When Robert Dover decided he would retire from his position as the U.S. dressage technical advisor after September’s FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon, North Carolina, Debbie McDonald immediately came to mind as the inevitable choice to succeed him. And so she will, having been named to the post in June.
Although Dover was known for “retiring” several times as a rider, he wasn’t kidding in this instance. And it really seemed obvious that his replacement already was right there, working by his side, helping him out while coaching her own students. Dover has mentioned more than once that he and McDonald were “joined at the hip.”
McDonald was the dominant figure on the American dressage scene from 1999, when she and the charismatic Hanoverian mare Brentina took double gold in the Pan American Games, through 2006, when they were part of the bronze- medal team at the WEG in Aachen, Germany. Yet as a trainer, her star is shining even brighter.
She is serving with distinction as the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) dressage development coach, and the list of those at championship level who train with her is impressive. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she coached Kasey Perry-Glass and Laura Graves, who were half of the bronze-medal team there. Her students may comprise more than half the team for WEG, since in addition to Graves and Perry-Glass, she also trains her longtime student and former assistant, Adrienne Lyle, as well as Olivia LaGoy-Weltz.
Although her contract details with USEF have yet to be refined, it will at the least be a two-year deal, going through the Tokyo Olympics and perhaps longer, as McDonald puts her own stamp on the job.
“There were things Robert did that he did so brilliantly, but I’m not into fundraising and all that,” commented McDonald. While she is a more low-key personality than the ebullient Dover, when her students do well, she is a picture of unbridled glee; cheering, waving her hands in the air and jumping for joy.
That’s simply a release of tension, as she never loses focus on her mission.
“My job is to make sure everyone’s happy and the horses are going well and we have good team spirit and get ourselves on the podium,” McDonald said.
She is not involved with any team selection for WEG, and won’t be picking teams going forward either, aside from offering observations, since she will still have riders as private clients. As part of her advisor duties, McDonald also will help guide rider choices. When they want to go to Europe, for instance, she will work with them to determine which shows would be best for their needs. She’ll also do home visits to help riders at their own stables.
Although McDonald will be 64 in August, she has no thoughts of retiring.
“As much as I think it stresses me out,” she said about the intensity of her work, “I’m not ready to give it up.”
A change in technical advisors often means a period of transition. For instance, when Robert Ridland took over as show jumping coach from George Morris after the 2012 Olympics, he prepped by spending time with Morris and working with him at the London Games.
The transition between McDonald and Dover, in contrast, won’t require that period of learning the ropes. The two already are tuned in to the way the team operates, bouncing ideas off each other and working well together.
That helped McDonald make the decision to apply for Dover’s job. In order to keep going with the team when he stepped down, McDonald really needed to step up. If she had just stayed in the development job and someone different took over as technical advisor, “I’m not sure who else in that position I would feel that comfortable with,” she pointed out.
“I’m happy I’m going to be there for a few more years,” McDonald said. “Why not? I love what I do so much. I don’t go on many vacations. I can’t see myself doing anything else yet.”
She does, however, also love spending time with her first grandchild, Maris, in Idaho.
“When I go there, I can’t hardly let her go,” said McDonald of her granddaughter, who likely is a future equestrian. Although Maris won’t be six months old until August, she’s already riding her grandfather’s knee in style when he bounces her up and down, as if she’s on a pony.
“She holds her hands like she’s holding the reins,” McDonald observed proudly, quoting her husband Bob’s conclusion, “Oh my God, she’s going to be a rider.” Not surprisingly, the McDonalds already have had plenty of offers for ponies for Maris when the day comes that she is ready for them.
Maris is only one of the recent changes in McDonald’s life. River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, where she and Lyle had been based, was sold after the death of her longtime sponsor, Parry Thomas, who owned Brentina.
At that point, she was faced with a question of where to go next. The home nearby she shares with Bob is on the market and for the moment, she is a year-round resident of Wellington, Florida, where the couple also has a house.
They will remain in Wellington for the winters going forward, but the location of another residence has yet to be determined. Sun Valley, Idaho, has been mentioned as one possibility, since it’s not too far from Maris’ home in Boise and McDonald enjoys hiking in the mountains with her dogs. While plans for Lyle to buy a farm in Idaho didn’t work out financially, McDonald notes she and her husband no longer want that kind of involvement at their age. Lyle is working on her own, with occasional behind-the-scenes input from Bob McDonald, since he knows the business well, but his wife is no longer part of that picture. “I’m starting to become a believer that things happen for a reason, and I’m hoping this just means we’ll end up in a place that’s going to be better anyway,” McDonald said, explaining it will be up to Lyle to figure out where she wants to go for her own business. Everything is on hold until after the WEG, and in the meantime, McDonald is in Europe with Dover and the seven riders who are short-listed for the Games.
The team of Lyle (Salvino), Perry-Glass (Dublet), Lagoy-Weltz (Lonoir) and Steffen Peters (Rosamunde) earned bronze at the Dutch-dominated Rotterdam show in the Netherlands in June. Participation in that fixture offered a transition from Wellington, where all but Peters (who is based in California) had been competing during the winter.
“It wasn’t our best showing, but it might have been one of those things that was really good for us,” said McDonald of Rotterdam.
“It’s so apparent that our horses have just one venue that they’re at all year and don’t get a chance to come out and step into an environment like they have here,” she commented, explaining the lively atmosphere at Rotterdam showed up some of the green spots in horses. Luckily, there’s still time to acclimate them and fix whatever needs attention before the WEG.
“I don’t know that our one ring in Wellington always serves us the best at the end of the year [season],” McDonald commented, saying there is a need for the horses to get experience in other venues as well. For instance, McDonald called the warm-up in Rotterdam “intense,” with excited stallions mixed indoors among a group of horses that included mares.
Rotterdam wasn’t a big reveal for who might medal at the WEG, though. The Germans didn’t come to Rotterdam, and the Dutch won’t be going to Aachen in July, when the identity of the key WEG contenders will be more apparent. Lyle, Perry-Glass, Graves and Peters comprise the U.S. squad for Aachen, the sternest test for WEG team hopefuls and the final observation event before selection.
McDonald said that for those who are handicapping the WEG podium, “If you look at the scores from each team, if you have three 73 percent horses and one who can throw an 80, that’s pretty strong.” She noted that this time around, though, a few countries have lost some of their top horses with injuries, which is always scary.
McDonald is looking forward to being with the U.S. team during the WEG at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
“It’s a beautiful facility; it’s so well-thought out,” said McDonald, who is revved up for it. “I am excited. I’m hopeful it’s all going to be a good thing for us.”