Q&A: Alison Burt-Jacobs
"My experience has taught me that most horse people will give the shirt off their back for you or your horse. It is a true community."
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Alison Burt-Jacobs. I am a professional and train in the discipline of Dressage.
What was your earliest encounter with horses?
My earliest memory is a very special one for me. My Grandfather used to take me to Pumpkin City every fall and I would ride the horses there. They were tiny ponies on a hot walker that went around and around. I always rode the horse named Sandy. Years later I was going through old photos and realized the horse changed in the photos but the saddle said Sandy. So apparently I had a favorite saddle, not the horse! After that I didn’t ride until I was 11 and I haven’t missed many days since. I was fortunate enough to have someone notice me sitting on their fence watching their horses for hours. She asked if I wanted to come inside the barn and meet the horses. I went on to take lessons and join Pony Club. It was my entire life from then on.
What has been the most unexpected challenge in your training?
Ooooh this is a good one. I think one of the most incredible things about this sport are the ever changing challenges. Earlier on in my professional career a big challenge was not having an agenda with the horses and learning to be patient. If you begin with an agenda it is inevitable that your horse will have a different plan.
Was there ever a time that you considered leaving the sport?
Ha yes! The thought crosses my mind occasionally but is very fleeting. There are times where a 9-5 job where when your shift ends, you are done and don’t bring the work home sounds very appealing. When I actually sit and think about what I would do, it becomes very clear that there is nothing else I would consider doing other than working with horses.
Are you a planner or an improviser? In what ways….
I am both! I love to have a plan and I think that you have to have plans and goals, but I also know that plans change and you have to be flexible in their implementation.
What has been the greatest act of kindness you’ve received from another rider?
Wow this is a tough one because I have been shown so many wonderful acts of kindness in my life it is hard to name one as the greatest. My experience has taught me that horse people are good people and most will give the shirt off their back for you or your horse. It is a true community. We lost our barn in the Woolsey fire two years ago and the outpouring of love and support from the equestrian community was overwhelmingly amazing. We had everything we lost sent to us in one form or another—tack, barn supplies, feed, clothes, buckets etc. The community that we are a part of is inspiring.
What is your horse's favorite treat?
Haha, there are so many! Fibonacci's is Kale chips. El Dorado's is marshmallow Peeps. Tommy loves iceberg lettuce (he has metabolic problems). Farruco prefers carrot tops over carrots. Astrid turns her nose up at the white sugar cubes and prefers the natural danish sugars. Harriett isn't particular about the treat, but she is all about the texture—she likes crunchy treats! Nothing mushy for the princess. All of them have such unique personalities, it is silly for me to think they will all like or need one thing. None of them will say no to the generic cookies, but they get extra excited for their favorite treat.
What do you think is the most important (or underrated) riding exercise? What is your favorite exercise? And what exercise is most difficult?
Any exercise that helps align the horse between two legs and two reins. For me I use Canter Leg yields away from the rail often. I will carry that into counter canter and then change the bend within counter canter as well. I also like to ride 10 m half voltes in canter and then a 10 m half circle in counter canter and make sure to wait for the change of lead until you feel your horse come into two reins.
The movement that is pretty tough for me is the Grand Prix Canter zig zag. In my head I ride it perfectly but it never quite feels the same when I do it on a real horse. My brain just fights the mechanics or maybe my body fights my brain. Either way it is tough but it gives me lots to work on!!
What has been one of your most humbling moments with horses?
This will sound very cliche but most days with horses are humbling. It is one of the reasons I love this sport and the horses so much. It always has a way of humbling us when we need it. Just when I think I have something down perfectly I will lose something else. But, if I perservere and focus, I will then work through that issue and have a few days of easy rides, and then inevitably the next thing shows up to work on. If I walk around the barn thinking in my head “I’ve got this" and I kinda think I know what I’m doing, I will be shown very clearly that I in fact don’t have this and better just keep working away at it. So the answer to this is every day is an incrediby humbling day with daily challenges and with that comes great rewards!
In what ways do you believe riding horses has informed your personal life and behavior?
