America’s got dressage talent, but realizing its potential is all about the pipeline that will bring it to fruition.
A good part of that is Debbie McDonald’s mission. As the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) developing dressage coach, she explains: “The job for me is a place to recognize and try to find combinations that show potential for the future of our sport.”
She’s held the post on and off over the last 8 years, bringing to it the will to succeed that made her an idol during the years she was the country’s top dressage competitor with the unforgettable mare, Brentina, whose heart matched that of her rider.
Together, they became the first American pair to win the World Cup finals. They narrowly missed an individual medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games (WEG), where the U.S. got an unprecedented silver medal, and led the team to a bronze at the 2004 Olympics, among a host of other successes.
Support from the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation through trustee Akiko Yamazaki (best known as the owner of Ravel and Legolas) has expanded the developing program through training camps and clinics since 2011. McDonald also is able to give out grants that help up-and-coming combinations find and seek more training.
Once riders get through the Pony, Junior and Young Rider/Brentina Cup ranks, before they arrive completely into the purview of coach Robert Dover on the senior team, they technically are McDonald’s responsibility. But Dover doesn’t draw a line, relying on her for a variety of assistance.
“Debbie is awesome,” he says, noting they have a multi-level relationship. He also has relied on her to serve as chef d’équipe for some senior teams, as she did during June in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
“We are extremely compatible at the arena,” says Dover. “She’s my co-everything. I could not have more respect for anyone in our discipline than I do for Deb. Her depth of experience, her sharpness and awareness are so wonderful for me to have as my right hand. I’m very, very hopeful that her developing program will take greater and greater shape in the near future and that it will go on to have even more impact.”
Shortly after he made that statement, its truth was demonstrated publicly. Dover was on hand at the June USEF Dressage Festival of Champions when a virtual unknown with whom McDonald had worked took second place to Steffen Peters and Legolas in the Grand Prix Special and Freestyle to finish the entire WEG selection trials in second place, clinching a spot on the team.
Few in the stands at the USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., had heard of Laura Graves and Verdades prior to that, but she’s a headliner now. Earlier in her career, Graves was a working student with Anne Gribbons, who guided her in Verdades’ rise to Grand Prix. Graves has continued on the never-ending road of learning since then, saying that her time working with McDonald taught her patience, and even more important, confidence in being patient. That’s a lesson that can be learned only from someone who has been there, done that and knows what it takes to bring a horse to its potential, rather than just showing off.
“She has made me relax about it: ‘Listen, you’re good enough, he’s good enough, it will happen when it happens’ and to be confident about that. She was right,” says Graves.
It happened for Graves at the right time. But for McDonald, the excitement started earlier in the show, on Grand Prix day. Her protégé, Adrienne Lyle (Wizard), Caroline Roffman (Her Highness O) and Graves tied for fourth place behind the 2012 Olympic team. Three under-30 riders with a score of 72.540 percent. That’s a good foundation on which to build a dream of America rising in dressage.
“It was an exciting day when you look at the results and see the future of what we have that came somewhat through the developing (program) or Young Riders and Brentina Cup,” says McDonald.
“Laura Graves is a young adult who is now bringing up a horse she had as a foal,” says McDonald, noting training young horses properly, instead of trying to buy Grand Prix horses ready-made, is the way forward for U.S. dressage. Stationed ringside to keep an eye on everything that was going on at the festival, she saw even more possibilities as she surveyed everything that was going on.
“There are a couple of incredibly promising Young Riders, and watching the Juniors, I’m even more excited, there were so many accurate tests out there. This is our future and I’m looking forward to this, because it won’t be that many years before the kids I see now will be in a program where either I or whoever comes after me will be inheriting these kids,” McDonald says.
“For me, it does show there’s growth. The training coming into these young kids has definitely improved. Their riding skills are so much better than they were four years ago when I was here [Gladstone]. Our trainers working with some of these young riders and juniors have to be credited for this good riding.
“When I see kids who know how to sit up straight in the middle of a horse and not off to the side, and know how to execute shoulder-ins and half-passes and accurate 10-meter circles and flying changes that are well-prepared and clean, somebody’s behind them and doing a good job. That’s what it’s about, our trainers being educated and dedicated to making better riders.”
Dressage isn’t just about the riders, of course, and it’s the equine part of the equation that can be a stumbling block for the U.S. dressage program. Simply put, it requires higher-quality horses. “We’ve got kids right here who can ride with the Europeans,” says McDonald. “Some of the junior horses are really lovely, well-made junior horses, but these kids now have to stay on quality horses throughout their career. That’s where sometimes we have a harder time, being able to keep that quality under these riders. We would love to help kids find the sponsors and help them in some way get mounted so we can keep them moving up to the international sport.
“Not every junior horse will make a Brentina Cup horse,” she points out, referring to the competition designed to fill the gap between the Young Riders program and open Grand Prix that was devised with the backing of Parry Thomas, and his wife, Peggy, who owns Brentina. But what McDonald doesn’t like to see is a rider trying to make a Brentina Cup horse out of an animal who doesn’t have the ability for it.
“The answer is a combination of bringing over horses from Europe and our breeding [operations]. If the breeding program gets in a situation where those horses fall into the right hands, we have horses that can step up and be international horses,” says McDonald.
