Debbie McDonald On Being USA Developing Coach

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Debbie McDonald. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/
Debbie McDonald. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/


WELLINGTON, Florida Dec. 26, 2014–After the retirement of Brentina, Debbie McDonald wanted to focus on private coaching but on-again, off-again funding made it tough to pass along to a bigger audience the knowledge and experience of a lifetime training and competing at a level that saw her and Brentina on Olympic, world championship and Pan American Games medal-winning teams and the first of only two Americans to win the World Cup.

Until Akiko Yamazaki, the owner of Ravel, Legolas and Rosamunde, all ridden by Steffen Peters, earmarked her donations for the developing program–or Under-25–three years ago that enabled Debbie to pursue longer term coaching vital to building prospects for future American teams.

Then with two of the four riders on America’s World Equestrian Games team last summer coached regularly by Debbie she worked even more closely with Robert Dover, the U.S. Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equipe, to help produce a better than expected fourth place finish.

The two combinations were:

–Adrienne Lyle of Ketchum, Idaho whom Debbie has mentored and who has been her asistant for several years, in six years riding Wizard at Grand Prix including the 2012 Olympics in London and last summer’s World Games as a 20-something ends the day after New Year’s when Adrienne turns 30, and

–Laura Graves, aged 27 based near Orlando, Florida who began working Verdades with Debbie a year ago and made a meteoric rise. Laura and Verdades was the top finishing United States combination in the WEG Grand Prix Special and Freestyle, the first American to finish ahead of Steffen Peters in an international Grand Prix competition since Debbie and Brentina beat the German-born rider in February, 2008 when he rode Lombardi II.

“I completely trusted Robert with those girls,” said the 60-year-old Debbie of the coaching role. “He and they both felt it was in everyone’s best interest for me to be there… because I was a motherly figure.”

The closeness and trust of the coaching partnership between Robert and Debbie was obvious to observers in Europe, including the WEG this summer–on some occasions Robert in the competition arena with an American while Debbie was in the warmup working with another team rider.

Coaches of other nations commented on both the spirit and seamless cooperation between the two U.S coaches, along with Johan Hinnemann who coaches Steffen, likening it to the daunting juggernaut of German team coaches that is the envy of much of the world for the depth of experience and talent applied to insuring their squads are contenders for gold.

Debbie switched to dressage from hunters and jumpers after a serious back injury then went on to become one of the top in the world with the mare Brentina, owned and supported by Peggy and Parry Thomas for whom the Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas is named. The arena will host the World Cup next April for the fourth time of the dual dressage and jumping annual individual world championships in the past decade

For several years, she and her husband, Bob, were based at the Thomas compound in Hailey, Idaho, spending winters in Southern California.

In preparing Adrienne and Wizard for the 2012 London Olympics, she spent the winter circuit in Wellington, Florida and has returned for the Global Dressage Festival every year since.

She has built an extensive training schedule in Wellington that includes not only some of the top Americans but riders from other nations including the Florida-based Australian Ilse Schwarz on Don Joseph, a horse she enjoyed success as a youngster that is expected to start small tour in 2015.

Robert Dover first proposed the pony to Grand Prix “Pipeline” program when bidding unsuccessfully to become the U.S. coach in 2009. Uncertainty over funding hindered aspects of its implementation, including the developing division.

Three years ago, Akiko Yamazaki earmarked her financial support for the developing program, a move that Debbie describes as a “lifesaver.”

Then two years ago, Robert was selected to become the leader of America’s international dressage effort and brought with him a passion to raise enough money to give life to his goals that included dispatching Under-25 riders to compete in Europe along with Big and Small tour pairs.

Debbie McDonald retiring Brentina in 2009. © Ken Braddick/
Debbie McDonald retiring Brentina in 2009. © Ken Braddick/

Debbie said she had not given any thought to being a U.S. coach until she decided to retire.

“I’ve always loved to teach so I knew I would continue as a teacher and a coach.” she said. “I think because of Adrienne I fell into this position. She inherited two horses of mine and then went on and did the Brentina Cup (the Under-25 national hampionship).

“It was just the way everything fell into place.

“It feels really good to give back. And that’s when I decided it was the way I wanted it to go.”

Debbie’s move to Wellington took on a new dimension in the past year when Bob managed the conversion of a longtime jumping competition barn to a high end dressage and jumping facility where Debbie will be based for winters.

“Akiko’s been a lifesaver in so many ways when you think what has been accomplished because of her,” Debbie told said. “She’s very instrumental in the re-creation of young and developing dressage in America.

“That is where the future is. The elite always seems to get what they need and the programs below that suffer.”

Selecting two Under-25 combinations for European competitions is on the schedule for 2015, the first time as part of the official funding program.

Debbie’s relationship with Robert is based, she said, in that “we both have the utmost respect for each other. I value his opinion and he seems to like the way I’m getting some things across. We work really well together.

“I think when Robert noticed and recognized what we were doing in the developing program his whole vison broadened as well.

“Now we can think of taking Under-25 riders to Europe, one of our big goals.

“I couldn’t be happier than the way it’s working as a team. I think the riders feel that, too.”

The size of the United States is a major factor in seeking out and supporting promising horses and riders, but Debbie said she is getting feedback from judges and others around the country and is working on ways to extend the network.

The process now involves observation shows of riders who apply and are willing to go to designated locations.

“If they send in an application we know they are serious,” she said. “Then we know who is going to want to be serious about this whole journey.”