Debbie McDonald As Trainer of Now and Future Stars–Part 1 of 2
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 26, 2016–Debbie McDonald is nearing the end of a decade’s long commitment as the United States Developing coach but the demand from many of America’s elite riders for her coaching will likely keep her ring side at Olympics and world championships as far into the future as she wants.
Laura Graves and her Verdades that have become the No. 1 U.S. Grand Prix combination are in the lineup of championship riders and those with the potential to become so that keep Debbie busier than ever while at the same time giving her time to spend with her husband and family that she missed while competing around the world with Brentina.
At the 2014 World Games two of the four riders on the American team worked with Debbie, Adrienne Lyle on Wizard who is Debbie’s long time assistant, and Laura and Verdades. And the same was true at the Pan American Games last summer, Laura on Verdades and Kimberly Herslow on Rosmarin, that were the 2013 U.S. Intermediate champions that she held at Small Tour, making up half the gold medal team that won a start for the U.S. at Rio de Janeiro.
“I will miss being the Developing coach,” Debbie said of the May 1 end of her tenure. “I enjoy it. The past year was a difficult schedule for me–the winter circuit here, the World Cup and then the Pan Ams. I felt bad that I could not be in Europe for the first time we sent Under-25 riders.
“I realized it was hard for me to be everywhere. All of us work so hard when we are in Florida. When I go back to my little piece of heaven in Idaho, I really want to spend some time with my husband, my son and daughter, with the dogs and enjoying life a little. I’m not getting any younger.
“I’m just trying to find a happy balance because I still love what I do, but I need to balance it a bit better.”
As Developing coach at the age of 61, she spends long days watching dozens of rides at competitions, traveling around the country to give clinics and watch many more rides, giving advice, helping plan future development of horses and riders, and all the time looking for the partnerships that might become more than prospects.
By working with fewer riders she can focus on longer term development and going to the warmup and competition arena for her riders.
The move to Florida in winter has helped, working out of TyL (“Thank you, Lord”) Dressage that her husband, Bob, a lifelong jumper trainer, helped design for owner Kylee Lourie as a complete dressage facility on what used to be Hidden Creek, the farm that provided Margie Engle with many of her top jumpers.
Debbie, too, was a show jumper before moving to dressage.
With Peggy and Parry Thomas as sponsors who acquired the Hanoverian mare Brentina that in 1994 for Deutsch Marks 150,000 (about US$75,000) Debbie began a career that was one of the greatest in U.S. dressage–team and individual gold medals at the 1999 Pan American Games then at Small Tour, team silver at the 2002 World Games, the first American to become World Cup champion which they did in 2003, team bronze at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Games and a year after the pair’s second Olympics, in Hong Kong in 2008, retirement at, aptly, the Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas.
It is still early in qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team with more than three months of competitions to choose seven or eight horses and riders to go to Europe for the selection of the final four pairs to go to Rio.
Eight to 10 combinations this year could be considered for a team with at least one combination capable of scoring in the high 70 per cent range, another in mid 70 per cent and two or three close to mid 70 per cent, and more than six months to the start of the Rio dressage competition.
And if Rio is not in the cards, several pairs will be confirmed for the next big equestrian event, the World Games in Bromont, Canada just two years away and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Aside from the riders working with Debbie, at the top of the list is Steffen Peters, the mainstay of American dressage for the past decade, with the rising star Rosamunde as well as Legolas; Allison Brock who was the Grand Prix reserve with Rosevelt for the Pan Am team last year; Olympic and World Games rider Lisa Wilcox with a pair of horses as is 1998 World Games rider Shelly Francis. The never-to-be-underestimated Günter Seidel ranked sixth in the nation on Zero Gravity and Charlotte Jorst whose big budget for horses has accumulated Nintendo, Akeem Foldager and Stanford in her quest to become an Olympian are prominent among others.
As the end of her duties as Developing coach are close, Debbie worries that “I never want it to look like I’m using the program to get customers. That really bothers me as I’m not trying to promote myself.”
Although she doesn’t like to talk about specific riders she works with and is reluctant to claim any credit for success, it’s impossible to escape the fact of so many talented horses and riders under her tutelage.
In the mix, aside from Laura, 28 years old of Plymouth, Florida and the 14-year-old KWPN gelding she has owned from a foal, are a half dozen combinations emerging into Big Tour and others not wanting to push their horses too fast.
