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October 21, 2010

We Peaked At The WEG

Although the U.S. team didn’t come away with a team medal, our columnist said things turned out much better than she might have hoped a year ago.

A year ago, looking to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games was not my favorite thing. It loomed large and menacing as I accepted the position as U.S. Equestrian Federation’s technical advisor of dressage. At that time we had few American combinations who appeared ready to meet the challenge presented by the horses I had just judged in the Alltech FEI European Championships.

Monitoring the Grand Prix qualifiers all over the country did not reveal to me any horse/rider combinations to change my mind about our lack of strength facing this important competition. Then we had various disasters: Tip Top’s colic surgery, Courtney King Dye’s devastating accident and Guenter Seidel’s fall, which fractured his pelvis. But, lo and behold, in the 11th hour the clouds dissipated and the sun broke through.

In May, I went for a short tour in Europe with U.S. Equestrian Federation grant recipient Tina Konyot on Calecto, who competed at Fritzens, Austria, and Aachen, Germany, where Todd Flettrich on Otto joined them. This brief but successful appearance on the European show circuit set the stage for these two riders to excel at the U.S. selection trials in Gladstone, N.J.

Around the same time the bay gelding Nartan made a quick switch of citizenship from Dutch to American, courtesy of Jane Forbes Clark. Rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler took the reins from former owner Jeanette Haazen and managed to qualify in record time for Gladstone. Add to that our trump card Steffen Peters, who had been sitting tight in California, waiting for his “marching orders” with Ravel. Voilá, once the judges had their say, the trials turned out a great collection for the team! 

On Sept. 4, two weeks before the departure for Kentucky, the team members and the two alternates (Catherine Haddad and Pierre St. Jacques) arrived in Gladstone for intensive training and preparations. Our schedule, in addition to the daily riding, included media training, sports psychology, a complete veterinary checkup and information about allowed and disallowed substances by our team veterinarian Dr. Rick Mitchell.

We also had two practice shows judged by our national “O” judges Axel Steiner, Gary Rockwell and myself. There was time and opportunity for socializing, team bonding and a lot of laughs. The private and peaceful atmosphere at Gladstone and the support of the staff helped set the stage for a positive experience at the Games.

Steffen arrived a week late, due to hurricane warnings in the New Jersey area, but once he was there he was extremely generous with advice and help. With his calm and confident demeanor he became a model for the rest of the team. The training was focused on polishing the details of each horse’s performance and trying to collect every point possible in the test. Naturally, each horse picked for a team is fully “trained,” and there was no attempt at pulling anything apart or changing what already was working. My aim was to have the horses and riders physically and mentally ready to peak at the WEG, and they pretty much did.

Mission Accomplished

We had three horses advance to the Special, and the team earned a fourth place out of 14 teams competing. We qualified for the Olympic Games, which I had told the USEF Director of Sports Jim Wolf was my realistic goal. As icing on the cake Steffen and Ravel made history by earning two individual medals, which no American has done in World Equestrian Games or Olympic Games since 1932.

Any formation of a true team of riders is a difficult task. Riders are already “on their own team,” consisting of the rider and horse constellation. Every good competitor I know is fiercely independent, and most of us riders have a bit of a protective shell around us to handle the pressure and emotions of competition. However, it has been proven in life over and over again that when a group or team is bonded together and working for each other they can accomplish more than they could alone. 

An article I was reading in a magazine the other day, about the new world order, pointed out that “only tribes held together by a group feeling can survive in the desert.” In the same way a team held together by mutual respect and true liking of each other can survive, and even excel, beyond their own expectations, in the jungle of high-level competition.

It was a great satisfaction to me to see how much fun our team members had together while we were in New Jersey and how they took that cohesiveness with them to Kentucky and stayed supportive of each other throughout the Games.

One of my best of many good memories of WEG is the sight of the whole team plus grooms descending in a wave of red, white and blue on each of our team horses when it was time to get dressed and ready for the test. Like a pit crew at the Indianapolis 500, they honed in on bandages and hatbox and flyspray, and it was a three-minute miracle from warm-up gear to show ready. The first time it happened to Nartan, his eyes got big and he grew to 19 hands. In no time, however, he became used to the new and more efficient service.

One evening shortly after our arrival at the WEG, the team was invited to the University of Kentucky for a get together with the students in the Agriculture Department. We all went, including Tina’s two dogs, and had a lively dialogue with about 80 inquisitive students and teachers. The questions were direct and intelligent, and we had to do our best to stay on track while the Doberman and Jack Russell worked the room. Tina spoke eloquently about the passion for riding and her love of her horse, and Todd kept cracking everybody up with his great sense of humor. Steffen was impressive and informative and got a proposal for marriage, which he politely turned down, while Katherine gave every aspiring competitor hope by telling her true story of “from groom to team rider.”

Learning From The Dutch

At the debriefing on the last evening of dressage competition, the team members gave their input about the program and recommended we continue the two-week preparation period before future games. We hope to be lucky enough to use Gladstone again, since it looks like we have a formula in place, which we can work with and improve on as we go. 

Although the team was my top priority, we managed to get some work done at WEG concerning the grassroots of our sport. USEF staff and coaches met with Maarteen van der Heijden, who is the director of sports in the Netherlands. For an hour, he enlightened us about the structure of the programs for finding and developing youth that have been so successful in bringing the Dutch riders to the top. We all took notes and asked questions, and I hope we can make some good use of the information. Our new USEF national dressage youth coach, Jeremy Steinberg, was present at the meeting, and I guess he can see his work cut out for him!

As soon as we catch our breath, we will start the planning for the Pan American Games in Mexico next October, and at the same time we have to get our prospective Olympic horses to Europe to work their way into the “system.” As always, financing is a problem, as well as logistics, but we have no choice but to meet the best on their own turf.

American dressage will have a busy year in 2011, and we will push on, hopefully with Lady Luck on our side! 

Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee and is on the FEI Dressage Committee. As of 2010, she is the USEF Technical Advisor for Dressage. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "We Peaked At The WEG" ran in the October 22, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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