For the week of July 14, 1999  thru July 20, 1999  

Road to Sydney has many pitfalls

Beaurivage and Debbie McDonald devote their lives to medal quest

By Ron Soble
Express Staff Writer

l14dressage.jpg (19762 bytes)On a hot afternoon Saturday at River Grove Farm, a horse ranch north of Hailey, a small gathering of horse aficionados was mesmerized by a diminutive rider atop a giant Hanoverian gelding.

It was as if Debbie McDonald and Beaurivage were joined at the brain. The horse moved effortlessly through intricate paces without any perceptible guidance from its rider.

That’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be in "dressage," a French word referring to the art of training a horse in precision movement. The event is little known to most Americans, but is a big-time sport in Europe.

For that reason, European riders, particularly the Germans and Dutch, are expected to dominate the dressage event at next year’s Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

McDonald and Beaurivage are determined to rewrite some of that history. They’re going for the gold.

McDonald, a pragmatist, knows it’s a long shot. To even qualify for the American Olympic team, a horse and its rider have to endure a grueling schedule of competitions here and abroad between now and September 2000, when the Summer Games begin.

"Mentally and physically it’s a drag on both of us," McDonald said in an interview.

Still, she declared, "it’s what you’ve worked for your whole life to do."

"I’m a driven person. I’m very competitive almost to a fault. I’m pretty hard on myself. But I try to think in perspective. The horses won’t always be there. But my family will."

McDonald, 44, considered by her peers to be a top national competitor, spoke to this reporter in her second floor office inside an elegant stable complex, part of the 60-acre spread which fronts state Highway 75. Some of her national awards, which have put the training and teaching facility on the international map, were hanging on a far wall.

Her husband, Bob McDonald, 50, a former competition rider and trainer from Canada, was working at an adjacent desk. The two met in Newport Beach, Calif., where Debbie McDonald was raised, when she was 14 years old and just learning how to climb into a saddle. By then, Bob McDonald ran a stable at the nearby Orange County Fairgrounds. They married a few years later.

Both have lived next to the River Grove complex for 17 years. Bob McDonald is the farm’s chief horse trainer; Debbie is the No. 1 instructor. They work for Peggy and Perry Thomas, the latter a former Las Vegas, Nev., bank executive who owns the farm and who bankrolls Debbie McDonald’s competitive efforts in the United States and abroad.

Just last year, for example, she competed in the prestigious Volvo World Cup competition in Sweden and placed among the top dozen riders and horses.

When asked about Beaurivage’s chances for the gold at next year’s Olympics, Perry Thomas said, "It’s bad luck to talk about it." Pressed further, he declared, "Beaurivage has a chance."

If Beaurivage washes out, two other River Grove Hanoverians are waiting in the wings for an Olympics shot in the year 2004: Brentina, a 7-year-old mare McDonald will ride in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg later this month; and Donatello, a 6-year-old gelding. Thomas is high on both horses.

As for the bay, Beaurivage, affectionately called "Beauri" by McDonald and the stable crew, he’s an obvious sentimental favorite around the farm. Purchased as "a learning horse," as Bob McDonald put it, he has risen dramatically in competitive stature. What’s more, he has accomplished this despite two serious intestinal surgeries four years ago.

Beauri was bought at auction 12 years ago in Verden, Germany, south of Hamburg. The Hanoverian breed is known for its ability to be trained as a show horse.

The question remaining is whether Beaurivage can sustain his energy and competitive edge while being flown to competitions here and abroad, and then to Australia.

"Horses’ health is very fragile," Debbie McDonald said.

On Saturday, McDonald could be found leaning against a fence railing coaching a rider in preparation for the weekend’s annual Dressage Show at the farm, which drew approximately 45 horses from Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California and 10 foreign countries.

"That’s too quick of a walk. Slower, slower. Just like you’re on a trail ride," she yelled at a rider going through practice drills before entering the dressage ring.

Besides coaching others, she has to keep her competitive edge as well. This means, she said, being in the saddle several hours a day, riding as many as seven different horses by sundown.

Minutes later, she was ready to give a riding demonstration in the main dressage ring, which has Olympic dimensions of 20 meters wide by 60 meters long.

An almost palpable hush settled over spectators as she appeared atop Beaurivage, elegantly attired in a black top hat, shad belly (black) coat with tails, white stock tie and white gloves.

It seemed incongruous that a 5-foot, 1-inch woman who weighs 115 pounds could effortlessly, and with great precision, guide a horse weighing approximately 1,500 pounds, and standing 16 hands, 2 inches (5-feet, 6-inches) in height, through such intricate maneuvers. But that’s what dressage is all about. The horse and rider were one, moving with the ballet grace of a Nureyev.

Indeed, to impress judges and succeed in dressage competition, a rider must communicate to the horse with extreme subtlety of movement involving almost imperceptible signals from the hands, seat and legs.

McDonald guided Beaurivage through the time-honored dressage drills: "piaff," trotting 15 steps in place; "passage," an animated trot; "flying changes," skipping every two strides, and then, every one stride.

At the close of the demonstration, the small but appreciative crowd gave McDonald a round of applause.

Still, as satisfying as such performances are, it’s a long, and uncertain, road to Sydney.

Three American equestrian teams will be selected for the Summer Games’ three team events. Each team will have four members and two alternates.

Besides dressage, two other Olympics events include jumping and cross-country competition, categories in which McDonald would not be involved.

Gold, silver and bronze team medals will be awarded along with individual equestrian medals.

A maze of qualifying events for McDonald and Beauri begins on Oct. 24 with an important dressage competition in Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego, Calif.

By next May, the nation’s top dozen dressage riders and horses will gather for a competition at Gladstone, N.J. Emerging will be the six-member United States Olympic team. Riders and horses will then tour Europe for eight weeks.

Finally, Beauri would spend some "quarantine time" in California before the long flight to Sydney—if he gets that far and his health holds up.

Reflecting on the competitive pressure and thousands of miles of traveling, Debbie McDonald declared, "It’s a lot to expect of a horse."

As for Beauri, he was led to his stall at 8:30 a.m. last Sunday following a relaxed ride with McDonald.

Munching oats, he looked up as this reporter entered to take a photo. For a moment, Beauri posed, almost on cue, then finished breakfast, apparently without a care in the world.


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