Robert Dover’s Priorities for USA Dressage–Pan Am Medal Sweep, Youth Riders & Young Horses Center Stage

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Robert Dover at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover at the World Equestrian Games. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Oct. 27, 2014–Winning Pan American Games team gold–and all three individual medals–to lock in a berth at the Rio Olympics is the top priority of United States coach Robert Dover for 2015 in a reinvigorated dressage program centered on youth riders and young horses to build for the future.

Although the focus is the Pan Ams in Toronto in July, his plans are also to continue the success of his first two years in the post of having American teams compete in as many as possible of the seven Nations Cup events on the schedule for 2015. But he expressed concern over the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) scheduling two top level team competitions in Europe the same weekend and that also overlap the Pan Ams.

In addition to his role as the U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equipe, he has taken on personally creating fund raising campaigns to help implement dressage programs. Two are planned for 2015.

The six-time Olympian has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and with hefty financial contributions from individual donors helped fund programs from ponies through to championship Grand Prix in the past two years. Among them are the popular “pipeline clinics” and sending horses and riders to horse shows throughout Europe.

Though the effort is to raise the level of American dressage by competing in Europe’s top sport, show organizers and competing riders welcome the American commitment. Unlike most of the rest of the world, there’s no taxpayer or lottery funding in the United States to help cover the costs of trans-Atlantic transportation or the distance and time zone separation from home and business that the Europeans typically do not face.

The World Games in Normandy this summer saw the United States surprise with a fourth place finish behind the powerhouses of Germany, Great Britain and The Netherlands.

The Olympic and WEG veteran Steffen Peters of San Diego, California on Legolas led the U.S. team with Grand Prix newcomer Laura Graves of Geneva, Florida on Verdades close behind and the 2012 Olympic partnership of Adrienne Lyle of Ketchum, Idaho on Wizard and Tina Konyot of Palm City, Florida on Calecto V completing the squad.

Laura Graves and Verdades at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Laura Graves and Verdades at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The World Games team score average of 74.238–the three highest awards counted–was the best ever for America at an Olympics or world championship, topping the 73.690 of the silver medal squad at the 2002 Games.

And it reinvigorated the drive to return to the medals podium after two Olympics and two WEG without a team medal, though Steffen Peters and Ravel garnered two individual medals at the 2010 World Games in Kentucky.

Toward that end, the United States must win Pan Am gold in Toronto to be the single nation from the Americas in addition to host Brazil to be assured of a starting place at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The alternative is the more daunting task of qualifying a minimum of three individual combinations to form a “composite” team.

The contest for that team berth is most likely to be between host Canada and the U.S. in the newly created Pan Am format of mixed Big and Small Tour horses in which only teams that include a Grand Prix combination can seek Olympic qualification.

“Naturally, my first priority is winning all medals at the Pan American Games and assuring our berth in the Rio Olympics,” the 58-year-old Robert told dressage-news.com.

“That being said, I feel a huge responsibility to ensuring that our entire ‘machine’ is working at all levels as only this will provide the sustainable excellence that is our shared goal for American dressage.”

A growing number of combinations at both Grand Prix and Prix St. Georges levels are available to make up a team of two Big Tour and two Small Tour horses.

One of the toughest decisions could be whether to select Steffen Peters on Legolas for Grand Prix that will be awarded bonus points in the Pan Am team competition or on Rosamunde, the spectacular mare that will be eight years old in 2015 and won seven of eight starts in CDIs on both sides of the Atlantic this year. Both horses are owned by Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang–who also own Ravel. Legolas was the 2014 U.S. Grand Prix champion and Rosamunde the National Intermediate champion.

Rosamunde ridden by Steffen Peters winning in Europe. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Rosamunde ridden by Steffen Peters winning in Europe. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“We will determine the best combinations to send to the Pan American Games at the end of the selection process to assure us of winning team gold and all three individual medals,” Robert said.

