For the past several years, Debbie McDonald could be found ringside, supporting her students and Robert Dover, as he served as the U.S. dressage chef d’equipe and technical advisor, in her position as the U.S. dressage development coach. Following last year’s World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, she stepped into Dover’s position.
We caught up with her by the warm-up ring of the CHIO Aachen World Equestrian Festival in Germany, where the U.S. earned a bronze medal to talk about how she’s handling the role and the upcoming Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
From Aachen, McDonald flew straight to Lima to join the Pan American team, comprised of three championship rookies: Sarah Lockman (First Apple), Jennifer Baumert (Handsome) and Nora Batchelder (Faro SQF). Dressage kicks off the equestrian competition on July 28. After the Pan Ams, McDonald will spend a week home in Idaho before she’s off to Tokyo for the Olympic test event.
Chronicle: Can you tell me why the selectors chose an all small tour team for the Pan Am Games?
McDonald: I think the feeling behind that is we have a relatively strong small tour, and we do not need to qualify for the Olympic Games this year, so it gives us a chance to give young professionals coming up a chance to represent their country and get a real team, Olympic-type environment. That is something that is so beneficial for the U.S., and we just felt in weighing everything that this was the way to go.
Do you foresee any specific challenges in traveling to Peru with a group of dressage horses?
I wouldn’t say that that’s anything that we think about. Tokyo is more in our worries as far as climate change. Peru is going to be quite cool, so I think that in that regard it’s going to be nice for the horses. There won’t be any challenges for the horses as far as heat. They’re leaving out of Miami, and I don’t think the trip is going to be that stressful.
[Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview it was announced that Endel Ots’ mount Lucky Strike sustained a travel injury en route to Miami and was withdrawn from the Pan Am Games, leaving a team of three to compete. McDonald was already traveling to Peru and was unavailable for comment.]
Can you talk specifically about the riders on the team?
Sarah Lockman with First Apple really has not been head-to-head with any of these riders. Her scores in California have been quite high and very consistent. This is a young stallion, and we are excited about that for the future as well.
Jen Baumert has also been very consistent and scoring up to the mid-70s. Nora Batchelder is also very consistent, and that is so important—when you watch them scoring well over and over again, not just one that has a good day and then drops off. The consistency of all of the riders is really good.
Can you speak more about the benefits for this group getting international team experience?
That really is the whole point of letting them have this experience. You know, not necessarily that the horse they’re on right now is the horse they’ll end up going to a show like Aachen [with], but everybody needs to start having that experience, and it is good for them to start learning about the pressure of being on a team. It’s so different than riding as an individual. It’s hard to even describe what you’re going through internally when you know your score matters [as] to whether the team is going to earn a medal.
Have you had a chance to preview the venue?
I personally have not, but I’ve gotten lots of updates and pictures of the venue as it is now, and if it’s anything like we’re expecting, I think it’s going to be a lovely, lovely venue. They’ve done an amazing job.
Aachen was your first championship as the chef d’equipe. Can you talk about your own role and whether you feel more pressure to do well at a competition like Aachen?
I always feel the pressure and try hard to make things happen all the time; for me, that’s no different, but the things the chef does are a little different than being a coach. You go to chef de mission meetings and things like that. So you just have to make sure the riders are where they need to be and get all your ducks in a row.
To be honest we are talking about a really easy group to be with; it’s not like they don’t know how things work. It’s just that the pressure on the team, in a situation like Aachen, is going to be very different for the riders.
Seeing that you did have an experienced group here in Aachen, can you talk about the past week’s competition?
I could not be happier with the team results here. We don’t have our complete “A” team, I would say, but I would say Katherine Bateson-Chandler was amazing to help us win that medal. It was essential that she deliver, and she totally did. She was also at Aachen in 2016, but her horse Alcazar ended up needing colic surgery, so this is the first time she really got to compete like this: to say, “Oh my God, I really have to put the performance in,” and she did. She really did.
She works with Carl Hester, and he has done such a beautiful job with her; it’s great to see. If she needs me at the ring or something, I’ll be there for her, but for the most part she stays with Carl, and she spends a lot of time riding with him in England this time of year.
The Olympics are a year away. Do you want to comment on that?
We have a lot of pressure to get on the podium in Tokyo next year. We know the Special is the test they have to be really excellent at, so that is a major priority on everybody’s plan of training, making sure the Special is one of their best tests. It’s a new format, and it’s going to be a very different way of thinking things out, where the Special only counts, and it’s just a three-rider team. So yeah, it’s a lot of pressure. We kind of calculated, and to get on the podium we need for all of the riders to be close to a 77 percent. I know we have the horseflesh to do it, I really do. I think we can make it happen.