First Week in Office: Debbie McDonald Plans a Path to the Podium with US Dressage Team

First Week in Office: Debbie McDonald Plans a Path to the Podium with US Dressage Team

For the past couple of months, since the flurry of activity at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C., Debbie McDonald has been relaxing in her home state of Idaho. She has been spending time with family, including her beloved granddaughter Maris, and has been exploring the mountains hiking with her dogs. Now that her head is cleared, de-stressed, and batteries are recharged, Debbie is excited to get back in the game to begin the transition from her former position as Developing Rider Coach to her new job as Technical Advisor to the Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team.

As she settles back in to life at TYL Farm in Wellington, Fla., to prepare for the winter competition season ahead, she is setting her sights on her next mission: help the U.S. Dressage Team win a medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.

As the Technical Advisor for the past six years, Robert Dover put his own stamp on the program. A decorated athlete himself, Robert brought his unique flair and dedication to his athletes to produce top performances and results during his tenure. Under Robert’s guidance, the U.S. Dressage Team reached new heights. Their top moments include winning team bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as both team and individual silver at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C. It’s Debbie’s mission to find ways to sustain the United States’ current position as a dressage stronghold. She spent a great deal of time working alongside Robert and is familiar with the way things have been, knows how to maintain that momentum, and is ready to make her own mark.

"She’s not going to sugar coat it for you, which is good, that’s how it should be at this level. She’s a good combination of very supportive but she’s got good grit."

“We’ve been working together steadily for six years and we have exactly the same philosophy with riding and training. It could not be a better situation,” Robert explains on Debbie’s transition.

“Beyond putting my head in the game for this new role, it’s basically figuring out my pathway to the podium. Robert had his way and did it so well, especially with fundraising – which isn’t a strong suit for me,” Debbie says. “I want to collaborate with USEF and USET Foundation to help create sustainable funding for U.S. Dressage Programs, and there are lots of little things I want to see happen.”

Collaborating as a Country, Not Just a Team

Debbie is a team player when it comes to coaching and training and looking to bring her expertise to all parts of the country. She mentions that she is incredibly excited to work with the other U.S. coaches such as Dressage Youth Coach, George Williams; Assistant Dressage Youth Coach, Charlotte Bredahl-Baker; and Young Horse Coach, Christine Traurig. Collaborating with coaches around the country will better allow to popularize dressage in areas where other disciplines dominate.

“I’d like to touch more on what’s going on around the entire country, where are the places we can tap into?” Debbie says. “I’d like to use our athletes to increase our ability to reach those places and ask them to give back for all the opportunities they’ve had over the years, maybe doing mini clinics or evaluations. Not everyone can go to Florida and not everyone is on the West Coast, so there may be people out there that aren’t being seen, who maybe don’t have the funding.”

But how does one person bring more visibility to the sport and take time to scout new talent while also coaching and traveling to the biggest shows around the world? Answer: get more people involved.

Photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.

“It’s hard for us to stay where we are right now, so well-respected,” Debbie explains. “I want to expand our trainer network to make our country ‘smaller’, to get more people involved. We have to work together as an entire country, not just as people with individual businesses. That’s going to take communication from me, reaching out, and better communication with trainers and breeders.

“Our riders need a pipeline to bring up young horses, but board is thousands of dollars a month unless you have your own land. Trying to get U.S.-bred horses out there with our top riders is essential; that’s what they do in Europe because it also promotes their breeding programs. I’d like to get some of our good riders on good horses – we have so many good riders who just don’t have the horses, and it’s sad to see the talented riders who haven’t had the special horse that can take them all the way. I tell people not to get discouraged – I was 50 at my first Olympics!”

Debbie acknowledges that the sport of dressage is having a difficult time staying relevant on the West Coast. By organizing more events dispersed throughout the country will help better its popularity and availability to riders.

“The West Coast is trying desperately to keep the sport alive there. Organizer Scott Hayes has quite a lineup of CDIs on the West Coast, which helps to keep riders there. I’ve had riders from the Pacific Northwest ask me if they need to go to Florida, and I tell them if they’re from the West Coast they need to support the West Coast. We need to expand. I’ll definitely spend more time out there; hopefully I can work that out with the schedule.”

Coaching at the Top

Debbie has been coaching Olympic and WEG team veterans Adrienne Lyle and Laura Graves (who recently was No. 1 in the FEI Dressage World Rankings) since they were just starting out in the sport.

“I don’t think we will see a lot of difference in the coaching since Debbie has already been at the shows with us and she’ll be there with the support of the USEF going forward, which is vital to the team’s success,” Laura explains regarding Debbie taking over the helm. “Any trainer of a rider who is training in the right way is going to fit in and have a nice time with the team, but certainly because Debbie is the common link between some of us, we’re much closer as a ‘family’. We see each other more frequently – we’re bumping into each other at Debbie’s farm, or all together on group messages. It’s very much a family.”

