There’s truly not many people who can say they have three generations actively participating in horse life, but Colleen Brook is one of them. Her mother, who is 95, still judges once a month at Clarendon Jump Club; Colleen herself showjumps and has frequently represented Australia internationally and her daughter Liz, jumps and events.
When Colleen bought her Wilberforce property, just outside Sydney, where she’s lived for the past 25 years, she chose it partly because it was in a pocket of premier horse people. “We’ve got Dave Cameron around here, Chris Chugg, Helen Chugg and George Sanna, to name just a few,” she says. “This area services a lot of people for equestrian activities and there’s a lot going on.”
Part of that ‘lot’ is Colleen’s own extensive work training both her horses, and other peoples, her coaching, and her own competition career, which has led her to being one of the highest graded coaches in Australia, with an NCAS Level 3 general coach accreditation, NCAS Level 3 showjumping and eventing specialist accreditation, as well as becoming an NCAS Coach Educator/Assessor with Certificate IV Workplace Trainer and Assessor qualifications. The family has also bred competition horses, and has some young ones coming along. “They have to find their own way a bit,” she says remarkably amicably for a horse trainer, it seems to me. “You can’t force them on to your timeline.” She pauses. “Similar to children, really.”
Talking to her, what quickly becomes apparent is her broad-minded approach to training, and her interest in how a horse thinks.
“I’ve always been interested in the psychology of horses,” she says. “I’ve firmly come to believe that although the classical way of training is still the best for what we want to achieve as eventers or showjumpers, the more things you can do the better – vaulting, natural horsemanship, clicker training, you name it…”
Colleen insists that in training a horse you need to help it make the choice you want it to make. “You can’t kid a horse into doing something you want it to do,” she says. “It’s never going to work. My introduction to clicker training was watching Georgia Bruce at a symposium, and I was impressed by it. I know that horses usually only say ‘no’ when they’re frightened, and the clicker seems to break that circuit. I had a horse, No Secrets, who was terrified of water jumps. I was told that by a few people who’d known him before I got him. So I plodded along with him, and just used some food reward, and he ended up jumping the big water jumps at SIEC which are notoriously difficult.”
But, she says, you must have a sustainable system. “There’s no such as a free lunch in horse training,” she says firmly.
She points out that her daughter Liz currently has a difficult horse. “He’s not easy to manage,” she says. “He’s jumping 1.25m now but it’s persuaded her to have to think a bit laterally. The thing about a horse is that they’ll go, ‘you know what, I’ve only got a certain amount of half-halts in me, after that you’ve got no chance’; so you have to outthink them.”
She should know. With her horse-mad mum, Colleen was riding by the time she was four, on the family property in Bellingen, near Coffs Harbour. “I was born in Bellingen,” she says, “and we moved to Sydney in the mid-sixties when I was 11. My father’s family lived at the foothill of the Dorrigo mountain, and it’s beautiful country there, but there were more opportunities in Sydney, so we moved.”
Colleen grew up riding a lot of horses. “I rode a lot of horses, and went for lessons, but in those days your coach never came to shows or saw you compete, you did a lot on your own, so you had to try stuff by yourself, and that’s when I seriously got into researching what I needed to know. I’d teach myself the aid for shoulder-in from books, and I’ve never lost that habit.”
In fact, she says, she gets “miffed” that this generation relies so much on help from other people. “Reading seems to be a lost art, which is a tragedy as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “But even then – people – there’s YouTube. Anything you want to know, any tips you can find out, it’s all out there.”
Her book shelves are filled with classics: Riding Logic by Wilhelm Müseler, published in 1937 and still considered a classic today; American Gordon Wright’s numerous books which saw him acclaimed as one of the most influential horseman of his generation; Russian-born Vladimir Littauer’s The Principles of Riding, an important – and controversial advocate – of the more forward-seat riding, and, says Colleen: “Every jumping book that’s ever been written – I don’t know what would happen if there was ever a fire here! I’d lose an entire library.”
Of all of those horsemen/authors, one that influenced the current maestro, George Morris, was Gordon Wright. And it was George Morris, Colleen explains who had such a major influence on all the showjumpers in Australia in the 1960’s.
“He’s 81, and he still considers himself to be a student,” she laughs, “and that’s one of the reasons why he’s such an extraordinary coach. When he first came to Australia some of our mob had never even had any lessons, but George was able to crystallize complicated technical advice into a phrase and make it understandable. I think for all of us he is such an inspiration because a lot of us in Australia ride in a forward, light way. We have a lot of riders here with a natural, but sometimes unusual style, and George – influenced by Wright – was a naturally forward, light rider, so we got him and he got us.”
(Most recently Vicki Roycroft credits George for giving her a “tune-up” on his last visit that enabled her to win the Dubbo Grand Prix last month.)
There’s a difference, Colleen says, between what she classifies as riders with a more ‘normal’ style. “Most riders need a system that’s accountable,” she explains. “They need to be able to go a + b = c, but for some very natural riders, they just need help understanding technique so they can do it their way.”
Something she would like to see a lot more of in Australia is Equitation classes. “Equitation is big in the US, and I’ve judged a few classes over the past ten years, and I think it’s a great basis to go from. For example, if you go out into rural Australia you’re not going to see much dressage technique in a showjumper, but in fact equitation can teach young horses and riders techniques that can then translate into showjumping.”
She cites the example of one task she put into a competition. “We had a fence with a very tight angle, and their task was to turn short at with a minimum amount of strides. If they did a short amount of strides and knocked the fence they still scored better than the riders that took the maximum amount of strides and cleared it. That was a bit of a surprise to them, but it was to teach them about coming in short. The strides varied from nine to 19, and those that tried to do it in less were rewarded for that. Not every rider wants to jump their horse big, particularly when they’re young and Equitation is great for that.”
I’m intrigued by Colleen’s interest in alternative methods of training. After all, this is a woman who has been Australian, Victorian and New South Wales jumping champion; who’s won the Alice Laidlaw trophy a record ten times at Melbourne Royal, competed at the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, the World Cup Finals in the US and Germany, won the Tokyo Grand Prix and was on the winning Nation’s Cup team three times, and still competes today at the age of 65.
“The more tools you have in your toolbox the better,” she says. “If you’re in any doubt about clicker training, what first attracted me to that was this woman who trained whales in Florida. She would go to aquariums and train whales, and she decided to translate that to horses. I read the first page of her book, and she pointed out that you can’t put a halter on a ten-ton whale and say ‘come here’, so to encourage that animal to come to them, they use clicker-training. These days clicker training is routinely used in zoos to click and reward large animals so that they learn to be able to be treated more easily, and again, I think it’s very valuable. Of course, it always depends on the horse.”
Depending on the horse has also seen her adopt some Parelli techniques as well. “The thing about Pat Parelli was that he wrote, or writes, everything down so it’s become a progressive system – if you don’t have access to that kind of system, sometimes you need help. You’d be amazed at how often good riders have a progressive system while they’re on the horse, but on the ground they treat them like babies, or have inconsistent training methods with them. What I want to see if people enjoying their horses, playing with them and enjoying them. In order to enjoy a horse, it has to be under control.”
HorseVibes own columnist, eventer and coach Charlie Brister has been learning from Colleen for a decade. “She’s an amazing coach because she doesn’t overload you,” he says. “She’s always looking to make things easier for the horse – that’s her mantra – how can we make it easier. She researches dressage, eventing, jumping, groundwork – she’s a wealth of information. Plus she has a great sense of humour.”
Sounds like if there’s an Australian horseperson out there with a book in them, it’s Colleen Brook.