Debbie McDonald On USA Success at Tokyo Olympics–Part 1 of 2

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USA team of ( l to r) Steffen Peters, Sabine Schut-Kery, Debbie McDonald and Adrienne Lyle making the most the time in Tokyo despite coronavirus restrictions. Photo USDressage

Aug. 11, 2021


For Debbie McDonald, the Olympic team silver medal caps the most illustrious era of American dressage so far, beginning as a rider on  Brentina leading the United States to silver at the 2002 World Equestrian Games, in 2003 the first American to become World Cup champion, coach of three of four riders on the silver medal team at the 2018 world championships and coach of the Tokyo squad.

The results are a reflection of Debbie’s influence on the sport that has been towering, the opposite of her physical stature of five feet/152cm tall and slightly built, features that have led her to develop an “American Way” of riding, finesse, attention to detail and encouragement instead of strength to get 1,100 lb./500kg horses to dance with joy.

In Idaho with her grand daughter, Debbie talked to about how the team produced the Tokyo results that arguably were the best ever for the United States. In the 20 Olympics since the 1932 Games in which the United States competed with a team, the country has earned seven bronze medals and two silvers, this year and 1948 just three years after World War II that ravaged many nations, including Germany that did not participate.

Almost three-quarters of a century since the 1948 London silver, the performances by Adrienne Lyle on Salvino, Sabine Schut-Kery on Sanceo and Steffen Peters on Suppenkasper were impressive by any measure–the only team in the Grand Prix Special that decided medals in which all three riders and horses performed without a mistake, according to a review by of all 24 score sheets for the eight teams. Sabine and Sanceo, in their first Olympics or world championships, posted personal best scores in all three competitions, Grand Prix, Special and Freestyle. Steffen and Suppenkasper did so, too, in the Special.

“I think the way we try to present these horses and ride them as a country as a whole and, I would say, show the American Way,” Debbie said. “I think it’s finally starting to make a bit of an impression. It’s not forced riding; it’s as classical as you’re going to get.

“If we can keep producing horse flesh like we have now, I think the American way of training is us; we’re not trying to mimic someone else’s training programs.”

Everybody’s horses looked relatively happy in Tokyo, she went on:

“But when I look at how much our horses really loved performing, when I think of that, there’s got to be something we’re doing right here.

“We don’t have a horse that’s sour. We don’t have a horse that you have to egg on in any of the tough work, the piaffe-passage tours. These horses are more than willing to give it. The riders don’t carry whips in general when they train. It’s just a lovely way of riding. That and our team environment which is overwhelmingly noticed is something that I hope we can carry on moving forward.”

Debbie said she did not predict in advance how the medals would end up.

“I think we were as equally talented with equal quality riders,” she said, “so it’s just how the chips fall. And then how the judges perceive it. No one has seen us over there in Europe for two years. We felt that was a disadvantage coming in.”

And the results, well…  “To be very honest, I get incredibly emotional. As I get older I’m getting more emotional. I could hardly talk without crying when we were there. I was just so overwhelmed with how well these riders handled every thing. It wasn’t the easiest trip. They are extreme professionals and love their horses. I’m just honored to be any part of it.”

Moving forward is what Debbie ponders as she spends time with her granddaughter in Boise. Her current contract with U.S. Equestrian for what is officially called “Technical Advisor” will soon be over.

She won’t say whether she plans to renew, but Debbie will be 67 years old later this month. She is passionate about training riders–Adrienne Lyle and Laura Graves, for example–and plans to continue as long as she can. Official team duties are demanding of time and energy, though, a lot of it not coaching but needed to fulfill other requirements.

Her decision could be vital for the next Olympics, three years away instead of four because of the delay of Tokyo due to coronavirus.

The world championships in Herning, Denmark exactly a year from now will be a major qualifying event for teams for Paris in 2024.

Debbie McDonald and Brentina. © 2008 Ken Braddick

Although relatively late to dressage switching from hunter/jumpers in 1990 after a bad fall, she rode the Hanoverian mare Brentina to become “America’s Sweetheart” partnership. Much of her training experience was from German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol who was the U.S. team coach from 2000 through 2008 that covered the historic 2002 World Games silver team of Debbie on Brentina, Lisa Wilcox on Relevant, Sue Blinks on Flim Flam and Günter Seidel on Nikolaus.

World Cup champion with Brentina in 2003, the first from America; team bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics and bronze at the 2006 WEG in Aachen, Germany. The pair went to the 2008 Games but the U.S. lost its team status when one of three combinations was disqualified. The run of four straight Olympic medal performance was over. In London four years later, the U.S. placed sixth in a lineup of 10 teams.

The USA then adopted a decidedly American approach with the selection of six-time Olympian Robert Dover as the new team coach. Decades of experience, creation of a pipeline to develop the sport from the ground up, innovative entertainment events to raise money to fund expanded competitions on both sides of the Atlantic, all with a drive that made the Energizer Bunny look like a slug.

Debbie was already the coach for Under-25 riders, a division for developing riders that was named for Brentina that retired in 2009

By 2014 as the personal coach of the newly emerging star Laura Graves on Verdades as well as with her long time student Adrienne Lyle riding Wizard in the horse’s last international competition after the London Games, a formidable coaching partnership was established between Debbie and Robert Dover as leader of the entire team.

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Laura on Verdades and Kasey Perry-Glass on Dublet, her students, were on the bronze medal team with Steffen Peters on Legolas and Allison Brock on Rosevelt. Two years later, Adrienne on Salvino joined Laura and Kasey as Debbie’s students, and with Steffen on Suppenkasper to capture silver at the World Games in Tryon, the last event in which Robert was the team coach.

This year, she was team coach with 2000 Olympic team bronze medalist Christine Traurig with her as the long time trainer of Sabine and Sanceo.

Overwhelmed by emotion, Christine Traurig next to Debbie McDonald after the ride by Sabine Schut-Kery on Sanceo. © 2021 Lily Forado for

Part 2: What it took for the USA to bring home silver