Pirouette, Piaffe & Penalties

Pirouette, Piaffe & Penalties Seeing Dressage Through The Eyes Of Rider, Coach And Trainer Debbie McDonald

By Charity Lucente

Hailing from Hailey, Idaho, Debbie McDonald is a household name in the world of dressage. During her illustrious career as a professional horseman, McDonald was awarded the bronze medal for team dressage at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games; she represented the United States, winning two gold medals at the 1999 Pan American Games; and has recently accepted the position to once again be the dressage technical advisor for the United States Equestrian Federation.

Starting her riding career as a top hunter jumper, McDonald made the switch to dressage in 1990 following several injuries and the birth of her son. “When you’re young and get injured, you just bounce back. When you’re a mom, you think to yourself, ‘I need to be around!’” she said.

The transition between the two disciplines proved to be most challenging for McDonald in ways one might not have thought.

“I couldn’t sit the trot, because riding jumpers, we never sat the trot, I posted everywhere,” she laughed, remembering her early days of dressage training. “They put me on this large, massive mound of leather, and I’m like, ‘I can’t sit on this, there is just no way.’ I was sent to Hilda Gurney, and I stayed on a lunge line for a very long time. I went from being at the very top of my sport to the bottom of the barrel in dressage. I sat there on that lunge line and figured out that dang sitting trot until I could stay quieter in the saddle. I was granted the opportunity to ride my first Grand Prix schoolmaster named Cashmere. It was then that I was sold that this is what I really wanted to do. He was older, but he knew all the buttons, and he gave me the feeling and the timing.”

Her own experiences in the saddle have made McDonald an excellent coach and teacher.

“Sometimes you watch riders from the very beginning, and you know they just have that natural and innate talent to be world class riders,” McDonald explained.

“You also have the riders who can become world class,” she continued. “I would say I was a become, because I was not a natural. When I started in jumping, I fell off every single day, over every single jump. I just couldn’t learn how to stay on the horse. I was bound and determined that I was just going to do it. When I think back to that, because I struggled and I didn’t have that natural ability, I think I can maybe pass some of that on to somebody who doesn’t quite have that natural talent. I can help them think through that experience. But, no, I was not a natural in any way shape or form.”

This lifetime of experiences has led her to her current career as a coach and technical advisor. “Getting to where the Grand Prix can be ridden in a way that looks easy, is my goal for every rider I get to work with,” McDonald said.

She loves to see a horse and rider pair that has really taken their time to develop true partnership and harmony. Classical training and harmony are a huge part of the sport, and McDonald finds working with horses just as fascinating as working with riders.

“I honestly love helping a horse figure out how to use its body in the pirouettes, passage and piaffe,” McDonald said. “What fascinates me is the timing of it and finding a way of communicating in a way that the horse isn’t stressed. You have to read the horse. Some horses are just so naturally gifted at it that it’s basically teaching them how to get in and out of the movement. Then there are other horses that people will say, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure if they will get this.’ Taking the time to help that horse understand with the help of a good ground person, I find that process to be one of the most exciting and rewarding.”

The level of training with the horse and rider often corresponds directly to the dressage scores.

“For me, what really separates so many in the show ring is that piaffe and passage tour, because you can see the level of training there. You even see it in the walk,” McDonald said. “You can have a horse currently sitting at a 75, come down into the walk and now be in the 60s. You can have a horse that does all the other stuff and doesn’t have a quality walk that’s iffy laterally, or there just isn’t enough overstep in the extended, and it is just enough of a penalty to keep you out of the top rankings. Pirouettes are fascinating to me also. To keep a horse in an honest, true, collected canter, be able to turn around and still have that moment of suspension without becoming a spin, a canter pirouette done well is pure magic to me.”

McDonald sees herself as a true advocate for the horse.

“The biggest danger we have in the progression of this classical sport are riders in the wrong hands working on a timeline — riders who aren’t being smart and paying attention to what the horse is trying to say,” she said. “I would rather see a horse be a fantastic small tour horse rather than be broken trying to make it a Grand Prix horse, when you know in your mind that it probably won’t be a top horse. This hurts me because we need all of these horses, not just the top of the top. Make the horse the best it can be, but don’t push it past that.”

It is this attitude toward the sport of dressage that will ensure its longevity and beauty, as well as the animals that help make it happen.