After years of injury, Isabell Werth and Bella Rose returned to the podium.

Debbie and Robert Dover. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, the traveling reserve for the 2018 WEG team, has been working with Debbie for about three years. “I started working with her through some of the Developing Horse clinics and the year I was trying for the Pan American [Games] I needed to figure out some consistency in my training,” Olivia says. “Obviously she’s amazing as a trainer, also because she goes to the shows and works with a lot of people, she’s available. The rest of the year is harder because she’s very in-demand, which is a good sign!

“I think she’s very detail-oriented… if you want to take your 70 or 72 percent score and take it up to the next level, she’s good with the little details. If you can piaffe and passage and do all the stuff, she can help you figure out how to make it better and how to make you more successful. It’s hard work, I’ve never been told to shorten my reins more times, but she’s really good at that. She’s super fun and sweet but also really tough. She’s not going to sugar coat it for you, which is good, that’s how it should be at this level. She’s a good combination of very supportive but she’s got good grit.”

A number of riders work with other coaches and come to Debbie for supplementary coaching and training sessions. “Of course the team riders take priority, but how much I work with them depends on the riders; this is more of a technical advisor position than a coaching position, and I’m also excited to work with riders’ personal coaches,” Debbie says. “I think I have a good relationship with their coaches and if they’re producing the results, there’s no reason to change a dang thing. As they say, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’”

Looking to the Future

With Debbie’s new appointment, she will now work alongside Andy Thomas, the lead of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Human Sports Science Medicine Program (HSSM). She will use Andy’s expertise in honing in on the small details that are imperative to improving dressage scores, such as improving rider balance and flexibility through targeted body work.

"We’re at a place where we’re pretty well respected, and I’d hate to see that go because we don’t have enough in the pipeline."

“Andy has got an amazing eye and we have worked together so that if I have a rider sitting to the right side of the horse, for example, he’ll notice that the left side is weak. It’s a matter of balance and getting riders aware. He then takes them off the horse and does a few pressure points or exercises or whatever on a massage table, then puts them back on the horse. You start to analyze that you consistently get an eight on half-pass to the right but seven to the left, and you have to ask why? When Andy’s there for a big competition, some riders work with him in the morning or right before they get on their horse – they’ve worked with him enough to know what helps, and it gives them peace of mind for how effective they’re going to be in the saddle.

“We have an amazing staff that we work with at USEF: Hallye [Griffin, Dressage Managing Director], is going to be my right and left arm, and Kristen [Brett, Director of Endurance & Dressage Programs] was pretty much my boss for the Developing program. Hannah [Niebielski, Director of Dressage National Programs] – they’re all amazing. We’ve been working with [Dr. Christina] ‘Cricket’ Russilio as team vet and she’s very familiar with the horses, which is really good going into a team situation. We will all be working hard at putting it all together so we can stand on that podium.”

Improving dressage training opportunities throughout the country, increasing the pipeline of high performance horses, and prioritizing the team riders sounds like a tall order. But Debbie knows that her new role will push the boundaries of her comfort zone.

“I don’t think I can get it all done, but I’ll certainly give it my best,” Debbie says. “I must say, I have to give speeches in my new role and that’s giving me some stress! There are so many little points: thanking our owners and sponsors, like the Dutta Corporation. I think overall we’re doing a much better job, and I think we can always do more. It’s important that we keep making them feel special.”

What's your dream vacation? This rider took a trip to do dressage in paradise.

Photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.

The next major goal is to bring home a medal from the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and Debbie is firmly focused on improving the pipeline of horses for top riders in the United States.

“We have new combinations coming up and I’m excited to see what happens with them. We really need that group coming up; the challenge is that we did so well our riders got on the world ranking list, but you have to compete [often] to stay on that list – Europeans are showing second and third horses all the time and our top riders have a lot of downtime after at a major championship, which puts us at a grave disadvantage,” Debbie explains. “Most of our riders don’t have more than one horse and you can’t campaign the legs off them or you don’t have a horse for Tokyo.

“There are a lot of things to think about. Of course we’ll do everything in our power to keep those horses going, but we need more coming up. It’s an expensive sport and it takes owners and sponsors to keep us standing on that podium. We’re at a place where we’re pretty well respected, and I’d hate to see that go because we don’t have enough in the pipeline… it’s going to take time, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s all doable.”

Back in Florida now after her restorative break in Idaho, Debbie is ready to get down to business. With her riders back in Florida – or returning soon – she's looking forward to forging ahead in her new role and propelling the U.S. Dressage team to even greater heights.

Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.