset D mare, and is training Tiara, a 2000 black mare by Jazz out of a Gardeoffizier mare.

Adelinde started riding when she was six years old, taking lessons at a local riding school. A year later she got her own pony, Birgitte, and her parents, both teachers, bred another pony they owned to produce, Ayesha.

With one lesson a week at the riding school to learn the basics she hung out at shows to see how other others rode.

“I went to shows–more jumping than dressage–watching everybody in the warm up. How do they do things? How do they fix problems? That’s actually how I learned.

“I learned the hard way because I had those horses starting from scratch. So you come across a lot of problems.

“I have to see it, I have to watch it. then I can try and do it.”

On the Welsh pony, Ayesha, she became Dutch champion twice, and was also champion on Mr. Pride in the late 1990s.

After a year of university, she took off for Canada for a year then returned home to finish school and get a job teaching English at high school.

But she had no horse and a teacher’s salary.

Enter Parzival.

At the time he was a five-year-old who had grown up in a field by himself. No social life with other horses, no learning from other horses how to behave. The owner hired Adelinde to ride the horse to prepare him for sale. A couple of customers came but “he went flying through the stable and no one wanted to sit on him, so the owner got stuck with the horse.”

“I actually figured he was going to be a good horse,” she recalled, “but that was because I could ride him for three or four strides and it was like ‘wow!’ Then he’d go off again.

“I thought if I could can get him to do that for 10 minutes or five minutes or six minutes for a test, he’s going to be a pretty good horse.

“I didn’t know he was going to be a Grand Prix horse, that he would do piaffe and all that, and besides that i had never been higher than medium level. So I told the owner if you can’t sell him now, if I ride him and go to a couple of shows may be that will be easier to sell him.”

Initially, that was both good and not so good.

The good was that Parzival and Adelinde were working well together in a small outdoor ring at home.

The not so good was that at some of the early shows the pair would enter at A, she recalls, laughing at it now, and Parzival would turn around six times. They would halt at X and he would turn around some more. That was even before the first movement to track right.

They scored as low as 40 per cent and a couple of times had to quit part way through. He never jumped out of the arena, but once going around before the start of the test he was so scared he jumped into the ring. The judge let her leave and start by entering at A.

What was Adelinde’s approach to training Parzival?

It was, she said, “very similar” to working with children.

“You need to be very, very disciplined, but also you have to keep them happy otherwise they’re not willing to work,” she said. “They have to like the work. and that’s with difficult kids, too.

“They’re not going to work because they think they’re going to have a good job later on.

“First of all, they have to like you because you’re telling them what they have to do. If you tell them they have to do that, and they’re doing it for you and not for themselves. Later on they do it for themselves. They have to like the work, be happy and figure out the best way for them to learn.

“Also with the kids, there’s not just one way that’s going to work for every kid. With the horses it’s exactly the same. Every horse is not the same, so you have to adapt to the horses and just never give up.

“Horses and kids… there are a lot of similarities.”

Teaching is fun, and some of her students still send her emails when they go on a school trip asking her to go with them.

“I miss the teaching part, working with the children, that’s what I miss, if you can help them on their way becoming something.” she said. “All the meetings, parent-teacher meetings, I don’t miss that.”

By 2007, Adelinde and Parzival were making their mark at international competitions, posting scores that began in the mid-60 per cent to well into the 70s by year’s end. She was getting regular training but wasn’t satisfied.

“People said that getting Parzival to 70 per cent was ‘nice,” she said, “but I thought the horse had more in him.”

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival after creating a world record Grand Prix Special score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Adelinde was right that Parzival had more to give. The pair celebrating after creating a world record Grand Prix Special score at the European Championships. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

So when she was named reserve to the 2008 Olympic squad she switched to training with Sjef Janssen, national coach whom she credits with helping raise their scores by 10 per cent. Sjef Janssen is also credited with developing The Netherlands’ dressage program that has taken the country to the pinnacle of the sport. He is married to Anky van Grunsven, the leading exponent of the musical freestyle for more than a decade of legendary battles with Germany’s Isabell Werth for supremacy in dressage.

Membership in the elite squad that includes Anky, Edward, Imke Schellekens-Bartels and Hans Peter Minderhoud led to Adelinde deciding that she couldn’t teach school and ride at the top level.

“If you try and do both things good they’re not going to work out,” she said. “I’m doing the horse back riding now and I can always go back to school if I want to. So I quit my job.

Life became completely different. “I didn’t have a barn, anything. I just had Parzival and no money any more.”

The barn she rents in Beilin is perfect for her. She gets up about 6:30 a.m. to go running then works her horses from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. She teaches riding until 9 to 10 at night. Most of the time she has no groom so does everything with the horses from tacking up to washing off.

It’s very quiet and she is the only boarder. She has more than enough stalls but doesn’t want to fill them all, anyway, preferring quality to quantity.

She doesn’t see it as work–“it’s my hobby and I earn my money with it now. It’s fun. It’s good.”

