USEF Committees Summoned to Discuss Controversial Selection of New Chef d’Equipe

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US Chef d'Equipe Jessica Ransehousen at 2009 World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. In the background is US Jumping Chef George Morris. © 2009 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
US Chef d'Equipe Jessica Ransehousen at 2009 World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. In the background is US Jumping Chef d'Equipe George Morris who was a member of the dressage chef d'equipe search committee. © 2009 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Aug. 15–A meeting of U.S. Equestrian Federation committees that nominated Anne Gribbons as the new American chef d’equipe and Morten Thomsen of Denmark to handle coaching has been set for next Tuesday amidst an international controversy over the selection process.

In the search process that began in April and still is not concluded, six-time Olympian Robert Dover who had been pressed to come out of retirement from U.S. team activities to apply for the post was rejected by the USEF Eligible Athletes Committee whose decision was endorsed by the USEF High Performance Committee.

Next Tuesday’s joint meeting of the two committees was set after a number of leading dressage figures warned that the USEF could be the target of lawsuits if it appeared that published procedures were not followed, according to several sources on Saturday.

A search committee led by four-in-hand driver Chester Weber and including jumping chef d’equipe George Morris and eventing chef Mark Phillips was charged with reviewing 11 applications from North America and Europe to replace German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol who held the U.S. position for eight years until the end of 2008.

After determining which candidates best met the criteria, the search committee forwarded the names of Gribbons, Thomsen and Dover to the Eligible Athletes Committee chaired by Susan Blinks of Encinitas, California, which made the selection. It was then approved by the High Performance Committee, chaired by George Williams of Delaware, Ohio.

In other developments:

* A number of top American riders are considering appealing to the USEF to delay the appointment of Gribbons, an “O” judge, for more than a year so that she could be on the judging panel for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. She is one of nine judges nominated for the event which tradition usually allows the inclusion of a judge of the host nation, and

* Some Canadian high performance competitors have sounded out Dover about applying for the position of national coach for Canada. Some riders said the detailed program that Dover presented to the American selectors could be as beneficial to Canada as it would have been to the USA. The appointment of USEF President David O’Connor, the Sydney 2000 Olympic individual gold medalist, as an advisor to Canada’s eventing team, was cited as a precedent.

At the heart of the controversy swirling both in the U.S. and Europe is what some high ranking officials say is an apparent change to the published requirements from a single individual to be the national coach/chef d’equipe to two individuals: one a chef d’equipe and the other a coach.

Gribbons is reported by sources to have made it clear to the search committee that she wanted to continue to operate her farm near Orlando, Florida, maintain her private teaching and training and perform her “O” judging duties around the world. She could not, she is reported to have said, undertake the responsibility of implementing a national coaching program that itself amounted to a fulltime job.

Weber is reported to have asked at least one candidate whether the appointment of two individuals for a position that specified one person would be a problem. He was told by the candidate, sources said, that the application had been made to meet published criteria and splitting the job violated the job description so could not be considered.

USEF Director of Dressage Gil Merrick with "O" judge Anne Gribbons who has been named as the USA chef d'equipe. © 2009 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
USEF Director of Dressage Gil Merrick with "O" judge Anne Gribbons who has been named as the USA chef d'equipe. © 2009 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Jessica Ransehousen, a three-time Olympian and current and past chef d’equipe, told dressage-news.com the post was intended to be fulltime.

The job was for a coach resident in the United States who would create and develop a program that would start with junior and young riders and include developing horses and riders and long and short listed team combinations with the goal of producing horses and riders for the top level of the sport, Olympics, World Cups and World Championships.

“We did not consider this a two-person job,” she said.

“The riders have tried to change the procedure.

“We should hold to the original requirement or re-open the whole procedure–one or the other.”

Starting the process again would not have an impact on prospective U.S. team members, sources said, because Gribbons has judging obligations for the next few months so her contract, not yet concluded, might not take effect until Jan. 1, 2010 while Thomsen had indicated the first clinic he could schedule would be November.

Ransehousen and others believe that the process was flawed in that the published requirements precluded applications for the coaching job from some of the world’s top trainers/coaches in Europe because of onerous residency requirement. Others did not apply separately to be chef d’equipe as a part-time position because they believed it was a fulltime chef d’equipe/coaching position.

Further, they said, it was hard to understand how Thomsen could be preferred to several North Americans, including two-time Olympian and “I” judge Hilda Gurney of Moorpark, Axel Steiner a trainer and “O” judge of San Diego, both in California, and Canadian six-time Olympian Christilot Boylen.

Announcements by the USEF over the past year have emphasized the “national coach” duties and have stated publicly that a major reason Balkenhol’s contract was not renewed was because other obligations prevented him fulfilling requirements to spend more time in the United States.

Thomsen was selected to join Gribbons and Dover as one of the final three interviews in Denver after a three-day clinic in Southern California in which several riders, including Olympians Guenter Seidel and Christine Traurig and World Cup competitor Jan Ebeling, participated.

A contract for coaching duties was scheduled to be negotiated with Morten by the USEF this coming week, but that may hinge on the result of the joint meeting of the two dressage committees.

Dover was the only applicant who presented a detailed program that proposed enlisting in the effort World Cup champion and Olympic and WEG medalist Debbie McDonald of Hailey, Idaho and Olympian, World Cup and World Championship rider Lendon Gray of Bedford, New York, whose innovative Lendon’s Youth Dressage Festival that aims at horsemanship has become one of the most anticipated and exciting shows for youth in the Americas.

Dover’s presentation took eight months to prepare and was designed to provide a blueprint of a top to bottom U.S. dressage program for the next generation.

Sources who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly said that Thomsen was an unwitting participant in a drama that was about “settling scores” that in some cases were decades old and were now being settled at the expense of the future of American dressage.

Thomsen, they said, had applied for the position in good faith as a Danish Olympian offering his training program although he is not regarded as a top trainer. Even so, his skills would have been welcomed, especially among U.S. riders who have a tradition of accepting team coaching so long as they can continue to work with the trainers of their choice on a day to day basis.

World Cup and Aachen champion Steffen Peters prefers to work with Jo Hinneman of Germany, his coach since teen years, WEF and World Cup competitor Leslie Morse trains with Finland’s Kyra Kyrklund, Pan American Games team and individual gold medalist Chris Hickey works with Ulla Salzgeber of Germany while Lauren Sammis is trained by Canada’s Ashley Holzer. This is similar to the methods adopted by U.S. jumping Chef d’Equipe George Morris who embraces the coaches that are personal preferences of the dozens of riders he deals with every year in fielding teams for world championships, Nations Cup and Super League competitions. But there is no question who is the team leader, and who has the final word for riders and trainers.