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November 1, 2012

Forward Bound After A Last Look Back

Anne Gribbons applauded Adrienne Lyle for her Olympic performance with Wizard and listed her as one of the talented riders in this country who needs a couple of really good horses to bring along. Photo by Kat Netzler.

Our columnist is stepping down from her role as USEF Technical Advisor, but she’s optimistic about the national teaching staff she’s helped put in place to train future U.S. riders.

David O'Connor put it to me in clear language when I asked for his advice before signing the contract to serve as U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor three years ago. In the job as coach, he said, you’re a combination of teacher, disciplinarian and cheerleader.

Right on. As time went by, I could add a few items to the list such as psychologist, planner, listener and very frequent flyer. 

Coming to the end of my time as technical advisor and looking back, I’ve learned a great deal about people and organizations, some of it the hard way. However, I’ve truly enjoyed working with our elite riders because I understand and share their passion for riding, training and showing. I understand the pressure of competition, the thrill when things go well, and the desolate feeling that comes with defeat.

The team dynamics that exist before a games are a subject that could fill a book, and it’s been fascinating to follow three different team constellations through the World Equestrian Games, Pan Am Games and Olympic Games. I feel privileged to have been connected with some of our greatest horses and their riders.

My true motivation for taking on this task, however, had little to do with winning medals. Back in 2008, I stated in a letter to the USEF that we needed to set up a system for training our own riders and horses in the United States. I wanted to promote the creation of an American System of training.

In the past three years, we have indeed established and filled the positions of developing and youth coach. Scott Hassler was already working as young horse coach before I came on board. We now have in place a national teaching staff. They are available to guide, advise and help our riders at all levels. This is, of course, all in its infancy and should be expanded to include more coaches as we go.

What I would like to see added as soon as possible is a pony coach, since the lack of pony activity in American dressage is one of our greatest weaknesses. The people in the positions will change over time, but as long as the system stays in place, we have a foundation. I will try to continue to watch over this program in whatever capacity I can.

When I asked the Dutch and, recently, the English, leaders of the sport how long it takes for a new educational system to really show results, they both answered: approximately 10 years. Not surprisingly, 2011, which was the 10th anniversary of our young horse program, exhibited a great upswing in both the quality and the training of our next generation of horses.

The focus on medals is naturally strong leading up to and during any international games, but it shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the long term goal of building our sport, slowly and persistently, until we have enough depth that we don’t have to worry where our next team horses are going to come from.

Good things take time, and it will take some time before we see results coming from the new system. But at least there is now a pipeline available to work through, people to contact, and help available in this country.

Realistic Expectations

While spending a lot of my last three years on the road working in clinics, observing our athletes and their trainers at shows, having meetings with them, communicating on the phone and on emails and watching videos, I got a very good feeling for our inventory of viable combinations.

Being an international judge for many years certainly helped me assess the quality and evaluate how competitive a horse would be in the international arena. But when you are working with your team leading up to games such as the London Olympics, this kind of insight can be a double-edged sword. You just know too much, and it could temper some of your happy puppy enthusiasm and make you more focused on trying to beat the odds. Being realistic and intense is not the same as being negative.

Coming into the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, I felt we had a viable team and a chance with Ravel and Steffen for an individual medal. Well, they won two, and we very narrowly lost the team bronze with three “rookie” riders on the crew. We qualified for the Olympics and had a good showing overall.

Moving on to the Pan American Games in Mexico, we appeared with the right horses ready for the right task, and the United States swept the team and all three individual medals. Obviously, our system works when we bring combinations that fit the bill.  

In England, we arrived with two team horses that had a Grand Prix show record hovering around 69 to 72 percent for several years. Yet they were correctly chosen by our panel of judges at the trials as our best available to join Ravel, who has always been an established top world-class horse.

We left no stones unturned to polish their performances, but you don’t raise a horse’s average percentage by 10 points in a couple of weeks.

At the Olympic Games, all our horses put their best hoof forward and did their job. Nobody, and certainly not me, is blaming the horses for not having the genes and ability of some of the “super equines” ridden by our competition. 

Our horses did not disappoint us. They stepped up to the plate, but others were superior. Rafalca, a horse I have followed closely for three years, had her absolute best two tests ever with Jan Ebeling in London, and yet her score was according to her past record. All our horses stayed over 70 percent, which is a first for us in the Olympics. No excuses, no blame. Sixth place by a very small margin is not the end of the world!

What really tickled me personally was to have our individual rider, Adrienne Lyle, show her great riding ability and super composure under pressure. That is a young lady with a future who needs a couple of really good horses to bring along, as do several of our very capable riders of all ages.

We have, at the present, more good riders available than we have horses, but only a few of these riders are busy bringing any horses along up the levels.

Made In America

Quality costs a lot today, even for horses of a very young age, and the trained ones that could win for us are either prohibitively expensive or usually not for sale. So we are back to what we used to do in the old days: find one or, even better, several good quality youngsters and start training! Those were the horses that used to bring us to the podium, the Keens, the Gifteds, the Flim Flams, the Brentinas and Graf Georges. Bought young, made here. 

It would not surprise me if dedicated owners and sponsors continue to provide us with ready-made team horses. We become grateful and excited, because it perks up our prospects for medals. But there are two pitfalls: The new rider has to gel with the horse, and even with a Grand Prix horse, that can take a while and become complicated.

We learned from the saga of Totilas that the magic doesn’t always work. As a nation, we also tend to sit back, relax and use these instant combinations as temporary band aids to cover up for the fact that we haven’t produced new growth of our own.

In the best of all worlds, this won’t be the case in the future, and instead we will see a number of new stars of all stages entering the arena starting next season.

It was my great pleasure to work with Debbie McDonald, trainer of Adrienne Lyle, and Christine Traurig, who works with Jan Ebeling as well as the Saudi Arabian jumping team. Both these trainers are educated, dedicated and confident in their ability. This makes it easy to share the work and ideas with them, which can lead to improvements. Nobody can reach her utmost goals as a competitor without a capable and loyal trainer at her side, and the triangle of rider/trainer/horse that works is a powerful thing!  

The USEF leadership is now going over the records in all the disciplines and having meetings with the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as the various committees to look into new ways of approach in reference to coming games. I’ll be working on a newly formed committee called the “Blue Ribbon Panel,” which spans all our disciplines. Hopefully something truly useful will come of our efforts.

Once all the information is gathered and the input from athletes and the discipline coaches sorted out, a plan for the next four years will be created.

In the long run, I think the London Olympic experience will be viewed as the great wake-up call that inspired us all to move onwards and upwards. As the saying goes: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Anne Gribbons was the U.S. Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she’s been a member of the FEI Dressage Committee since 2010. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Forward Bound After A Last Look Back" ran in the Oct. 29, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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