Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

A Year Of Constant Change

Let’s start from the end, for a change. At the latter part of November 2008 the Dressage Committee of the Fédération Equestre Internationale resigned after a breakdown in communication between the chairman of the committee, Mariette Withages, and the FEI president, princess Haya Bint al Hussein. So, looking ahead to the New Year, nobody is in charge of dressage worldwide. How did we manage to get to this point?

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Let’s start from the end, for a change. At the latter part of November 2008 the Dressage Committee of the Fédération Equestre Internationale resigned after a breakdown in communication between the chairman of the committee, Mariette Withages, and the FEI president, princess Haya Bint al Hussein. So, looking ahead to the New Year, nobody is in charge of dressage worldwide. How did we manage to get to this point?

Well, remember the long and difficult rift between the U.S. Equestrian Team and the then, American Horse Shows Association? A couple of strong personalities can start a tempest in a teapot and turn it into a hurricane when they’re determined enough and have the ability to influence other people. After much too long, our national conflict did end up in a better-organized system with a more even representation for all of our disciplines.

If the stars line up, the developments lately may also lead to us getting what we need internationally: a committee that represents dressage worldwide, not just Europe, and includes representatives from several aspects of the sport.

But there’s one point I would like to emphasize: In their eagerness to remove judges from the FEI Dressage Committee, people need to realize that of the people knowledgeable in the sport, the judges are the ones who actually have the least conflicts when serving on any committee.

Every active trainer, organizer and rider may well have a financial stake of much greater importance than any judge. Nobody ever became wealthy by judging for 100 Euros per day ($135) after spending sometimes several days traveling and not working. Whatever motivates one to be a judge, it is not financial gain!

There is a danger in composing a committee made up of too many special interests, which can be bolstered by committee decisions. This situation needs to be considered, or we are off to another lopsided affair.

An ad hoc committee has been formed to set guidelines for the future dressage committee, and one of the members of this committee is our U.S. Olympian Robert Dover. Now we have a strong voice from America in the future of dressage worldwide, a feature that has been lacking since we lost Linda Zang as a representative on the FEI Dressage Committee many years ago.

When I spoke to Robert at the end of November, he was determined not to allow the interim committee to become the new dressage committee (a possible but undesirable development), but rather to help form a new and truly globally representative committee that would work in a democratic way.

This structure would mean rotating the members on a regular basis and having strict rules on eligibility based on an individual’s record and a recommendation from the various national federations, rather than personal preferences by sitting committee members.

By the time this column is published, we will know a lot more about the success of this process than what we see now, at the end of 2008.

Celebrating George And Jessica

Let’s change gears and look back to the beginning of the year when we had two of our equestrian icons turning 70 years old. The word “icon” is often used carelessly, but such is not the case when it comes to Jessica Ransehousen and George Morris. The entire horse community showed up for the special gala “roast” in their honor, and it was a great evening!

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When I first came to Long Island, New York, in the early ’70s, George Morris was the rising star in the constellation of riders and trainers. I promptly got in my car and went to visit Old Mill Farm in Syosset where he was giving instruction.

The whole concept of equitation was a bit strange to a newly arrived European, and for sure I was not any smarter after watching a couple of kids practicing their crest releases over crossbars for an hour.

But I did get the message that Mr. Morris was in charge and then some, and that you had to have an ironclad ego to survive his ministrations. As the years went by, I got to know, admire and love George, whom we are lucky to have not only as an equestrian hero, but also as a leader of the sport at the spearhead of bringing our jumper riders to international success.

The best part of the many medals they’ve won, and even more important, is that George Morris delivers it all within the true sense of proper horsemanship and self-discipline. 

Our second “Roastee” was the no less acclaimed Jessica Ransehousen. In addition to being a three-time Olympian and earning a Pan American Games silver medal, she’s a national and international dressage judge and has spent many years as chairman of our Technical and High Performance Dressage Committees.

