An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek
It was an exciting moment for me to meet Maarten van Stek again after all those years. He did not really know who I was as, those thirty years ago, I was just a spectator on crutches at a clinic he gave in the East of Holland. This one-armed man with his calm way of approach, which stuck to every horse and rider he worked with, made me so very greedy to overcome my own issues after an accident. Not only was Maarten an instructor on a mission, when he was riding you simply forgot there was an arm missing. It just looked so very beautiful.
A while ago I translated an article for website Horses International about a one-armed PSG rider on his way to Grand Prix and realized this was the very same guy. So I decided to overcome my shyness and contacted him. Mainly to thank him for the fact that all those years ago he was an important factor in my recovery which made it possible to become the rider and trainer I am now.
Maarten is a very kind man with no ego issues. Despite the fact he of course could not remember me, his answer was warm and inviting. So here I was, on his side, soon with his little dog Tootsie in my lap, as he was teaching in the indoor school of the Van Verre family in Empe. And boy, how nice to listen to his relaxed but alert way of teaching. The punctuality and technical precision, hand in hand with a healthy sense of humor and endless patience, always keeping in mind the emotional and physical well-being of both horse and rider. Treating part of the session as ridden physio with the result a happy horse, keen to up its game when gradually pushed into more challenging exercises.
When I thanked him he invited me to visit him at home and meet William, the horse he achieved so much with and of course I couldn't possibly refuse such an invite. So, the next week I took the train to Hoofddorp where Maarten collected me.
William lives in quite a big yard, but as soon as Maarten called his name, William's head appeared over his door with a happy snicker. As I stood watching Maarten brushing William, ready to help when asked, it was impossible to ignore the patient self-discipline Maarten has made his own in order to live a life for which most people think at times two hands aren't enough. Every door latch, every knot, every buckle, every brush stroke, mounting his horse, taking up the reins, the correct tension on the curb. My respect grew by the minute as I watched this man work.
Although William had been out in the paddock and also lunged, he had not been ridden for four days, because of having lost a shoe, which had only just been put back on. So obviously Maarten had to adjust their training session in order to deal with the vast amount of surplus energy. This is when I decided I was now definitely a groopie. I have seen so many competent riders not have the patience to restrain themselves on training days such as this. Maarten worked quietly away on.....straight lines. Using his own invention of riding diagonals from A or C to the corners of either side of the arena. Eventually using those lines for flying changes, finishing up with a very correct lot of one-timers.
A warm thank you to William with a relaxed long rein was followed by using the two-takt walk as a means to get into the piaffe.
On my way home, chewing over all I had seen, two things stuck out. Firstly, the ease with which the modern warmblood accepts the leg and rein tension to become soft and forward. It is built to do so and therefore the muscles and the brain don't make a big deal of it as it is easy for them. Most of the horses I work with in England need more of an 'in between time' in their early training development in order to be able to handle the pressure in a positive way. When ignoring this the chance is they become nappy.
Second, the use of the legs very forward, touching the muscles which make the horse pull up its belly. And once the horse is fully on the aids and using its core strength properly, the not involving the legs as much as guiding just with the reins when doing the exercises it knows. Of course! Eureka moment, I knew it, but had not said it in such a simple and uncomplicated way.
Uncomplicated, not exactly how you would see life with one arm. But that is how Maarten has made it somehow, which is so very striking and humbling. He proudly told me that, many years ago, he passed his first exam which involved bandaging. He was exempt from this phase, however, insisted on taking part. It involved teeth and knees but he passed... with a 9!
I'm hoping that I will get another chance to watch Maarten work. In those two meetings I learned so much. This I can pass on again to my own pupils and if they are lucky they get to meet the man himself not too long from now.
Top picture: Maarten with his pupil Vera van Verre and her horse Change Faith (Valdez x 00Seven)
Bottom: Maarten van Stek with William
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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