Allison Brock: No Shortcuts - Expert how-to for English Riders

Allison Brock: No Shortcuts

How Hawaiian-born dressage rider Allison Brock worked her way to the top of the sport.
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Allison Brock and Rosevelt have made a name for themselves internationally and in 2015 they picked up a second-place finish in the Grand Prix Special at the CDI Achleiten in Austria. | © Shannon Brinkman

Allison Brock and Rosevelt have made a name for themselves internationally and in 2015 they picked up a second-place finish in the Grand Prix Special at the CDI Achleiten in Austria. | © Shannon Brinkman

When Allison (“Ali”) Brock had to decide which sport to pursue professionally after high school—dressage or reining—she chose dressage partly, she says, because it’s so hard to master. “The sheer difficulty of it was very intriguing for me.” Over the next two decades, she saw every challenge as an opportunity for improvement.

Ali grew up in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, and began riding at the age of 7. “I was lucky,” she says. “We had a group of very good professionals, both Western and English. I jumped, rode dressage, was very active in Pony Club, exercised polo ponies to make extra money and even messed around with cattle at one point. And we did a lot of kid things, like playing tag on horseback. I was also exposed to natural horsemanship, which has been a big theme throughout my life with horses.”

Ali’s parents, who are “animal people but not horsey people,” bought her an old, kid-safe horse named Lance. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumonia a year later and had to be euthanized. “It was awful for me but I think it traumatized my mom more than anybody else,” remembers Ali. “After that, they said, ‘We’ll maybe share-board a horse for you, but we’re not buying any more horses.’ They funded my horse habit until I was about 12 and then stopped paying for lessons.”

This was no obstacle for Ali, who’d already developed a strong work ethic. “Kids were expected to work at the barn. If you weren’t messing with your horse, you were out picking rocks or pulling weeds or scrubbing the arena walls or painting fences.” Determined to be around horses however possible, she worked for local professionals and earned rides on other people’s horses. “I was a helpful kid. People like to help helpful kids.”

Moving to the Mainland

Allison rewards Rosevelt after a win in the first Grand Prix of year at the 2015 Adequan Global Dressage Festival. | © SusanJStickle.com

Allison rewards Rosevelt after a win in the first Grand Prix of year at the 2015 Adequan Global Dressage Festival. | © SusanJStickle.com

Although Ali’s parents wanted her to go to college, she chose to pursue a dressage education instead. She accepted a series of working-student positions, first with Colter Slocum in Arizona, then Jim Eldridge in Texas and Linda Landers in Missouri. By the time she was 20, she had her own freelance training business in Kansas City. That’s when Linda invited her to come watch a CDI competition in Wellington, Florida. “I saw Sue Blinks competing Flim Flam and Robert Dover on Rainier [both pairs were on the 2000 Olympic bronze-medal-winning team that summer] and Tina Konyot on Justice and some of the other heavy hitters and thought, ‘I’ve got to get to Wellington.’”

The following winter, Jan Smith, her “fairy godmother,” generously invited Ali to live on her property in Wellington. Ali could bring one of her sale horses to train there and show Jan’s horse Westpoint to try to qualify for the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. It was an incredible opportunity Ali could not pass up.

Coincidentally, Sue Blinks was renting Jan’s arena at the time. “I was terrified to ride in front of her,” remembers Ali, “because it was right after the Olympics and she had been our top-placed American rider. I’d gotten a job down the road working for Lauren Sammis, who had a busy sales barn, and I’d have to ride my mare when I could. One day I couldn’t not ride her when Sue was in the ring.”

Sue liked the mare and decided to try her. During that process, Ali worked up the courage to ask for a lesson. “She didn’t buy the horse, but she gave me my lesson. And by the end of it, she offered me a job.”

Ali did go to NAJYRC that summer, competing for Region 4 on Westpoint, before arriving in Wellington on November 1, 2001, to start working for Sue. She brought with her a 5-year-old Hanoverian/Saddlebred gelding named Markey, whom Marilyn Henderson (another fairy godmother) had purchased for her, giving Ali a clean slate with a young horse to develop with Sue. “He was a wonderful horse! By the time I sold him three years later he had basically learned all the movements for the Grand Prix. I paid Marilyn back and am so grateful she helped me.”

The next several years were what Ali calls her “college education” in dressage. “Sue gave me my foundation.” One of the lessons the Olympian instilled in her was the importance of riding a horse “from back to front, from your leg to your seat to your hand. Sue is the queen of connection. She was absolutely religious about it. There were no shortcuts, no cheating.”

Six years into their partnership, Allison finally feels connected with Rosevelt. “He has done more for me than any horse I’ve ever had,” she says. | © Shannon Brinkman

Six years into their partnership, Allison finally feels connected with Rosevelt. “He has done more for me than any horse I’ve ever had,” she says. | © Shannon Brinkman

Ali groomed for Sue at the 2002 World Equestrian Games team selection trials, throughout Sue’s subsequent two months training in Germany with Klaus Balkenhol and at the actual competition in Jerez, Spain, where the team won the silver medal.