However, educated training is required for a shot at success. “It all depends on if these horses are started really well, and they have a lot of talent and go on to be Grand Prix horses,” says McDonald. “But a breeder will tell you, not every horse that they breed is going to be a Grand Prix horse.”
Part of the problem, of course, is the cost. It’s cheaper to breed and keep horses in Europe than it is in the U.S. On top of that, “if you go to Europe and look for a horse that is 6- to 8-years-old, showing great potential for the upper-level movements in an international package, they’re astronomically priced...in the millions, plural. The majority of people don’t have that kind of backing,” says McDonald.
So what’s the answer?
“You just hope there’s something you can see in a younger horse, that’s where it’s got to come from,” she says. “I don’t think we have enough money in our sport to buy ready-made Grand Prix horses. We really need to bring them up and make them ourselves.”
And that brings us back to education. There’s a cost to it, naturally.
“The money is what makes things happen,” says McDonald, for whom a Young Rider European tour is a dream, envisioning an under-25 squad at Aachen. While that’s routine for Europeans, it would be an innovation for U.S. riders. Things are done differently in Europe, she pointed out, citing as an example the program run by Joep Bartels in that dressage powerhouse, the Netherlands.
“They have a school in place, from ponies through Young Riders, providing opportunities for these kids,” McDonald points out.
In the U.S., she believes, the ideal thing also would be to have a center to which trainers would be drawn. “It’s kind of like going to a top boarding school,” she offers. “The priority would be so much greater for your success than taking lessons from Joe down the street,” she says, but the size of the U.S. works against that concept.
“It’s a challenging situation any way you look at it. We have to keep trying to educate the younger generation, getting them to where they can educate a horse from the very beginning up to Grand Prix. There aren’t enough opportunities for the young. You can only board and put care into so many horses. Unless they have money behind them, it makes it very difficult for them to have that opportunity.”
Last year, courtesy of the USET Foundation program, McDonald was able to give out grants that enabled seven horse/rider combinations to find and seek training, whether they worked with trainers here or wanted to go to Europe and train with someone there. It’s a big break for promising riders.
“If they have a large business, they are consumed by that job, so they sometimes don’t have a chance to just focus on themselves and a horse that might have some promising things for the future. Sometimes, maybe, this isn’t the horse but the rider had huge potential and could pass along what he or she learned to another horse that is very special. It’s about continuing the education and trying to broaden our depth. We really lack in the depth department when it comes to the younger generation coming forward. More emphasis is going to be put on the ponies, Juniors and Young Riders. That’s where Robert and I work very well together. We both have the same vision.”
So does Scott Hassler, the Young Horse coach. “It’s super easy to work with Debbie. Our style is very much the same,” he says. “I always respected her as horsewoman, but as co-coaches, it’s been a ton of fun working together. We’re very lucky to have her in the position she’s in. I think she’s doing a fabulous job. What makes her rather unique is that she brings more than one specialty, she’s dead straight and honest and doesn’t wiggle around a subject. She’s a stickler for precision and has a really good entire picture of what we’re after.”
What they’re after doesn’t come easily, or quickly, however. It takes a long time to know what you have, or don’t have, with a developing horse, McDonald points out. “It’s a matter of being smart about it. If you buy a horse at 3 and by the time he’s 6, he’s still not showing he has the right attitude for the show ring or whatever, you need to move him and get another 3-year-old. You need to keep moving and changing faces and have depth behind the depth. I think long-term, one or two horses really isn’t enough. I was fortunate; a few riders are fortunate enough, to have sponsors who bought one or two 3-year-olds every year. As one was moving up, there was always another one behind that. Is it a long process? Absolutely. It takes several years to know what you really have. Out of how many horses we bought, I’d say a quarter of those wound up making it to the FEI level.”
Buying close to home can eliminate some of the cost (no need to fly horses across the Atlantic, for instance), yet it’s not the complete answer. “We have some amazing American-bred horses, but I’m not sure they’re always getting in the right hands, with our top riders wanting to take on young horses, and breeders trying to coordinate with better riders,” says McDonald. “I’ve been very impressed with some of the horseflesh I’ve seen, but we don't have the number being bred in Europe.
“Instead of seeing a couple of handfuls, I wish I was seeing 50 horses that I’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to see how this ends up.’ We have a few, so I keep thinking you have to look at what we have. I’m not saying the others aren’t good horses. But when we’re talking about the big sport, the international world, you have to be picky on what you’re looking for. In the past, we didn’t tell riders they needed to bring up a lot of young horses. We thought in the moment, not in the future,” she points out.
McDonald tries to translate her wisdom for the riders with whom she’s working. She says, “I’m the one who has to help recognize and guide them if they need guidance. I’m helping the younger generation put a plan in place. The questions they ask are: ‘What should I do now? When should I step into Grand Prix. Should I wait another year?’ Those things are a fun part of this job.”
When McDonald took her job after retiring from riding, the idea was “giving back to the sport, seeing riders go on and do well. You have a chance to help along the way, which is very rewarding for me.”
She has helped bring a new energy and dimension to improving U.S. dressage. “How long before the U.S. is in a position like Germany or the Dutch, where you have a steady stream of riders?” she says, repeating a question before answering, “I think we can do it, but it’s going to take years.”