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Equerry Exclusive Interview with

Michelle Gibson

Equerry's exclusive interview with Michelle Gibson was held on February 19th, 1999.  Emily Covington talked with her in the evening, over the phone, after a typical, full day of training the horses in her care.    Our questions, and her answers, are presented below.


Background: Michelle Gibson is one of today’s top dressage talents.  While working in Germany under the tutelage of Rudolf Zeilinger, she qualified for and competed in the 1996 Olympics with the stallion, Peron. Their performance at the 1996 Olympics helped the United States secure it's FIRST individual medal in Dressage since 1932.  She is currently based at Laura and Brad Thatcher’s Applewood Farm in Alpharetta, Georgia, approximately 30-40 minutes north of Atlanta.


Equerry:  At what age did you start riding?

Michelle Gibson:  I grew up with horses, so I started riding when I was very young. My sisters used to carry me on the horses. I grew up riding bareback and racing around the yard and doing all that kind of stuff.  I actually started taking lessons when I was ten.

Equerry:  So, have horses pretty much always been part of your life?

Michelle Gibson: Yes, they have.

Equerry:  Did you start with dressage at that time?  What made you choose that discipline?

Michelle Gibson:  Actually, I started eventing. And I think it was great because it really teaches you; it gives you some confidence over fences and when your horses jump around, it really gives the confidence there, having that experience behind [you]. The dressage is really what strengthened my seat.  And, just as I started growing up, the dressage interested me more and more until finally, I just was like, this is all I want to do.  I just want to ride dressage.

Equerry:  Did you have serious competition goals in mind at that time, from early on?

Michelle Gibson:  I started showing pretty soon after I started taking lessons. And I enjoyed it, doing the simple stuff such as Point to Point, and Pre-Novice and whatever I could do on whatever horses were available to me. I’ve always worked for my lessons, I’ve always been a working student; so it was cleaning stalls or feeding or turning out horses or whatever. That helped to pay for my lessons when I was young. But showing has always been part of my riding after [the age of ] ten. And, you know, I think the Olympics is the goal of every young person, and it just evolved into that.

Equerry:  Were you ever really frustrated at some point and thought you might want to quit?

Michelle Gibson:  I think everybody comes to a point in their career when they ask themselves if this is really what they want to do. Because it’s so hard.  But, there was never anything else that I wanted to do.  I always wanted to ride horses and nothing else really ever piqued an interest for me.  So, as hard as it was, and even if I did ask myself those questions, I always came back to the same answer.  And that was: I want to ride horses, I want to ride dressage.

Equerry:  What kind of support you did you receive in terms of family or friends? Were they supportive of this choice?

Michelle Gibson: Absolutely. My family and my friends were a huge part of my success. They stood behind me, and they pushed me when I needed pushing, and they were there for me when I was going through the hard times and needed somebody to talk to.  I think my family really did give up a lot. They had to sacrifice a lot for me to do what I was doing, especially at a younger age.

Equerry:  Were you a part of any kind of club or organization when you were younger, like 4-H ?

Michelle Gibson:  No, I never did Pony Club or 4-H, any of that -- just our local club, but they didn’t really have any programs that I was involved in.

Equerry: Who would you say your mentors were over the years?

Michelle Gibson:   The person that made the most impression on me, I would have to say, is Rudolf Zeilinger. But it’s important to see the good things in all the riders, what they’ve given to the sport and what you can learn from them.

Equerry: So you’ve always watched?

Michelle Gibson:  I’ve always watched. Every person has good things about them and bad things about them. So it’s important that you take the good things, learn from those things. You let the bad things go. I’ve really watched a lot of people and tried to take the good things, the positive things about those riders to teach myself.  But, definitely, Rudolf made the biggest impression on me and he coached me to be the rider that I am today.

Equerry:  If you weren’t a rider, is there anything else you would see yourself doing?

Michelle Gibson:  No, I can’t. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Equerry:  Do you have any outside hobbies?

Michelle Gibson:  There are things that I’d like to do! That I just have to find time for. I’d really like to learn how to dive, scuba diving. I like to travel and do some camping and that kind of stuff. I really like to ski.


Equerry:  Could you describe a weekly program for the horses in your barn?

Michelle Gibson:  My horses basically work six days a week. They average about 45 minutes.  My young horses I ride for a shorter period of time.  My really green horses I may only ride three or four times a week. It depends on where they are in their training.  I also have a couple of more experienced, FEI horses that work six days a week, about 45 minutes.

