In the Ring with Dominic Gibbs
Meet Dominic Gibbs, winner of five national equitation championships including the coveted Maclay Championship in 2020. He is a top 10 finisher in the 2021 U25 Grand Prix Final (WEF), Winner of 2021 GLEV IV $36,000 CSI 2* Welcome, Champion of the 2020 NAL Low Jr Jumper, and USEF Low Jr Jumper Horse of The Year (Douwe). Dominic is a student at the University of Miami, mountain biker, skier, and sarcasm expert. Now, let's take a peek at this incredible athlete's life.
How did you balance school and competitive riding? Did you go to an Online High School? When I was little, our family had horses at home so I could be with our horses and ponies all of the time outside of school plus participate in other sports. When we moved from the rural ranch to the city of Colorado Springs, we had to board our horses. Although it made life easier in some ways for family dynamics and my parents work, it became harder for me to balance everything because the barn was now 45 minutes away. This was especially rough in the winter when it was dark so early plus cold temperatures, wind, snow and ice! I was competitive locally growing up, but at that level it never interfered with school or even other school sports, like track and cross country running. Locally, I was on our barn IEA team, and separately competed at The Colorado Horse Park and Colorado Hunter Jumper Assoc. shows at other local facilities. We occasionally went to Arizona and and twice to California, but I really wasn't traveling like other kids. Once I started qualifying for national finals and training with Henri and Katie Prudent, and Stacia Klein Madden at age 15 -- then I was traveling a lot and my public school wasn't very happy about my absences. I convinced my parents to let me move to Virginia with the Prudents part time, and to New Jersey with Beacon Hill part time -- and switch to online school. Initially it was a disaster because to match my original high school curriculum, I ended up enrolled in four different online schools and platforms. I got really behind and wasn't thriving academically. So at the start of sophomore year, I switched to Score Academy full time as an in-person student during WEF and virtual student the remainder of the year. I think Score saved my academic career!
Are you going to college? What was that process like? Do you plan to ride competitively in college? I am taking a gap year first, to focus on the indoor finals this fall and then get some experience working, riding and training full time in the show jumping industry before going to the University of Miami Herbert School of Business as a Foote Fellow next fall (2022). I plan to major in International Business and Real Estate. I will keep riding through college, but not on a college team. Since NCAA teams are are women only, that wasn't available to me and while IHSA is a great option -- together with my coaches we decided I should keep focus on developing my horse to the Grand Prix level.
What does a typical day look like for you? Honestly, no day is the same so it's really good that I am an organized type A person who can switch gears and adapt quickly to change and not let it derail my focus! When I am home in Colorado, it feels like vacation. I try to sleep past 8am, which is awesome, then make a great breakfast. Because my dad is a great cook -- we have all the fun gadgets and appliances for smoothies and/or cooking. I like to get outdoors when I am home, mostly mountain biking and then just catching up on things I never have time to do. It's also good to have low stress time with my family, grandparents, cousins and siblings because everyone lives nearby -- and they say they miss me! We have a lot of family dinner parties. In the winter, we love to ski and get to the mountains. I have friends with a nice barn nearby so I also make time to ride some of their horses or help with some chores if they need me. When I am not home -- a typical training day with Katie or Stacia is always an early start! I have been living on my own in a friend's 5th wheel camper for about a year now -- so I've become really handy at fixing weird camper and car things. I am up early to ensure my day is organized -- I like to make a protein smoothie or if I'm in a hurry a quick bowl of cereal. I get to the barn around 7am, and am on the first horse by 8am. I have about two lessons per week on my own horses -- one jumping and one flat. The other days are either flatting, trail riding, no stirrups work or gymnastics. I ride, on average, about four horses per day depending on if any of the other clients or boarders are gone, or if there are sale or young horses that need to be ridden. I often ride the other horses to help keep them going and have additional lessons and instruction. In Michigan this summer, I was riding sometimes eight horses in a day. Before high school graduation, I would finish about the barn around noon, grab a quick lunch and go to school or log into school, until around 6:30pm. Then I would go to the gym and get home around 8:30pm for dinner. In Florida, I would often meet up with friends for dinner on the weekends. Even though people think online school students are isolated or have no friends -- I feel like my social life was a lot more fun once I switched. By the end of the night I am usually exhausted -- and I like to be in bed at about 10.
