Alice Tarjan’s Growing String of Grand Prix Horses That May Finally Overcome Her Reluctance to be on a USA Team
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Alice Tarjan is an amateur rider already known for finding youngsters from videos but her training skills have achieved a level with the likelihood she will take four of her horses into the Grand Prix arena this year.
Four horses at top sport would make her extremely rare in American dressage, in fact in most nations. She started them as youngsters found and owns them all with more on the way. She prefers her horses to be black, but has a couple of chestnuts and a bay.
What grabs attention is her training on the horses making it to Grand Prix, amazing piaffe and passage, the ultimate movement for a competition dressage horse that she has taught herself to begin slowly and develop over several years so the performances in the ring are honest and confident.
The four horses at or soon heading to Grand Prix are:
—Candescent, an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare that Alice rode in the horse’s debut at international Big Tour at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida the week that coronavirus closed down much of the world for a while in mid-March;
—Donatella M, 10-year-old Oldenburg mare that Alice rode to the U.S. Developing Grand Prix championship last year, is competing in the Lövsta Future Challenge Developing Grand Prix series finals at Global this week that was put off from the end of the 2020 circuit, and competed at a couple of national Grand Prix in New Jersey and Florida last year;
—Harvest, nine-year-old KWPN stallion that was reserve in the 2020 U.S. Developing Grand Prix championships and has had a single start in the national Grand Prix, and
—Serenade MF, eight-year-old Hanoverian mare which Alice rode in the pair’s first Intermediate II in a national show in Wellington last week.
Alice, 41 years old, lives in Oldwick, New Jersey but is based in Florida in winter.
She earned deep respect while developing training skills out of necessity as she had just enough money to buy a foal she desperately wanted to grow up enough to compete in a race against time in her battle with cancer fresh out of law school 15 years ago.
Alice beat the cancer and has built a reputation developing young horses.
She laughs when asked if she’s surprised to have so many Grand Prix horses in her barn.
“It was just a matter of waiting until they were old enough,” she said. “I have more coming in a year or two. It’s a result of not selling them and trying to keep them for myself. They eventually grow up; they’re not young horses any more. They’re Grand Prix.”
Why so many? It’s more like top German riders Isabell Werth and Dorothee Schneider.
“That’s a good question. I look at the top people in jumpers and dressage in Europe and they have strings of horses. It puts less pressure on them, If one goes lame it’s OK because you have backups. If you put all your eggs in one basket, have one horse, and it goes lame, gets older it’s a problem. If you have a couple it takes the pressure of them individually.”
Alice has never been on American team, and is the opposite of a self-promoter. However, American coaches are keeping a close eye on her success.
“I don’t really care about being on a team so much,” she said. “I just enjoy riding them. I guess I have goals of qualifying for regionals (local championships), going to Kentucky (for the U.S. Dressage Finals that are national championships with a heavy focus on adult amateurs).
“I have small goals. I’m not terribly ambitious.
“If they’re good they’ll go places and if they’re not, that’s fine.”
Where did she learn to develop piaffe and passage that is a feature of her horses?
Turns out she figured it out mostly on her own.
“I start really early, like at the end of their four or five years. I do it with very little pressure.
“It takes me a few years to do it. Quiet half steps as a four-year-old to tell her whether the horses is going to be good at Grand Prix.
“It’s only a little five-minute conversation a couple of days a week with no pressure. But if you do it like that you have a much longer range goal and by the time they’re seven or eight all my horses piaffe/passage and no drama because they understand what they are supposed to be doing.
“I start when they’re five and it’s like walk jig, walk jig. That’s it. It’s a non-issue. There’s never any tension starting with it. Why would there be?
“I always do it while I’m on their back, from the very beginning (and not with an in-hand person beside or behind the horse). At the end of the day that’s what counts.
“You listen to the horse and they tell you how far you can push it. When you start getting reactions that aren’t the reactions you want, violent, or rearing, going backwards or kicking, you’ve got to take the pressure off and figure it out, and stop asking for so much. They’re telling you they don’t understand the answer.
“It’s like when you first ask a horse for a flying change; most of the time they take off or buck through it. You can’t put a clean set of one-tempis on your horse in six months. That’s what so many people try to do—put piaffe/passage in a horse in a year or two. I look at it as a four-year plan.”
Alice works with trainers Marcus Orlob and the Florida-based Danish Olympian Lars Petersen as eyes on ground to see things that she doesn’t and to do what she describes as “keep me honest.”
“I love the training of horses,” Alice said. “It’s so much fun. It’s so cool to have a conversation with them. It’s like you start with a horrible piaffe and you think, ‘Can I train that?’
“You can. Wow! You should see how it started off and see what I’ve got now. You’d never believe it was the same horse. It’s amazing what you can train them to do.”
Of speaking to her horses:
“Isn’t that your job, to figure out how to explain to the horse what I want it to be doing. They all have different qualities and different things that are easier and different things that are harder. So I need to say, ‘OK, I want this and you did that.’ So I need to figure out how do I explain what I want you to do something else.”