Robert Dover’s Vision of American Dressage – Part 2

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Debbie McDonald and Brentina. Debbie will play a key role in America's high performance program. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Debbie McDonald and Brentina. Debbie will play a key role in America’s high performance program. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

As the new coach of America’s high performance dressage program, six-time Olympian Robert Dover is preparing his vision to be presented within the next two weeks and aimed at building the sport from the bottom up while facing the short term goal of producing a credible performance at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France next year.

Going back to his own roots as kid in Pony Club before graduating at the top A level, Robert wants to expand the pipeline by implementing programs for ponies to go with the junior and young riders, young horse, under-25, developing horse and high performance divisions that he proposed when he first ran for the job four years ago and has seen most of it implemented since.

His “true partner” in heading up the effort is Debbie McDonald, who rode Brentina on the WEG silver medal team in 2002, in 2003 became the first American to win the World Cup and was on the bronze medal team at the 2004 Olympics. “If there are times where I can’t be some place I feel Debbie is my perfect partner to be there,” he said, “that’s how I hope things will be made possible.”

The most sensitive issue, though, will be his relationship with the elite riders for America’s teams and the “village” of personal coaches, physical trainers, veterinarians, farriers, chiropractors, massage therapists and grooms.

“I think beyond all of the wording and semantics what I hope to do is everything possible to support and enhance our athletes, both two and four-legged, as they compete for places on teams or as individuals when they compete around the world,” he told dressage-news.com.

“I will do whatever I can using my bank of experience to be helpful. That’s what I see as myself and my job. If that sounds vague, I don’t mean it to sound vague. If you’re asking me whether I see myself standing beside the arena and saying, ‘I am the new leader follow me,’ that is not going to be me.

“I have huge respect for those people who are on their way toward representing America as well as their personal coaches and trainers. My job is to do everything to enhance their quest, their dream.

“It’s not going to be any single individual that brings us to the gold medal podium, it’s going to be shared commitment, determination, our drive, our resources, energy and loyalty. Those are the qualities that are going to bring us back to the medals podium, to the highest step on the medals podium.”

Robert Dover on FB Kennedy at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, his last championship. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover on Kennedy at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, his last championship. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Robert is aware of the difficulty of his role compared with 12 years ago when German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol took over as U.S. coach at a time when American teams had already proved themselves multiple times with medals at Olympics and world championships–bronze medals at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics and then team silver at the 2002. The record of success was broken at the Beijing Games in 2008 and along with the eventing and jumper teams at the 2012 London Olympics the United States posted its worst result in more than a half-century.

“What is harder to do is to insure an enormously efficient and effective machine acting as a pipeline to insure sustainability for the group at the top,” he said. “That is the bigger challenge.

“I see that certainly we have a road in front of us to build this machine. That is something I feel strongly about for our teams, an immensely powerful pipeline that will over time function to create a sustainable, very deep and highly competitive group at the top.

“In the short term I think the High Performance Committee decision to give grants to a number of combinations is very wise and the fact that we have even more combinations than the 10 being funded, provides new momentum.

“By the end of summer going into fall where we had been is going to change from ‘a talking point and not a factor’,” an expression this correspondent volunteered as a description of how the U.S. is viewed by some in Europe.

“Things like that can change so quickly. One horse sale can make going from being a factor to not even something to talk about. A great number of countries have that issue.

“Sometimes what happens when there is great success and attention isn’t being paid to the pipeline that keep funneling more and more quality one can tend to rest on their laurels.

“What Great Britain has produced in the last eight years recognizing where they were and seeing a road map for themselves very clearly then through amazing funding through the lottery system created a machine. Certainly if Great Britain can do that with no background as champions in dressage we certainly can do the same to get back to the medals podium.”

To try to make that happen, 16 to 20 American combinations–probably the most ever–will compete at many top competitions in Europe over the summer, culminating in the World Equestrian Festival CDIO5* in Aachen, Germany at the end of June and the CDIO3* in Hickstead, England the first week of August. Both events are part of the newly created Nations Cup series being tested by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) this year.

And he wants renewed emphasis on the World Cup Final, which was won by Steffen Peters and Ravel for the United States in 2009 but this year the two combinations from North America at the Final in Sweden were Canadians.

“One of my goals is to insure America has real top contenders at the World Cups,” he said. “It’s a huge and prestigious series and to not be represented is very unfortunate.”

Olympians Robert Dover and Tina Konyot on performing a Freestyle to raise money for American riders to compete in Europe. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Olympians Robert Dover and Tina Konyot performing a Freestyle to raise money for American riders to compete in Europe, an aspect of his new job that he plans to do more of. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

In the same way, he wants top combinations at all championships from the Pan American Games to the Olympics.

“I am very aware, realistic and have an understanding of where we are on the road and where we need to go,” he said. “I’m not pessimistic. I’ve seen America go from sixth in the 1988 Olympics (in Seoul) to medal-winning in 1992 and stay that way for two decades. I’ve been at the bottom, lived at the bottom of the ladder both as an individual and with teams and done six Olympics, four on the medals podium.

“Americans do not like to lose at anything. Our very heart as a a country is winners. When we see the road in front of us clearly and where it’s going it takes a hell of a lot to keep us down.

“I’m extremely optimistic that through our shared investment of energy, talent, determination and resources we will see our dreams as a nation come true.

“In the inner vision of my mind I see us on medal podiums at every single major competiton and championship.

“How realistic that is will be more obvious by the end of summer. As we head closer to Normandy, we will have a stronger sense of reality.

“I do not believe in going anywhere just to take part. My interest is in winning. That I believe is in the interests of all of our athletes and our team.”