A native of Sweden, Anne Gribbons has successfully represented the U.S. in numerous international competitions. She has trained many horses to Grand Prix and helped her students achieve tremendous competitive success. Yet, many know of her for her career as an FEI “O” judge. Gribbons is rare among international judges in that while she judges at the highest levels – and indeed this year she is judging the U.S. Olympic Dressage Selection Trials – she also actively competes. At the recent Gold Coast Opener CDI-W/Y, Gribbons competed with her 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding Alazan at the Grand Prix level. During the show, Gribbons graciously set aside a few minutes to discuss the challenges of being both a top-level judge and competitor.
Q: Is it difficult to go into the ring knowing the judges personally, especially when some of them are actually good friends?
Anne: Some of them have a hard time with it. I think that for them, as for me, it’s a two-edged sword. They’re very careful not to be too friendly with their score because they certainly don’t want it to seem as if they’re in any way favoring me as a judge. And therefore, sometimes, it can have the reverse effect. If you judge someone you really know, as opposed to someone you are removed from, it’s just human nature that it is harder to be completely objective. But that’s one of the things that we judges are supposed to be – totally objective and most of us can pull that off very well. So, I would say that they all try to be totally fair, both to me and to the other competitors.
On occasion, it can be hard because some judges dislike the fact that some judges ride. That’s just how they feel. Other judges encourage you. It depends on each judge’s attitude about it. But, on the other end, I can say, I’ve never, ever had a competitor complain about my riding in competition in all the years that I’ve been riding and judging. I’m first a trainer, competitor, rider and teacher. I did not start this career wanting just to be a judge. That came with the territory. I love the judging. I totally enjoy it, but I will say that’s not all I am and I’m not ready to give up the riding.
Q: How does being a judge at your level impact your competitive schedule?
Anne : It’s very hard to fit in the competing because the more you judge and the more you are in demand to judge different competitions, the more you have to make your show schedule fit into that and that affects the horses. Horses need a certain routine in their showing. They need so much time between shows, but not too much. For example, the Grand Prix horse I have now (Alazan) is a very, very hot horse.
But, he’s still sort of comparatively green because he doesn’t go to enough shows and that is a problem. He needs to get a routine down and he hasn’t really been able to do that because as soon as we go to a show then it’s several weeks off until the next. So, it doesn’t always work that well for the horses. It depends, of course, on the horse’s temperament as well.
Q: Are there any other FEI "O" judges who compete?
Anne: As far as I know, but I might be wrong, I’m the only "O" judge who has been competing at the same time. I don’t think it’s happened before so it’s a bit like being in my own unique situation. I don’t think I could actually be prevented from showing, but I have to be very careful to make sure it is totally fair. And of course, I’m not going to compete against the same people I’m going to judge as they try for the Olympics. There is an FEI rule that one cannot compete and judge a CDI on the same continent in the same year.
Q: Why do you keep competing?
Anne: For several reasons. I’m first and foremost a competitor and trainer. And as long as I’m physically fit and have a good horse, I want to compete. I think if you don’t, it’s very easy to sit at home and pat yourself on the back and think that your horse is going marvelously and doing all the right things.
And, it’s not until you get in the ring with good judges that you really know what the truth is.
Photo: 1995 Pan American Silver Medal Team - Anne Gribbons, Guenter Seidel, Elizabeth Ball, and Leslie Webb
Q: So competing is part of your role as a trainer?
Anne: That’s absolutely correct. I also want to see how my horses are going and if they’re up to snuff with what’s going on. And when I go to these big shows and compete in the open divisions and I get some of the really good judges that we have, I get the benefit of their input. And I’m not sitting out in the boonies pretending that I’m wonderful. So that’s important. I need to know how my horses are progressing.
So that’s one reason why I compete. Another is that so long as I can do it and want to do it, it keeps me nice and humble. This is a very difficult thing to do. To ride a Grand Prix horse well is a really detailed, intense skill and to really appreciate it, you have to have done it yourself. And by doing it all the time, I am never far away from it and I don’t forget how difficult it is. I really respect the riders. If they have a horrible test, I’m not going to give them a great score but at least I never say, ‘How could that happen to them?’ I know how it happens to them. And I know how difficult it is. And I think it keeps my level of respect for the rider higher.
Q: Can you say that competing makes you a better judge?
Anne: That’s for the competitors to decide. I don’t think it makes me a better judge. I think it makes me a more sympathetic judge. And I also do understand that if somebody has the test of his or her life and it wasn’t expected to be that good, I really try to give that rider the credit because I know what it feels like when something goes really, really well and nobody pays attention. So, I think perhaps it makes me even more aware of how fair I need to be to the riders because it is so hard to do.
Q: Hypothetically, if you were told that you had to decide between judging or being a competitor, which would you chose?
Anne: If I were 20 years younger, there would be no choice. I would definitely go compete. At this point, in life, I honestly don’t know. I hope nobody ever asks the question. It’s like with a man and woman and one is a competitor and at some point the other says, ‘It’s enough. You have to chose between me and the horses.’ Sometimes, they’d be very surprised with the answer (Gribbons laughed loudly). So, I don’t know. I just hope I’m never in a position where they can prevent me from competing as long as I compete in the correct classes – as long as it’s not a conflict with what I have scheduled to judge.