Jan and Ben Ebeling are a father-son duo who are taking the dressage world by storm with their individual accomplishments alongside one another. They had an impressive achievement back in May when they were on The Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team together at the FEI Dressage Nations Cup France CDIO5* in Compiègne, France. Jan is a veteran international competitor who was part of the gold medal U.S. team at the Santo Domingo 2003 Pan American Games, competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and has made several FEI World Cup Finals and Nations Cup appearances. Ben rose through the young rider ranks, competed on his first senior Nations Cup teams in 2021, and was named to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and 2022 FEI Dressage World Championships short lists. The Ebelings, who are based in Wellington, Fla., shared how they got started in riding and their partnership training and competing together.
Jan grew up in Germany and started riding around age seven, though that was not his intended activity. His parents and grandmother wanted to get Jan involved in a sport, and Jan was hoping to take up soccer.
“Next to the soccer field was a riding stable. And they said, ‘Oh, let's just go in there.’ Well, we never made it to the soccer field,” explained Jan, 63. “I was signed up for riding before I knew it and had very little to do with it. I was terrified of the horses the first time I rode. But there were a lot of kids, I made a lot of friends very quickly, and I was hooked in no time.”
As Jan grew up, he became interested in dressage. He apprenticed with the late German master Herbert Rehbein for several years before coming to the U.S. in 1984 and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1999.
Unlike his father, Ben did start out playing soccer as a kid before getting into horses and riding. “I didn't really start riding until I was about five or six when there were a bunch of ponies and kids at the barn, and I thought it was really cool watching all those kids,” said Ben, 22. “And I think one day I woke up and said to my mom, ‘Okay, I think I'm ready to start riding now.’”
Ben didn’t immediately follow in Jan’s footsteps toward dressage. He became interested in jumping and competed in the discipline for several years while training with Olympian Will Simpson. But an injury to his jumping mount turned out to be an opportunity to practice dressage at home. “At one point, I was rehabbing my horse and she couldn't do any jumps, and I thought it would be really interesting to learn dressage. I thought it would help my jumping, so I started doing dressage with my dad.”
Jan remembers the day Ben asked him for some dressage tips and how his emotions went from excitement to mild disappointment. “Ben was riding his jumper and I was riding my dressage horse. We were in the arena together. I remember he kept watching me. I must have been working on pirouettes, and he said, ‘Papa, can you explain to me how you ride the pirouettes?’ I was very happy. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s finally switching over to dressage.’ But no. He was like, ‘I think if I can figure out how to do pirouettes then I can make my turns much faster. I could be much faster in the jumping.’”
Ben eventually made the switch to focusing on dressage full time. While Jan and Ben both frequently train with Christoph Koschel, Ben credits his father with much of the training and guidance he has received over the years. Jan is a big supporter of young riders and sharing his knowledge with them as they develop. He served as the chef d’equipe for Ben and his junior team, supporting them as they earned the team gold medal at the 2017 FEI North American Youth Championships. “I've grown up training with my dad and that's been really fantastic,” said Ben. “Every once in a while we get into arguments, but for the most part, we have a lot of fun riding together.
“And then, of course, we keep score on who wins at the shows,” added Ben. “Now my dad is back to kicking my butt.”
“Yeah, we always have ‘winner buys dinner,’” said Jan. “We do fight about who gets to drive the horse truck.”
“We've got this two-horse lorry in Wellington,” said Ben. “That thing is so fun to drive. You would never know you're transporting horses. I drove it actually up to Ocala and that was really cool. In any case, we have a lot of fun.”
Despite the occasional argument and friendly competition, the Ebeling family—Jan, his wife Amy, and Ben—routinely have conversations about the horses and all aspects of their program. “It’s really kind of our little team,” said Jan. “It's not just about the riding; it's about the care, about everything that goes on in the barn. We always have discussions about things that could change and I see that that could potentially be a problem or shouldn't we do this because that could be a lot of fun. So, there's always a dialog going on with our family on what the whole program is going to be.”