Most of the time, she said, “I like to work alone. I like working with just the horses.”

Except for Charissa, a 20-year-old girl who lives an hour north of Beilin. Charissa took lessons from Adelinde but the horse she rode was sold. She has a job but spends her spare time at the barn helping Adelinde and spending hours avidly watching Adelinde teach to soak up as much knowledge as possible.

“Charissa’s pretty talented and I like to help her,” Adelinde said. “It’s fun because I know what it’s like to not have money, no big truck, no arena. If you don’t have any money you figure it’s not going to be possible to ride professionally. To see her so eager to learn and having a lot of talent I really like to help her.”

The original owner, now half owner with Adelinde and her family owning the other half, still wants to sell Parzival. The value has gone up because of the success.

There have been offers, she said, but they have been for someone else to ride him.

Adelinde made it clear when she bought a half interest she had no intention of selling. She hopes to put together a small group to buy out the other half owner to enable her to keep riding Parzival, a solution that would satisfy everyone.

Parzival is not too sure about a visitor to his home. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Parzival is not too sure about a visitor to his home. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

She’s setting goals through 2012.

First, the World Cup Final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands in March–she shares the lead at the top of the West European League standings with only three of nine qualifiers remaining.

After that is the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky which, if she qualifies for the Dutch team, may be the only time that Parzival performs in the Americas.

Finally, the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

An interesting aspect of Parzival’s training is that many dressage critics place the horse in the so-called classical school.

Adelinde explains that her training with Sjef Janssen, identified with application of so-called hyperflexion, has produced results for her and Parzival.

“I do flex horses,” she said. “First, I think you need to keep the horses happy, then suppple them up. You need to be up there and also down there and every step in between. You need to be able to control the speed, how fast you’re going, how you’re riding.

“You don’t keep riding for an hour in the same position because I think that’s wrong, whatever that position is.

“I don’t have my system that I’m going to force the horse to follow. I know a lot of different methods, whatever you want to call them, and then you have to apply what works for the horse. You also have to understand his temperament, how willing he is, even on any day because they’re not the same every day.”

She learned a great deal from years of watching warm up of both jumpers and dressage including when she was at the 2008 Olympics.

Adelinde on Tiara and Charissa on Ulissa on a weekly hack through the forest that Adelinde thinks is important for the horses. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Adelinde on Tiara and Charissa on Ulissa on a weekly hack through the forest that Adelinde thinks is important for the horses. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I think the hardest part is to get people who are not open minded to have a really objective view on those systems, what they see now as the Dutch rollkur or whatever,” she said. “Before all this discussion starts if you have already said that I ride the German classic way, if that’s your only right way of training and you are not open minded to other things, then you can never convince those persons that there may be other systems, too.

“I think if you’re open minded you should pick what’s right for you. There are a lot of good things in the German classic system, too. But I think you pick out from every method what is right. Every single training method can be wrong if you don’t use it the right way.”

Top athletes in track and field or gymnastics stretch their muscles, but if it is overdone the muscles can break down instead of building up.

“I just like to be open minded to any method. I don’t want to stick to a system. I think in the end we all want the same. We want a happy athlete, we want a horse that is flexible but not at a cost of all. Just like every human athlete has his limits so every horse has his limits, too.

“Sure you want to try and stretch the limits to get higher scores and all that, but not at any cost.”

Adelinde said she likes the strong team spirit within the top Dutch squad that have a lot in common. She and Imke Schellekens-Bartels train with Sjef Janssen, Hans Peter Minderhoud trains with Anky van Grunsven as Edward used to.

At the European Championships in Windsor, England, there was “really a team spirit” very much like the team spirit she admires in the Germans.

“When there’s this huge championship they just stick together and go for it and never give up.” she said, citing their bronze medal at the Europeans despite being discounted even by their own countrymen.

“They stick together and they end up third and ride really good tests,” she recalled. “Some of those riders had never been to really big championships, and now they ride 70/71 per cent, and I think that’s because of their team spirit. They’re very good.”

As for herself, her priority for now is the sport, working with horses.

Adelinde Cornelissen. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Adelinde Cornelissen. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“For now on I want to get the horses to a higher level, get better and better,” she said.

“I still think I haven’t made it. I know it’s weird. I was number one in the world but I don’t see myself as number one in the world. I don’t even think about it.

“For me there is so much to learn, to get even better in my riding.

“Sure I was glad when I became European champion. I can’t say I forgot about it, but it’s like, ‘that’s good, but I can still do better.’ That’s what I’m working on every day.

“I want to get better, and that’s probably beause I had to work my way up and had to get better and better and better in my own riding otherwise I wasn’t going to beat everybody. It probably became my way of thinking. So when someone tells me you’re number one in the world, it’s like.. ‘yeah, right!’ It always feels unreal. I know I am but it feels like someone else is.

“If you’re really satisfied with what you’ve achieved, you think that’s it, then you stand still and don’t progress any more. You’re going to lose.”