Robert Dover As He Enters 3rd Year as USA Coach

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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. © 2014 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 29, 2015–Robert Dover is entering his third year as the leader of American dressage with a better than expected World Equestrian Games result that has emboldened him to launch even more ambitious efforts to return the United States to the Olympic medals podium next year.

In multiple roles unprecedented for an American coach–or most likely for any nation–he has become the fundraiser-in-chief, the loudest drum beater and seemingly tireless trainer of horses and riders that he not only is pushing for success at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 but also spending his own unpaid time with teenagers he expects to be Olympians of the future.

What has been clear since being appointed to the post of what is officially described as Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equipe is that the six-time Olympian is delivering way more than his supporters hoped and silenced his detractors who dismissed his grandiose plans as hot air.

He has relentlessly implemented a development pipeline for American dressage and personally led campaigns raising several hundreds of thousands of dollars to help send more horses and riders to Europe than ever before–perhaps as many as 30 combinations in 2015.

And he has enlisted Debbie McDonald to help share the role of trainer and mentor–she coached Laura Graves and Adrienne Lyle that were two of the four combinations on the American WEG team–as she is for a growing number of riders.

“Our goal has been the same,” the 58-year-old Robert told dressage-news.com in a review of the past two years of his tenure.

“I think what we’ve done is develop the pipeline into what I am hoping will be a world class machine. Through great coaches and great programs we will see the results at all divisions from youngest of kids on ponies to the international elite Grand Prix medal-winning teams.

“I think that when I say that mentally and physically we will achieve our goal, to me it’s palpable. It may also be that way because I don’t see any other possibilities in my own mind.

“As chef d’equipe/technical advisor I see where I am and where I want to be and what is required to make it happen.

“I can’t do it myself. It requires an entire community being on board, feeling trust in the process and leadership and, on the other side, a true desire to be a part of that process.”

The American dressage community is clearly on board.

High performance clinics offered by Robert and Debbie in Florida and California are over-subscribed. Some riders, secure in their status and not known for taking orders, now happily defer to Robert.

Robert Dover teaching at his HorseMastership Week at Florida's Global Dressage Festival. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover teaching at his HorseMastership Week at Florida’s Global Dressage Festival. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The drive to succeed coincides with unprecedented investment in both dressage facilities and prize money led by the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida that stages seven international events over three months, with the highest total prize money in the world. The growth of Palm Beach in less than four years has led to Florida becoming the center of dressage in America and led to major changes in California shows to stem an exodus of horses and riders over winter.

Robert Dover took a rocky road to the leadership of U.S. elite dressage programs.

Despite six Olympics–four of which he was on bronze medal-winning teams–the most influential positions eluded him, partly bcause his manner was considered by some to be brash and pushy. After his retirement from competition at the World Cup Final in 2007, he took a stint as dressage coach of the U.S. Eventing team.

Then, after German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol was the American coach for eight years came to an end the opportunity for Robert to become coach appeared within reach.

Instead, he lost out to Anne Gribbons. Robert moved on to become coach of the Canadian team and used that experience to refine programs that could be applied to either North American nation.

After the 2012 Olympic Games in London where the United States suffered the worst result in more than a half century with dressage, eventing and jumping teams failing to medal demand for change was insistent.

Robert Dover on FBW Kennedy at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, his last championship. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover on FBW Kennedy at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, his last championship. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Robert was selected for the top job six months after London and hit the ground running.

“Everything happens the way it should,” he reflects on his failed bid for U.S. coach. “Looking back the fact I did not get the job in that time and went and helped the Canadians was probably the way it should have been.”

He points to the emergence of Great Britain as one of the top three dressage nations alongside Germany and the Netherlands as an “amazing” example of what can be achieved in a relatively short time. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the British arrived the day before the veterinary inspection, some of the riders having been in vacation until then. Twelve years later, the nation won team gold and individual gold and bronze medals at the London Games.

He has spent time talking over ideas with Will Connell, who moved to the U.S. Equestrian Federation from Great Britain where he is credited with implementing the programs that harvested his country its biggest ever haul of medals.

But Robert did not wait for the federation or other official organizations to bridge the gap in funding that had been reduced because of poor London performances.

“If you have a shortfall, I’m either going to have to reduce the quality of the programs which brings us to championships or you make up the shortfall,” he said.

“The thing is I don’t like losing. It’s not in my psyche.”

He realized the lack of funding even before he was appointed coach and was told the money “is what we have and what we can do–sorry.”

He went out and raised enough money by staging his own benefits that made enough to help support 10 combinations in Europe the first year of no championships for the Americas, then in 2014 the number doubled to about 20 horses and riders.

From the group last year came the team of Steffen Peters on Legolas, Laura Graves on Verdades, Adrienne Lyle on Wizard and Tina Konyot on Calecto V. Though not expecting to win a medal, the team performed better than anyone expected by placing fourth in the Nations Cup.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Robert said five months after the World Games. “I was really gratified. I knew the top three or four teams were going to be close, that on any given day they were within range of each other depending on the luck of the draw.

“A lot depends on the momentum you begin with. It was gratifying but certainly not shocking, any more than my feeling that we’re going to the Pan Ams to win all the medals.”

Robert Dover with Anne Grbbons. ©  Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover with Anne Grbbons. ©  Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The Pan American Games he refers to are in Toronto next July and are vital for the United States as only a single nation can claim a starting berth in the team competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and that team must have at least one Grand Prix horse in a unique format. That, essentially, means either Canada or the U.S. will lose out and will then have to try the expensive and arduous task of qualifying at least three individuals to make up a so-called composite team for Rio.

With less than six months to the Pan Ams, the U.S. has the top Grand Prix combinations–Steffen Peters on either Legolas or the new-to-Grand Prix Rosamunde and Laura on Verdades.

At this early stage, American small tour pairs also seem to have a big enough edge but are close enough in results that the two horses and riders likely to make up the Small Tour half of the team may not be decided until the June cutoff date after two shows in Europe.

The record to match is the team gold and all three individual medals that the United States set in the last Pan Ams, at Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011.

“Here’s the good news,” Robert said, “that all these pairs coming up and showing not only have the chance to prove again how good they are but the top ones will have a chance for the first time in their careers to compete at small tours in Europe.

“The experience should give them such a degree of confidence that they will think of Toronto as a relatively small show, smaller than a Wellington CDI.

“That’s how the Grand Prix riders who have had so much exposure ay Aachen (Germany) and Hickstead (England) feel and that’s what I want those in the small tour to feel, too.

“We need to be so well prepared.”

The specific shows in Europe have not been decided but he wants it to be “this amazing experience and a great adventure.”

The task as U.S. coach, he said, “has been all that I thought it would be and more than that. Its been both fun and exciting and sometimes challenging, and sometimes the biggest challenge has been to my patience. That is maybe one of my biggest weaknesses.”

Even so, after training sessions in both Florida and California he is seeing much more depth in dressage.

“What’s really exciting is seeing the next Laura Graves, some young people and some older people.”