Sue also let Ali ride her horses, including the four Grand Prix mounts in the barn, “which was a huge thing for me. To sit on Flim Flam was the equivalent to getting into a Porsche if you’ve only driven Fords. He was one of the most well-trained, correctly schooled horses I’ve ever ridden.”

In 2004, Sue decided to move to the West Coast and invited Ali to come along. Ali’s other option was to accept an offer from Sue’s previous employers (and Flim Flam’s owners), Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, to take over the head trainer job at their DeerMeadow Farms—based in Keswick, Virginia, in the summer and Wellington, Florida, in the winter. “That was a hard decision for me,” she says, “because I don’t come from endless financial means. The Kundruns had sponsored Sue for a long time and it’s hard to find sponsors that loyal. It was an opportunity for me to ride horses that I could never afford to sit on.” Ali accepted the Kundruns’ offer and has ridden for them ever since.

Continuing Education

Rosevelt’s owners, Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, pictured with U.S. Dressage Chef d’Équipe Robert Dover at right, have not only supported Allison’s career, but also the U.S. high-performance dressage programs. In 2015, they helped kick-start The Dressage Challenge, a fundraising campaign. | © Nancy Jaffer

Rosevelt’s owners, Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, pictured with U.S. Dressage Chef d’Équipe Robert Dover at right, have not only supported Allison’s career, but also the U.S. high-performance dressage programs. In 2015, they helped kick-start The Dressage Challenge, a fundraising campaign. | © Nancy Jaffer

The new job was more than just an opportunity to ride top-quality horses. The Kundruns also invested in Ali’s education. If working with Sue was her “college education,” the next several years were “grad school.” She traveled twice to Sweden to train with Jan Brink, in 2008 and 2009, and then to Coolham, England, in 2011 to train with Kyra Kyrklund and Richard White for a year and a half.

“I am incredibly grateful to Fritz and Claudine for allowing me the possibility to pursue my goals and my dreams,” says Ali. “I wouldn’t be here without them. Period.

“Every time you work with somebody, they bring something new to the table. For example, I learned the best show craft from Jan. I also learned a lot about how to manage a successful sport, breeding and sales business. But when I got to Kyra and Richard’s I was at a real pivotal point. I’d ridden Grand Prix nationally on a horse I’d trained myself named Peajay. They watched me ride around for a couple days and then said, ‘We know you’ve been very successful at the small tour, but if you want to be an international rider, you’re not sitting very effectively and you need to change that.’

“Here I was, 30 years old, being told, ‘You’re not effective.’ Bless them both because they took the time and pulled me apart to make me better. They changed how I think of using my seat—not pushing and driving and working, but instead letting the horse carry me. They changed also my expectation of how the horse should carry his own body and what it means to have a horse truly collected. They elevate riding into an art form.”

The Rosie Project

Allison and Rosevelt’s performance at the Nations Cup in Compiegne, France, in May helped the U.S. team earn a victory. Pictured from left: Shelly Francis, Allison, Kasey Perry-Glass, Laura Graves and chef d’équipe Robert Dover. | © Pierre Costabadie/arnd.NL

Allison and Rosevelt’s performance at the Nations Cup in Compiegne, France, in May helped the U.S. team earn a victory. Pictured from left: Shelly Francis, Allison, Kasey Perry-Glass, Laura Graves and chef d’équipe Robert Dover. | © Pierre Costabadie/arnd.NL

Ali brought a Hanoverian stallion named Rosevelt with her to England. A star from the get-go, “Rosie” had won the 2006 stallion testing in Sweden as a 4-year-old and finished fifth in the World Young Horse Championship as a 5-year-old with Hans Peter Minderhoud. “Fritz bought him off a video, literally,” says Ali. She and Rosevelt both arrived at Jan Brink’s farm in Sweden in early 2008. “So I had never met the horse until he landed at Jan’s.

“When I first met him, I was not so smitten,” she admits. “He was a cute 6-year-old, but a bit of a lazy dough boy. He had a huge canter stride; we could hardly collect it. I thought, ‘What did we do?’ I rode him quite a bit, but he was really struggling with his flying changes. I said to Fritz, ‘I don’t really want to bring back a breeding stallion to the U.S. that can’t do a flying change.’ We left him at Jan’s and Jan kept picking away at it. The next spring, he called me and said, ‘Ali, he’s finally starting to get his changes. He’s going to be fine.’”

