Debbie McDonald in 2018 Looking Forward to Being Grandmother, Helping USA to World Games Medals Podium

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Debbie McDonald congratulating Laura Graves on Verdades after the American pair wonthe CDIO5* Grand Prix Special at Aachen, Germany. © 2017 Ken Braddick/

Dec. 24, 2017


Ask Debbie McDonald what she expects in 2018 and with obvious excitement exclaims she’s looking forward to be a grandmother for the first time in February.

Then there’s the possibility of putting the house that Debbie and her husband, Bob, may sell now that  the Thomas family-owned River Grove Farm that was as much their home as that of their longtime sponsors in Hailey, Idaho has changed hands.

They’re working with Adrienne Lyle on creating a new equestrian center nearby but, meantime, have located their entire operation with 16 horses to Wellington, Florida to stay way beyond the winter circuit.

As the official United States developing coach, Debbie is enthusiastic about the program that combines training, riding in front of a judge and critical bottom line progress reviews that she plans to expand in 2018 as a vital step in long term building of American dressage.

And, by the way, she’ll be coaching personally some of the top combinations that, barring the travails that can afflict horse sports, could make up at least half of the four combinations selected for the United States team for the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina in September.

Along with her coaching likely will be a new U.S. technical advisor preparing to take over from Robert Dover who retires after the World Games from the post he’s held since 2013. Debbie as the personal coach of some of America’s top combinations has worked side-by-side with Robert around the globe, at the 2014 world championships, 2015 Pan American Games, 2016 Olympics and a score of Nations Cups.

In that time, the United States returned to the Olympic team dressage medals podium taking bronze in 2016, earned 2015 Pan American team gold and individual gold and silver and won the inaugural trans-Atlantic Nations Cup series.

American Nations Cup teams in non-championship 2017 performed so well on the biggest stages–at Rotterdam capturing the title this year and at Aachen, Germany claiming silver. The Grand Prix results for the Americans at Rotterdam would have been good enough for silver at the European Championships at the end of August and at Aachen to have earned bronze.

United States’ Nations Cup team in victory round at Rotterdam. © 2017 Ken Braddick/

With helping develop the resurgence in U.S. dressage, she has also been key in fostering team spirit that is admired around the world.

Spending time with her family has been as hard coaching as when she competed the mare Brentina.

The pair took gold at the 1999 Pan American Games, team silver at the 2002 World Equestrian Games–still the highest placing for America in the championships–in 2003 becoming the first American to win the World Cup, team bronze at the 2004 Olympics and team bronze at the 2006 WEG, competing at the 2008 Olympics before the horse was retired appropriately in the Thomas & Mack Arena at the 2009 World Cup in Las Vegas.

A tearful Debbie McDonald retiring Brentina at the 2009 World Cup Final at the Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas. © Ken Braddick/

“I’m at a place now…” Debbie, 63 years old told, “where it’s time for my grandchild.”

Factor in changes at her Idaho base and the success of Adrienne Lyle, who has been with Debbie for more than 12 years, establishing herself as a trainer as well as Olympic and World Games competitor.

She laughs about the forthcoming Global Dressage Festival, “it seems like we just left and far too soon to be doing it again.”

Then, asked how many riders she has committed to helping in 2018 she pauses while checking them off out loud… “about 16.”

Anyone who has seen Debbie teach or coach at shows, her commitment is total–feeling every step and movement of the horse and rider she’s working with. The schedule makes for long days and long weeks.

Among the top riders she works with is Laura Graves on Verdades, going into 2018 ranked No. 4 in the world a position the pair first achieved in August, 2016 and has been in the top five and as high as second since. The pair was reserve champion at the Omaha World Cup and since the 2016 Olympics the only combination to best German superstar rider Isabell Werth and her Olympic team gold and World Cup champion horse Weihegold.

And, of course, Adrienne who has Salvino, the Hanoverian stallion that will be 11 years old next year and although starting international Grand Prix only nine months ago is one of the six combinations to make it to US Equestrian’s Elite list. She also rides Horizon, that will also be 11 in 2018 and Debbie describes as “quite phenomenal” in Grand Prix, is on the pre-Elite list and may perform in some CDIs this winter. Coming behind is Harmony’s Duval, successful at small tour and may compete at Grand Prix by the end of 2018.

Debbie McDonald elated at the Olympic Grand Prix Freestyle performed by Laura Graves and Verdades. © 2016 Ken Braddick/

Kasey Perry-Glass on Dublet, Rio Olympic bronze medal team mates of Laura and Verdades, and reigning U.S. Grand Prix champion, who relocated to Wellington from California to work with Debbie.

The year might bring some surprises, she said, with Catherine Haddad-Staller who successfully debuted Semper Fidelis in Europe in late 2017 along with other more established combinations.

Steffen Peters is scheduled to compete Suppenkasper, newly acquired from Germany by Akiko Yamazaki, in California next month, as well as Rosamunde.

After the intensive Global circuit of 12 straight weeks of shows, including seven CDIs through the end of March, will likely by the World Cup Final in Paris in April that is in Laura’s sights.

Selection of the American team for the WEG on home soil is forecast to include European shows. All 14 United States championships are scheduled for August, a couple of weeks before the Tryon world  championships.