The Straight Shooter

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BIG TIME: Rockwell at a post-competition press conference at the 2012 London Olympic Games (Jennifer Bryant photo)

From medaling for Team USA to Olympic judging and a commitment to education, Gary Rockwell has worked tirelessly to advance the sport of dressage while always advocating for the horse

By Sue Weakley

Reprinted from the March/April 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

He’s brutally honest and honestly consistent. Bone-dry wit and laser-focused comments are his calling cards, and he’s known for fair, no-nonsense judging and devoted advocacy for the horse. He’s 2020 Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee, FEI 5* dressage judge, trainer and clinician, and former international competitor Gary Rockwell.

“Most of you know him as a judge,” USDF president Lisa Gorretta said during Rockwell’s virtual Hall of Fame induction ceremony during last year’s Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention. “Those of you going down center line and seeing him at C might be a bit taken aback; I know I always was. He’s quiet and reserved, but his friends know that beneath that exterior lies a wicked sense of humor, a passion for correct horsemanship, and a willingness to contribute to education.”

As Gorretta put it, “he walks the walk”: Rockwell has proven himself in nearly every facet of the dressage sport.

In his competition heyday in the early 1990s, Rockwell rode for Team USA throughout Europe. With his most famous mount, the Danish mare Suna, he won a team silver medal at the 1993 CHIO Rotterdam and team bronze at the 1994 FEI World Equestrian Games at The Hague, Netherlands. He’s become even better known as a judge, officiating at national-level championships, FEI North American Youth Championships, FEI Challenge Tours, European Championships, FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, and Olympic Games. And he remains a sought-after trainer and clinician.

The Jumping Trials

Rockwell, who now resides in Wellington, Florida, grew up horseless in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. His childhood riding experience was confined to occasional saddle time aboard friends’ horses.

FIRST DISCIPLINE: Going over fences in an undated photo

“Mostly I just liked to hang out at the barn and handle horses,” says Rockwell, who admits to having “no ambitions to go anywhere [in the equestrian world] until before college, when I became interested in jumping.”

As a student at Penn State University, Rockwell joined the equestrian club. Then he discovered that the accomplished Danish-born rider and trainer the late Lilian Wittmack Roye was also located in central Pennsylvania. He began taking jumping lessons with Roye, “and then she told me that I had to do dressage,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what dressage was. And with that, my whole career went off on a very specific diagonal.” (Later in Rockwell’s career, as he began to import horses from Europe, he returned to jumping from time to time if a horse was better suited to that discipline.)

Roye, who was posthumously inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame in 2016, recognized Rockwell’s talent, calling him one of her best students in a 2001 interview with USDF Connection.

Rockwell deflects the praise. “There were a lot of good people starting out there at the time,” he says. “Lilian’s contribution to me was to get started, but especially to create a passion for the sport.” 

To hear Rockwell tell it, it’s a good thing he decided to pursue a career in horses instead of working in the field of his college major, psychology. “I didn’t study enough to have to deal with all these people,” he deadpans.

The Mare Affair

Rockwell says that the three best horses he ever competed were all mares. Suna, the last of the three, proved the capstone of his riding career.

One of Rockwell’s clients bought the striking black Danish Warmblood from a teenaged girl in Denmark just before the 1987 stock-market crash. “And then, as soon as the crash happened, she was for sale again,” he says. “So then I had to find another client to buy her. Eventually I bought her, and she was seven coming eight. I think she did her first Grand Prix when she was eleven. She was wonderful to ride, not easy, but a good horse to ride. She was very difficult from the ground, and for people and strangers to walk up to her was impossible. Veterinarians were a nightmare; blood testing was a disaster, but that was the horse that took me to the [World Equestrian] Games.

FAMED PARTNER: On the way to team bronze with the Danish mare Suna at the 1994 FEI World Equestrian Games (SHAWN HAMILTON/CLIXPHOTO.CA)

“What I remember most is that when we got her, it was so difficult to catch her, so difficult to put on a bridle, so difficult to do anything with her,” Rockwell continues. “And you had to catch her in the stall before the veterinarian opened his or her truck door; otherwise she’d get a whiff and you couldn’t get near her. She was a lot to handle. It wasn’t that she was abused; it was her temperament. I met a full brother years later that was exactly the same way.”

No rider gets to the international ranks without help. In Rockwell’s case, he relied on instruction and coaching from Olympian Robert Dover, who helped him get Suna from Intermediate I to Grand Prix.

Dover was “a very great help to me,” Rockwell says, noting that in Dover’s training approach, “nothing was ever the horse’s fault.” Under Dover’s mentorship, “I had a good training experience, which is very important with judging.”

Coach Rockwell

That training experience translates well into the latest of Rockwell’s equestrian career paths: coaching. After 10 years of conducting regular dressage clinics in Mexico, he transitioned to coaching Team Mexico in 2010. He has since directed the Mexican dressage riders in three Central American and Caribbean Games and two Pan American Games.

Enrique Palacios, a multiple-time Team Mexico member, has trained with Rockwell for 10 years. He credits Rockwell with teaching him “a training system that has allowed me to ride all types of horses, from the most talented to the most complicated, and see results. Not only is Gary an excellent trainer with a keen eye for detail and a sense of professionalism beyond compare, but he is also an outstanding human being that cares not only for the mental and physical well-being of the horse, but also that of the rider.”

