Sherri Harvey: Matt Brown and East-West Training Concepts

Matt Brown has been making a name for himself on the West Coast with BCF Belicoso and Super Socks BCF. Both horses were listed over the winter and invited to train with coach David O’Connor. So how did Matt get to this point in his career? His student, Sherri Harvey, sat him down to get the full story. Many thanks to Sherri for writing, and congrats to Matt on the big win in the Twin Rivers CIC3* this past weekend.

Matt Brown and BCF Bellicoso at Twin Rivers. Photo courtesy of Sherry Stewart.

Matt Brown and Aida at Woodside. Photo courtesy of Sherry Stewart.

From Sherri:

The list, the list, THE LIST … what does it mean for those who make it? I know David O’Connor’s training program and influence can take a rider to the WEGs, Rolex and perhaps even to the Olympics, but what about the candidates who make that list? What does it mean for Matt Brown, for example?

My short, three-year history with Matt Brown has proven invaluable to my training as a rider. Not because I see the Olympics in my future, but because my horsemanship, awareness and commitment to my own horses is a lifestyle for me. The way I look at life has been shaped by my interaction with horses, and the past three years with Matt has only reaffirmed this. So many times, the things I learn, the ideas that matter in my daily life, first take the shape in the form of riding.

For example, early in my riding career in my 20s, with two OTTBs, I had to learn to stay present. I couldn’t worry about laundry or bills while on horseback. I assume this is true for most thinking equestrians, and I know this is true of Matt and his training business, aptly named East-West Training. I came seeking riding lessons, and I left finding evolution, even if only in coffee-spoon measurements. Life imitates riding, and riding imitates life. The moment is better when appreciated. Happiness can’t exist without sadness.

“East-West.” Think balance; yin and yang. The concept explores how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected in the natural world and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Think about downward and upward. Give and take. Pressure and release. The half-halt: how do we stop and go at the same time?

Enter Matt Brown. At the beginning of my lessons with Matt at the Beginner Novice level, I had to trailer to where Matt was giving a clinic, and I had just borrowed a friend’s mare who had loading issues  The first time I went to pick up the mare to get her to my lesson with Matt, I had trouble. The stubborn mare first refused to enter and upon being forced, flipped herself over backward at first. When she was finally in, we quickly closed the door and proceeded to the lesson.

At the end of my lesson, the mare wouldn’t get back in the trailer to go home, perhaps due to her trouble getting in to come to the lesson. For two hours, I tried every trick I knew and had zero luck.   I was in tears trying to load her.   All the while, Matt kept giving his lessons to his loyal students while I was sure he was watching me out of the corner of his eye.  I felt horrified that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this mare, and I was embarrassed by this.  I was waiting for Matt to come over and fire me from his program, but he didn’t.

At the end of Matt’s daily work with other clients, after he had been teaching for eight hours, he came over to help me. He got a rope halter out of his car, which I assumed traveled with Matt wherever he went, and then he spent another two hours working with this mare. First, he did ground work, asking her to move her shoulders and respond to his body. After quite a bit of groundwork and a lot of patience, he asked her to re-approach the trailer, and he invited her to enter. After she willingly did so, he backed her out and asked her again and again until she stood quietly enough for the ride home.

While watching Matt, I could not help but feel like everything was going to be alright in the world.  Matt had little emotional response to the process. Although he didn’t say much during this grueling process (except to tell me that people had created this mare’s problem) I realized that he was, in a sense, practicing the theory of natural horsemanship. Matt’s interaction with this mare — and really all horses that I have seen Matt work with on the ground and in the saddle — is more about a way of life; an understanding of behavior; a well-honed, conscious method of pressure and release.

Matt presents a question to the horse and allows the horse to answer that question. His thought process is more about awareness and sensitivity partnership. Again, it’s about a mindfulness of all parts of the equation in order to come up with an answer. Tom Dorrance is famous for answering horse questions with the simple response: “It all depends.” And Matt, I swear, channels Tom Dorrance as well: “The horse is a thinking, feeling, decision-making animal. He has a mind, and each horse has a distinctive personality, just like a person. Humans need to understand that we have a responsibility to the horse. The way we present things to the horse has a significant influence on his/her success. I loved how quietly and calmly Matt approached this situation and have found that same calmness when I am around him.

I have found the values of natural horsemanship, and of a more enlightened way at looking at the world, at the heart of Matt’s being and training. He has achieved his black belt in Kenpo Karate and earned the rank of Shodan in 2000, which helped him find his zen. Matt adjusts his riding to the nuances of the horses and to what is happening within the relationship while struggling to simply improve. He is a conscious contributor to the ride.

