By Britney Grover
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
What does Robert Dover remember about his first horse? “Every single thing,” he responded with a laugh. “You know, it’s interesting because life goes by so fast, but things like the milestone of having your first horse, or your first major win, or your first Olympics, those things feel like yesterday.” From his first horse at age 13 to his first Olympics as the USEF’s dressage technical advisor and chef d’equipe in 2016, Robert’s life has given him the experience needed to be the perfect candidate to lead U.S. dressage.
Robert competed in the Olympics six times in his riding career, every summer Games between 1984 and 2004, winning four team bronze medals in the process. Among a slew of national and international victories, totaling over 100 grand prix wins, Robert was five times the USEF Dressage Champion and rode in the FEI World Cup Final seven times. After being appointed as the technical advisor for USEF’s dressage program, it was Robert’s “Roadmap to the Podium” that helped the U.S. earn team bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics. And he isn’t ready to stop yet.
“My first horse was my bar mitzvah present from my parents, and at the time, I was living in the Bahamas where I also had the first bar mitzvah in the history of the Bahama Islands,” Robert said. He’d been riding for just over six months, getting his start at a farm just outside Toronto, Canada, with the basic principles of riding and sitting correctly, mostly on a lunge line. When his family moved to the Bahamas, Robert began working with Myra Wagener, who’d come from England and the British Pony Club. “So I was immediately taken under her wing, along with many other kids there, and started learning all the rules of Pony Club,” he said.
With mostly Bahamian cross-bred horses to choose from locally, Robert and his father flew to Florida and began searching farms in the Fort Lauderdale area. “We met a professional in the hunter-jumper industry named Phil DeVita Sr.,” Robert remembered. “So he showed us a bunch of horses, and of course I couldn’t afford top horses and it was also not appropriate at 13 years old for me to have something that was outrageously expensive.”
They ended up purchasing a half-Thoroughbred named Cassius Clay. “He was a black horse with some socks, about 16.2 hands, and the name was not appropriate as far as my parents were concerned, so he was renamed Ebony Cash: Ebony because of his color and Cash because he cost $1,500.”
Ebony Cash was flown to the Bahamas, but when the plane arrived, a problem quickly presented itself: at such a small airport, they had nothing prepared to unload a horse from the plane. With only a forklift to work with, the airport personnel dismantled the chest-high crate the horse was shipped in and reassembled it on the forklift at the plane entrance. “So I led him out onto this very scary forklift where he could look straight over at 20-whatever feet in the air, and they slowly brought the horse and I down with the forklift,” Robert related.
“And that pretty much says it all about how beautiful the character was of this horse,” he continued. “He ended up doing really pretty much everything with me from elemental dressage to jumping, playing polo, being an endurance horse, and he must have been part Walking Horse because he could get into a rack — he could walk, trot and canter, but also do a thing like single-footing, like a Paso Fino would, and he would go as fast as a horse could canter in that sort of four beat, very fast walk. I adored that horse.”
Robert owned Ebony Cash until he was nearly 15 and his family had to leave the Bahamas. Since he couldn’t afford to take the horse along, Robert sold him to a friend for $3,500 — the first profit he made on a horse.
A Clear Path to Dressage
Settled in Florida, Robert used his $3,500 to by his next horse, Somerset Sun, a half-Thoroughbred half-Saddlebred horse who “was chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail and fairly crazy,” said Robert, who was an avid eventer with the United States Pony Club at the time. “I would event all through the South, and do the Pony Club rallies, and I was famous for getting lost on cross-country,” he said frankly. “Historically I would win the dressage, and then I would do the roads and track, and then I would go galloping off on cross-country and any time I picked up any kind of a real pace, I had no sense of direction whatsoever.”
Time faults and all, Robert managed to get his “A” Pony Club rating. At a big national rally, Robert won the dressage and was determined to correctly navigate the cross-country course. “So I went down on foot, and not only did I walk it several times, I ran it once so that I would see it coming faster at myself. After about four times, I was positive I knew it.”
The next morning, roads and track preceded the cross-country course. The track was simply a mowed path in a square field with red flags on the right and white on the left to indicate turns. Robert galloped confidently around about three-quarters of the track before things went awry: a small path led into the woods, rather unfortunately for teenage Robert, at the same point as a small red property marker flag. “I saw that, and took the path directly into the woods. And about seven or eight minutes later, I’m going down a hill and across a creek thinking, ‘This doesn’t look familiar to me.’” After backtracking, Robert reappeared on the track 14 minutes later and finished with 120 time faults.
