As the youngest of three sisters, Michelle Gibson was the last to get into horses. Originally from a farm in Maryland, Michelle remembers riding bareback and barefoot around their property with her sisters. After the Gibson family moved to Georgia, Michelle began riding with a local trainer and within six months became a working student. Michelle's first horse, an Appaloosa/Thoroughbred gelding named Allspice who was, in Michelle’s words, “crazy as a loon.” Allspice was soon replaced by a Trakehner mare named Chaussee whom Michelle took to a new working student position where she began to focus more seriously on dressage. Michelle’s father, Marshall Gibson, remembers driving Michelle to the barn every day, dropping her off to work, and driving back to pick her up late in the evening. Parenthetically, it was during one of these quiet moments in the truck that Michelle joked with her father that by the time she made it to the Olympics they would probably be held in Atlanta.
Michelle graduated high school four months ahead of her peers to concentrate more on riding. She spent a year and a half working with Michael Poulin and during that time Michelle dug in harder than ever and advanced Chaussee from second level to Prix St. Georges before having to pause because Chaussee lacked the talent to progress to the next levels. This was when a little luck and a lot of determination established Michelle’s position in the dressage community and ultimately paved the way for subsequent American riders to benefit from the knowledge and experience of the European continent.
The Gibsons arranged an exchange student program for Michelle and sent her overseas with a suitcase, some photos, and a lot of encouragement. In Germany, Michelle characteristically wasted no time, and asked her German housemother to take her to Willie Schultheis’ barn. Michelle says as a favor to her housemother, Schulteis “put me on one of his horses with no spurs or whip and we did everything – it was an unforgettable ride. This meeting was pure luck.” Luck might have brought them together, but her talent secured her a position in his barn. He started her out schooling his wife’s racehorses in dressage, but Gibson’s abilities impressed Schultheis enough to eventually coach her on his own horses. Schultheis wasn’t the only one impressed with Michelle’s talents. Schultheis’ most gifted bereiter was watching from the sidelines, and soon asked Michelle if she would come work and train with him. She accepted what she saw as the “opportunity of a lifetime” and went to train in Rudolf Zeilinger’s barn.
This is how, at age twenty, Michelle created one of the most formidable rider/trainer partnerships in dressage history. In the beginning, Michelle rode one horse a day, but as she proved her talents to her new coach, she worked her string up to ten horses a day, their abilities ranging from the beginning levels through Grand Prix. Under Rudolf’s tutelage, Michelle quickly mastered the now widely respected Schultheis system and developed a seat that was voted “Best Seat” by German judges. When asked what it is she likes the most about the Schultheis system, she is hard pressed to come up with a single response: “I think one thing that impressed me most about working in Rudolf’s barn is that day after day the horses were worked as hard and as honestly as they could be worked, but day after day they all came into the ring eager and schooled with unrestrained freedom.”
When it was clear that Michelle was going to stay at Rudolf’s barn longer than a year, Rudolf’s wife Sabina decided Michelle needed to learn German and Michelle suddenly found herself enrolled in a total immersion program. No one was allowed to speak any English to the American. Michelle laughingly admits it was a challenge, but quickly became conversational and now is fluent in the language. In the end, Michelle admits knowing German has been essential for her complete understanding of the German training methods, as many German dressage expressions get lost or confused in their translation to English.
By now Michelle had the language, the proficiency, and the resolve. But a critical component was missing, her horse. Luckily, that part of the equation was solved with a trip back to the states and a newspaper article about Michelle in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. In one of the many seemingly pre-destined turns in Michelle Gibson’s career, she managed to time her search with the exact moment a certain Trakehner stallion, previously in dressage training in Florida, happened to be languishing in a field of timothy. After the article was published in the paper, Michelle got a call from the owners of the stallion, she went to give him a try, and immediately paired herself with the stallion to form yet another commanding partnership in the dressage world, that of Gibson and Peron.
“They have a kind of spark,” Peron’s owner commented, “they’re a special kind of team.” This seems to be an accurate description of a pair that went back to Germany and immediately earned national respect and admiration by becoming top-level contenders in a country where Americans were typically not to be worried about. Competing at such prestigious shows as Aachen, Dortmund, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Bremen, Michelle’s fellow competitors had names like Werth, Klimke, Balkenhol, Uphoff-Becker, and Schaudt. Not only did Gibson hold her own with such names, she began to best them, with scores like the 74.42 percent she attained for the Grand Prix Special in Bremen. Gibson’s immersion in the country generated a warm response from the people there. “Germany is like a home to me,” Gibson maintains, “people there made me feel welcome, not like an outsider trying to get in.” This must be true if in 1996 the German dressage community honored Gibson with Germany’s Golden Rider award, something no American had ever achieved. After three years of successful campaigning in Germany, Michelle found herself bearing toward home again. Not because she was homesick, but because in a strangely self-fulfilling manner, Michelle’s joking prophecy a decade earlier had come true with a vengeance: the 1996 Olympics were going to be in Atlanta. Gibson was going to be in them.
