Debbie McDonald’s Success Coaching in Florida

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Debbie McDonald helping prepare Silva Martin on Saphira for a coaching session. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Debbie McDonald helping prepare Silva Martin on Saphira for a coaching session. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDCK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Mar. 19, 2015–When Debbie McDonald decided to move to Florida to try to be more helpful as the United States developing coach she fretted about making a living by leaving the West Coast that had been home all her life.

After three years in Wellington that over the same time has grown to become the center of international top dressage in the Western Hemisphere and ranks among the best and biggest horse shows in the world, Debbie has become so popular as a coach that there aren’t enough hours in a day to fulfill demands from riders.

While Debbie won’t give names of those she helps, the number is about 20 all told and is a who’s who of both riders she has helped get to the top or giving a leg up. Unlike Debbie who admits she doesn’t like the limelight, riders such as Laura Graves on Verdades a star of the 2014 World Games on the team along with Adrienne Lyle, Debbie’s assistant for the past several years; Kimberly Herslow on Rosmarin that are atop the American rankings for the Pan American Games small tour, or Silva Martin with her large stable of horses are less hesitant to heap praise on her.

Ilse Schwarz, an Australian based in Wellington and the only non-American in Debbie’s stable of students, sums it up: “She teaches me as if she has ridden my horse; it sounds exactly like she has ridden my mare—though she hasn’t. And she’s not an easy horse to figure out.”

Or as Silva Martin, who spends winters in Florida away from her Cochranville, Pennsylvania base, puts it: “I love how quiet Debbie is, but she tells you exactly what she thinks; she’s very straightforward. I like that. She makes you feel good but gives you good criticism which I like a iot. It works well for me.”

Debbie’s talent for teaching comes from a lifetime of riding—mostly hunters and jumpers until a serious riding injury ended that part of her career 25 years ago and she made a switch to dressage so she could keep riding but with less risk.

That change took her on the mare Brentina to the top of the sport.

She and her husband, Bob, found Brentina as a young horse in Germany then won team and individual gold at small tour at the Pan American Games, team silver at the 2002 World Games and team bronze at the 2006 Games with a team bronze in between at the 2004 Olympics and the first American to win the World Cup.

Despite her success, Debbie feels she was never taken seriously as a rider and a trainer. Brentina was even described in one article as a “school master.”

“I certainly never put myself in the category of top riders,” she told dressage-news.com. “It’s just who I am. I don’t like the limelight. I hate seeing pictures of myself. You doing this article makes me nervous.

“I was lucky, really lucky. I had great people behind me, a wonderful horse… a lot of luck.”

Certainly, most American dressage fans put her on a pedestal and that was reflected at the peak of her career on Brentina.

An auction for a month’s training with Debbie to raise money for the American team for the 2004 Olympics turned into bidding so frenzied negotiations were required to stop the bidding so three women each paid $80,000 for the privelege and the team was richer by a cool $240,000. And those winners all ended up buying houses near Debbie in Sun Valley, Idaho to stay in training for years.

Robert Dover and Debbie McDonald at the World Games in Normandy. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover and Debbie McDonald at the World Games in Normandy where two of her students, Laura Graves on Verdades and Adrienne Lyle, her asistant trainer, on Wizard were on the United States team. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Now, riders like Kimberly Herslow of Stockon, New Jersey who started training with Debbie last year credit her with finding that extra reserve, unlocking qualities in both their horses and themselves that moves them up a level and gives them confidence to achieve success.

The training partnership with Robert Dover, who heads up the U.S. dressage program as chef d’equipe and technical advisor, is what Debbie describes as “a very good mix.”

He works tirelessly to raise money and drum up support for what he calls the “pipeline” of programs from ponies to high performance. Robert is highly accomplished as a coach and rider–six Olympics on his resume–and Debbie clearly has his the complete trust as she does of the riders she works with.

“We’re very much different people,” she said, “but have very much the same approach.

“I’ll go to say something to a rider and Robert will say, ‘that’s exactly what I was going to say’.”

At just five feet tall (152cm) and too many body parts to protect from more damage, strength has never been an option for Debbie. Feeling and understanding horses were the hallmarks of her riding and now of her teaching.

Until the retirement of Brentina in 2009, she mostly worked for Parry and Peggy Thomas, the owners of the mare, at their River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho. She did not run a training business open to all comers.

And at the age of 60 she is passing on what she has learned to talented riders on talented horses.

Debbie’s approach to training is to take the time, staying up at night, if necessary, to work out how to help the rider.

“I try to think of it not only from the rider’s point of view but also from the horse’s point of view.

“I love very much what I do and love to be able to give somebody something.”

A tearful Debbie McDonald retiring Brentina at the 2009 World Cup Final in Las Vegas. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
A tearful Debbie McDonald retiring Brentina at the 2009 World Cup Final in Las Vegas. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

As the developing coach, she believed the move to Wellington gave her an opportunity to see more riders than in California, “a very hard decision for me because I believe in my heart I’m a West Coaster.

“The bottom line for where I’m at at this time in my life, I felt I could be of more use over here. Everybody on the West Coast is pretty much taken care of. Not that there aren’t good trainers here but many people come without trainers.”

She confided to a friend, she recalled, “I’m just a little bit concerned whether I’ll be able to make a living. I didn’t think I was as well known as I was on the West Coast.

“Now it makes me laugh.”

Her phone started ringing before she made the move, riders calling to fit into her schedule.

As concentrated as is the horse world in Wellington, even short drives between barns takes time away from training. But that situation has been solved–amateur rider friends of Bob decided to spend winters in Florida and he is completing a makeover of a training center they bought in the heart of Wellington’s equestrian preserve. That means horses and riders will come to Debbie.

The timing was perfect for both Debbie and Bob.

“It’s very nice for me to have a husband I can see and not just talk to on the phone,” she said. “People for a long time didn’t believe I was married.”

The success of the Wellington show circuit of 12 weeks with seven international events and national competitions weekly has made her training schedule difficult at times. Because of the large number of entries, the international competitions are spread over six days–lengthy horse inspections and familiarization rides and coaching for five strtaight days of showing, some days up to 14 hours.

“When you have students competing,” said Debbie who can pretty much count on several in both the big and small tours, “you end up schooling them. And when you are observing (as part of her developing coach duties) you haver to be here for all of those.”

She spends so much time at the Global show grounds that are part of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center that Debbie jokes she owns a piece of the real estate.

Like many others in American dressage, she would like to see some rationalization in the CDI calendar whereby Florida would stage the Global Dressage Festival over winter and California shows would be held after March so as to eliminate conflicts between the two major centers.

Wellington has become so large and competitive with prize money that can be life changing for riders without a sponsor that many more West Coast riders should have the opportunity to take part while supporting their own shows for the rest of the year.

The growth in American dressage programs also means coaching and management no longer is confined mostly to championships–Olympics, World Games, Pan Americans, World Cup Finals, World Young Horse Championships and the national versions–but extends to the Nations Cup series introduced by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) six years ago. The series is now up to six events in Europe and one in Wellington. The U.S. fields teams of up to four horses and riders in at least four events with the extra travel, management and coaching required.

Debbie doesn’t have a time frame to give up a full schedule of coaching.

“I think I’ll definitely let it go when I find it more difficult to drag myself out of bed and have the passion to do it all day,” she said. “I think I’ll always want to do it but maybe not as much.

“I look at it year by year.

“If at the end of a year I’m feeling a little burned out… but right now I’m enjoying what I do.

“For sure when I’m 65 I’ll probably like to slow down.”