Gil Merrick Moves On - And Shares His Insight

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

For the past four years, Gil Merrick has been the voice of dressage within the U.S. Equestrian Federation. He recently resigned from his position at [#25091 override="Assistant Executive Director, Sports Programs for USEF" title="Assistant Executive Director, Sports Programs for USEF"], but he certainly won't disappear from the dressage world. In this exclusive interview with, Merrick talks about his reason for leaving his position, his plans for the future and his views about the current state of dressage. An expert in organizational management and corporate training, Merrick not only hopes to take those skills into the corporate world, but plans to use them to help riders better their lives. His first post-USEF seminar, titled "Managing your Equine Life with Ease," is already scheduled for October 24 and is hosted by the New England Dressage Trainers Network. Recently, Merrick took a break from his new life to answer some questions from writer Lynndee Kemmet.

Q: How long have you been with USEF and how did you end up there?
A: After living and working in the heart of Washington, D.C. for two years and really growing tired of urban living and being away from horses, I moved to Kentucky to be near friends and began my job search.  Much to my surprise, after only a few weeks in Kentucky I saw the advertisement online from the USEF recruiting for a Managing Director for Dressage.  I sent in my application and got a call from the human resources manager asking if I could come in for an interview.  That was in September 2005.

Q: What have you most enjoyed about your time with USEF?
A: Having the opportunity to watch the top horses and riders in our country train and compete and to become friends with many of them, their horse owners, their grooms, farriers, veterinarians and all of the other team members who contribute to their success.  And, I've enjoyed being able to work with such a great group of colleagues at the Federation. 
Photo: US Dressage Team in Hong Kong - Michael Barisone, Dr. Rick Mitchell, Gil Merrick, Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald, Courtney King Dye, Klaus Balkenhol

Q: What have been the biggest challenges in your position at USEF?
A: I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that dealing with some very strong personalities over the past four years has been a challenge.  It could be quite frustrating when my colleagues and I made every effort to be fair to everyone while administering the various programs according to the rules and guidelines developed by our various committees, but it just wasn’t possible to please everyone all of the time.

Photo: Gil Merrick with Fiona Tibone, USEF's Sally Ike, Jim Wolf and Sara Ike at the Great Wall in China prior to the 2008 Olympic Games

There are some within the sport who were somewhat “less than gracious” to me and to my staff when they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it.  It can be an enormous challenge for staff members at the USEF to wake up every day and put in the long hours – working sometimes for weeks or months on end without a single day off – trying to do the best job they can and then be faced with the often rude and mean-spirited verbal attacks that are launched at “the USEF” as if it were some anonymous body that makes things up as it goes along.  I have never worked with such an incredible group of people who put all of their personal agendas to the side, as well as most of their personal lives, to do what is right to grow and develop our sport.  It can often seem like a thankless job.

Q: Why are you leaving your position at USEF?
A: I have always earned my living as a senior level manager within the for-profit sector in industries that had no involvement at all with the horse world.  I was the quintessential amateur owner – tied to a desk during the day and enjoying horses after work or on the weekends while competing in the occasional show.  My position at the USEF was a 24-hour a day, seven-day a week commitment that didn’t allow for the kind of balance I had known before when I was working and riding.  I leave the USEF with absolutely no regrets – it has been one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had.  I never would have dreamed that I would have the privilege of supporting our teams at the World Championships, Pan American Games, Olympic Games, World Cup Finals, CHIO Aachen and all the other great events.  But there is a price to pay for that privilege and my colleagues at the USEF who continue in their roles pay the same price as I did.  My hat is off to them for bringing a never ending commitment to their jobs each day and for all they do for our sport.

Q: What will you be doing now?
A: I am going to take on some management consulting projects while I search for the right fit with a corporation where I can train and develop teams of people to produce their results with a high level of effectiveness and thrive in their careers.  I have a lot of training and experience in the field of organizational development and I have developed a course for people in the horse world who are looking to manage all of the pieces of their lives more effectively so they can enjoy more time with their horses and advance their own riding skills with greater success.  I have a website that gives an overview of these programs and courses, which is  I am also looking forward to conducting training clinics throughout the country for grassroots riders with “normal” horses who want to learn the basics of good riding and a system for gymnastically developing their horses regardless of its age or breed.  That is where I feel I can personally make the biggest contribution to our sport.

Q: Will you be doing more riding?
A: Yes. It was very frustrating to be around top horses and riders watching them and not have time myself to ride. To be around that and yet have no personal interaction with the horses was hard. It was like a tease. I've watched Steffen Peters develop a relationship with Ravel and I watched how he built it and saw what comes of that sort of relationship, but I was just standing back ten feet watching it. But, I want to have that with my own horse. It was a really big piece of my decision making to realize that I could buy a four-year-old horse now and 20 years from now, still have a relationship with that horse. I have begun to look for a horse and it's quite nice that I have all these great connections in the dressage world of people who are now looking for me.  

