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Saddle Fit and the Musings of an Olympic Dressage Judge - Anne Gribbons

By Sabine Schleese|November 22nd, 2016
Anne Gribbons - Olympic 5* Dressage Judge - discussing the design of her new Schleese saddle.

Anne and Jochen discussing the design of her new saddle.

This past week Schleese Saddlery along with Saddlefit 4 Life had the pleasure and honor of hosting well-known Olympic 5* Dressage Judge, US team member and former US dressage coach Anne Gribbons at our facility in Holland Landing. Anne is going to be working with Schleese to design a new dressage saddle and totally believes in the concept of Saddlefit 4 Life of finding the correct saddle fit for horse and rider – regardless of breed, size, and body type.

Anne took the opportunity at lunch to speak with the entire staff of Schleese and gave us some insights into the profession of being a judge and trainer. She was a charming and engaging presenter, and everyone appreciated the time she took to come and visit the production facility personally.

She told us that when she was younger she used to ride between 12 and 15 horses a day and had never much thought about the fact that she was using the same saddle for every horse. “A saddle is a saddle is a saddle” was the philosophy of the time. But now that she works closely with elite athletes in the US she realizes how times have changed and how it’s now ALL about the saddle as part of the whole package. She has read Jochen’s book “Suffering in Silence” which also made her realize how much she didn’t know that she didn’t know…and having toured our facility and spoken with our craftsmen she admitted she still had much to learn! (Anne is one of the most humble and self-effacing people we have ever had the pleasure to spend time with).

When training other riders, she heard how very opinionated people are about saddles – without necessarily understanding ‘why’ they ‘just like it’. Professional trainers have to ride in pretty much every saddle and learn to adapt because the horses they train usually come with their own saddles. What she likes about Schleese is the fact that we not only make the saddle for the horse, but also adapt it to the rider – which is the way of the future in this industry.

Question: What is it like being an Olympic Judge?
“There are only about 30 dressage 5* judges worldwide as ordained by the FEI in Lausanne Switzerland. These have all paid their dues and worked their way up in the ranks. There are three in USA and two in Canada (Libby McMullen and Cara Whitham). It’s an extremely high pressure job, especially in the last years as things get more high tech and much more expensive (including horses and saddles!). The judges are pressured not only by the trainers and the competitors, but also by the media – and it is a difficult job to do to everyone’s satisfaction.

She made it clear that when your horse has an off day, it can ruin your whole day. But when everything falls into place during your ride – it’s a wonderful day!

Question: 30/40 years ago a score of 60% in a test was considered amazing. Now it has to be 80% – what happened?
“Basically two things happened: It used to be very tough to get a good score when dressage was relatively new on this continent; we were thrilled to score 60% in an FEI Test!  As time went on, the scores started to escalate because we have better horses and better training nowadays. Horses are being bred specifically for a purpose – they are more athletic, more sensitive, and simply perform better. Riders are better educated and more experienced, and there are more good instructors now available in North America.

It used to be that we had to go to Europe for extended periods of time and train with the masters to get anywhere. Now though, all of us who have done this can teach the instructors here. Riders still do have to go to Europe to compete and show, but they don’t need to live there for months and years anymore. There are dressage shows everywhere there – every weekend if you want! In Germany riding is the 2nd largest and most popular sport after soccer, but it is becoming increasingly more popular in North America and enormous progress has been made. It’s all about working with the right people at every level.”

Question: Is it harder to be a judge now compared to – 20 years ago?
“It is harder now because we are subject to enormous criticism when the ‘right’ person doesn’t win. Very few people say thank you. The press is more involved, and they have their favorites, and if these don’t win – watch out! It would be good for them to sit with us when we judge and see what we do. It is very difficult to mark a movement quickly, correctly, and objectively – especially since you only see it from one angle. You can see a piaffe or tempi changes coming straight at you and it looks great, but you never see what the hind legs are doing from where you are sitting. So you give an 8 for the movement and another judge gives a 5. And then all collective remarks and general comments have to be completed before the horse and rider leave the ring and the next one comes in!”

Anne Gribbons listening and responding to questions from Schleese staff.

Question: What is the situation with hyperflexion?

“It’s not been a real issue in training or warm up rings in America that I have seen. I have never had to complain to my riders about horses being ridden excessively long in this position to warm up as a schooling exercise. Sometimes you have a horse that borders between genius and crazy who absolutely benefits from a few moments of hyperflexion – but the media has at times captured this one minute and blown it out of proportion and out of context. And the supervision at all shows is becoming very strict to protect the welfare of the horse. Unfortunate is when this becomes a ‘normal’ training method and is used on all horses – it can make a young horse unhappy and despondent. Let me tell you that judges are very aware of this and it is discussed at every FEI judges’ forum. We need to educate riders about how hyperflexion can basically ruin the topline and the spirit of the horse.

Question: What is your greatest achievement – your passion?
“My passion is the process and satisfaction of training a young,”raw,” horse up to Grand Prix. That is the greatest satisfaction of all! And my second favorite thing is to see a rider develop from basics into a good Grand Prix competitor.  A good day is having a good training session.

I was also so thrilled when I coached the US team riders and when everything worked, as at the 2010 WEG and the PanAms in Mexico where the US won every medal.

Riding every day would be for me the ideal activity. I actually can get jealous when I’m training students and I can’t ride for whatever reason. Riding is absolutely my life, and I am so blessed to have a husband like David who supports me at every step.”

Thank you Anne. We look forward to what the future brings!

©2016 Saddlefit 4 Life® All Rights Reserved

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Hey Jochen, In any language I can think of, thank you for my new saddle. I rode Chablis in it today on the trail for about 2 hours and it was not only incredibly comfortable but my feet didn't fall asleep - something that has been a problem in pretty much every saddle I've ever been in (even sadly my hunt saddles sometimes) Just amazing - what I've been looking for, for well over 10 years! Do you remember my first Schleese I had for the big chestnut? It kept making my entire right leg fall asleep after only 5 minutes. You guys were amazing - I sent it back to your workshop a number of times- you shaved the internal bits, added a gel pad, did other crazy things to it - and finally it worked and was comfortable This was even better than all that crazy amazing custom work - day 1. Just awesome! And just as important, Chablis seems awfully happy in it too - big swinging walk (ok HUGE walk LOL) I'm so glad you got to come to my little neck of the sagebrush - it's always fun to see you and you make my life and my ponies lives just that much better with what you do and how you do it. Come back soon :)

— Georges Schneider - Reno, NV

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