A Gypsy with a Home and Mission
By Ingrid Edisen
trainer Michael Vermaas believes in getting the job done. After riding
internationally on three different continents for over thirty years, the
professional rider has settled in the San Antonio area and travels widely
to assist his clients. Currently one of his home bases is the Retama
Park in San Antonio where he regularly works with a client string of ten
horses. It could be said that another home base for him is his car.
He drives the length of IH-35, traveling between San Antonio and Austin several
times a week to work even more horses and riders, much to his clients’ delight.
Built like a formidable rugby player, Michael is tough and no nonsense but
eminently fair to the horse. Even horses with “bucking issues” don’t
faze him. So far in Texas he has not been presented with a horse that
did not at least have some kindness in its eye, he explained. He appears
to be the sort of person who has lived an intense life and risen up to the
challenge rather than been drained. Life has cloaked almost a James
Bond type mantle about his being. He is quick to laugh and when pressed
can become quite serious.
Kay Skillern of L & L Boarding who has him reschooling several difficult
horses at her barn, describes him as having almost a Zen-like quality towards
his horses and students; not in an ethereal way, though, as he is very much
grounded in the world.
“You keep learning until you die,” he stated. “And I don’t know it
all.” There are no “closed doors” as far as he is concerned.
He is open and willing to learn from everybody and everything. But
after scaling the heights of various show circuits in disciplines as hunter/jumper,
eventing and dressage, he now has simplified his life.
“I like to teach people who just want to enjoy their horse. Every single
bit of improvement is satisfying.” It does not matter if a client is
show bound or not. His students range from one who is among the top
32 FEI riders in the world, a German Junior National Team member to the weekend
rider putzing in the hot Texas sun.
He moved to this state in August 2005, a few years ago after accepting a
position at a barn in San Antonio. Unfortunately, a few months after
making his move his new employer told him the barn had to be shut down.
By then Michael had developed a tiny independent clientele just numbering
three. He hunkered down, made his living expenses and decided to see
what the future would bring.
News of his skill traveled as time went on and now he is solidly busy.
But how did he gain his craftsman’s way of handling horses? It was
by adversity. Growing up in the Netherlands, he discovered he was good
at sports—in fact, so good that after a while most sports almost bored him.
But it was the horses that gave him a challenge. “Every horse is an
individual,” he said. In kindergarten he rode a black and white pony
and by age eight was solidly bucked off. He stayed away from riding
for two years. When he returned to it, at age ten, he shunned ponies
in favor of the larger horses. He also encountered a riding teacher
who “couldn’t stand my guts” and relished assigning young Michael precisely
the wrong horse at precisely the wrong time. For example, if hearing
the rain pound on the tin roof over the riding arena drove a particular horse
nuts, that was the horse given to Michael to ride that day.
“I’m stubborn,” Michael explained. “I didn’t want to give the guy the
pleasure that I might stop my lessons.” So, he persevered. In
a backhanded way, he now realizes that that experience helped him.
When he was thirteen, his parents moved the family to Portugal. “I
hated it in the beginning,” he said. He missed his friends and worked
hard at giving his parents a “guilt trip” for making the move. In response,
they bought him a string of twenty-two horses and said, “Here’s a string
of eight jumping horses and fourteen lesson horses. Now go open your
own riding center.” Realizing Michael, at age 14, needed help, they
also hired Nuno Oliveira’s assistant Fernando Oliveira and also had Michael
enrolled in the International School run by Lord Loch, Sylvia Loch’s husband,
who instructed Michael twice a week. Sylvia Loch is an esteemed dressage
rider and author herself. Michael’s jumping coach was Marcel Bonaerens
who had served as Ludo Phillipaerts’s coach.
With such intense and excellent input as that, Michael’s riding escalated
quickly. Soon he was good at placing at all the shows, growing confident
that anything below a third was beneath him. His whole life was horses
and girls, school and riding. He started teaching riding at age 18.
For a while he became quite competitive but that eventually died down and
he got put off of it.
When Michael was a young adult, the CEO of Locktite, a British company, offered
him a corporate sponsorship to work show jumpers in Germany. Here he
got to see the underbelly of the top competitive circuits and did not like
it. A $300,000 horse had to jump whether he liked it or not, Michael
said. That was the reality of the show world.
In 1989, he moved to South Africa because Ronnie Cornick, a top jumper rider,
had a half Hannoverian, half Thoroughbred that could not be ridden.
Michael worked with the horse to make him useable and succeeded. The
tough horse had been bred in Namibia, where young horses were turned out
to grow up among the lions and whichever animal survived was cultivated back
into civilization as a show prospect. Now in South Africa, Michael
found camaraderie among the show riding set that he enjoyed, for instance
with fellow competitors such as English rider Jeff Billington. The
setting was relaxed and supportive. And the expansive parties at all
the big hotels connected with the shows made it a fun, happy atmosphere in
the early ‘90’s. His visa expired after six months. He returned
to Portugal to his own training barn that he’d started in ’84, continuing
to teach and sell many horses to England and Belgium.
During this period he was able to ride under Luis
Valenca, and the Chief Rider of Portugal and head of the Alter Stud, Dom
Before he moved to Texas, he also trained horses for the royal family of
Saudi Arabia as well as that country’s national oil company, Aramco.
Having an overview of the international scene that spans thirty years gives
him a unique vantage point. He observes that even the Germans are starting
to weave more French-like techniques into their training and dressage as
the horses they have bred are lighter in frame and movement. And on
the other side of the coin, he is seeing the French adopting some of the
German-styled techniques. Another comment was on the American style of jumping.
In the eighties, he said, the Americans rode (jumpers) with a longer rein.
Now he sees that the style has become more “cranked in” which is not necessarily
good for the horse, he explains with dismay.
Michael will conduct a clinic at Kay Skillern’s facility in Oak Hill.
Auditing is free. FMI call Kay at 512-228-0800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Vermaas can be contacted via: email@example.com or (210) 913-9737.