Based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, 17-year-old Dominic Gibbs has had an astounding year, earning top-five finishes in all four major equitation finals. He kicked off his equitation reign with fourth place in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final, followed by fifth position overall in the Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East just one week later, then earning another fourth-place result in the WIHS Equitation Finals. Gibbs finished off his year strong, winning the 2020 ASPCA Maclay National Championship at the National Horse Show, presented by Chansonette Farm. Training with Stacia Klein Madden and the team at Beacon Hill Show Stables, Gibbs etched his name in history as he donned the tricolor aboard his trusty partner Cent 15, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Mountain King Ranch LLC. Phelps Sports sat down with Gibbs to revisit his memorable win.
Now that you have had some time to digest your win, how does it feel to be the 2020 ASPCA Maclay National Champion?
I am still on a little bit of a cloud and a high from that. It’s a huge honor and also a big responsibility to be an ambassador for the sport, and in the spirit of the ASPCA, an ambassador for the horse. The win feels really great and gives me a lot of confidence and feel for what I want to have going into next year’s finals my last junior year.
Do you feel like your consistent top placings in the other finals leading up had given you a confidence boost going into Maclay finals?
I don’t think it necessarily gave me a confidence boost, but it definitely gave me a goal because I wanted to win. I was really aiming for consistent placings in all the finals, but I made mistakes that prevented a podium finish in the earlier competitions.
What did you think of the courses? Was there anything you knew you needed to focus on throughout the challenges they presented?
I really liked the courses – they were tough and asked a lot of questions. You couldn’t lose focus even for a moment because you constantly had to plan where you were going and how to get there. I thought each course tested a rider’s foundation and ability to alternate between forward and steady lines, but set in a difficult way in order to narrow down to the numbers – it was a huge class!
Are there any exercises you practiced at home that you felt helped you in the courses and on the flat?
Stacia definitely emphasizes flatwork, that is one of the key points with her training. I think that our difficult flat lessons at home, really focusing on adjustability and straightness, prepared me well for Maclay Finals.
What is your partnership like with Cent 15? Where did you think he shined the brightest throughout the day?
At first he was not a very adjustable horse, so we focused on that weakness. It has taken a while, but now he is like an accordion and he has really come into his own with it. It’s a good thing I love flatwork because I think that our strength together and it really helped me in the flat phase of the class.
How did you remain so calm throughout the high-pressure moments?
I definitely do not think it is easy to get through those high-pressure moments. Before I ride, if I go late in the class, I try not to watch every single rider go. I try to keep my mind occupied on other things. I might watch a few early in the class and then try to go do something else – ride another horse if I can or even go off property. I just have to make sure I’m back on time to watch a few more and then get on. I want to make sure I know the course enough, but I don’t want to see every single round and throw myself off of my game. I’ve done that before.
How did it feel to be put at the top of the judges’ preference list after the flat and what were you thinking knowing that headed into the second round?
It was quite exciting and also stressful. I had been on top in some of the other finals and small mistakes dropped me down. So really I was just thinking I need to be consistent, don’t make any huge mistakes, and have the best round that I can. I tried to breathe deep, and keep my head level that whole time.
What were Stacia’s final words to you before you entered for the test?
We talked about a lot of things before I went in, but the last thing she said to me was,
‘Just do the freaking test!’
What were your thoughts on your test? Did you know you had nailed it?
I knew I did my best! I wasn’t sure if I nailed it, because there’s always things to improve, but I felt so proud of what I accomplished after such a long day and repeated tough questions from the judges. I was joyful. But I thought there were three things I could have done a bit better in the test. One of them being my first trot fence. I felt like I could have left out a stride, or that maybe it was a little bit weak and soft. We’re splitting hairs, but there was probably a better distance there that could have helped set up my next line better. With a nicer canter coming off of the trot fence, I wouldn’t have had to take such an inside track to the next vertical. Second, I thought my transition to the second trot fence was a little bit wobbly and I needed more connection, but in the end it turned out well. Last – I would have picked up a big gallop sooner and then held that bolder bigger pace up and over the jump. Although, I loved that jump the best.
