While small in stature, Debbie McDonald is a force in U.S. Dressage. She served as U.S. Equestrian’s Dressage Development Coach for many years before taking on the Technical Advisor role. She has spent over a decade advancing athlete-and-horse combinations through the U.S. dressage pipeline and is now seeing the fruits of her efforts. Stephanie Ruff, Dressage Today’s Content Manager, briefly sat down with Debbie during the U.S. Equestrian Olympic Games Observation Event that was held June 9 through June 11 at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. They spoke after the first night of competition.
Stephanie Ruff: What were your impressions of last night?
Debbie McDonald: First of all, to see the turnout here Wednesday night was overwhelming. And what it showed me is how much the U.S. misses seeing something like this. That was what used to be like Gladstone, although Gladstone has never had the turnout we had last night. I heard there were a little over 700 people in attendance. And just to have the audience again was so special because we know that's probably not going to be the case in Tokyo.
But otherwise, I couldn't be more proud of every single one of those riders and the fact that they made a shortlist and came is a real asset to them. They really did a great job to get here.
Stephanie Ruff: How are preparations going for Tokyo?
Debbie McDonald: It's ongoing. I’m hoping not too much more changes. A lot has shifted back and forth - travel, horses going when and where from, and I think they've got it dialed down now. We're definitely getting dates, and as soon as we know that the actual team, then we can even solidify things more.
Stephanie Ruff: How has this year differed from previous years?
Debbie McDonald: First of all, I don't think in my time in dressage we've ever had this much depth in the riding and the horses. It just proves that our entire program from young horses all the way through has been successful. It does always take time to see the results. And now we've got riders out there that are absolutely Olympic quality, but maybe don't have that horse right now. But even in the future, I think we can stay very strong.
Stephanie Ruff: How well do you think the horses and riders are prepared for the Olympics?
Debbie McDonald: I think they all are excited, but they've been a little optimistic about whether it would even happen. There's been so much between what you read about, the public there and then they say, it's going to go, but then there's always this little question. So, I think they're definitely not going to let themselves get to the point where they'll be devastated if for some reason now they have to pull it.
Stephanie Ruff: How are you feeling about the chances for the U.S. riders, whoever ends up making the team, getting either an individual or team medal?
Debbie McDonald: I actually am very excited. This year we weren't able to meet head-to-head with any Europeans because of COVID. So nobody over there has seen us for over a year, and we haven't seen them for over a year. Now, they've been having their national championships. Germany had all German judges. The Dutch had all Dutch judges. And that's why we chose to have a panel of different judges; so we get a real idea of where we stand. Most of them are five-star judges so they come with a lot of credentials. And I think that last night gave me the feeling that we definitely could be standing on a podium.
And there's no doubt in my mind that the top three riders that went last night, if they put in a ride like that, they'll at least be in the freestyle. I can guarantee that. And they could possibly be up there in a medal position.
Stephanie Ruff: What do you think the European competition will be like, and who do you feel are the horses and riders to beat?
Debbie McDonald: There's no doubt Germany is there. They have so much depth, truly it's not even worth talking about. And then to be very honest, I'm not going to even try to guess because of the reasons I just said. For me, there hasn't been real scoring, and I think until we all get together, we'll not really know.
Stephanie Ruff: What have you been focusing on to help the riders?
Debbie McDonald: To be honest, there's a few I keep in very close contact with, and the others I try to check in on. But basically, I’m trying to keep their spirits up, and I know we always ask the same questions. Do you think they're going to pull it? And, we have to act like we're going until the day they would, or hopefully don't (cancel the Olympic Games.) So, I think they're totally in that mindset now. They're going to go.
Last night was really emotional, and I think everybody's excited for Friday.
Stephanie Ruff: For the Grand Prix Special on Friday, it's to music. Is this the first time they'll be competing like this?
Debbie McDonald: Yes. This is the new format that they're (the officials) trying to put in. The riders pick their own music, but the music is not judged. My fear when they talked about doing this, I was worried that it would throw the riders off their concentration of the test because they'd be trying to stay with the music. I tried to get them to hopefully let it be more of a background, but nice music that they enjoy. And I think it's going to be fun to see how it all fits.
Stephanie Ruff: That’s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything you would like to add?
Debbie McDonald: Just go USA.
And we echo that sentiment. Regardless of the riders and horses that get named, we will be rooting for them!