Equerry: How many horses do you have each day that you work?

Michelle Gibson:  At the moment, I have ten horses.

Equerry: Do you vary the program at all with trail rides or do you jump them?

Michelle Gibson: No, I don’t do any jumping. With some of the horses, when I have time, I like to take them out after the work and just let them walk on a long rein and relax, go on a trail, that sort of thing.

Equerry:  Do you turn your horses out?

Michelle Gibson:  Some of my horses, I do. Of course, if I have a Grand Prix horse, that is international quality, they don’t get turned out simply because the risk is too high. You know, they go running across the field one time and trip and...end of your Grand Prix horse!    But I do try to get out my young horses out as much as possible.

Equerry: Are any of these horses you’re working with your own?

Michelle Gibson:  I have three young horses, two of them are my own and one of them I’m partners with Laura and Brad Thatcher, who own Applewood Farm.  The rest of my horses are training horses. I have some nice horses [that will] be coming up in the next couple of years.

Equerry:  When you show, do you have any special preparations either for yourself or the horses?

Michelle Gibson:  With young horses, I think it’s important that you have them going very well at home. Because when you get to a horse show it’s a different environment. Every horse reacts differently, so I think it’s important to be prepared that they aren’t going to necessarily [act] away from home like they do at home.  That’s the reason for having them be ready-- at home-- going consistently and very well. So, when you’re in a different environment, you know how to deal with it.

Equerry:  How did you get your first sponsor?

Michelle Gibson:  I guess my first real sponsors were Guido Klatte and Tim Dutta. They sponsored my transportation over here with Peron. They paid for all of his transportation as well as three airplane tickets for myself, my groom and my trainer. After that, people have approached me about wanting to sponsor me, such as ProFormula Laboratories. They [make] supplements which, of course, I do feed to my horses. And they do have a very good product, as well as the company that does GrandPrix, Pikeur and Konigs.

Equerry:  Are you teaching or is it primarily the training?

Michelle Gibson:  I do some teaching. I am really interested in the training part of it, but you can’t have one without the other.  So I teach and I have students that are going to horse shows with me.  I am very focused on them being successful in the show ring and it’s important to me that they’re successful.

Equerry:  When you get a new student, how do you decide where he or she needs to begin? What is your evaluation process?

Michelle Gibson:   Basically, when people call me and want to come ride, what I do is just have them come down and evaluate them for a day.  I see what they can do, have them experiment a little bit, see what they can’t do, maybe where the strong points and the weak points are.  And then I go from there. You know, it’s important that you’re on the same lines as that person, that you have the same goals for that person that they have for themselves.

Equerry:  How do you evaluate a new horse?

Michelle Gibson:  What I like to do with new horses is first to see them under saddle -- to get sort of an optical idea. Looking at a horse tells a lot about them -- not everything -- but it tells you a lot. So, it’s important for me to first see the horse under saddle. And then, I’ll get on the horse myself -- just to see how he feels in the bridle, how he is in the back, to see how he reacts to my seat and my leg -- and I experiment a little bit to see how much they’re going to work with me.

Equerry:  If you have a training goal with a particular horse and the program needs to change a little bit, or the horse needs to go in another direction from your original goals, how do you keep yourself focused?

Michelle Gibson:  Well, really, I’ve learned a lot about that. That’s a lot of the training that I’ve had -- learning to ride different horses in different ways and what direction they need to go.  How do I stay focused on that? I try to stay up with what’s going on in Europe. I travel to Germany often and that really helps to keep you sharp. Also, I’ve learned for so long that it’s still so fresh in my mind -- what I want from a horse. I don’t have a hard time focusing and setting a goal.

Equerry:  Would you describe your best and worst riding experiences?

Michelle Gibson:  That really is hard to say.  You know, with every horse you have a different experience.   I think, definitely, Peron [has been] the highlight of my life, so far.   I’m still young and I still have a long way to go.  Hanging in there, yet!   You have ups and downs. That’s all there is to it.  One month you think ‘this is the worst I’ve ever done’ and then the next month you’re thinking ‘that’s nothing compared to this month!’.

Equerry:  Is there a particular training concept that you think is frequently omitted or overlooked in riders that you see?