Ali went back to Sweden for three months at the end of 2009 and brought Rosie home to the U.S. in January of 2010. That year they competed successfully at Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. When Rosie turned 9, Ali took him to England to train with Kyra and Richard. “It literally took us a year and a half to get him confirmed in his one tempis. At that point it wasn’t that he couldn’t do clean changes, but when he did the ones he got so hot and tense. He wanted to buck through them. When I started showing him in the [Intermediaire II classes] and then the Grand Prix, he really put me through the wringer. He would do what I call ‘spronging’—where they’re not bucking, but they’re porpoising. I took him to a lot of national shows just to get him calm. Then he just sort of grew out of it, settled down and turned into a fabulous international Grand Prix horse. But there was a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Ali debuted Rosevelt at the Grand Prix level in 2013. The following year, they won the Dressage at Lexington Grand Prix $1,000 Challenge and the CDI Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special at Dressage at Devon. In 2015, they won the Grand Prix at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival 1 CDI-W, the CDI*** Grand Prix at Global Dressage Festival 7 and the team gold medal at the Stillpoint Farm FEI Nations Cup CDIO***, and were the traveling reserves for the Pan American Games U.S. team.

Now six years into their partnership, Ali’s once-tepid impression of the stallion has turned into adoration. “I absolutely love this horse,” she says. “He has done more for me than any horse I’ve ever had. He and I are absolutely a team. He’s still playful to this day. Sometimes on the ground, you’re like, ‘I’ve got this wild stallion who just wants to bounce around and toss his head.’ He’s not dangerous, but he could be in the wrong hands. But he’s very sweet.”

A strong performance at Rotterdam in June boosted Allison’s and Rosevelt’s chances for an Olympic team selection. | © Shannon Brinkman

A strong performance at Rotterdam in June boosted Allison’s and Rosevelt’s chances for an Olympic team selection. | © Shannon Brinkman

This spring, Ali took a month off from showing Rosie to tackle a new flying change problem. “He got very ambitious and confused his one tempis in his freestyle with his one tempis in the Special. He’s so good now at doing one tempis that he was doing too many and I couldn’t stop him! So we went home and worked on our communication skills. I also changed the freestyle choreography so that he will never be able to confuse the two again. It paid off and he came out and got a 74 the next time.”

The duo won the Global Dressage Festival Grand Prix Special CDI**** in March and CDI*** Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special in April. These performances qualified them for the U.S. traveling squad from which the Olympic team would be chosen after competing in Europe this spring and summer. In their first selection trial in Compiegne, France, they finished sixth individually and helped the U.S. team win another Nations Cup. After consistent performances during the team’s final outing in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in late June, Ali and Rosevelt were officially named to the Olympic team.

While in Europe, Ali received support from her current coach, Michael Barisone, with whom she’s trained since 2010. “He’s the Hubertus Schmidt of America. He’s made his life taking whatever walks in the door and turning it into a Grand Prix horse. He knows exactly what to say to me in the right moment. Michael’s coaching support is one of the biggest pieces as to why I have become successful in the show ring. We trust each other and are both committed to achieving the highest possible results. He is my rock.”

She now compares Rosie to Debbie McDonald’s 2004 Olympic partner, Brentina. “He’s a really solid, correct, beautiful horse. He can do the entire Grand Prix class easily.” She’s careful not to predict how high he might score in the future. “This year he’s grown so much and gotten more mature in the work and he’s so much stronger. He’s not the same horse he was last year.”

In the end, what matters most is Rosie’s well-being. “I want my horse to come through this tour still loving his job and healthy,” she says. “That’s really important to me.”

Caring for All Horses

When Ali Brock was 12, she got the ride on a two-year-old Arab/Quarter Horse mare named Sheba. “She was one of those love-of-your-life kind of horses—liver chestnut with flaxen mane and tail, four white socks and a blaze. I could do anything with her and we won some classes, showing primarily Western and Hunter Under Saddle.”

Many years later, she learned that Sheba had been discovered starving on an outer island. “The people who had her just couldn’t afford to feed her.” Ali paid to rescue the mare and sent her to a former trainer in Oahu. “She’s 25 now and she’s fine. She packs around lots of kids. I just write out the board checks and see her once a year. I’m lucky somebody saw her before she starved to death.”

In recent years, Ali has found a way to take her compassion for horses global. She is an ambassador for the Brooke, a charity dedicated to protecting the welfare of working horses, donkeys and mules around the world. For more than 80 years, the Brooke has provided veterinary care, shelter and water for millions of equines—primarily pack animals carrying heavy burdens, such as coal, bricks and produce.

“We spend a lot of time and effort and money on these fancy show horses and we forget all the working animals of the world,” says Ali. “What the Brooke does is incredible. And it’s a win-win. When you help people help their animals, the animals are more productive, so there’s more income coming into the house. And then the people’s standard of living gets elevated.” Most importantly, she says, the Brooke alleviates animal suffering. “I hate to see animals overworked or killed out of ignorance, which happens a lot. The Brooke does such a good job of educating people. So you go to bed a little bit easier at night.”

The Brooke is constantly expanding, she adds. “They just went into Mexico, they’re in Guatemala and all over India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, northern Africa and the Middle East.”

To promote the organization, Ali hangs a large Brooke banner in her stable area at every competition and hands out brochures about the charity’s work. “The more funds the Brooke gets, the more they can expand, so the more animals and people they can help.”

For further information about the Brooke organization, go to www.brookeusa.org.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.