My personal belief is that you have to be confident to work around horses every day. The barn is the place for me that I am the most comfortable and confident. You have to have a clarity of conviction when working with horses. They are black and white in so many of their thoughts and interactions and that has shaped how I am in my personal life. I like direct conversations and being around people who operate that way as well. This sport has shown me how strong I am, from the physical strength required to the mental and emotional strength and also just sheer grit and determination. All of you gets tested at some time or another and when you can come out the other side of it, you learn your own strength and the strength of the people who believe in you and support you.
Do you have any superstitions around shows?
Well I have a couple of silly traditions/superstitions. I have been the Chef d’Equipe for the Region 7 Junior and Young Riders at NAYC for the past 4 years and each year I get my nails done in our regional colors and I put a gold seven on my ring finger nails to represent all the medals our riders will be bringing home! I had a student who was convinced that the Gardetto’s pumpernickle chips were good luck for her horse at shows, so we would bring his “magic in a bag” every time he went to a show. I had another horse that loved kale chips and we made sure he had those at shows as well. I guess for our barn we have a lot of food superstitions. I also had a stock pin and a stock tie that I used to always wear at shows. Unfortunately those items were lost in the fire so I get to make new silly superstitions.
What is the most courageous thing you’ve done — on or off a horse?
Courage is the ability to face your fears and move forward. I have used this quality in myself when learning or teaching something new or heading into the show ring. Outside of the rigors of daily routines, I have evacuated horses during wildfires. That will get your adrenaline going!
What inspires you to continue to learn within the sport?
What inspires me and drives me to learn are the horses. There is not one horse that is the same so I have to be able to adapt and train them in ways they can learn. I have to always be thinking about slightly different variations to an exercise or a way of handling them or monitoring their behaviors in the barn to help better their health and performance. It is a sport and job that is always changing and demands that as teachers, trainers, and riders we need to be always learning new things and different practices to better our horses, riders, and ourselves.
When you’re not riding, you can be found doing…?
Well if I’m not riding I am teaching or doing something in the barn. I suspect you mean like do I enjoy things outside of horses. Sleep is a big one—I never get enough! I like cooking and spending time with family and friends. I would like to travel more and maybe after this pandemic will try to start doing some more of that. I am a social person wrapped in a homebody so I am very happy sitting at home watching a movie or playing a game! Can I suggest Rummikub to anyone looking for a good game! It is so fun!!!!!!
Is there a movement, organization, or cause that you are involved with? And how can other people get involved?
I am most passionate about working with and supporting Juniors and Young Riders. I think they are the future of our sport and need to be nurtured and developed. They are the next generation of Professionals, and I am always so inspired when I get to work with groups of these kids!
The North American Youth Championships is held yearly and is the equivalent to the Junior Olympics for our sport of dressage. The kids work so hard during the year to qualify for the team and get to represent their country (region) and possibly get to stand on a podium and listen to their national anthem be played. It is a pretty amazing moment to be part of in any way. When you see one kid standing on the podium, there is a team of people who have worked day in and day out to help that young athlete achieve their goals. Those moments are life-changing for the athlete and for the people who are standing behind that athlete. Those profound moments have really made an impact on my life, and I want to support the kids and the program in the hopes that more people can get to experience those defining moments.
Working with Juniors as a trainer is so much fun. They work so hard and are sponges. I also love that it takes teenage children and encourages them to step away from their phones and just go ride their horse or clean a stall. Lasting friendships are formed between these young athletes from all over the continent, and those friendships carry into their professional lives as many of the young athletes from this program go on to become Olympians or successful professionals with their own training businesses.
For me, I am inspired by these kids and their horsemanship. They work so hard and are role models to so many young athletes hoping to one day be Olympians—this is the program to help get them there. If someone is interested in learning more about NAYC and the programs they have to develop juniors, the best resource is the USDF website. Under the competitions tab you can click on NAYC and there is a lot of info about all the programs and the championships.
Lastly, in one or few words, what does horse riding mean to you?
Everything. It has given me a purpose in life and an avenue to express myself. I get to work with the most incredible people, in my barn and in the equestrian community. I have a family that I know I can lean on and all of them have broad shoulders just like mine. It means so much laughter and joy and some heartache as well. It is my LIFE.