Two years ago, Alice Debany Clero was fine-tuning an unruly youngster as a favor to an old friend. In preparation for the upcoming Jumping International de La Baule, Alice popped over a few jumps on the lush green meadow overlooking the stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean at her stone farm, Le Créno, in Assérac, France. Feeling fresh, the young horse let out a few bucks. With the show a few days away, Alice made the decision to call it a day and dismount to save her battered knee, which was badly damaged in a previous fall.
“I remember the horse was just bucking lightly and I could have stayed on but I said to myself, ‘Well, I have La Baule in a couple of days, much better if I just pop down on my feet,’” Alice recalls. “And I am quite good at that, being a gymnast I still think I am. I like to trampoline and walk on my hands and do whatever a 50-year-old woman probably should not be doing.”
An emergency dismount wouldn’t seem like a tall order for the former American judo champion and equestrian vaulter. But upon landing, something went wrong. In an instant, Alice shattered her right ankle, and her foot was sticking out at an awkward angle.
“I was still standing up. I did not even fall to the ground,” Alice says. “The first thing I said was my life will never be the same. And the second thing I said was that there is no way I am going to look down at that foot, so I am going to straighten it before the pain comes. And these are just the stupid decisions you make.”
It’s hard to say if that move damaged Alice’s foot further. Her fibula was broken, her tibia was destroyed, and both sides of her ankle were beyond recognition. A surgeon desperately tried to repair her foot during a four-hour surgery in nearby Saint-Nazaire. The break was fixed but the danger of complications loomed. Alice’s leg became extremely swollen and skin necrosis crept in. Her doctors in Paris worried that Alice could lose her foot. Fortunately, a month of vacuum-assisted closure therapy, which helps healing by decreasing air pressure on a wound, took hold of the necrosis, saving Alice's foot.
There was still a long way to go in her recovery, and though her ankle mended over time, Alice's doctors were skeptical whether she would come close to her pre-injury level of mobility. “I did tell the surgeon at Saint-Nazaire that I'm coming back in one year to ride the Derby at La Baule, and she looked at me and told me: 'You don't understand how badly you broke your leg,’” Alice recalls. “I showed her a picture of how my heel will need to go down some day and she said it is not going to do that ever.”
Who Needs Stirrups, Anyway?
In almost any other sport, such a severe injury would be career-ending, but Alice would not be deterred. Staying out of the saddle was simply not an option. Two months after her accident, Alice returned to her duties of coaching the Dubai show jumping team. In combination with strength training in the gym to improve her ankle’s limited mobility, Alice hopped on quiet horses for a few minutes of walking and trotting. By August, she was riding two horses a day, all without irons.
“I did ride without stirrups for a full six months because I simply could not bear the pain of putting my foot in the stirrup,” Alice says. “That forced me to ride without stirrups to a degree that I would never have forced myself to do. Pretty much the second I was able to put my foot back into the stirrup, I was a better rider than I was before I broke my leg.”
Initially, Alice took things slow and kept her right iron a bit longer to compensate for less mobility. But seven months after her accident, she was flying over 1.45m fences, although not without pain, and she had to walk courses on crutches. Alice had dedicated so much of her life to riding, and come hell or high water, she wasn’t willing to give up now.
Learning How to Fall
Alice grew up on a horse farm in Bedford, New York. She was the ninth of 10 kids, eight of them boys. Alice’s mother, Patricia, raised her children alone after her husband passed away when Alice was four years old. Possibly it is from her mother that Alice inherited her strength and grit, but it is certainly Patricia, a professional show jumper and riding school owner, who provided Alice with a solid foundation of riding.
In addition to riding, Alice participated in grueling judo classes with her siblings from the time she was five years old. Practicing hundreds of falls under brutal conditions — no drinks were allowed in a two-hour lesson, even on the hottest days — the unforgiving Japanese martial art toughened her up to better face ever present riding dangers.
“Judo did make me a very strong girl and served me very well. It helped me in a lot of different crashes over the years,” Alice says. “I have a great picture of a [horse] crash when a judo roll probably saved my neck.”
Despite winning two junior national judo championships when she was 10 and 12, Alice’s interest in the sport waned. She felt most at home in the saddle, breaking ponies and schooling problem horses for a local trainer since she was nine.
Looking to give Alice a broad riding education, Patricia dragged her to any clinician who was in the area at the time be it jumping, dressage, or eventing. Apart from vaulting, Alice even learned side-saddle — which she did not enjoy — and rode bareback the whole summer, only putting her shoes on when she needed to use the stirrups.
Hard Work and a Little Luck
As a child, Alice trained with McLain Ward's father, Barney Ward. In her teenage years, she polished her skills working with Bill Cooney and Frank Madden. Following her junior career, Alice returned to Barney’s and worked as his sales rider. Riding eight to 10 horses a day and jumping up to 1.60m jumps, Alice credits Barney for a solid foundation of horsemanship.
“That job absolutely made my career. I do not think I would be where I am today, had I not done that job,” Alice says. “It was a very difficult, hard job, but in education it could just never reproduce in any other way for someone like me, who did not have means to buy expensive horses. So I really had to be better than the rest, honestly, in order to get anywhere.”
It was during that time that Alice met hedge fund manager Paul Greenwood, then owner Old Salem Farm in North Salem, New York. Alice took him on as her first student and discovered her knack and love for teaching. “At Old Salem, I did tons and tons of teaching and I really enjoyed it,” Alice says.
