The Vision of American Dressage – Part 1

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Robert Dover with Anne Gribbons after he was selected as the new United States dressage coach. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover with Anne Gribbons after he was selected as the new United States dressage coach. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

An invasion of Europe by as many as 20 American dressage combinations this year may be the most ambitious ever in a campaign by new leadership determined to return the United States to the medals podiums of the Olympics and world championships.

The effort for so many Americans to train and compete against the best in Europe–the world–stems from new programs created by the U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance Committee led by Janet Foy, an international 4* judge, the appointment of Robert Dover as Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equipe–bureaucratic terms meaning coach and leader of U.S. teams–and Debbie McDonald, one of the globe’s foremost combinations who will work with Robert.

And although it comes at the lowest ebb of American high performance dressage in more than two decades, missing out on medals at the past two Olympics after U.S. teams were on the medals podiums for four straight Games, there is excitement and optimism for the future.

Experienced international riders like Steffen Peters, Günter Seidel, Jan Ebeling, Lisa Wilcox, Tina Konyot, Shelly Francis and others have Europe in their immediate travel plans. Many will go with horses that are untried at top international shows but the riders are reinvigorated with enthusiasm not witnessed in years. And several with funding from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation and other sources.

“If you have a horse to try out for a team you have to be in Europe competing at some point,” said Günter of Cardiff, California, an elite rider for the U.S. who has a new mount, Coral Reef Wylea that he plans to take to Germany to train with Klaus Balkenhol as he has for many years. “I love that a lot of combinations get this opportunity this year through the help of our federation.”

“I feel it is important for the U.S. High Performance riders to continue getting exposure in Europe,” said Shelly Francis of Loxahatchee, Florida who was on a U.S. team at the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome and plans to take two horses to Europe this summer. “It will keep us on the competitive edge. For myself I feel it is essential to getting back in the big game after some years out of it. I can only see that it will be a good thing for U.S. dressage to invade Europe. It will make us work harder to produce more great team hopefuls for the Games!”

“Simply put,” said Arlene ‘Tuny’ Page of Wellington who represented the U.S. at the World Cup Final in 2006, “you can’t cook if you’re not in the kitchen. To be competitive on a world stage we have to compete on the world stage. It is the only way I know to truly measure yourself against the current standard. It is the only way to get your measure of truth from the judges and public opinion… and deal with it to the best of your abilities.”

Like all riders not based in Europe, there are hardships such as leaving home, family, business and support. Unlike most nations, Americans get no government money for sports, so funding comes from grants, a handful of individuals who can pay their own bills or owners such as Jane Forbes Clark, who for decades has probably been the single largest supporter of international-level horse sports in the United States that includes Katherine Bateson-Chandler in dressage.

“The obvious disadvantages are financial for Americans,” Kaherine said. “Both in transporting our horses to Europe and in a large loss of income when we are away from home. It is tough because it can mean loss of clients but if we want to compete in this sport at the elite level it is a sacrifice that has to be made. I hope people keep supporting the USET Foundation as much as possible to keep the money coming to help out those who have applied for grants so they can bring their horses to Europe!”

Even before his formsl appointment, Robert, who rode several of Jane’s horses at Olympics and other championships, dealt head on with the funding issue.

With the USET Foundation he staged a benefit to raise more than $150,000 to help pay for rider and horse combinations to go to Europe ahead of next year’s World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Janet Foy of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the U.S. High Performance Committee she has headed for five months has not hesitated in jumping in to turn around the state of American dressage.

Janet Foy, head of the United States High Performance Committee. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Janet Foy, head of the United States High Performance Committee. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“Yes, we need to get our up and coming combinations to the big shows in Europe,” she told dressage-news.com. “The new High Performance Committee feels this experience is important. It is not about only going if we can win but rather doing a good job and gaining exposure both for the horse and rider.”

And, she pointed out, “Did you know Robert’s first big CDI was the Los Angeles Olympics?”

Robert Dover, at the age of 56 with six Olympics–four of them resulting in team medals–and a host of other championships, official coach of U.S. and Canadian teams on his résume in a lifetime in the sport will be the public face of the new program after wrapping up a contract with the U.S. federation that runs through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

He follows in the footsteps of Klaus Balkenhol, the German Olympic gold medalist who took over in 2000 when the U.S. team was at its peak and whom several top Americans have trained with for many years and continue to do so. Then, Anne Gribbons eight years later who inherited a stable that included the world class partnership of Steffen Peters and Ravel but no other combinations that could score in the mid-70 per cent and above that is required to be competitive with nations routinely at the pinnacle of the sport–Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

The fact that Robert, who lives fulltime in Wellington, Florida, the home of the Global Dressage Festival and its big brother Winter Equestrian Festival as one of the premier jumper shows in the world, was a candidate this time after missing out on the job in 2008 may be the bounce-back spirit needed to restore America’s fire in the belly.

“I am one of the great optimists of all time,” Robert told dressage-news.com in an interview that ranged over the current state and the prospects of U.S. teams as he awaited the final contract to sign that will dictate his life for the next four years.

“In all the years I represented the USA on teams whenever we were asked we said, ‘We’re going to win a medal.’ I never saw in our own vision anything less. We try to create in reality what is our dream. There’s that old saying, ‘If you can dream it you can do it.’ I’ve lived that.

“My inner vision is that I see America as the strongest nation in the world. How soon? In reality, the bar is extremely high. We all know that.

“This is a ‘who beats who where’ sport. So our shared goal and shared commitment is that we should pull out every single stop we can.”

Robert doesn’t predict the United States will win gold at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy in 2014 but to set goals that can be achieved by producing the best performances possible. Attaining that goal becomes the success that drives the team.

“What I mean is that the High Performance Committee saw the wisdom of not giving four grants like in the past but to give 10 grants,” he said, “of doing everything possible to encourage the progress of our athletes.”

What he does predict is that over the next year there will be “a great deal of shifting around not in our nation but in other nations.”

The absence or the presence of a single combination could alter the overall standing of a team.

Part 2–Robert Dover’s Vision of American Dressage