The United States has won dressage team gold at the last four Pan Ams from 1999 through 2011, and at Guadalajara in 2011 won all three individual medals as well, the first time such a sweep was possible as a result of a rule change.

American riders will be out competing and accumulating points for the World Rankings just as they already are, and he hopes the U.S. will be represented in every possible Nations Cup throughout the series.

“That being said, the FEI must do better to discourage conflicts of dates for these shows and remember that Western Europe is not the entire dressage world.” he said. “Funding and sending multiple teams overseas is hard enough for America without situations like Hagen (Germany) and Falsterbo (Sweden) being on the same weekend.” Both shows are top rated CDIO5* events.

An issue in the United States as well as other nations in recent years has been the acquisition of increasingly higher priced confirmed Grand Prix horses for a handful of experienced high performance riders for championship teams as against supporting development of both younger riders and horses.

Robert said the recent appointment of George Williams and Charlotte Bredahl as U.S. youth coaches in the lineup that already included Scott Hassler as young horse coach, Debbie McDonald for developing combinations as well as himself will “bring not only a full complement of coaches to our staff but also come along with our new, world-class programs they will lead. It is these programs which will, under their guidance and with their passion, produce a true pipeline from the youngest kids on ponies to the elite, international Grand Prix combinations.”

Robert said: “Both our Youth and Young Horse divisions are my highest priorities as we all know that only producing top quality human and equine athletes from the beginning will lead to sustainable excellence.

“It requires both short-term and long-term strategies to produce medals from Rio on and no stone will be left unturned in this effort.”

However, the top young horses were not among those to get financial help in 2014.

Combinations that qualified for the World Young Horse Championships in Verden, Germany this year received no financial support. One rider launched his own campaign for donations to help offset the cost while two other riders that qualified opted not to go when no money was available.

Matt Johnson riding Petersborg’s Qasanova at the World Young Horse Championships. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

One of the most successful endeavors has been implementation of “Pipeline Clinics” in which the coaches work together with deferent levels of riders and horses over a few days.

Response has been “very good… and allowed the coaches to work together and see kids, young horses and developing Grand Prix combinations across the country. We certainly have seen many high quality riders and horses and I am personally excited to see them advance in the future.

“We will continue to create more clinics and training sessions at all levels and produce ever stronger programs until we are the most successful nation in the world. That is the American way.”

A Dressage Owners Task Force set up in July, 2013, he said, “is not only there to attempt to provide our present flagship riders with world-class mounts but to also create avenues to help everyone at every level acquire horses and ponies of all ages and degrees of training.”

He named horses he had trained from youngsters to compete at top sport, “and remember that most of our top athletes have done the same.”

“But just as in the world of jumping as well as in dressage in Europe,” Robert said, “there are times when great Grand Prix horses change hands and this can obviously be game-changing for nations in both directions. It is just part of the game and goes with the sport.”

Robert has set ambitious targets for fund raising in 2015, a role he said he has been comfortable with since founding the Equestrian Aid Foundation in 1996 to provide financial support for individuals in the sport horse industry faced with serious illness or accidents.

“I felt it is incumbent upon me to raise my annual income so as to ‘pay for myself’ and then to ensure we have the money necessary for our athletes and programs each year,” he said.

“As our programs are enhanced, we must find more ways to adequately fund them and our hope is to work with the USET (U.S. Equestrian Team) Foundation closely to meet our goals.”

“I am planning two fundraisers for 2015, one on each coast with very different themes.

“Naturally, my goal is to double what we brought in last year and it will require everyone helping to make this a reality.

“Provided we have adequate funding for all of our new training and competitive programs and our top riders are appropriately mounted, I feel certain America will not only be back on the medal podiums but will achieve sustainable excellence at all levels and in all divisions.”

The last United States team on an Olympic or World Games medals podium--the bronze medal team of Günter Seidel, Debbie McDonald, Steffen Peters and Leslie Morse at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
The last United States team on an Olympic or World Games medals podium–the bronze medal team of Günter Seidel, Debbie McDonald, Steffen Peters and Leslie Morse at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com