Robert Dover Leading Ambitious Dressage Program for Canada, Sees Canadians on WEG Medals Podium
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 8–Robert Dover, the six-time U.S. Olympian who has been coach of Canadian dressage for three months, is leading an ambitious development program that he believes could see Canada on the medals podium at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
The program includes creation of a structure and support for every level of dressage across Canada and an intense, highly focused training and competition schedule in South Florida and Southern California over the next three months for WEG hopefuls.
Up to six top horse and rider combinations will embark on a series of premier competitions in Europe–Wiesbaden CDI4*, Germany, May 21-24; Lingen CDI4*, Germany, June 4-6; Rotterdam CDIO3*, The Netherlands, June 16-20, and Aachen CDIO3*, Germany, July 13-18.
The Canadian dressage team for WEG will be selected at the end of July.
The top six pairs will compete at Saugerties CDI3* in New York Aug. 20-22 before heading to a training center in Kentucky for final preparations for the start of the WEG team dressage competition Sept. 27.
“I think the Canadians will make a large stride forward from their last performance (when they finished ninth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics),” said Dover, 53, who is based at Stillpoint Farm in Wellington. Stillpoint and Dove Hollow Farm in San Diego, California, have been named southern training headquarters for Canadians during the winter circuit.
“Of course, when I’m starting out right now I see only medals. I have no thought of any other thing.
“If you ask me what I’m seeing, in my mind’s eye I’m seeing them on the podium.
“I also know that there’s reality and they have to rise to the occasion and show me what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye. I believe in the quality of the best riders and horses and they are able to be that competitive to be on the podium.
“Now it’s a matter of having the program we have put in place, be able to bring that together and bring it to fruition.”
Robert Dover competed for the U.S. in six consecutive Olympics–Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens–four World Championships and seven World Cups.
His appointment as Canada’s coach has a parallel in eventing with David O’Connor, Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. and president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, who was an advisor to the Canadian eventing team.
Dover contracted for the position for one year through the world championships, and has already had an impact on Canadian dressage.
Ashley Holzer, three-time Olympian for Canada and ranked 14th in the world on Pop Art, was a strong supporter of his appointment.
Shannon Dueck, born in Texas and who had dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship and represented Canada. She opted to ride for the U.S. but reversed her decision when Dover was appointed the Canadian coach. She has been working with Dover on her nine-year-old Oldenburg mare, Ayscha, by Welt Hit II out of a Rouletto mare, that Dover describes as a “truly world class horse.” Shannon underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer last October and broke her right hand in a riding accident just days ago.
Cheryl Meisner, who is the current leader in the World Cup North American League standings, has been among other Canadian riders already training with Dover in Wellington.
Dover said that his first task after being appointed as coach/technical advisor was to travel across Canada on a “talent search.” He saw 146 combinations at all levels from Vancouver in the west to Ottawa in the east. In meetings with Dressage Canada and Equine Canada officials, new programs and strategies were put in place for the short term through the WEG as well as long term, sustainable programs.
“In all honesty,” he told dressage-news.com, “I would have no interest in coming on and working with a group of elite athletes and that there was no system underneath.
“Even if I end up coaching only for the WEG I hope to produce such strong programs for the Canadians that our national programs are being administered by Canada’s wealth of experienced top athletes and trainers. So that were I to step away they will have something that they can use for the long haul.”
Dover said that of the 30 or so horse and rider combinations that have declared their intention to qualify for the Canadian team for WEG, the overwhelming majority will come to Florida and its four CDIs plus the Exquis World Dressage Masters CDI5* that will be qualifying competitions. Another four combinations are expected to go to Southern California.
So many will be in Florida, that during the first training session on Jan. 16-17 Dover will work with up to 14 combinations a day, more than he ever has done so before in working with Americans. The main reason is that Canada has not previously instituted a national long list of Grand Prix combinations broken up into A and B squads as practiced in most nations.
“Basically I’m going to see every one who wants to be seen on those days, including their personal trainers.” he said. “I will go out for the CDI in California and work with combinations and personal trainers if they have them. I plan to be at every CDI where Canadians compete.
