October 18, 2007 -- Six-time Olympian Robert Dover always has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic, but now it's being translated to TV in a big way. "The Search for America's Next Equestrian Star" debuts Friday at 9 a.m. EST on the Fox Reality Channel, where his cross between "American Idol" and "The Apprentice" (with perhaps a bit of "Survivor" thrown in) will expose a whole new audience to dressage. The premise takes six hopeful young riders through four weeks of work, struggle and angst as they vie for a chance to be Robert's assistant and get a leg up in the sport they love.
The riders: Jessica Tate, Lindy Bowerback, Philesha Chandler, Brendan Curtis, Rebecca Vick and Jamil Kassum, were chosen from thousands of applicants from all over the country. Part of the fun will involve guessing which of them comes out on top.
I caught up with Robert earlier this week to get his thoughts on the show just before it was set to air:
Q: Reality TV seems to be all over the place. How will this show be different from the others?
A: The format of reality TV has a lot of sameness, but what differentiates us is that the horse is involved. It's obviously a first for our dressage industry to have a reality show where a winner is getting close to $100,000 worth of prizes as well as a full-time job.
Q: One of the hallmarks of reality TV is that it's gritty and emotional. Is this show as tough on its contestants as the other programs are?
A: If you're asking me if I was Simon Cowell, I think there were a lot of people who wanted me to go that way, but the truth is, we had many celebrities (including Ashley Holzer, Michelle Gibson, Linda Zang and Anne Gribbons) help with the judging--though in the end, it was a great deal up to me. What's interesting is when you do a show like this one, many times you don't have to be so tough. The situation actually explains itself and the results are predicated upon how each person truly does. Everything just sort of happens. It's funny how I thought, 'Oh, are we going to have to create more drama?' But when you have six kids living in one place for a month together and riding and doing the whole horse thing, the ups and downs and highs and lows all happen organically. That made for a really amazing month with these kids.
Q: Are we going to see any tears?
A: I think that the people who watch it are actually going to laugh and cry and everything in between.
Q: Okay, but what about the contestants?
A: You're going to have to watch. But I'll tell you this: In my life with horses I've cried a lot, and I've had an incredible amount of joy. I think if you ask anyone who's worth anything in the horse business, they have known the highest highs and the lowest lows on the way to success. This one month is full of daily tests as to a person's ability to ride, teach, manage and deal with others, including their peers, other professionals and clients.
Q: Is the Robert Dover we see on TV really you, or an acting version of you?
A: I think it's really me. If you see me teaching or giving my clinics, I try to be very demonstrative anyway, and I try to also be entertaining when I'm giving clinics.
Q: How are you keeping the results a secret?
A: I had to threaten everyone with their lives. That's a joke. In truth, what happens is, when people are involved with a show like this, they all sign confidentiality releases...that no one would know the results until it was over. And of course, there have been a million people guessing out there.
Q: What is this show going to do for the sport?
A: My hope is that this is the beginning of many episodes of horse-based reality TV to come. If we get great enough numbers, and the network sees we are a true niche community that they would like to keep on creating programming for, I would love to do in the next year another horse-based reality show--for instance: "The Search for the World's Best Cowboy." That would be my greatest hope.
Q: So it doesn't have to be dressage?
A: I would like to do the hunter/jumper industry, I'd like to do the western industry and many different disciplines in the future.
Q: You've told me you plan to retire from training after next summer. So will you continue doing TV?
A: I would love to keep doing that and do more consulting work with any business or person within the horse world, but for me, it's time to make a change. I feel the riding and standing at the arena is hard for me these days with my back [problems].
Q: If you're retiring, what happens to the winner who becomes your assistant?
A: They'll be my assistant until I retire, and then hopefully Katherine's assistant from there on. (Katherine Bateson Chandler is currently Robert's assistant.)
Q: Any other thoughts about the show that you'd like to share?
A: I hope everyone tunes in and watches. It is so important for the horse industry to take this step and get television and be embraced by horse lovers all across America. We need the American horse community to get behind this so we can go in the direction that golf, figure skating and tennis have gone.
Chat about the show and who you think will win in the EquiSearch.com forum.