“I do not believe in ‘singing with the choir’ to be popular or stay in the game,” says FEI/USEF Dressage Judge and former Technical Advisor to the US Dressage Team Anne Gribbons. And it is this, Anne’s forthright honesty, hinged noticeably on her ability to sandwich the matter-of-fact between insight and humor, that has gained her respect and stature in the international dressage scene.
We caught Anne between clinics and following the release of her new book COLLECTIVE REMARKS, and asked her about her impressive career, as well as some of its highs and lows. COLLECTIVE REMARKS is available now from the TSB online bookstore (CLICK HERE).
TSB: You grew up in Sweden. How did you end up riding dressage horses in the United States?
AG: I had been riding since I was six years old, but my passion was jumping and combined training, and those were the sports in which I first competed in the United States. Of course, getting my basic training in Europe, I had a lot of dressage training “built in.”
I earned a scholarship to CW Post (now LIU Post) on Long Island, and there I met my husband David. On his parents’ property we started Knoll Farm, which became a large riding academy and training facility. However, on Long Island the opportunities to train properly for eventing proved a challenge because of the flat terrain and lack of appropriate courses. When Colonel Bengt Ljungquist (later the coach for our 1976 Olympic team) arrived in the United States, I went to him for training with my Thoroughbred Tappan Zee, and then continued to work with Bengt as often as I could for about eight years, until we lost him in 1979.
The more I concentrated on dressage training, the more fascinating it became, and eventually I focused on it completely. Once hooked, I became involved in work for various committees, both in our National Federation and the USDF, and also internationally, serving two, four-year terms on FEI dressage and World Cup committees.
TSB: Your equestrian career has included owning/running a riding school, running a breeding establishment, riding competitively on the international level, judging here and abroad, and coaching the US Dressage Team at three different Games, including the Olympics. What parts of your “horse life” do you remember most fondly? Which were the most challenging? The most rewarding?
AG: The most rewarding of all is the moment when a horse in training “gets it,” when a student has a revelation, and when either one suddenly reaches another level of understanding and capability. Luckily, this can occur over and over again, which is why I am still doing this! The highlights of a career sort of blend together after a while, but the horse and/or student that learn, advance, and succeed in their endeavors is the greatest satisfaction of all. Unfortunately, people tend to have a short memory when it comes to remembering who helped them along the way, but horses signal their appreciation and make your day, every day, by simply demonstrating what they now know.
The most challenging point of my career was leading up to the 2012 Olympics, being well aware that the United States did not have what it took in horsepower or depth to have a chance to medal. The preparation was frustrating, especially since I had seen and judged most of our competition and was well aware of the odds.
Before London, we were not able to send a number of horses to Europe to compete because we had to protect the very few precious candidates we had and could not risk sending them around the world. It was quite a catch-22, and although our team riders were well prepared and did a fabulous job, it was difficult to maintain a “We will win this!” attitude without looking like an ignorant fool.
I loved working toward the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky where we performed better than expected, and of course the Pan Am Games in Mexico were a total triumph for the US team. That made the work toward London even more difficult because I knew what we could accomplish when we had the right opportunities! In the end, our Olympic team ended up in a respectable sixth place, and that was as good as it could have been.
TSB: Although you trained a horse (Metallic) who made it to the Olympic Games under Robert Dover, and you coached the US Dressage Team at the 2012 Games in London, you never rode on the Olympic team yourself. Do you feel regret when you look back that you experienced what for some is competitive riding’s pinnacle, but not in the saddle?
AG: Leasing Metallic was the toughest decision of my life, and I often regret it. It was, however, driven by a medical issue. Right after the Pan American Games in Argentina (1995), I discovered a tumor on the inside of my left thigh. I had two horses that could have qualified to be on the Atlanta (Olympic) team: Metallic and Leonardo II, a Holsteiner stallion who had a successful show season at Grand Prix in Europe in 1993 and in the United States the two years following.
We had a partner in ownership of Leonardo, and when I realized that the tumor was growing and might cause a problem for the Olympics, I had to tell our partner, who then wished to sell the horse. A student of Robert Dover’s bought the stallion, and I continued in semi-denial to work toward the Olympics on Metallic.
By January, the horse was doing fine, and I rode him in his first “official” Grand Prix while getting help from Robert, who had been fond of Metallic for many years. Shortly before our first CDI Qualifier, my leg would sometimes go numb and not react. Of course, I should have dealt with it sooner, but an Olympic dream is hard to give up—and I was also afraid to find out about the nature of the tumor.