In a stroke of luck, Paul handed Alice the reins of his superstar bay gelding The Natural — reportedly the first show jumping horse sold for $1 million, after his previous rider Katharine Heller, née Burdsall, retired. With Katharine in the saddle, “Natty” won team gold at the 1986 World Championships in Aachen before being crowned the 1987 World Cup Champion in Paris. But an injury to Natty dashed their hopes of competing at the 1988 Olympic Games.
“Paul said ‘if The Natural comes back, he's yours.’ And I was 22 years old and I nearly lost my consciousness when he told me that," Alice recalls. "[Natty] was a really amazing career maker. Because of him I was jumping Nations Cup series in 1990 to 1992 and most notably won the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Calgary when Queen Elizabeth was there presenting me the trophy."
When The Natural's retired in 1994, Alice struck out on her own to run a teaching business in Bedford. But she felt something was missing — her skill arsenal would not be complete without a taste of the European riding style. Following a brief stint in Hamburg, Germany, Alice returned to New York and got married to her husband, Rémi, whom she met while changing planes in Amsterdam. She continued her teaching enterprise but did not give up hope to return to Europe at the earliest opportunity.
Two years later she got the chance to fully immerse herself in the European riding scene. Rémi, now President of the spectacular La Baule event, was offered a job in Paris. Two young horses made the move with Alice, and, riding for French Olympian Philippe Rozier for three years, Alice experienced how the European system worked, complementing her American riding roots and adding to her ever-growing skillset.
Landing the Dream Job
When Alice set off to compete at the Sunshine Tour in Spain back in 2000, little did she know she was about to land her dream job in the deserts of Dubai. She met HRH Princess Haya of Jordan, and after a brief coffee meeting, she was offered a position to train the princess.
“We clicked together very quickly. She and I became very close personally but also she was quite talented,” Alice said of the future FEI President. “We worked very hard together. She did thousands of hours riding with no stirrups. It was very hot that summer … and I just drilled her and she took every bit of it and got strong enough to ride the Olympics quite confidently.”
Following her Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000, Princess Haya went on to compete at the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games — a first for an Arab woman.
Five years later, while washing her three small children in the bathtub, Alice received an unexpected phone call from Princess Haya. She offered Alice the position as the Chef d’Equipe of the Dubai show jumping team, which would require her to fly from Paris to Dubai for two weeks every month to train a young team of riders who showed true potential.
“When I got the call, I was saying ‘Haya, I just can't imagine how I can do that,’” Alice recalls. “And she just said, ‘Alice ... I really want you. I want your American-French way. It really worked for me and I think it will really work for these boys.’” Alice took time to think about it, and encouraged by Rémi, accepted the new role.
A New Way of Life
While hundreds of hours of teaching riders of every level and her own riding education prepared her well for the Dubai job, Alice was yet to discover some cultural differences working in an Arab country, which took some getting used to. “I discovered this way of life on the job. Stopping a horse show for a prayer was a strange thing for me at first but it was something I got accustomed to and that I respect.”
There were road bumps, however. During her first Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with the team, Alice did not realize her rider Abdulla Al Marri was not drinking and eating anything for several hours when he made several mistakes jumping on a hot summer day in Spain.
“I didn’t know it was Ramadan and told him to drink water before the next class, and he was like my faith is bigger than this. He gave me that look and I got it at that moment and admired it,” Alice says.
Growing up with eight brothers, working with men did not deter Alice, who saw being away from her family as the biggest challenge of the Dubai job. “[Princess Haya] told me to be myself,” Alice recalls. “Facing a woman as outspoken as I am, they saw the results quite quickly and I gained their respect,” Alice says.
One of the first things she had to teach her riders was that show jumping is a long game. Winning every class, every day might ruin a young horse as well as your chances for future success, which only comes when things are done properly.
“Winning a 1.20m class on the day may cost you winning a grand prix. All riders understand it now … that patience is rewarded with success at a higher level,” Alice says. “I am proud that I made four riders who are extremely capable grand prix riders.”
Kicking on Towards Tokyo
This year, Alice finished her 14th season coaching the Dubai-based jumping team, which today includes Ahmed Falaknaz, Omar Khoori, and Arif Ahli based in the Emirates Equestrian Centre. Another, Abdulla Al Marri, was an integral rider for the United Arab Emirates team when they won the 2017 Challenge Cup at the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup in Barcelona, Spain.
“I am really glad that my riders are all professional now and can go on and produce their own horses,” Alice says. Today, Abdulla has his sights set on the Tokyo Olympics, having a double chance in an October qualifier in Morocco with Sama Dubai, a mare he produced with Alice, and James V.d Oude Heihoef from Al Shira’aa Stables in Abu Dhabi.
“Abdulla has the best shot for Tokyo along with some members of the Al Shira’aa team,” Alice says. “Other Dubai team riders are still developing their horses. They don’t have a horse yet for that level. It takes time to develop young horses.”
As for her own riding career, Alice isn’t letting her injury hold her back. She took the 2017 and 2018 seasons to regain her confidence, but this past winter Alice took off in style, harvesting the fruits of hundreds of hours of hard work and physical therapy. With her 14-year old Baloubet du Rouet mare, Amareusa S, Alice won a CSI5* 1.45m class in Dubai followed by victory in the CSIL2* 1.45m of Abu Dhabi. Riding the momentum of a good start, Alice picked up several more international wins throughout the summer.
So the devastating injury of two years ago doesn’t appear to have impacted her career much at all. Or has it?
“This winter, I perhaps had one of the best seasons I had in the last decade or decade-and-a-half. I actually feel like a much stronger rider because I broke my leg … and my heel goes down.”
Photography by Martin Dokoupil for NoelleFloyd.com.