Indie Of The Month – Horizon Academy

Indie Of The Month – Horizon Academy

Who doesn’t love watching a movie where the hero defeats countless ‘baddies’, whether that be a ‘John Wick’ classic or a good old Jackie Chan Kung Fu spectacular?  In reality, there aren’t many people who could stand strong and triumph over every other style of combative sport. That is until the Gracie family found a way; influencing the world of Mixed Martial Arts forever.  Recently, whilst exploring the heart of Exeter’s indie quarters, I had the opportunity to chat with one of our own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu experts at Horizon Academy and what an interesting conversation it was. 

As it turns out, there are many benefits to training in ‘the gentle art’ of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).  Losing a few excess pounds is almost a ‘side effect’, (as every muscle in the body is worked) which is accompanied by a welcome way to relieve stress.  Making new friends, learning self-defence and harnessing the power of critical thinking and problem-solving skills are positive aspects too. Skills which are transferable into many other areas of our lives.  

Earlier this year, Exeter based, Horizon Academy celebrated some of their junior team winning two gold medals and a bronze at the BJJ National Championships.  The academy, founded by Zak Reed and his partner Aki Alexander in 2017, recently moved into new premises on Guinea Street, just behind the Corn Exchange.

horizon academy team posing mats

Aki said,

‘BJJ is great for all body types, men and women; personally, it makes me feel empowered, especially when I’m using techniques and strategic thinking against a much bigger person, and I’m controlling the fight’.  

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that people are taking to the mat as much for their mental well-being as they are for their physical health, too.

Zak originally started learning Japanese Jiu-Jitsu at the age of 16.  It was at the age of 20 that he moved away from the more traditional form and discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  MMA had started becoming more popular and Zak enjoyed the adapted techniques practised in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. ‘Do Nothing that’s of no Use’ are words that resonate with Zak, especially when it comes to preserving energy during a fight and words that he wears with pride on his Gi.

Horizon Academy is part of the Carlson Gracie Federation, under the guidance of Ben Hall, who is a 3rd degree black belt and head of the Carlson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Australia team.   

Carlson Gracie Snr, Grandmaster and 9th degree black belt was the eldest son of Carlos Gracie, who is credited with being one of the primary developers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Zak said,

“They had the famous Gracie challenge, where they would just challenge anyone to turn up to the gym and they would fight under whatever rule sets the challenger wanted and they basically tested their style of fighting against all the different practitioners and they got really, really good at it!”

The Gracie’s became famous for beating everybody with their refined style of grappling.  They moved to the USA in the nineties and did their first UFC, participating in the first global challenge, a knockout competition, which they won. At that point, the world took note of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. 

“It was the first time where, in reality, we’d seen a smaller person, not only beat but dominate these huge, much bigger, more muscular, athletic guys”.

The style of BJJ that is taught at Horizon Academy is similar to the style used by the Gracie family, with the basic strategy focusing on self-defence.  

The club’s team consists of men, women and children, with many of the female members receiving as many medals as the men over the past year.  Zak says,

“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sport that can be practised by men and women of all ages and builds, without risk of injury as it’s a non-striking martial art which relies on technique rather than strength”.

Children as young as four are welcomed to the club and at that age, the aim is to make it as fun as possible.  Zak said,

“Their enthusiasm is great, their job is to just turn up, and enjoy it.  We pretend to be bad guys, they jump on us and do particular positions which we break down for them”.

He says that training the younger children in this way helps create the muscle memory needed for progression as they get older.

During competitions, Zak receives many compliments for his coaching style.  Several different strategies can be used to help a student during a competition; he likes to focus on staying calm.  He said,

“The calmer I am, the calmer they can be…I try and give them general help if they need it but it’s not my fight, it’s their fight and I can always coach them on it afterwards.  I’m not desperate for them to win so it takes the strain off them, I just want to see what Jiu-Jitsu they know and what they need help with”.

After all, the most important aspect is that they come away having enjoyed the experience.

Sometimes when Zak fights, he equates it to playing a game of chess, in that he tries to think several moves ahead to anticipate what his opponent will do. Teenager, Amber Barker (gold medal winner) interjected saying,

Zak always encourages us to think “What is my opponent going to do next?”; we’ve got to think ahead’. 

She went on to say that it’s challenging to do but that it helps develop her strategic thinking.  She has learnt to assert herself and hold herself with confidence, both verbally and physically. Zak added that from a self-defence point of view it is important for his students to learn how to de-escalate a situation before it becomes physical with things like eye contact, controlled distance, body posture and being able to talk to people. 

academy girls grass medals

Another passion of Zak’s is gaming which he has enjoyed since childhood.  He says that a lot of the skills are transferable, in that the strategies he uses in a game are very similar to ones that he uses in BJJ.  In a game, for example, a player may get four or five special abilities which some enemies are more vulnerable to, whilst they are immune to others.  It is the same when he fights an opponent, assessing their strengths and weaknesses against his own. He finds this gaming analogy is handy when explaining a technique to some of his students and if anyone is struggling, he comes up with a gaming reference that they can relate to. 

It seems that BJJ is a sport that can be enjoyed by the whole family, whether dipping the toe in for some self defence techniques or learning to compete at competition level!

If you would like to learn more, pop onto the website: or email

Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by Horizon Academy

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