Ironically, Robert did go clear in the cross-country, as well as in stadium jumping. Peggy Whitehurst, who’d later find the spotlight by breeding and owning Lendon Gray’s Hall of Fame mount Seldom Seen, was the Pony Club’s regional supervisor at the time. “She came up to me and said, ‘Robert honey, I got some things to talk to you about.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ She said, ‘Listen, you are very good in that rectangle. So I’m just gonna advise you now to stay in that rectangle, ’cause you are not okay out on cross-country,’” Robert remembered, laughing. “And that was when I made the actual choice, around 17 years old, to specialize in dressage — because of her.”
A Rising Star
Things moved quickly after Robert decided to focus on dressage. At the time, he was at the barn of Elizabeth Lewis just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Elizabeth’s trainer was Colonel Bengt Ljungquist, who was also the coach of the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Robert began going back and forth from the University of Georgia to Maryland to work with Colonel Ljungquist, and soon made the move to Maryland entirely. After working several smaller positions back east, Robert had the opportunity in 1982 to go to Germany and work with Willi Schultheis, the German dressage coach who took Germany’s dressage team to Olympic gold, two world championships and three European championships.
Robert’s time with Willi Schultheis in Warendorf, Germany, was not as extended as he anticipated: Robert’s skill caught the eye of others. Michael Ripploh lived nearby, and was friends with Ullrich Kasselmann and Paul Schockemohle, who were looking for someone to head their company, PSI, in the United States. “In the middle of the night I got a telephone call from Michael Ripploh. He told me that these gentlemen, Kasselmann and Schockemohle, wanted me to come work for them and move to Virginia. I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I have no interest. Thanks very much, though,’ and hung up.”
The next night, Michael called again. Robert told them that he appreciated it, but he had just taken his job with Schultheis six months previously, that was not interested in moving, and hung up. The third call came the following night, with both Schockemohle and Kasselmann on the line. “I started to say I wasn’t interested, and they said, ‘Wait, wait. Here’s what we’re offering you.’” With twice the money, many horses to compete on and a superhorse that would enable him to try out for the Olympics in two years, Robert was finally convinced to take the job.
Road to the Olympics
Taking the job with PSI introduced Robert to Romantico, the horse that would be Robert’s first Olympic mount. The pair had been winning grand prix, including the Palm Beach Derby, in 1983 when they went out for the Pan American Games team, when Robert was just 24 years old. At the time, the selection process involved testing in front of judges, but without getting scores, and the coach and judges made the team decision.
“I thought I had done very well, from what the judges had said,” Robert remembered. The riders were taken upstairs at Gladstone, where the tests were held, and lined up. Coach George Theodorescu stood by the door as Billy Steinkraus spoke. “We were all lined up, and Billy said, ‘Thank you, you all did really well, and here’s the team.’ So he said, ‘Hilda Gurney,’ at which point I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll be nice, I’ll be on a team with Hilda Gurney. That’ll be great!’ Then he said, ‘Kay Meredith,’ and I thought, ‘Well, okay, so I wasn’t second or whatever, but I’ll be third on the team.’” They proceeded to announce the rest of the team members: Robert was not among them.
He wasn’t even first or second reserve. “I was crushed, because when they got to the second reserve I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I can get more points just in the trot much less the walk and canter.’ But I was not named anything, and I remember going back to my room and just sort of falling apart.” A knock came at the door. “Kay Meredith came in and saw that I was sort of sobbing, and said, ‘Look Robert, I just want you to know that the fact that you were not picked for this team has nothing to do with how well you and Romantico did. It has to do with other things, and you may not know what those things are for years to come, but I promise you did a good job.’”
Robert returned home and thought a lot about what had happened, and the pain of disappointment he had endured. “I decided, ‘I am never going to make the goal of making a team the determining factor as to whether I am a happy person or not. I’m going to love what I do, I’m going to love the road, I’m going to be as good as I can, but I’m going to be happy no matter what.’ And that’s something that I’ve lived by ever since.”
Robert didn’t have to wait years to find out why he didn’t make the 1983 Pan Am team. The following year, he and Romantico made the Olympic team with the same coach, George Theodorescu. The Prix St. Georges of the Pan American Games was made up of long lines, only showing the gaits of the horse; though, in Robert’s words, Romantico did not have a great walk and he did not have a great canter, Romantico could execute grand prix movements beautifully. “George was thinking ahead to the grand prix of the Olympics, and he didn’t want the judges putting me into a box and saying the horse’s gaits were not good before.”
