DressageDaily feature writer Kelly Sanchez caught up with Anne Gribbons in California for this insightful interview with "The Boss" as she and USEF Managing Director and Dressage Chef d’Equipe Eva Salomon traveled to the west coast completed a scouting tour, clinics and shows before leaving for the World Cup Finals this week, in Liepsig, Germany.
To watch Anne Gribbons at a dressage show, you quickly understand why Steffen Peters refers to her simply as “Boss.” Coaching the high-performance riders at a CDI in Los Angeles in April, she was seemingly in 10 places at once — monitoring the action in the show rings, closely observing horses and riders in the warm-ups, offering suggestions, fielding phone calls, greeting old friends.
As USEF Technical Advisor/National Coach, Gribbons draws on her considerable expertise as not only a 5* international dressage judge, but a competitor, instructor, barn owner and show manager, and it’s a role that she relishes. Even before she was named to her post, Gribbons had a vision for American dressage, and now, nearly a year and a half into her tenure, which runs through 2012, she has already achieved some lofty goals. The U.S. dressage team’s somewhat unexpected success at last fall’s Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games (where Steffen Peters won two individual bronze medals, and the U.S. dressage team qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London) was only the start.
Three Americans are competing at the World Cup Dressage Finals in Leipzig. Germany, and in July she intends to send a Nations Cup team for the first time since 2005 to the World Equestrian Festival CHIO in Aachen. After the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October, preparations will heat up for next summer’s Olympic Games in London. “We have plans for everything,” she says with a smile.
An American Brand of Dressage
The Swedish-born Gribbons, who lives in Florida with her husband, David, acknowledges the challenges of putting together a dressage program in a country as vast as the U.S., but she’s quick to praise the wealth of coaching talent from coast to coast. “We have the people who went to Europe and did it all — their knowledge should now be poured into our young people. It’ll take a whole bunch of teachers from here to start our young riders correctly at the bottom and go up the pipeline. We still need to go to Europe to show, I’m sorry to say, but I’d like for us to be able to do the pre-work here and not necessarily have to send people to Europe to train and work in the barns. I think we could have a brand of dressage that’s ours.”
She argues that Americans should also be training their own horses and not relying on importing top prospects from abroad. “The Europeans are never going to sell us a trained horse that’s going to beat them — not at the highest levels. We need to breed our own horses as well, but that’s an even longer process. I probably won’t live to see it, but I look forward to the day when Americans can field a winning team of horses trained and bred here. It’s 20 years from now, but we’ve got to have a plan. We can’t always leave it up to some other nation to fix us.”
Gribbons knows that it takes “true grit and discipline” to make it in the high-performance arena, particularly in the U.S. “What I hope,” she says, “is that when I leave this job there’s a system in place that the riders trust, because this is what we’ve been lacking. It’s an enormous task, because the country is so huge. Our biggest enemy is our distances. In Germany or Holland, they can hop in the car and meet in two hours. We have that fight and always will. But if we work together, we can make it better.”
Her job, she contends, is not to teach every American. “As we see horses and riders at the shows and in the clinics, we can tell which direction they’re going,” she says. “If there’s a problem, I go in and say something. After 30 years of judging, I know how it’s supposed to look. I’m not trying to tell them how to do it, I’m trying to tell them how to make it better. I have no other agenda. I don’t try to sell them horses. I don’t try to tell them how to run their lives. But I do expect them to respect my opinion and the fact that I really care.”
Tina Konyot, a member of the U.S. dressage team at WEG, has known Gribbons since she was a girl and appreciates that Gribbons respects her as the “passionate, outspoken person” that she is. “Being a trainer herself and someone who’s developed her own horses, Anne very much believes in people working hard,” says Konyot. “She’s a very dedicated woman, and she’s been aware of my struggle to stay above water as a horse trainer. She knows I train alone; I’ve made all my horses on my own. Having Anne on the ground, helping me, advising me — it works beautifully. I’m always grateful when someone with knowledge respects you and doesn’t come in like they know everything. In the most genuine way, Anne is trying to put together a program for all of us. It’s about the American program, not just individual riders. She’s been involved in every aspect of the sport, and she has a very clear and fair outlook on all of it. As an international judge, her eyes are different. We have access to a person who knows what’s going to get us those extra two points. It’s so special that she’s right there for us.”
Preparing for Success at WEG
Many believe that the U.S. dressage team’s intensive preparation for the World Equestrian Games was key to its success in Kentucky, and Gribbons’ approach left no doubt as to the discipline and dedication that she expected from her riders. At USET headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, she posted a daily schedule for WEG team members Peters, Konyot, Todd Flettrich and Katherine Bateson-Chandler that even included socializing in addition to sessions with a sport psychologist. “We had two weeks after the trials,” Gribbons recalls, “and every day they had their own training time. When I first put up the schedule, they were a little taken aback. But they all came to every session.
“We had lunch together every day and went to parties and dinners together,” Gribbons continues. “All this socializing really cemented them. I actually had comments from the other coaches and chefs at WEG that the Americans looked like they had such a good time together. It was a really good image. When the horses went into the ring, everybody was there helping.”
Peters has long been a fan of Gribbons and her no-nonsense approach. “There’s no doubt — and I mean this in a positive way — that Anne is tougher than Klaus [former U.S. Chef d’Equipe Klaus Balkenhol], but also very, very fair to the horse and rider,” he says. “Anne had a tough act to follow, because, let’s face it, Klaus did a very successful job. But I always thought that we were missing a little bit of structure, not just for the training but afterwards — the program, getting the team together in one facility, being insistent on the sport psychology, the physical fitness. And that’s what Anne has introduced.