Tell me about your partnership with Cent 15? I met Cent 15 when I was 15 years old, and on a whirlwind trip in Germany with Tom De Bel of Equestrix Agency. Tom had connections with my first equitation horse, Limitless, and after we won the 3'3" Hamel Foundation Equitation Championship, he invited us to meet him in Germany and experience riding there. My mom -- always up for adventure -- said, "Let's go!". We were casually looking for a jumper at that time, and Tom said, "I have the perfect horse. He can do it all!" He took us to meet Cent and it was an instant yes -- we were a perfect match. We brought him home and Katie didn't like him for the jumpers so we took him to Stacia with fingers crossed. Stacia said immediately that Cent was the horse of my life for equitation. I have always felt a special partnership with Cent, but the longer we are together, the stronger the bond has become and the more we trust each other in every situation. It's no joke, I think he would go into battle for me if I asked.
What advice would you give to people who want to be competitive in the equitation? Knowing what I know now -- the most important thing is not to let equitation scores define you, or your value. Equitation is to create a better rider and horseman, to learn how to manage a track, pace and engagement. It can feel really defeating because sometimes the tiniest things -- that don't matter in the jumper ring -- crush you in the eq ring. So above all else, don't let equitation defeat you. Let it build you. **Someone told my mom once that if we were going to do the equitation "back East," we should go "all in" because "halfway" wouldn't get me anywhere -- and it would cost too much. My mom took me to see the Maclay Finals in 2017 (the year Madison Goetzmann won) just so we could see the level we were getting ourselves into. I saw so many kids not make it past the first fence -- and my mom said, "If you are going to do this successfully, you need to be successful against this level all year long. Not just at the final and with a hope to get around."
So, my parents laid out some options -- A) Recreational riding around home and have a normal childhood with lots of activities around home and family, little to no financial or time sacrifice from our family. B) Competitive riding locally and still have a normal childhood with lots of activities around home and family, some financial and time sacrifice from family but not terribly painful and "do-able" C) Competitive riding nationally, requiring extreme financial and time sacrifice from family, moving to online school, quitting my other sports and living alone at age 15. We all had to agree to the degree of change and pain this option presented. I knew I could be a champion, I am driven to win so I begged for Option C. With some conditions, my parents agreed to completely change our family finances, family time and living situation to help me achieve my dreams. Of course, Katie and Henri had to agree to taking on a teenager on his own, as well as Stacia. I had to prove to them I would not be a burden, and they believed in me from the start. They've been so generous. Madison Goetzmann, who I watched win The Maclay Championship was in my first lesson at Beacon Hill, and later that fall (2018), I won the 3'3" Hamel Foundation Equitation Championship at The National Horse Show. In 2019 I competed in my first Maclay Championship and didn't make the second round. In 2020, I was back and won it out of a record 263 entries.
**All of this is a long-winded way to offer some advice -- a) Prepare and know what you are getting into. b) Start small and get some experience. c) Don't give up if you fail. Keep showing up. Keep focus on your goal and come back. There is always a way to be competitive but you have to choose at what level and at what cost (time, money, family, independence -- etc). You have to accept the tradeoffs (or sacrifices) that must be made and you must be willing to make big changes to pursue excellence. In my case I was coming from so far away (Colorado) that once I left, I really only came home for visits. A lot of families wouldn't be happy losing their kid to the horse world like that! But for me -- it worked and I achieved so much. Yet I still feel like I am just getting started. With each milestone, the bar is raised and I have harder things to do! So my dad always says, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." I am working!