Michelle Gibson:   That’s a tricky question.  As much as basics are talked about, and each year you should move up a level, that sort of thing... I hear a lot of people criticize me for having a 5 year old that is schooling 3rd and 4th Level, but what it all comes down to is, my horses are relaxed in their work, they’re really coming through the back.   What I think a lot of people miss is the relaxation and the ‘want’.   Their horses [need to] want to do it.  They talk about it all the time, but it’s not very often that you really see relaxation and true carriage of the hind leg.   That’s what my riding is really about.  When you see my horses, you see how much they want to work for you.

Equerry:   That’s so important.

Michelle Gibson:  It is very important. You have to have the horse working on your side.

Equerry:  There is always discussion on fitness programs for the horses. Do you have a fitness program for yourself as the rider?

Michelle Gibson:  Well, I ride anywhere from 6 to 8 or 10 horses a day, depending on the day. But, on the days that I feel like doing something after work, I do go and work out. I get on the treadmill and work on the machines, that kind of stuff...which makes me feel good.

Equerry:  Do you think rider fitness is important?

Michelle Gibson: Very important for the rider. You have to be physically and mentally fit, so that you feel good about yourself.

Equerry:  How would you describe ‘mentally fit'?

Michelle Gibson:  You have to look forward to what to what you’re doing.  You have to look at it in a very positive way.  You want to go to the barn and say "I’m really glad to see my horse today" and pat him and enjoy your riding.  But... I don’t want to confuse the word ‘enjoy’ by saying happy, smiley, riding your horse. You still have to work.  But you have to look forward to that work, being serious and concentrated for those 45 minutes.  I think if you’re going to the barn saying "Ugh, I don’t feel like it", you’re not going to get anything out of it.  You’re not going to get any enjoyment out of your riding.

Equerry:  You have achieved so much success as an American in Europe. This seems elusive to many. What would you say some of the factors were in your success over there?

Michelle Gibson:  I think a lot of the riders over there respect me and [have] accepted me because I worked so hard.   Yes, I came out at Grand Prix, but they saw me climb and become increasingly better. They knew that I was working and I was always pleasant to them and always very respectful to them. It’s surprising to me to realize now how much people still talk about me over there [and continue to] ask how I’m doing. It’s really kind of amazing to me because I didn’t do anything but be myself.

Equerry:  You were there quite a long time and really immersed yourself in the system.

Michelle Gibson:  Yes, and I think a lot of them just respected how hard I worked to get where I was.

Equerry:  Peron is a stallion. Do you prefer a certain sex...stallion, mare, gelding?

Michelle Gibson:  It doesn’t matter to me.  Doesn’t matter what breed it is or what sex it is.   A good horse is a good horse and you can’t overlook that.

Equerry:  So you don’t have a breed preference?

Michelle Gibson:  No. I myself have two Hanoverians and one Dutch horse.  I like the Hanoverians, I like the Oldenburgs, but that doesn’t mean that’s all I’m going to look at.   I’m very open-minded about the horses because there aren’t a lot of really super horses.  So, the ones that come along... it doesn’t matter what they are!

Equerry:  What do you think for breeders is the most important consideration in producing a successful performance horse?

Michelle Gibson:  I think it’s important that they really look at the bloodlines of the horses they want to breed as well as looking at the offspring of those horses. The offspring tell you a lot about that type of horse and what you’re possibly going to be getting. There are horses that do throw one thing or another and you see that one thing in every one of their young horses. So if that’s something desirable, then it’s going to be a stallion that you’re going to choose. You want to try to match the two horses together, looking at the young horses that they’ve thrown as well as maybe the success that they’ve had and their breeding.

Equerry: Is that something that interests you personally?

Michelle Gibson:  Yes, it is. I'm always curious what breed a horse is, what their bloodline is; because that tells me something about them.

Equerry:  I asked you earlier about mentors. Could you say who some other influential people in your horse career have been?

Michelle Gibson:  I think the biggest impression was made on me by Willie Schultheis. After I rode one of his horses, it was the most amazing thing of my life. You know, I have so much respect for so many riders and what they’ve done for the sport... I could go off on the list: Rudolf and Rehbein and Schultheis and what Hilda has done for the sport... what so many different people have done for the dressage sport. You also have to look at the sponsors and what they do for the sport because it all adds up.

Equerry:  What do you think Americans can do to become increasingly competitive abroad?

Michelle Gibson:  I think they can be better prepared before they go over there.

Equerry: How would you define that?