Kim Herslow of Stockton, New Jersey for example: “Debbie is an effective, yet compassionate advisor and coach who understands the best way to train horse and rider developing partnerships that reach the highest caliber of our sport. Reno and I are very grateful to be part of her team. Training is only at the CORRECT pace for each horse, and not rushed. Mind and muscles in the right time, not the wrong tension. Her voice is soothing with helpful few words and immediate results.”
As another rider put it: “She cuts you no slack, thank heavens, as it’s what we need. But never at the expense of the horse.”
Kasey Perry-Glass, a 28-year-old who transplanted herself to Florida from California, has moved Goerklintgaards Dublet up to Grand Prix after a year of Big Tour with Trøstruplund’s Scarlet, both of whom she competed in Europe last year.
With Dublet she has stood out in some national shows, one with an international panel of three judges scoring close to 74 per cent, and is moving into the CDI Grand Prix ranks this week. It’s not just Kasey’s focus on training, she shows up at competitions where other students of Debbie compete so she can observe the warmups as well as the test.
That “team” aspect of Debbie’s program is key, in which the riders support each other and can be seen along the rails at competitions and in the privacy of training.
Katherine Bateson Chandler, a longtime assistant to U.S. Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, works with Debbie in winter and the master British trainer and rider Carl Hester in developing Alcazar that she began competing at Grand Prix a year ago.
Katherine, 40 years old British-born but long an American citizen who was on the U.S. team with Nartan at the 2010 World Games, began riding Alcazar for owner Jane Forbes Clark in early 2012 after success as a young horse in Europe.
Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, 32 years old and based in Middleburg, Virginia in summer and Wellington in winter, is preparing her Rassing’s Lonoir, a 12-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding, for the CDI arena after national Grand Prix starts. The pair was reserve at Small Tour for the Pan Ams last summer but the horse appears happier at Grand Prix where he can show off impressive gaits.
Matthew Johnson, an amateur at the age of 45 who rode his Petersborg’s Qasanova for the United States at the World Young Horse championships in 2014, thinks so highly of Debbie’s training that he moved to Idaho with his horse last summer and as a Wellington resident trains with her throughout the winter.
At a time when horses can be what she describes as “outrageously expensive,” Debbie finds it exciting when combinations that have been developed by riders go into the ring that have the potential to be great.
“Although we’re a big country,”she said of the multimillion dollar horses, “there’s only a small handful that can go out and do that. It’s challenging to go out and find horses with the scope and the talent to go down the path that ends in a place like Valegro or Totilas. I find it exciting when I see combinations go in the ring and see that the potential is so great.”
A common refrain from the riders who work with Debbie is that they will move to the next level when their horse is ready–rather than setting goals such as the Olympics which could be at the expense of a long career for the horse.
Debbie speaks highly of Robert Dover with whom she has worked closely since he became the U.S. Technical Advisor three years ago and whose main mission is to put together teams that can restore the United States to the medals podiums at Olympics as he did on four of the six Games he rode for America.
“I think more than anything Robert’s done a great job of getting awareness to get the U.S. on the medals podium again,” said Debbie. “By doing that, he has put some consistency into the program, following certain combinations and keeping them on the right path. We need someone checking and to be accountable for results. All us coaches have to step up to the plate and be accountable to the riders we work for.
“I think our standards are higher. What we used to get away with with harmony, training and accuracy is not enough. We have got to have that extra brilliance and look at it and go, ‘Wow!'”
She agrees with Robert that although the pony division has not caught on in the United States, Debbie thinks that future team horses being found at Small Tour need to be discovered sooner.
She singles out trainers like Olympian Lendon Gray who nurture their programs such as her Dressage4Kids that keeps an eye on young talent and looks to develop it for the future.
Debbie has special regard for Carl Hester whom she describes as “a brilliant genius for still making very lovely horses that are maybe not as extravagant but can win on harmony and accuracy that I always enjoy watching.
“Just watching Nip Tuck, the way Carl approaches the training. Every horse is going to be an Olympic horse. He never gives up. It’s amazing to me. I watch it and laugh.”
Part 2: The training partnership of Debbie McDonald and Adrienne Lyle that works so well because of big differences