I always call her ‘Boss.’ I personally like that extra authority. [In Germany] I spent two years in the army, and that structure and organization really helped me. Anne doesn’t take it quite as far,” he adds with a laugh, “but I’ve had tests with Ravel where he came out at a 78 or even an 80 percent, and the first thing she said was, ‘We’ve got to work on this, this and this.’ And that works great for me, because it’s always a learning curve. She really helped me with Ravel’s left pirouette and the passage and brought them consistently a point higher. A big part of those two bronze medals belongs to her.”
Selecting a Team
As for the pressures and politics—real or imagined—that come with such a high-profile position, Gribbons shrugs them off. “When you’re judging internationally, you are used to pressure from trainers and sponsors, much heavier than we are used to in this country. There is plenty of pressure in Europe, with those trainers and sponsors breathing down your neck, and you’d better be able to stand your ground. In the U.S., we are thrilled to have wonderful sponsors for the horse, but we are not going to care if one sponsor’s horse makes the team over another. It’s not about the sponsorship.
In the end, the best horse and rider wins, the cream rises to the top. It is the judges at the Trials who select the team. Those judges are our very best, and they’re motivated to put out a good team.
“Of course, we’ve been criticized for picking our teams democratically,” she notes with a smile. “The Europeans laugh at us and say, ‘Why don’t you just have somebody pick them?’ I have now been involved in the procedures for making a team 20 times or more in one capacity or another—coaching, riding or judging. Our system may look cumbersome to others, because we’re so terribly fair and democratic, but in general we have ended up with the right horses on the team.”
The March to the Pan Am Games
She’s especially pleased with the talent available for this fall’s Pan Am Games, which are held at the small tour. “I am so certain that we will have the most exciting trials,” she says. “We have phenomenal horses at the top and phenomenal riders, and for the first time ever, I can say that we also have depth. We’ve always had a stronger contingent in the small tour, but not with this kind of quality. It’s really amazing.”
Steffen Peters agrees. “Dressage in the United States is still growing, and we’re at a point right now where we can say that we have some fantastic horses. That’s a huge responsibility for our coach, and I know that Anne can handle it.”
Investing in the Future
The future of U.S. dressage depends on the horses and riders coming up, and to that end Gribbons advocated to install Olympic medalist Debbie McDonald as USEF Developing Dressage Coach and Jeremy Steinberg as USEF National Dressage Youth Coach to join Young Horse Dressage Coach Scott Hassler. “Without growth from the grassroots, we’ll never have a pipeline,” Gribbons explains. “Jeremy is going to help, advise and guide the youth from the ponies up through Young Riders, and that is no small task, because that is where we get our new talent. He’s very enthusiastic, he’s very bright and he’s young enough to connect with the kids and can hop on their horses and fix things. Debbie will take care of the development when riders start to get sharp and do the big stuff. It’s going to take a lot of energy. One thing we all know, this is a big country!”
Gribbons maintains that she and the other USEF dressage coaches are there to “observe, identify and promote talent and guide them in the direction they need to go so that they reach their goals. It’s very important at all levels that the riders have somebody by their side who is very devoted to them, someone who is loyal and steering them in the right direction. In every meeting I have with the athletes, I very much promote that they get their own coach, not just someone in Europe that they see one month a year, but a helper at home who sees them regularly and can correct those dumb things that will crawl in if nobody watches what you’re doing.”
She’s also excited about the prospect of further collaboration between the USEF and the USDF. “This is another new beginning, I hope. It’s been an on-and-off-again rivalry between the USDF and what used to be the AHSA [now the USEF], and they could never really go marching in the same direction, but I think we can see the end of that now. We are really trying to marry some of our programs by using the same people and also hopefully coming together financially — dividing financial responsibility. What could be better than to pool our resources and consolidate our efforts? USDF is enormously important for education and for bringing together everyone who is involved in dressage — every person who loves dressage has a home at USDF. That’s not necessarily true about USEF, because that’s all about competition. Everyone who rides dressage is not a competitor, and they shouldn’t have to be.”
Gribbons makes it clear that she couldn’t perform her duties without the assistance of USEF Managing Director and Dressage Chef d’Equipe Eva Salomon, and she’s delighted that they’ve been able to successfully share a job that was originally intended for one individual. When Gribbons was appointed to the FEI Dressage Committee in November 2009, it was agreed that that the Chef d’Equipe position would be filled by the U.S. Managing Director of Dressage. “I think it was stroke of genius,” says Gribbons of the job split. “Other disciplines might want to think of doing something like this.
“I met Eva when she worked for the FEI,” Gribbons adds, “and I always knew she was knowledgeable, strong-minded, had a good backbone and was not afraid of telling it how it is. We work well together; we don’t get in each other’s way. Eva knows every rule in her head, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s rules! I’m all about the riding and the doing. When we went to WEG, Eva was involved with all the paperwork, all the details, making sure the team was treated correctly. That way I could be with the athletes — I was always in the barn or in the ring.”
Life After the Job
Competing her own horses has been put on hold for now, but staying current with her international judge’s license means that Gribbons has to travel to out-of-the-way locations where no Americans will be competing, to avoid any conflict of interest. “I have to go to these exotic places, and then some American shows up without letting me know, so they have to cancel me,” she explains with a laugh. “So then I fly off to Australia or Brazil, places where I’m not expecting anybody to come. I was scheduled once for a show in the Ukraine, and then they cancelled the show. It’s been a circus! But I made it clear when I took this job — I am not sacrificing my judge’s license, because one day I’m going to get back to it, if I live long enough!”
But Gribbons isn’t looking to leave her post anytime soon. At shows throughout the U.S. and abroad, she will surely be found ringside, working closely with horses and riders and lending her energy and talents to the sport she loves. “The best part of this job has been working with the athletes,” she says. “I love the communication with them—on a horse, off a horse, all the time.”