When I asked him about the relationship to his Kenpo training and horses, he talked about the self-awareness that any athlete needs to have to perform. According to Matt, Kenpo taught him three valuable lessons: self-awareness, humility and the connectedness of all things. Matt’s ultra-sensitivity and ultra-awareness translates into his riding, but he said it hasn’t always been this way for him.  When he started his business with Cecily Clark, his wife (and dressage rider with a long list of accomplishments of her own), they named it East-West Training for a reason. The process of riding is an evolutionary process that puts into practice the culmination of his life’s work.

As a young rider, Matt was the kid that grew up riding the horses in the barn that nobody else wanted to ride. He liked the spicy ones — the difficult horses that rear, buck and breathe fire. Those are the types that teach the most. Maximum Speed was just that kind of horse, and Matt competed him through Advanced. With Gina Miles, Natalie Rooney and Earl McFall, they represented Area VI in the North America Young Riders Championship at the two-star level in 1993.

When reflecting back on his Young Riders experience, Matt said that it’s clear to him now that he would not have been ready then for the opportunities that he is lucky to have today. He needed to understand the horse more. He needed to be a more well-rounded rider to feel the way they move and understand his balance in relationship to that. He told me that he felt like he had more homework to do before he could ride at the top level of the sport for his country.

Matt got a big break last year when he was having a conversation with Bob and Valerie Fish. The Fishes created Blossom Creek Foundation Inc., which sponsors people in making their dreams come true, and sponsorship is essential to the success of many eventers. Many talented riders keep trying to make a name for themselves in eventing, but often don’t have the financial means to advance. Bob and Val, as Matt told me, like to invest in people.

Last year, Val and Bob asked Matt about his riding goals. At the time, Matt was making a name for himself on two horses he had been riding: Aida and Che Landscape. Matt told the Fishes that he would like to represent the United States at the Olympics at some point. Bob and Val had seen what a hard worker Matt was. They shared stories about equine philosophy and life. They knew a bit about his background and goals. And they believed in him. So when Val and Bob offered to fly to Ireland to shop for horses with Matt a year ago today, he could not believe his luck. Bob and Val gave Matt the opportunity of a lifetime. They offered to purchase some horses for Matt to advance with.

He ended up returning with three Irish Sporthorses with Blossom Creek Foundation’s sponsorship. Super Socks BCF came from Fernhill Sporthorses in Ireland. In this short year, Matt has enjoyed a lot of success with him, placing first at Intermediate at The Spring Event at Woodside, fifth in the Intermediate at Rebecca Farm, eighth in the CIC2* at Woodside last month and third in the CCI2* at Galway Downs.

The second is BCF Belicoso, a 7-year-old Irish Sporthorse. This horse has won four of his five events since Matt took over the ride, most notably finishing first in the CCI* at the Event at Rebecca Farm and first in both the Woodside CIC2* last month and the Galway Downs CCI2*. This weekend, he added another win with a first place at Twin Rivers in the CIC3*. Both horses have allowed Matt the opportunity to be noticed, and Bob and Valerie made that possible.

Matt feels blessed to have Valerie and Bob’s support. Sure, he knows that he has worked hard. He realizes that his thirst for horse knowledge and understanding has helped get him to this level. But, most importantly, his conscientious effort to continue to culminate his own background and training and use it for the ride has started to come to fruition. Upon Matt’s realization that this dream was now something he had the support and resources to try to pursue, he had to figure out a way to distinguish himself. He is now ready at this point in his life to be a contender.

This conversation happened the first time Matt rode with David O’Connor at Flying Tail Farms in Gilroy, Calif. Matt asked David what he needed to do to make the High Performance lists and to eventually make the Olympic teams. David answered, “You need to win.” Matt realized that it isn’t that simple; there is more to the equation. You win because you have a good program, the hunger to constantly learn and get better, the right horses and the necessary support around you. If you have all of those things, as well as a lot of luck, then Matt thinks winning is the byproduct of that general formula.

For Matt, riding for his country, using what he has learned along the way, and incorporating his own way of thinking into his ride, carries him. Riding imitates life. Ride to know thyself. To be kinder to thyself and to the horses. To get along better in the world. To be in touch with masculine and feminine sides at the same time. To be humble. To be more sensitive. To give and release. To have control, yet to let go. A conscious awareness of the world around us that becomes an unconscious habit. Matt’s philosophy is all this and none of this at the same time. It is life imitating riding.

With his string of talented horses, old and new, Matt culminated all the things around him to make a name for himself. However, in true Matt spirit, he reminded me that he only deserves a small portion of the credit. Upon writing this conclusion, Matt once again schooled me: He is a small cog in the bigger wheel of life and riding. Because of the continued dedication to his philosophy, his hard work, continuous self-evaluation, and help and support from Cecily, winning happened. What you put out to the universe comes back to you. I am honored to know Matt Brown. Where will his journey take him? Stay tuned to find out.

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