Gibson considers the 1996 Olympics to be the biggest moment of her life. It was also the biggest moment of Olympic dressage for the United States since Gibson’s 75.20% was the highest score ever awarded an American at the Olympics. “I rode the best Grand Prix I’ve ever ridden. Peron was so on. That was definitely awesome.” After the Olympics, Peron’s owners decided to keep him in the states to breed and the magnificent stallion faded from the dressage scene. Gibson made the difficult decision to move home to Georgia. “My family is here and I’d like to be more involved in dressage in America,” she said at the time.
Gibson established herself at Applewood, the lovely farm of Brad and Laura Thatcher, in Alpharetta GA. For the next five years, Gibson distilled all her previous education into a seamless training methodology, and began to hone her skills as a teacher. Gibson tackled her new role as educator with the same concentration and dedication she applied to her own riding. She quickly built a clientele base at Applewood, as well as in Wellington, FL where her students come from all over the country. Michelle enthusiastically welcomes riders from all levels to come and train in her program. Coming into Gibson’s system early in one’s riding career ensures that a student will receive the proper foundation to advance correctly toward their ultimate goals. Despite this, Gibson muses over the fact that “most of my clients are professionals. The first thing I say is, I can help you and I can be a person on the ground if that’s what you want. If you want to learn my style, if you want to learn how I do it, then you have to tell me because it’s going to change everything. It’s going to change how you sit, how you think, everything; because the style that I ride is different from the norm. To ride this system you need to get back to basics and get down to work.” Gibson’s legion of dedicated and successful clientele are a testament to her teaching achievements. As one student said, “Michelle is a perfectionist, and her goals to this end are contagious. She’ll push you in a particular movement with a power and enthusiasm that is almost unnerving, but she’s with you all the way, and when you finally get it, and grasp what she is looking for you realize how phenomenal perfection can feel. It’s addicting. There’s no going back.”
Despite Gibson’s vicarious fulfillment from her student’s accomplishments, the seasoned campaigner began to yearn for the FEI ring once again. It was time to look for a horse. Michelle and Marshall Gibson flew to Europe to begin the search. Gibson contacted Zeilinger prior to going to Germany and asked if he had anything that fit her parameters: something between seven and nine that was schooling Prix St. Georges and talented enough to go on to do the Grand Prix. Michelle calls what followed an accident, but it has all the makings of another uncanny twist of fate in her pre-determined career. Of all the horses Michelle looked at in Europe, her old coach ended up having the one, a stallion by World Cup who was appropriately named World of Dreams.
Though Gibson is quick to maintain that World of Dreams, or Indy as he is known around the barn, should not be compared to Peron, one thing is for certain; Gibson and her new stallion combine to make the same redoubtable contenders for which the previous Olympic duo was known. To illustrate, in Wellington Gibson and World of Dreams debuted at Intermediare I with a 74.5% despite going off course. With her usual good humor, Michelle quipped about the error, “We’re only allowed to do that once in a show season.” But behind her laughter was the same steady resolve that clearly makes this dressage pair the warm air breathing down the backs of the competitors over in the Grand Prix ring. Indeed, Gibson and Indy went on to win every Intermediare I class they competed in for the remainder of the season in Florida. Gibson is hoping to eventually return to Zeilinger’s barn for a couple months. There she will work on refining Indy’s one tempis and his piaffe/passage, the necessary finishing touches for a perfectionist looking to the Grand Prix arena with world-class design.
Gibson’s sponsors include Grande Ford, Elite European Sport Horses, Horseware/Triple Crown, Pikeur, Koening, and Grand Prix. When not in her breeches, Michelle’s preferred attire is relaxed, jeans and tee shirts. She loves to fish, garden and dance. When she has the chance to pick up a book it has to be an action that grabs her from the first page, like John Grisham’s The Chamber. Her favorite movie genres are action and drama; her television choices have the same blend, Crime Scene Investigation, Scrubs, and Judging Amy. She likes all kinds of food. Michelle is quick to thank the people in her life that have helped her along the way, “without Rudolf’s help and my family’s sacrifices I wouldn’t be here now. It’s really just a huge group effort.” That said, Michelle admits she is definitely not afraid of hard work, and her mother, Marie, attributes Michelle’s successes to her thirst for knowledge, her desire to excel, and a little bit of providence. What would Michelle do if she weren’t in horses? Michelle thinks for a minute, “I have absolutely no idea, I can’t imagine not riding.” From the seemingly predestined course of her life so far, it’s probably not something Michelle will have to worry about any time soon.
Wellington, FL --