How do you prepare for finals? What exercises do you specifically work on? Do you drill no stirrup work? I am lucky that the team at Beacon Hill Show Stables has a specialty in preparing juniors for finals. The most important thing is ensuring the horse is healthy, happy and ready to go into such an intense fall schedule. We make sure that all of our equipment is in good repair and nothing is missing. The level of detail can feel excruciating in lessons -- every step is analyzed and the course work is more complicated. Poise, posture, pace -- it all matters because what they say is true, "Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." So we do more difficult exercises and courses at home. Stacia has us very aware of our presence and preparation... Boots shined? Coat fits? Tack clean? No smudges on our breeches or helmets? Everything must check the box. We practice testing and elements that would be more difficult than what we expect to find in the ring. The best feeling is walking through a medal finals course and thinking, "Oh, we practiced this!" Some of the specific exercises include a lot of flatwork so our horses are supple and in tune to prompt responses for lateral work, lead changes, counter canter and extensions/collections. We do a lot of pole work as well to practice accuracy without the physical pounding of too many jumps. I wouldn't say we drill no stirrups but it is included as part of regular lessons and training.
Once you have a big win under your belt, does it change how you go into the next final? Do you feel more pressure or less pressure? For the longest time I wanted a "big win." I wanted to prove to the world that I could do it and I was worthy of being in the ring. Now that I have won a few great things -- it only makes me more hungry to keep getting better and improving on whatever went wrong (even if it was slight). For sure it was easier when I was under the radar and no one had expectations -- my nerves sometimes took over in those days and I made green mistakes. I still make mistakes -- but I am more secure in my riding and mostly when I see these tough courses, it feels like a puzzle that I can piece together with strategy. The pressure is there to win for sure, and I (think) I mostly put it on myself so I don't let anyone down. Cent is the best horse -- so I really don't want to let him down. I want to win now -- mostly for my horse because he is the true champion here. For me, the pressure of equitation is training me for the future when I (hopefully) represent my country on a team, and have to perform to win a medal -- not just for me but for my teammates and our country. That is my ultimate goal.
Who was/is the most influential horse in your career? The crazy thing is that I really haven't had a lot of horses in my career. But the ones I've had have all been exceptionally special -- from the dusty cow ponies I started on, to my mom's hunter, my first leased jumper, my first eq horse , and my first high junior jumper. But of all of them -- Cent 15 is and has been the most influential horse in my career. He taught me the feel of long term teamwork and the deepest sense of trust and communication in competition. Going into my last indoor season as a junior, there is no better partner I could ask for.
Other than riding, what do you do to stay fit? When I am home in Colorado, I like to mountain bike and/or ski depending on the weather. I also like the routine of going to a gym. In Wellington, I go to Fight Fit Wellington and I've been learning to box, which really helps with core body and upper body strength, stability, and endurance.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received and why? "Be conscious." Although this can be interpreted as vague, it can also be taken into depth -- and applied in so many situations. With horses, this is the best advice for me because it reminds me to know where I am in the moment, be conscious of my strides, be conscious of the time, be conscious of where I am on course and be conscious of each jump one-by-one, how it changes what I should do next. In daily life, "be conscious" is a reminder of who I am, how I treat people and animals and how my actions affect my future.
I saw you recently started a grant, talk about it! This is so exciting! Yes, I started a grant with some of the money I earned after selling the car I won at the WEC Premier Cup last February. The grant is named after our family ranch (the property is sold but we kept the name for our horses) -- Mountain King Ranch Equitation Grant. It will be administered through the Colorado Hunter Jumper Association and given to a Colorado junior rider through an application process. It will cover a week of lessons with Stacia Madden during WEF, a leased horse for the week, transportation, housing, food, some schooling clothes and new tack! We have had some impressive sponsors step up and we are working on some other great things to tie into the experience for this person. Going to WEF as a green rider was life changing for me and I want to share that sense of awe, that genuine excitement when you get to see the top riders you've only ever read about actually schooling their horses, eating lunch and being real people! It makes the "impossible" seem "possible" and I believe that fuels dreams. In this era where we want to make this sport more accessible, it seems the best way I can do my tiny part to help.
Favorite candy? Starburst What is one thing in life you could never live without? Horses! Favorite horse show you’ve been to? The Devon Horse Show & County Fair What are your top 3 songs on your playlist? Good Life - Kanye West, The Spins - Mac Miller, 90210 - Travis Scott What are 3 products always in your show bag? Boot polish & polish kit, rain gear, crops Most used app? Instagram
A HUGE thank you to Dominic for this incredible interview!