clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

His Fight to Get to Athens

Robert Dover Has a New Horse and His Eye on a Medal

(This story was published in 2004).

By: Patricia Nell Warren

As 10,500 athletes arrived in Athens, 200 will be competing on four legs, not two. Equestrian sports – show jumping, 3-day eventing, dressage – are the only ones on the Olympic program that feature a partnership effort between a human and an animal. Twenty-six nations have sent their best riders and horses.

Many observers agree that the 2004 U.S. equestrian team is possibly our strongest ever. And we’ll need that strength as we head into old rivalry with European riders, who often beat the horseshoes off us with their centuries of horse tradition. The Germans are our biggest nemesis – overall they’ve won 32 equestrian golds, compared to nine golds for the U.S. We’ve done well in jumping and eventing, but less well in dressage -- while we’ve won six bronzes in team dressage, we’ve never gold- or silver-medaled in the individual competition.

But 2004 may change all that. Observers assert that the U.S. has a shot at its first individual medal in dressage. One rider with that shot is Robert Dover – who also happens to be one of the few out athletes at the Games.

Dover has one of the most brilliant records in U.S. equestrian sport. But, at age 48, he’s coming back after a three-year retirement. He has a wonderful new horse -- FBW Kennedy, who reached #7 in the world dressage rankings under his previous owner. But as a combination, Dover and Kennedy are new to international competition – they’ve been together for only 11 months. In dressage, it takes time to develop a solid partnership.

A Horseman Comes Out

Hints of silver in Dover’s dark curly hair are a reminder that he’s been to five Olympics already. In 1992, 1996 and 2000 Dover carried the U.S. dressage contingent to bronzes, the first since 1976. He’s a popular mainstay of the U.S. Equestrian Team -- was elected team captain five times by the other riders, and has dedicated himself to team-building by teaching and encouraging other riders. He served on the U.S. Olympic Committee itself. In 1994 he was named USOC’s Male Equestrian Athlete of the Year.

DressageDaily summed it up: “What would the American Olympic dressage team do without Robert Dover?”

Despite the high visibility, Dover has not felt compelled to hide his sexual orientation in recent years, nor his 16-year relationship with Robert Ross, long-time associate in horseshowing. Indeed, while baseball and some other sports are still danger zones for GLBT athletes, the equestrian world doesn’t appear to have huge issues with sexual orientation. According to a gay friend of mine, whose horse business gives him a good perspective, remaining homophobes are likely found among “your redneck backyard Western horse owners.” What counts with most people is how good you are with horses.

Dover was born in 1956 in the Chicago area, and showed an early passion for riding. His parents were supportive, giving him his first horse as a Bar Mitzvah present at age 13. After the Dovers moved to Florida, he was active in Pony Club for many years. “I did a bit of everything,” he told me, “but always had a special love for dressage.” His mother Jean added: “When Robert was a teenager, I never had to worry about where he was. He was always at the barn…cleaning his tack with my best olive oil.”

By the ’70s, when the family moved to Georgia and Dover started college, his awareness of sexual orientation was not yet on the same planet as his love of horses. He told me about a significant night in his life:

“After breaking up with a girlfriend, I went out drinking with a friend who kept his horse in the same barn as mine. I woke up the next morning with my friend next to me in bed -- a new life begun. I began slowly to socialize in the gay community during my time at University of Georgia in Athens, and ultimately joined the close-knit family of gay students there. I did not connect my social life to my work life for many years, and while I never ran away from the issue of my homosexuality, I must admit that I had no real interest in bringing attention to it, especially with the press.

“What changed everything was a combination of meeting my soul-mate Robert Ross, whom I was so proud to be with that I wanted everyone to know, and the AIDS epidemic which affected so many people dear to me. Robert and I and a friend, Mason Phelps, a one-time team rider whose brother had died of AIDS, came up with the idea of a foundation dedicated to helping anyone within the equestrian community suffering from HIV or AIDS. Since 1995, the Equestrian AIDS Foundation has been serving people of all ages throughout the country. The need to get the word out made the decision to ‘come out loud and clear’ in my sport very easy.”