Ben has gone from watching Jan compete on the world’s biggest stage to now competing at the international grand prix level alongside his father. Ben holds Jan in high esteem and gets a thrill out of watching him. “I really get butterflies when watching my dad. I get so nervous, much more nervous than I do when I go in the ring,” said Ben. “I remember growing up watching him compete Rafalca. I was along for all of that journey, and it was really amazing to watch him train this horse and never give up and eventually make the Olympic team for 2012. That was so inspirational to me. And now going forward, I've seen him still through the years continue developing horses in a really fantastic way. I really don't know if there's somebody else who can train a horse better than my dad. But it's really cool now a little bit later in life to have that same feeling that I had when I was a kid watching him go in these grands prix and now with me, too. It's a little bit nerve wracking, but also really still inspirational.”
While their relationship was several layers, Jan and Ben see each other as partners on their riding journey. “I always see my dad as my trainer. But as I have come into the grand prix level of the sport, and I've gone far enough ahead in my training, I kind of feel that we've become more partners now,” shared Ben. “We can always talk to each other, and we work really closely, and there's always a dialog. Now, I think it's really cool because sometimes I see something like when we're just riding together in the mornings or he sees something; we always kind of have an eye out for each other. It's really cool to develop and have that relationship sort of blossom into a partnership.”
“I think partnership really is a good word to describe it,” added Jan. “I feel Ben has really, really learned so much and has really rather quickly risen through the ranks. It's fun to see him ride and watch him learn and get better and sometimes watch him struggle and fall like we all do in this sport. It’s this up and down. It's frustrating and disappointing: you have a good day, and then you have a bad one. I guess it's just watching him grow up in this environment and becoming quite a good rider.”
As the Ebelings made their 2022 summer competition plans, an opportunity arose for both Jan and Ben to compete on a team together. Ben was named to the 2022 FEI Dressage World Championships short list with two horses, Illuster van de Kampert and Indeed, and was headed to Europe for short list observation events. Jan’s up-and-coming mount Bellena began competing at the grand prix level in 2022, and Jan wasn’t sure if the mare was ready to be on a Nations Cup team. However, Jan made the leap of faith, and he and Ben were on the team together at the FEI Dressage Nations Cup France CDIO5*.
“It was amazing. It was so much fun,” said Jan. “As a dad, I was so proud. And I know Amy, as mom watching us, was so proud to see us do this together. It really is so wonderful to see when your kid is doing what you love and is really good at it, too. It is a lot of fun.”
“We had always talked and dreamed about being on a team together, but we never thought it would really line up, but it did,” added Ben. “It was so exciting. It was really cool experience. A five-star Nations Cup is one of the biggest shows in Europe. It was just amazing to be on that team together. A lifetime experience that we will never forget.”
Looking toward the future, Ben hopes to have solid performances at the short list observation events and aim for exciting goals down the road. “I'm really happy with both of my horses and how they're going, so even just showing at Rotterdam and Aachen is really fantastic,” he said. “I’m really excited about that. But then potentially moving forward, for me, is hopefully Paris 2024.”
With a Nations Cup team experience together for Ben and Jan, a team appearance at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games seems like less of a pipe dream. “That would be a dream come true,” said Jan. “Because I don't know if a father and son have done that before. For me as a parent, it would be a dream come true to do that with my son. To have that experience for the both of us.”
Time will tell where the Ebelings and their horses will be in two years’ time, but the future looks bright. For Jan, competition is a thrill, but he simply enjoys riding. “I always say I ride because I love riding and I love training. I certainly love competing, but I don't ride because I want to compete. I ride because I want to ride,” said Jan. “I think Ben pretty much feels the same way. Nobody likes to lose that. Everybody wants to win, especially if you are as competitive of a personality as our family. But the reason we do this is because we love the horses. We love the lifestyle and that's why we do it, not because we want to be first in the competition.”
Riding, training, and competing horses offers many opportunities to learn important lessons, and Jan has learned much during his time with horses. A significant part of being a father is supporting and teaching children as they grow and come into their own. For Jan, horses have played a big role in sharing wisdom with Ben. “I think the biggest lesson that one learns when dealing with animals is you have to be patient, you have to be fair, and I guess you have to embrace the fact that there will be disappointment,” said Jan. “But there are also huge rewards when you get the things right. It's a life lesson.”
Jan is feeling content while he is over in Europe as Father’s Day approaches. “I’m over here with my family. The three of us are together enjoying doing what we are doing,” said Jan. “We do this as a family. This is Amy’s and my lifelong dream to have built this program. How much better can it get to have a kid that is doing it because he's loving it, too.”