Here Comes the Judge

When a groin injury forced Rockwell to take some time off from his competition career, the legendary late US dressage judge Edgar Hotz suggested that he consider becoming a judge. Rockwell enrolled in the inaugural American Horse Shows Association (now US Equestrian Federation) “S” Judges Program in 1996 and worked his way up through the USEF ranks.

US FEI “O” (now 5) dressage judge Linda Zang, who had officiated at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, subsequently encouraged Rockwell to become an FEI judge.

Rockwell’s reply: “What’s an FEI judge?”

Zang explained that those earning their licenses from the Fédération Equestre Internationale are eligible to judge FEI-recognized dressage competitions, known as CDIs.

INTERNATIONAL SPOTLIGHT: Rockwell judging Australia’s Hayley Beresford on Relampago do Retiro at his first Olympic Games, in Hong Kong 2008 (SUSAN J. STICKLE/PHELPSSPORTS.COM)

Rockwell worked his way up through the FEI judging ranks, earning the highest designation, “O,” in 2006. Two years later, he served on the ground jury at the Olympic dressage competition in Hong Kong. He went on to judge at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, and he has also officiated at five FEI World Cup Dressage Finals and at numerous FEI continental dressage championships.

Of all Rockwell’s prestigious judging assignments to date, he says that the London Olympics is the standout.

“It was demanding,” he says, “and I was at C for two days for the Grand Prix.” Out of the judge’s box, “Our lodging was ten minutes from the venue. We just could walk through the town. That was beautiful. [British 5 judge] Stephen Clarke, president of the ground jury, arranged the most wonderful hospitality for us the whole time we were there. So that was probably the most thrilling of my Olympic Games, but Rio was also wonderful.”

“I have always admired Gary as a judge and how well he handled the pressure of being a five-star,” FEI 4* judge Jane Weatherwax said via video during Rockwell’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “It’s Gary’s intelligence, integrity, and honesty that impresses me the most—and, believe it or not, humility,” said Weatherwax, who has known Rockwell since the two attended that first-ever “S” program in 1996. “Gary is one class act. He has a wicked sense of humor, a wonderful laugh, and great taste in wine. What else could you ask for? I am proud to call him friend and colleague for these many years.”

Another colleague who vouches for Rockwell’s famously dry sense of humor is fellow 5* judge Anne Gribbons.

“When he gets going, he can have you dying laughing,” Gribbons says. “Sometimes his comments are zingers, and he’ll say something and you go, ‘Oops!’, but it’s spot-on. And he’s a very, very good horseman and, of course, a good judge, a fair judge, and positive. He is very kind to animals and people and riders.”

Their road-warrior existence and unique shared experiences help make dressage judges a tight-knit group, many of whom become close friends. Rockwell laments the loss of camaraderie with his fellow judges during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What makes it really much less enjoyable is that you can’t really socialize with your friends,” he says. “Of course, we do our job, but I mean, we look forward to seeing our friends and being able to relax.”

Leaving a Legacy

Fellow committee member, FEI 5* judge, and 2017 USDF Hall of Fame inductee Lilo Fore says that Rockwell is “the calm, quiet voice of reasoning in all our committees. In 10 seconds flat, Gary is capable of finding a reasonable solution to problems that need solving while most of us are still trying to figure out how to solve it in 30 minutes.”

THE TEACHER: Rockwell conducting a USDF L Education program session in 2010 (LAURIE VIRKSTIS)

It’s a skill that he has used in advancing the sport of dressage through his extensive volunteer service. Rockwell is a faculty member of the USDF L Education Program, conducting seminars and testings to educate and train prospective dressage judges and dressage enthusiasts in the methodology of dressage judging. For many years he served on the USDF L Program Committee, and he remains a member of the USDF Judges Committee, which he’s chaired since 2012. He is a past chair of the USDF/USEF Dressage Test Writing Group, which creates the US national-level dressage tests.

As a trainer and clinician, Rockwell is an honorary instructor in the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program. He has twice been a presenter at the Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference.

LIGHTER SIDE: Rockwell’s colleagues vouch for his “wicked sense of humor”

Rockwell’s gravitas can be intimidating to dressage competitors and to those who don’t know him well, and he’s not overly forthcoming when asked to talk about himself. His friends and colleagues have no such reservations.

“Gary is a complicated person,” says FEI 4* dressage judge, fellow committee member, and Rockwell’s close friend Lois Yukins. “He’s smart, he’s serious, he’s charming, he’s devoted. When he’s on a committee, no one is as devoted as he is. He’s changed a lot of things for the better, and when he believes in something he doesn’t let it go.”

Fore points to “what he has achieved in doing for our sport—and all of it is definitely not for the money or for the glory.” She calls Rockwell “an inspiration to our upcoming generation of riders, trainers, teachers, and judges.”

In her Hall of Fame induction speech, Gorretta called Rockwell “one of the reasons our judging program is respected around the world, both in his efforts as a judge and for our training programs.”

According to Gorretta, one of Rockwell’s favorite sayings is that horses make people better people. The effusive praise and thanks for his contributions and mentorship from a Who’s Who of American dressage judges and trainers indicate that, in the eyes of the dressage community, Rockwell is one of the best.

Freelance journalist Sue Weakley taught journalism and integrated marketing communications at the university level for five years before melding her love of dressage with her love of writing.

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