He adds: “I am hopeful that the things which separate our gay community from the straight community will someday disappear. This can only happen when we all see that the little differences in people are like the many colors on a palette that come together to become the beautiful picture which is life.”

Dover’s family accepted their son’s partner unconditionally. His mother told me: “We couldn't have picked a more perfect mate if we had tried. He always keeps us up to date if Robert doesn't have time, and goes out of his way to be sure all is well with us. Besides all this, he is a really fun person to be around. We love him like another son.”

Recently Dover told a Reuters reporter: “I am fortunate enough to be able to compete in a sport I love as a gay athlete, and to be open at the same time."

Old World Magic

At the Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre, the dressage arena waits for Dover and Kennedy. It looks deceptively simple – a sandy rectangle measuring 20 meters by 60 meters, with a white line down the middle and a low white barrier around it. A vaulted roof keeps the fierce Greek sun off spectators. Here, on Aug. 20, the best riders in the world will begin their battle for medals.

One by one, wearing formal top hat and tails, they ride down the center line, halting for a moment to salute the judges. The men doff their hats – the women just nod their heads grandly. Then they move into a pre-set sequence of movements at walk, trot and canter, mirrored in both directions, that lasts around five minutes. The five judges score each performance, with deductions for errors by horse or rider. A score higher than 80% is considered outstanding; the horse and rider with the highest percentage win.

Olympic dressage is Grand Prix level, the highest level of difficulty in this multi-tiered sport, and it goes through three rounds. First, the Grand Prix on Aug. 20 and 22, with all entries starting. The Grand Prix determines the team medals. Then the top 25 scorers move to the semifinals, which is the Grand Prix Special on Aug. 23. The Special’s top 15 go to the finals on Aug. 25 -- the Grand Prix Freestyle. As in figure skating, the Freestyle has pre-set required elements but allows them to done to choreography and music created specially for each horse. After the Freestyle, the coveted individual medals will be awarded.

Spectators stay hushed during each test, to help horse and rider keep their focus. Cheering explodes only as a rider makes the final salute and leaves the arena.

Sometimes called “equine ballet,” dressage is so Old World that U.S. sports fans have been slow to embrace it. In the 1940s many older Americans like myself saw their first dressage riding at the circus -- Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey had its colorful corps of European horses and riders who wowed the crowd. After World War II, the performing Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna toured the U.S. – horse-lover General Patton had saved the breed from capture by the Russians during the war. Today young Americans can see dressage in the popular equine show “Cheval,” which has toured many casinos and show venues. “Cheval” was created by Gilles Ste-Croix, who also created the Cirque du Soleil.

Unfortunately, all this show business has given many American sports fans the impression that dressage is circus-y and antiquated. And yes, even in the horse world, the fur can fly when people argue “classical dressage vs. modern competitive dressage,” and whether today’s judging lets down the bars on traditional excellence. But there’s nothing outdated about it.

The word dressage means simply “training.” It first developed in ancient Greece, where horses were life and death, especially as cavalry mounts. In 360 B.C., Greek officer/historian Xenophon wrote: “If a dancer were forced to dance, she would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar circumstances. The horse must make the most graceful and brilliant appearance in all respect of its own will.”

During the Renaissance (14th-17th century), when Europe was wracked with constant war, dressage saw a huge surge of innovation as riders developed more movements useful on the battlefield, and learned more about how to develop a horse mentally and physically. Today training has a peacetime focus, but Xenophon’s philosophy still rules – the horse should move in willing harmony and balance with the rider. As the horse advances up through 10 levels of difficulty, he becomes so supple and obedient, so tuned to the rider, that he can be geared into dozens of demanding movements by tiny cues, called “aids,” that are all but invisible to the spectator.

Some dressage fundamentals are vital to many horse sports. For instance, when a horse is moving along at a canter, he has a natural tendency to lead with one or the other front leg. If he’s leading with the right, and you suddenly ask him to make a hard left turn, he can only turn handily if he changes to the left lead. Even at a blistering gallop, a polo pony or racehorse can do a flying change. But in dressage, this everyday move is elevated into exquisite art. A Grand Prix horse like Kennedy can unreel a whole series of them, changing leads with every stride in a light, airy, effortless manner.