Q: What do you think about the current state of U.S. dressage today?  What do you think are the biggest challenges facing U.S. dressage as we move forward?  And, what would be your suggestions for how to address these challenges?
A: I have a lot of concerns right now.  Obviously, Steffen Peters and Ravel are in a class of their own in our country and they will just continue to get better and better.  Aside from them, at the High Performance level of the sport, we have some incredibly talented horse/rider combinations that are putting the finishing touches on their Grand Prix horses now and are going to give the best in the world a good run for their money.  We also have some really talented Developing combinations that are ready to move from the small tour up to Grand Prix and there is a lot of quality there for sure.  But if I look at the programs that the top dressage nations have put in place to identify and develop their most talented young horses and riders and to ensure that they have every opportunity to raise to the highest levels of international sport, I think we have a lot of work to do to catch up and in some regards our dressage community is resisting going to work in the areas that are most vital to our ongoing success.  

In my role at the USEF I was the staff member who managed the process of searching for and recruiting the new Dressage Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor for the U.S. and as most readers know, the USEF is in the process of negotiating a contract for that position with Anne Gribbons.  There is no doubt in my mind that she is the right person, at the right time, to lead our country down the path we need to follow in order to put the programs in place that will help us to identify and develop our most capable young horses and riders and to support our riders at the High Performance level of the sport.  I have a tremendous regard and respect for Anne and can only pray that people within our dressage community can put their personal agendas to the side and partner with Anne and members of the USEF High Performance Dressage and Eligible Athlete committees and work together to build the programs that will ensure our success in the future.  It’s a tall order because in that arena, we have not been terribly effective up to now.  It is critical that our top riders continue to work with an unwavering focus on their own training and development because without that component there can be no success.  But there are times when their focus will need to shift to doing what’s best for the common good of the sport in our country and direct some of their energies there without neglecting their own training and competition plans.  I truly believe Anne can lead us effectively towards achieving our goals, but her success – and our success as a country – will be dependent on everyone offering a partnership with her and the members of those committees.

But what concerns me the most for dressage in our country is the mind-set that prevails that says, “I am entitled to do whatever I want with my horse or with horses belonging to my students and clients, and nobody can tell me not to.”  What I am referring to is the strong resistance that exists to any form of performance standards that qualify riders to compete at the various levels and to the lack of commitment from our community to expand our instructor certification program and establish a system where only certified instructors are allowed to participate with their students in some programs within our sport.  The quality of riding at the lower levels over the past ten years has deteriorated dramatically and now it is the rule, not the exception, to see riders competing on horses at a level that far exceeds their ability and the horses are suffering for it.  Horsemanship, as many of us learned it, at a time when it was the prerequisite for riding better horses and showing at higher levels, seems to be a thing of the past.  I understand that our society has become one of entitlement and instant gratification but unfortunately neither of those mindsets serves our horses well.

In our country, if un-athletic and/or inexperienced riders want to take their horse to a show and bounce around on its back while hauling on its mouth, they honestly believe they have the right to do so and that no one should stop them.  After all – this is America.  But the decision to do that impacts the welfare of an animal that cannot make a choice about whether or not it participates and therefore people have the obligation to make the right choices.  Since it is evident that many people will not, I believe that at some level it needs to be legislated.  I have seen all too clearly that simply having the judges punish those riders with miserably low scores does nothing to keep them out of the ring.  They have no shame.

What is needed to address  these problems are incentives that reward people for learning good horsemanship, for investing the time and energy to develop a solid seat and learning how to use their aids effectively as they practice the more advanced exercises.  It might well be that those incentives will be offered through programs that lie outside of the world of competition as we know it now and that they will be created and administered by organizations other than USEF and USDF.

Q: How did we get to this lower level of horsemanship?
A: It's a result of the current business model. It starts with the breeding. The quality of dressage horses today is incredible. These horses are really built to do the dressage tests we ask. Years ago, most horses were a Thoroughbred-cross and they were very tricky, which meant that people really had to know how to ride. But now we have these incredible horses and trainers have a business model of taking these young horses, making them rideable and then selling them as ready-made show horses to adult amateurs. If a trainer were to tell someone, 'You need a year of longing and along the way, you'll fall off, but you'll learn a lot and in a year or so we'll see where you're at and if you are ready to show," that trainer will see clients leave and go to the trainer who will say, "I've got this great Third Level horse and you can go right out there and show." That's where the business model has gone.

Q: Do you have any particular plan for how to bring back horsemanship?
A: I am looking for like-minded people who would like to join forces, perhaps even just intellectually at the beginning, but those who can share ideas on what can be provided. And maybe some ideas will get started from a few of us who are committed to the welfare of the horse and from those riders who are passionate about the horse and who are frustrated by the current system. I'm certainly open to talking to people interested in partnering with me to offer opportunities and to create alternative ways to educate riders.

Q: What are some of your goals for your life in this next stage?
A: I’m looking forward to joining the senior management team of a corporation in a position that has much less travel than I’ve done over the past four years so that I can buy a nice young horse and be around enough to develop a relationship with it as I train it through the levels.  And since I plan to spend less time in airports, planes and hotels, I would love to have a dog and a couple of cats.  Along with that new career direction I look forward to finding ways to educate as many people as possible in the principles of good horsemanship and the correct gymnastic development of horses and riders.  I am involved now with the development of an exciting project that will use the medium of web-based learning to help educate people in these principles and I look forward to its coming to fruition.  In the meantime, you will probably find me standing in the middle of an arena somewhere teaching riders how to bend their horse correctly on a round, 20 meter circle!

Gil Merrick can be reached through his website