“After a couple of competitions, we will be able to establish a definite long list, definite A and B lists. The A list will then have priority in future training sessions. I don’t know how many in each squad. We’ll just see who rises to the top from the first few shows.”
After the winter competitions in the U.S. and the European tour, the aim will be for the final squad of six combinations to be “close knit with very high morale, spend lots of time together, boost each other forward.”
Although the Canadian selection criteria does not make the European shows mandatory, “I’m encouraging them strongly that if they want to have a medal winning team without having European exposure and experience I believe that would be much more complicated.”
In addition to established international competitors such as Ashley Holzer and Jacqueline Brooks, developing riders Diane Creech and Belinda Trussell performed well competing in Europe in the fall.
“We are on the cusp of what I hope will be a squad that will have 70 per cent or higher on a consistent basis,” he said.
“You know me. I’m not one you can say I’m not ambitious. I am giving 150 per cent every single day and I told the Canadian athletes I expect 100 per cent from them. That means everything, whatever is necessary for them to excell… that has to happen.”
He has adopted a policy markedly different from that implemented by the U.S. after the end of the contract of the last American national coach, Klaus Balkenhol, in 2008. At the end of 2009, the U.S. employed several European and American trainers to coach WEG prospects in weekend clinics.
“My philosophy is that if the declared athletes have personal trainers then I honor that and work with them and their personal trainers to do whatever I can to support them,” he said. “If they do not have personal trainers and they want to work with me I am here 100 per cent for those riders and their horses. If I feel there is a need to intercede and have conversations with those riders and their trainers because the scores need to be higher then I’m going to do so.
“The buck is going to stop with me. I am going to be at the arena with them at the World Equestrian Games. So it’s going to be teamwork that way.”
Instead of bringing in other professionals, in addition to training he has scheduled what he calls “home schooling shows” of mock competitions. They are complete dress rehearsals where the riders are fully dressed in competition clothing, their horses prepared as if for a show and to be ready to ride into the arena at a precise start time, identical to real competitions.
He is planning to use friends who are “O” judges throughout the Florida season and is encouraging the riders in California to follow the same procedures.
For the broader program, Dover said that the models he used in establishing levels of development emulate structures already in place in The Netherlands and Germany and have been in the U.S. They will be in place in Canada by the spring.
Those programs include juniors, young riders, developing horse/rider of Prix St. Georges through Grand Prix and the elite A and B squads.
Among them is the Canadian rising star program that is based on the Emerging Athletes Program created by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association that will work in a similar way, administered by top Canadian Olympians. The program is not aimed at just finding the cream of the crop, but provide a “great, great” structure of camps throughout the year culminating in an event similar to the George Morris Horsemastership week in Florida.
Dover found no lack of depth of horses and riders for all levels.
“The biggest deficiency is funding,” he said. “The greatest challenge for Canada as far as putting these programs into place and having them become completely viable is insuring there is funding for them.”
The rising star program will be self-funding, just like the Emerging Athlete Program.
Funding for the other programs comes from the Own the Podium program created by the Canadian Olympic Committee to improve the performances of the nation’s international athletes. Dover met with the group to present the dressage 2010 plans and budget.
Separately, he is working with Dressage Canada’s high performance committee and the Own the Dressage Podium fund raising committee. Dover said experts in finance and business who have a passion for Canada’s dressage success have been asked to raise sufficient funds for the programs.
Asked whether he had mixed emotions being an American Olympic multi medalist who was unsuccessful in seeking the U.S. post and is now coaching Canada, he said:
“Would I have loved to have been able to do this job for America? Sure. There’s no doubt about that.
“But you know what, the minute that I was with the Canadians and felt the incredible support from their athletes and from the owners, officials and everyone involved with Dressage Canada I didn’t have a change of heart wishing that had worked out for me with the United States but I did have this immediate change in my own mind that now I know what my job is and I am excited about creating what I believe will become a very, very top team.
“Not just at the Grand Prix level but top teams at every level, from juniors on up.”