Numerous times, she’s been chef d’equipe for our teams in Olympics and other championships, including the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina. Being a real sport, she stayed with her riders in a house in the athlete’s village and guided us through the process with her usual flair.

One thing you can count on is Jessica’s complete and undying commitment to the United States team, and her passion for winning is contagious. In Argentina, the housing was quite a distance away from the stables, and the best transportation between the barn and the house was a bicycle. The bikes were in short supply at the small rental place, and there was Jessica getting us up at the dawn’s early light with a battle cry: “You get over there and grab those bikes before the Canadians get to them!”

After the end of the competition our team felt we were rather cheated out of the gold. We were sitting together with some of the judges, and one of them made the mistake of saying that he felt the win “was good for the Mexicans.”

The transition to 70 does not appear to have slowed down either George or Jessica, and that’s a good thing.

Highs And Lows

At the FEI World Cup Dressage Final in the Netherlands, the United States was represented by two of our “new” competitors in international competition—Courtney King-Dye on Idocus and Jane Hannigan on Maksymilian.

The Grand Prix went reasonably well for both horses, with Courtney finishing in the middle of the field and Jane hanging in there with a 67 percent. In the freestyle, Jane moved up one placing to finish 12th, while Courtney over-rode her right canter pirouette and had to face the music when she finished last.

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Although the end results were not uplifting, these riders got a positive review from their performance and got some valuable experience in top company in front of a large and demanding audience.

And then we forged on toward the Olympic Games. Having the selection trials in California and then sending the horses back to Europe to go on to Hong Kong never made any sense to me. Finances ruled, though, and the athletes accepted the scenario, so that’s what we did.

The Grand Prix group wasn’t a tower of strength going into our Olympic Trials, and the first weekend was a bit shaky. Therefore, we were favorably impressed when, during the second weekend, the horses and riders got in the groove and started to look like Olympic material.

The reserve horse, Kingston, who looked like his old self in the trials, was suddenly held back due to an injury when they got to Germany, and the second alternate, Neruda, ridden by Michael Barisone, took his place. This pair then had to be “show prepared” until the very last hour, in case they would have to jump in as the reserve horse.

I think the new ruling that only three horses could compete in the team competition in Olympic dressage is for the worse. Imagine, for example, that Satchmo had pulled his stop and reverse stint with Isabell Werth in the Grand Prix and had actually gone out of the ring, which he very nearly did in the Special. The whole German team would have been wiped out in that one move. That situation would have been pretty absurd.

In the meantime, every team had an extra horse there anyway, ready to go. I sure hope the International Olympic Committee goes back to four rides with one drop score the next time around. This change needs to change back.

A strong performance by Steffen Peters and a great Olympic debut by Courtney King-Dye almost, but not quite, allowed us to hang on to our bronze status. The Danes beat us by a nose, which, considering what happened next, was almost a blessing in disguise. Things changed suddenly again when Mythilus, Courtney’s mount, tested positive for Felbinac, a banned substance few of us had ever heard of. We were wiped out of the standings completely, and although that’s a hard pill to swallow, imagine if we had lost a medal over it!

For eight years U.S. dressage chef d’equipe Klaus Balkenhol has led us through triumph and tragedy, and our riders have benefited greatly from his knowledge and support during training and in competition. Mr. Balkenhol has decided that it’s time for him to concentrate more on the home front in Germany, and the USEF High Performance Committee has agreed that we need to attempt to fly alone.

A productive in-person meeting of athletes and committee members took place in November, and there will be a number of changes designed to establish an educational and coaching system that will be home based. A search committee has been formed to draw up guidelines for the various job descriptions and applications for future national and developing coaches.

All of these transitions and revolutions in our microcosm of the equine world are taking place while, around us, the global economy is in an uproar with the stock market acting like a yo-yo, changing every day. Mr. Barack Obama, our first African-American President, has been elected to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, we are struggling to stay on course in the rectangle since, you guessed it, all of the FEI dressage tests have been changed! 

Anne Gribbons


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 co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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