Alexandra Duncan Finding Her Stride in Sweden

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 00:00
Young Guns in Dressage

Canadia Young Rider Alexandra Duncan has been the best performing North American Young Rider ever at the FEI Young Rider World Cup Finals in Frankfurt. This Canadian pair shocked European competitors by beating almost all of them and finishing fourth with her Holsteiner mare Elektra at the 2006 Young Rider World Cup Final.

But her glory in Frankfurt was not the beginning nor the end of her success. In 2005, Duncan was the Canadian Junior Rider Champion and in 2006 she won team gold and individual bronze at the North American Young Riders Championships. One year later she improved her act and became the individual and team gold medal winner at the 2007 North American Junior/Young Riders Championships as well as the recipient of the Fiona Baan Memorial Trophy awarded to the Young Rider with highest average percentage score from Team and Individuals. Duncan is a member of the Canadian Albrecht Heidemann Young Rider program and at home she is trained by Leslie Reid.

Originally based in West Vancouver, B.C., "Alex" decided to embark on a trip of a lifetime: a 6-month training stint with Swedish Olympian Jan Brink. Time for Eurodressage to catch up with Duncan and to see how she's handling life in Sweden.

How have you adapted to a new life in Sweden? What was the most difficult? Were you able to integrate quickly with the staff and other riders? 

Adapting to life in Sweden has been fairly easy. Everyone speaks English which makes life much easier. One of my biggest challenges was renting a car and trying to find an automatic. At home I never learned manual because everything is automatic. A different story in Europe. Luckily I am a fast learner. The rental company lent us a car for a day and my Dad was with me so we spent the day learning to drive manual. I picked it up fairly quickly and am now zipping around in my little car. I brought my French bull dog Oslo with me as company. He is a best friend and has made the move much easier.  I was able to fit in quickly in the barn and after the first week I got into the swing of things. The other riders were more then helpful. Everyone is like family here. Your treated equally and included in everything. Jan is very strict that we all support each other. He does not like game playing in his barn or any petty business. Brink also takes us all out for dinners once in a while because he believes in having a balance and in having fun re being successful.

What is your daily routine at the Tullstorp stables?

Every morning I get up at 6:15 let my French bull dog out, get dressed then I make both of us breakfast. The morning is the best time to phone home and catch up on my families day etc. So I talk with them before starting work at 8. Every morning at 8 we all gather for a meeting to go over the day's schedule and to discuss who is doing what. Jan has a list prepared every morning with who is riding what horse and who he is teaching. The meeting takes about 5-10 min then we all set off to work. Usually I have a few horses to ride depending if Jan is here or not. If he is away then I usually have more horses to ride. Most days I help put the horses out in the paddocks then ride. If I am not riding I do chores in the barn such as laundry, dusting and washing the stall doors; all the little things that need to be done. 

I work from 8 to 10:30. Then from 10:30 to 12 I have time for my own horse and Jan teaches me during this time. After 12 I feed lunch, sweep and groom horses till 1:30 then its lunch time. I only work part time. The usual hours for full time staff are from 6-8 am then 8-1pm and 3pm to 6pm. 

How is Brink is as a trainer? What did you learn the most? How does Brink suggest to fix a certain problem?

Jan is a very fair trainer and interactive with you showing you with his body or by drawing a ring in the dirt and showing you how you should ride your lines. Utilizing this knowledge has improved my ability to execute various dressage movements. I have had quite a few "Aha" moments and during one lesson I said to myself, "this is why I ride".  The lesson involved a fantastic pirouette exercise of coming onto the diagonal, really collecting on the spot where the pirouette would be for a few strides, then coming out slowly going forward to a flying change and doing this a few times on either side. Then we took that and did the highly collected steps and turned that into a working pirouette. The feeling was effortless. I just sat there and held my horse with my legs and gave in the hand and just simply turned it; truly felt like ballet.

Jan has also taught me a really good system for teaching younger horses to do flying changes.  He always uses the term "stay in the tunnel" whether you are riding down the long side or on the diagonal which I have now adopted. Thus, whenever I ride my diagonal lines for changes I am thinking in the tunnel and it really works to create strait changes. He also made me ride for a few days with a jumping bat across my hands creating the perfect angle from elbow, to wrist to the horse’s mout,h which creates a positive balance of pressure and makes you very aware of your hand pressure's. Most riders tend to become a bit lazy with their legs and riding with the bat you certainly cannot be lazy. I really enjoyed this tool because I did not have to worry about my hands moving. I was able to just hold them and ride from my seat and leg. It is also a great tool for riding 1 tempi's.

An area for improvement with my horse is the collected walk. My horse tends to freeze in his body and become slow and wants to go wide behind. We have been working on making him quick behind with out scaring him by keeping a fine balance between legs and hand pressure. Making sure that I do not use an aggressive leg aid just light pressure from my calf, no spur and quick small half halts to re set the balance without disrupting the rhythm.  Also walking on a circle and making my horse go into shoulder in feeling which helps to separate his hind legs and keeps a positive energy flowing from back to front. We work on his walk everyday and slowly he has become much more relaxed. 

Another area is his trot. His natural trot is good but it could be stronger. We are working on short very cadenced passage steps into half steps thus improving his natural cadence for "normal trot. Working on these transitions has made all the difference in the world to his "natural trot." He is now able to carry himself with much more schwung.

What do you do when you have time off? 

I have a great time being here. I make sure to keep my self balanced. I started taking taekwondo. Through this I have met a lot of really nice people. I have a friend from Vancouver in business school in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is only an hour train ride so I go there to visit on some weekends.  All of us also like to go out for dinner or out dancing once in a while if we are not too tired. I often like to just relax, read a book or watch movies on my computer. 

Which horse did you bring? Which horses at Brink's stable are you riding? 

I brought my seven year old gelding Vitall (by Ferro x Aram) with me. I have had him for a year and half now. I purchased him in Germany so he is now a frequent flyer. I have ridden a lot of Jan's horses and it has been a thorough learning experience which has made me a much more versatile rider. He has let me ride Briar which was out of this world. The first time I rode him I didn't know what to do. I did not want to press the wrong button but he is one of the best horses in the world, so kind and has so much to offer. I would have to say that he is one of my favourites.

Another favourite is one of Briar's sons Biggles. He is also a Grand Prix horse that has taught me a lot. He is a very hot and sensitive horse.  I have ridden about five others in the barn.  I can't pick a favourite as they are all so different to ride and each provides a different learning experience. They are all fun.

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to compete in Europe? How long are you staying? 

My short term goal at the moment is to compete small tour level at the Sunshine tour in Spain this coming spring. I have done a few national level competitions in Sweden and plan to do some more shows this fall to give my horse ring experience and exposure. My longer term goal is the Pan American games with my current horse.

Follow Alex' almost daily blog at Horse Canada

Related Links
Duncan Couldn't Have Asked For Anything More at Young Rider World Cup
Canada West Wins Gold at 2006 North American Young Riders Championships
Jan Brink Retires from International Competition Career
Yvonne Osterholm and Bellagio, Stellar at Swedish Championship