What is one piece of training advice that you feel you carried with you throughout the courses?
“More connection” is the advice I carry in my mind through these courses because I am a naturally soft rider, and that can lead to a lack of hand and leg and not getting the best jump out of my horse. I recognize this now, so I have been working on actively keeping more leg on and more contact to have more control in our extended lines without showing it too much.
Is there anything you would have changed about your rides?
The first time I did the one stride line in the middle of the ring my horse shifted left coming out. I wish I held him straighter so the six-stride line to the judges’ outside oxer would have been shaped better with a little more room in front of the fence. But other than that I wouldn’t have changed anything in my first round. In the second round, I would have preferred a bigger, more forward hand gallop. Looking back at my video, even though I still found a good distance, I think it would have been much better to have a bolder hand gallop to that fence.
What is your favorite exercise to do at home?
I’m a big believer in lots of flat work. But, it also depends on the horse. For the horse, I think one of my favorite exercises is working between either ground poles or cavalettis at the trot and the canter. Working on those transitions has really helped me with adjustability and straightness and just keeping it more active when working between two set points. I think that it really helps me prepare the horse for jumping without putting a huge toll on their body.
What is the most important lesson you have learned at Beacon Hill?
I am so grateful to ride with Beacon Hill – everyone there was welcoming to my sister [Jordan Gibbs] and I from the start. Riding with kids much better than me really raised the bar for my own riding. I knew I was in the right place to learn. All the lessons at Beacon Hill have been important because I was really a novice when I started with them. For riding, my most important lesson is riding stronger and with more contact than I think I need. Being a soft rider is my gift and my curse. For the bigger picture, my most important lesson is to prioritize progress over pinning. Stacia really emphasizes building on experience, fixing mistakes and raising the level of consistency so that your average is always going up. This is more important than winning ribbons. That philosophy is sometimes hard in the moment but was really important for me going into this year’s finals. I was much more consistent and a much better rider this year than last.
What are your plans moving forward? Professional?
I am applying to college – three applications were due on Maclay day! But I also plan to continue riding, training and competing at the highest levels. I want to represent our country someday and use my education and experiences to start my own business.
What is one thing you want everyone to know about you following your win in the 2020 Maclay National Championships?
Three years ago, my mom and her childhood trainer Ann Hanna, who also taught me when I was little, came to watch the Maclay Finals for the first time so that I could see what I was getting into. Madison Goetzmann won! At the time, I barely competed out of Zone 8 and only in lower level equitation and hunters. After that experience, we knew I needed to make big changes. My whole life changed that year and the work and sacrifices ended with winning the 2018 3’3 Hamel Foundation Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show – massive progress! And the next year in 2019 I competed in my first Maclay Final. I didn’t even make the callback. So, what I want everyone to know is that I understand the struggle for success on so many levels. I understand what it’s like to come from far away. I understand what it’s like to change trainers, to travel, to stress and give up “normal” in order to be the best. All the Maclay riders are on such an amazing journey to become better riders and partners for the horse. And, we all want to make our coaches and parents proud. Also I should give a shoutout to all my friends in Colorado and Zone 8 always cheering me on from so far away — #gocolorado!
If you could give one piece of advice to juniors that hope to one day win the ASPCA Maclay National Championship, what would it be?
Embrace your failures – let them make you stronger and better. Don’t let mistakes get you down because in the big picture it’s the progress forward that matters. You must believe in yourself, even when it’s hard to. I have made so many mistakes that felt crushing at times. I even fell off a few weeks ago in the Prix Des States Junior Jumper Championships. I was going for the win and I cut a corner into a massive in-and-out trying to beat the time. I felt terribly discouraged walking out of the ring leading my horse. But I will never, ever cut a corner again – and I was so mindful of being straight to the jumps in this difficult Maclay, which helped me tremendously with the track and with keeping rails up. So that’s my advice – if you want to win, you have to accept your failures first, as hard as it is.