'I’ve Retired More Times than Cher': As Robert Dover Steps Down, He Wishes for Sustained Excellence in US Dressage

'I’ve Retired More Times than Cher': As Robert Dover Steps Down, He Wishes for Sustained Excellence in US Dressage

When the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon end, Robert Dover will retire as U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor, a position he has held since 2013. It will not be the first time that Dover has announced his retirement – he joked, “I’ve retired more times than Bob Hope and Cher” – and it is likely that horses will always play a role in his life, but what that role will be going forward remains to be seen.

A few weeks back, Dover was in Aachen, Germany, coaching the U.S. contingent at the CHIO Aachen, where there were four riders in the team competition and four riders in the CDI4*. All of these riders – Laura Graves, Kasey Perry-Glass, Adrienne Lyle, and Steffen Peters, are competing in Tryon at the World Equestrian Games this week.

Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

When Dover steps down as Technical Advisor, he will be replaced by Debbie McDonald, with whom he has worked closely in her capacity as U.S. Dressage Development Coach. She will officially step into her new role on December 1, 2018; she did not have a role in the WEG selection, though she is a personal riding coach to several elite riders including Laura Graves and Adrienne Lyle. In fact, McDonald has spent the summer in Europe coaching, while Dover has traveled back and forth to the U.S. between competitions.

“We’ve been working together steadily for six years and we have exactly the same philosophy with riding and training,” said Dover. “It could not be a better situation. I hope they will find an equally good replacement for her as the Development coach.”

Photo by Erin Gilmore.

Dover has been a constant in the international dressage world since he first represented the USA at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He competed in every summer Games between 1984 and 2004, winning four team bronze medals, and also took a team bronze at the 1994 World Equestrian Games. He has since been inducted to the United States Dressage Federation Hall of Fame. Additionally he founded the Equestrian Aid Foundation in 1996 to assist others in the equestrian world, and hosted a TV show searching for dressage talent. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the Technical Advisor for the Canadian dressage team.

Related: Laura Graves On Sleep, Being Selfish, And Managing Her Mindset

One of the highlights of Dover’s time with the U.S. Team was winning the team bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games. He has overseen the meteoric rise of Laura Graves and Verdades, and recently welcomed Canadian Olympian Ashley Holzer to the American Team.

“I’ve been coaching as long as I was competing from the time I was competing in ‘84, I was also coaching people who were on my team, like Jessica Ransehausen and Charlotte Bredhal. I coached the 1991 Pan Am Games in Cuba and Nations Cup teams in Europe… it’s been for me something that didn’t have an exact beginning. And just because I won’t be the national coach doesn’t mean I won’t be involved with horses. I really enjoy helping people.”

Looking back at his years coaching the U.S. team, he said that he has enjoyed working with such an elite group of equestrians. “Probably the biggest challenge for any coach is to create a pathway to sustainable excellence. There are multiple layers to being effective, and one of those is dealing with the very top level, elite riders that are already there. In all honesty that’s the easiest part; those people have trainers, owners, they’ve gotten there because they know what they’re doing. Orchestrating that group comes naturally to me because I’ve been doing it for so long. “

He said that the challenge is to know how to create sustainable excellence. “You have to have – from the youngest kids on ponies all through the levels of young horses and juniors and young riders and under-25 to developing and Grand Prix – a pipeline that is incredibly strong, with world class programs and world class coaching, in order to know that you’re always going to have that group of elite [riders] that becomes greater and greater in depth with every single year.”

He pointed out that adequate funding for the bottom end of this pyramid has long been a missing link in creating a stronger elite group of riders.

“Now because of Kim Van Kampen and Discover Dressage, we have a million dollars of funding. Also the youth coaches, George Williams and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker, are enhancing the programs we already have. We’ve had three young riders and three U-25 riders competing throughout the summer, and that has been awesome. What that does, is it spurs on kids and families who think, ‘My gosh, we have teams and kids going over to Europe. What is it going to take for my kid, or for me, to do that?’ It creates way more incentive and way more momentum. This is what has been the missing part of the puzzle for sustainable excellence in America.”

He also pointed out that because the United States is a vast country, we have numerous horses and riders to choose from – but a disadvantage is that we have to traverse huge amounts of territory in order to compete, and must spend extraordinary amounts of money to compete on a world level.

“The great thing, though, is America has always been a country of winners,” he said. “We don’t like to be less than the best in anything we do and because of that I feel like we’re always on the road toward being number one in the world.”

Related: Olivia Lagoy-Weltz: What It's Like To Be A Traveling Reserve For Team USA At WEG

Photo by Erin Gilmore.

Beyond the Games, Dover said, “I hope that I’m leaving my post in a much stronger position than when I took over and that Deb and the group will just carry on. Hallie [Broman] and Hannah [Niebielski] are two amazing people from the [United States Equestrian] Federation and along with the USDF, they do a super job for all our athletes.”

As a parting note, he said, “I hope the Federation will implement a national mentoring program for kids where they’ll have instructors in every region. I believe this will go into effect, and I hope it connects people and makes sure we will get people into the programs at a young age, which will make the sport stronger. I hope that’ll be implemented as I go out.”

Dover, 62, has not yet decided what to do with his retirement, but he plans to take some time off to let himself do some soul searching and figure out what he wants to do next. “When I was a kid, if someone my age retired, they were done – these days you get to my age and have half your life left.”

He said, “I’ll take some time to decompress; it’s been many decades of being an international competitor, then coaching the Canadians and now the Americans, and I’m going to take some time to really consider what I want to do next. I’ve been learning Spanish and want to immerse myself in the language. I enjoy languages, I know several, and I also like to travel. As far as my career, I want to think about what will make me happy. I hope the universe will tell me what will make me happy.”

Feature photo Shannon Brinkman.

Written by Amber Heintzberger

Annette Paterakis - The Equestrian Mental Coach - specializes in mental coaching for riders of all levels. She is passionate about working with riders and trainers to help them better understand the mind and reach peak performance. Annette is the author of the book "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Ride", available through Amazon.com. For more information give her website a gander: annettepaterakis.com