Michelle Gibson: Better prepared: meaning, being above average at the level they’re going to show. And, going over there and doing the best they can without really trying to make a point....and being respectful to the people that are over there and who have really paid their way; just going and getting the job done.

Equerry:  Do you think it’s important to spend time abroad as you have?

Michelle Gibson:  I think it is, simply because it’s important for the judges to know you, be familiar with who you are and who your horse is, the two of you as a team. The experience is definitely great... being in front of the crowds, being in different places, not always having perfect warm ups and perfect footing. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes you have to warm up when there are people out there jumping their horses or you’ve got a team of auction riders there who are about to ride a show number. Dealing with all the contrasts... it really prepares you mentally for a lot.

Equerry: What riding qualities do you think are inherent in the Europeans that are perhaps lacking in the Americans at this time?

Michelle Gibson: Well, I hate to say it, but basics. Really, really getting an understanding of what it’s about and not just trying to teach your horse the tricks. If the basics are there, the rest of it is not that hard. All riders have something in common and I think we should enjoy that about each other instead of being so negative towards other people. Like I said, this is something that we all have in common-- we should be able to enjoy each other and support each other as a whole.

Equerry:  What is the single most important suggestion you would make to a rider aspiring to your level, to go where you have gone?

Michelle Gibson:  Be prepared to work hard and make sacrifices.

Equerry:  Is visualization, goal setting or positive self talk part of your riding philosophy?

Michelle Gibson: I’m very focused when I’m riding but I try to memorize a feeling and know what that feeling is.  So, when I prepare for a class, I take time out before my class and go over my test. For me, actually, visualizing each moment and how I’m going to ride doesn’t help.  Because I do that in my work. I memorize through feeling, through my body, what each thing is supposed to feel like and what the preparation for that is. So, I have to be very comfortable with my test, that I know my test, and how it flows. The worst thing is, you get into a test, you have no idea where you’re going and then you feel insecure. And it shows in your riding.

Equerry:  So it’s not only knowing the test, but knowing the feeling, memorizing the feeling.

Michelle Gibson:  The flow... and thinking ‘now I have a half pass coming up, I have to use the corner to prepare and half halt and get my bending so that I can ride my half pass’.  But again, I’ve learned that the corner you use as preparation for your next movement.

Equerry: What do you think is the greatest reward for you in riding?

Michelle Gibson:  The greatest reward for me is how the horses change...how they evolve from a gangly three year old to an eight or nine year old Grand Prix horse. It’s a challenge for me all the phases in between... you have good phases and you have bad phases. Dealing with each one of those, and still trying to get the best out of it that you can [is rewarding].

Equerry:  So, when you are frustrated during those bad phases, how do keep focused?

Michelle Gibson:  It’s hard, but you just have to look at each horse like it’s the beginning of the day. After you get off one horse, that was that horse, you take a deep breath, you get on the next one and you start fresh. And it’s hard when you’re frustrated. So hard. You think you’re just not going to make it through the day. But you have to keep pushing yourself. As hard as it is, try to focus on one thing, whether it’s your seat or whether it’s keeping your hands still or whether it’s riding a corner...maybe you have to take a little walk break and take a deep breath and say ‘okay, I can do this.’ You have to keep going.

Equerry:  So, is a big part of it letting go of the frustration and not bring it into the next ride?

Michelle Gibson:  Exactly. Because every horse is different.  If you let your frustrations build all day long, you’re going to explode by the end of the day!  You have to remember that each horse is different.  What happened on the last horse is history, you deal with that tomorrow.  But this horse, he deserves a fresh chance. He deserves a fresh beginning.   His problems aren’t the same as the last horse had. His positive points aren’t the same positive points as the last horse. You really have to ride each horse as an individual, as a separate horse.

Equerry:  What are some of the key elements in achieving your own goals in riding?

Michelle Gibson:  [1] I was always very focused on being the best rider that I could be. [2] I have to say again,   the support from my family was just phenomenal. There [were] times [that] without them, who knows if I would have made it through -- [I probably would have], but it would have been a lot harder. And, [3] I think my love for the horses and for the sport and [4] really wanting to be the best that I could be.

Equerry:   Thank you, Michelle Gibson.

Emily Covington was employed at Hilltop Farm, Inc. in Colora, MD from 1992 through 1997. Starting as a working student, she later served as assistant stable manager, and rode young horses, including her own. She has produced a variety of photography and artwork for the farm’s publications. She now lives in Redlands, CA where she continues to ride and does various freelance work for Hilltop.




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