Robert and Romantico were being saved for the Olympics. “But nobody let me in on the secret,” said Robert, “so it was something that I will always remember. As far as riding at the Olympics themselves in ’84, that was sort of a blur. I had never been to an international competition, ever, before I competed in my first Olympics — which, note to self, is a very bad idea,” Robert added in his good-humored way. “But I didn’t know any better, and I was picked for the Olympic team and I went without ever competing in Europe, without ever doing anything other than going straight to the Games. So I learned huge lessons.”
Robert hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned at his first Olympics, or many others he learned during that time. “Those years between ’82 and ’86, I learned incredible lessons about training and about coaching, both of which were what I would never do to a horse or another rider that I was training or coaching. Just as valuable, though, right? It’s costly to learn that way, with regard to the mistakes you make as a rider and a trainer, and also in learning how to deal with other riders and other athletes and your colleagues. It’s a life lesson that you have to go through sometime.”
Now, Robert’s life lessons are helping not just himself and his students, but the entire U.S. dressage program. He began acting as chef d’equipe, sometimes while he was also riding and even coaching. “So when Jessica was on the ’88 team, I was helping her; during ’92, I helped Charlotte; and in ’96, I was helping Gunter and Steffen and riding myself. So I was used to doing all of that. As the formal U.S. chef d’equipe for the last four years, I have just taken all my experience from being a rider on so many teams, and from cheffing so many times for both America and Canada, and tried to do the very best I could to produce a confident, happy and medal-winning team.”
When it comes to Robert’s own physical medals, they were often misplaced about the house. “They would be in drawers and I didn’t know where they were, or in a cupboard, or whatever. Then the housekeeper would find them and stuff them someplace else so that nobody would take them.” Finally, while Robert was gone to Europe, his partner, Robert Ross, took all of his medals and had them put in frames with mirrored backs. “They’re beautiful,” Robert said.
With Robert’s medals safely secured, he was ready to help the U.S. bring more home. He was hired as the USEF’s dressage technical advisor in 2009, and it was announced in December 2016 that he’ll continue in that position for at least the next three years. “The first thing that I did when I got the job as technical advisor was to create the Roadmap to the Podium,” Robert said. His Roadmap was a 58-page presentation created with the help of other coaches, the staff from USEF, and then-USDF President George Williams that detailed everything from the training programs for children to the elite athletes, and everything necessary to meet those goals, like fundraising, sponsorship and competition organization.
Applying everything he had learned through his career, Robert scoured the country to watch for markers that had been set for the following year. Major goals included a strong 2013 Nations Cup team, having more riders going to Europe on scholarships, and a 2014 tour that would produce the 2014 World Equestrian Games dressage team. “That worked out very well, and I think we were far more successful than most people from both America and from abroad thought we would be. For me, that was just sort of checking off all of the markers that we had set toward creating a strong team not only for 2014 but ultimately for the Olympic Games.”
The Future of U.S. Dressage
Robert’s “Roadmap to the Podium” paid off at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the U.S. dressage team earned bronze. “I was so thrilled and proud of our athletes, our horses, the owners, the staff and the specialists, our veterinarians — everybody came together with the singular goal of creating that team medal that they brought home,” Robert said. “I could not have been more proud of our group. We’ve done again and again exactly what we set out to do, and now we’re going forward with the same idea into 2017. We have begun producing the next four-year plan, which I call Roadmap to the Gold, and we’ll do the exact same thing: we’ll write it out, step by step; we’ll work very hard to achieve each and every goal along the way; and if we achieve each of those goals, we’ll bring ourselves into a position to be able to vie for the gold maybe already in Tryon in two years, for sure in four years for Tokyo.”
One of the keys to U.S. success is funding, and the American Equestrian’s Got Talent fundraiser is helping with that. Each week during the Winter Equestrian Festival and Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida, Wednesday nights become a catered dinner theater where attendees can vote for the winner of the night’s $1,000 prize, who will get a chance at the $10,000 prize in the March 19 finale. Anyone involved in the equestrian community can compete, from friend of a rider to farrier and vet, and people from the entire South Florida community attends. While 80 percent of proceeds go to dressage, 10 percent goes to the winner’s equestrian sport, and the remaining 10 percent goes to the other FEI sports.
With the dressage portion, the money goes to high-performance athletes and their programs. “But high-performance could also be our juniors going to Europe on tour, and their programs, and our young riders, our U25s,” said Robert. “We have all these high-performance programs and they’re all integral to sustain excellence. My goal, honestly, is much more than just winning an Olympic gold medal: it’s about creating sustainable excellence. That’s my biggest goal.”