Jane Clark had offered to lease Metallic for Robert, and when my fear of malfunction of my leg overcame my ambition, I agreed. Jane was a generous and upbeat co-owner, but waiting until the last minute to make up my mind was not fair to Metallic, and it did not give him and Robert enough time to bond before Atlanta, barely six months away. Standing on the sidelines was emotionally taxing, although I was very happy to see the team get a bronze medal. Of course, I got Metallic back after the Olympics, but I could not ride him for a long time since I finally had the leg operated on and was recovering.
The whole thing was an unfortunate accident of timing…and as we all know, timing is everything in life!
TSB: You often write and speak to the subject of American riders needing to train their own horses up through the levels, and for the US to support young talent in an effort to build new teams who can compete internationally. Laura Graves and Verdades have appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to be strong contenders on the international dressage scene, and they were once students of yours. What about Laura’s work over the years, training her horse from a weanling, has led to her current success? What would you tell other aspiring young riders as they strive to reach their own riding goals?
AG: Like several of our new generation of competitors, such as Adrienne Lyle and Katherine Bateson-Chandler, Laura paid her dues as a working student, exchanging services for training she otherwise could not afford. She arrived at our stable in Orlando in May of 2009 and spent three-and-a-half years total as my student. While I was Technical Advisor and did not judge CDIs, I coached Laura through the small tour. When Laura left to start her own business in late 2012, she and Verdades were working all the Grand Prix movements.
Laura had more than talent and determination plus honest and experienced help in her favor: She had a top quality horse, and that is what truly propelled her out of “nowhere” onto the team. As soon as I saw Verdades, I knew he was special, and although he was green, there was no doubt the combination could go far. There were a few hiccups on the way, but even when Verdades was confused, he always let us work through it because he trusted his rider, and we went about the training in a logical and kind way.
Forever, I have preached the gospel of “You have to train your own for ultimate success.” During the first decades of high performance dressage in this country, it was rare to see an imported ready-made horse. American stars like Keen, Gifted, and Graf George were all “made here” from scratch, and that is the only kind of horse that will ultimately impress abroad and give our team sustainable strength. We have to get back to that kind of thinking, in spite of the fact that it takes time and effort and there are many obstacles in the way.
What I would say to young hopefuls is:
- Find as good a young horse as you can get your leg over, and in the best of all worlds, you should own it.
- Find a trainer who is knowledgeable, consistent, and makes her/himself available when you need help.
- Suffer whatever financial and emotional hardships are required, as long as the horse and you are making progress.
- Do not expect immediate success in the show arena; it takes time to become ” noticed” and consistency is part of the game.
- Believe in your horse, because he knows when you don’t.
- Stay honest and fair to the people around you.
- When you reach a goal, remember to give credit where it is due.
- The horse business is no peach, and if you aim to make a living training and teaching, you will have “an interesting life,” as the Chinese say. The triumphs are short lived, and you are never any better than your last performance, but if you love horses and cannot live without them, you will never be bored!
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.
AG: I was barely six, spending time with my grandfather in Southern Sweden. He was a cavalry officer his whole life, and his idea of teaching riding was bareback on his remounts—their average age was three! I learned a lot about “bailing out,” which is a good thing to know.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.
AG: See above! I fell off almost every day, and then I would have to go catch the horse and get back on, and so on. It was like parachute training and came in handy later when breaking young horses or getting in trouble cross-country.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
AG: Ride in a real race.
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
AG: The horse would be like Let’s Dance, the one I am blessed with right now: powerful, tuned in, very intelligent, a bit cheeky ,and convinced he is the greatest horse on earth. He has me convinced, and that is a good start! My horse is a German-bred Warmblood, but any individual horse that turns you on is a good breed!
The book would be The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Dial Press, 2005).
TSB: What’s in your refrigerator at all times?
AG: Yoghurt and blueberries. And champagne.
TSB: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
AG: Health for me and my husband David, and everyone we love. Without health, nothing works. Being able to spend time riding quality horses and having time to read and write.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?
AG: Cooked by my husband: Plain, healthy, and delicious!
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect vacation?
AG: Short , busy, and educational.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
AG: Alan Alda.
TSB: What is your motto?
AG: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Take a journey through the American dressage evolution with Anne Gribbons in her new book COLLECTIVE REMARKS.