“Horses for courses,” horse people like to say, meaning there’s a type of equine for anything you need to do. Dover’s new horse was born for the course he’ll face in Athens.

Kennedy is a warmblood, a type of crossbred horse that blends “hot” temperament (meaning the high energy of Arabian or Thoroughbred) with “cold” temperament (meaning the unflappable calm of heavy breeds). Originally the warmblood was put together as a light farm horse, coach horse, artillery horse and cavalry mount. The result: an animal that combined courage and athletic ability with the rugged frame and bombproof disposition needed for an officer’s mount or the team pulling a gun limber. Today the warmbloods, in all their national hues – Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Canadian, Australian, etc. – are used mainly for sport. They so dominate Grand Prix competition that we Americans are rushing to learn how to breed our own. Germany abounds in regional strains – Trakehner, Hanoverian, Oldenburg and others.

The FBW in Kennedy’s name tells you that he is a Baden-Württemberger. In 1989 he was foaled at Marbach, one of several state studs with long distinguished histories. Marbach is located in the former duchy of Württemberg, on the green slopes of the Swabian Alps. Founded in 1573 to provide the duchy with better farm and army horses, Marbach later re-tooled for sport horses, refining the old strain with Trakehner, Thoroughbred and especially Arabian. Last year, Breeding News pointed to FBW Kennedy as a prime representative of the Bad-Wü studbook, noting, “He always places in the Top 10 at world and European championships.”

Dressage is gaining in popularity in the U.S. In addition to new young riders, one seasoned gay observer tells me there’s a stampede of older women riders into the sport. He says: “They’ve gone as far as they can with Western riding, and they’re too old to start with show jumping. So they go for dressage. They like the challenge of advancing through the levels. And yeah, a lot of them are lesbians.”

While many Olympic sports are dominated by the teen athlete (like gymnastics and figure skating), dressage typically belongs to the mature horse and rider. At 48 and 15, Dover and Kennedy are at their prime, like a fine Napoleon brandy.

“Cutest Horse at the Games”

A year ago, FBW Kennedy still belonged to Danish team rider Lone Jörgensen.

In 1997 Jörgensen and her business partner Ulrich Eggers had gone looking for a new horse, and spotted the 8-year-old gelding at a Marbach auction. The following year, when Dover was at the 1998 Munich Grand Prix, he first noticed the fiery red chestnut with his four flashy white socks and his joyous, buoyant way of going. “I loved this horse,” Dover told me. Over several years, from a distance, he hungrily watched Kennedy develop into one of the top-ranked Grand Prix horses in the world. It wasn’t just the horse’s talent that appealed, but his enthusiasm and eagerness to learn – what dressage people call “work ethic” in a sport horse.

Dover found an opportunity to tell Jörgensen that he would be interested in Kennedy if she ever wanted to let him go.

By then Dover had gone to the Olympics on several warmbloods, starting with German-bred Romantico, who carried him to sixth place for the U.S. team at L.A. in 1994. At Sydney in 2000, he had Rainier, a grey Oldenburg owned by his sponsor, Jane Forbes Clark. Horses of this caliber are typically owned by wealthy families or patrons, who lease them to riders or simply make them available. In a sport where a hot young prospect can sell at auction for $250,000, a top-ranked Grand Prix horse can sell for millions.

Sydney 2000 was Dover’s fifth Olympics. Though Rainier was young, Dover made good rides on him and helped the U.S. to win a third team bronze. But once more the Germans and Dutch kept the U.S. off the individual victory podium. Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber and her Latvian warmblood, Rusty, took the individual bronze.

After Sydney, Dover felt that he was at a crossroads. His sponsor was going through changes too – Clark had resigned from her positions with the USET, to take on chairmanship of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Clark did assure Dover that she’d continue to be a supporter.

On an impulse Dover decided to retire, so he could relax into private life with partner Robert Ross at their country home in Wellington, Fla.

For a while, things went well. Dover stayed busy -- doing dressage clinics for USET team members and private students at the nearby Palm Beach Equestrian Center. That part of Florida is such primo horse country, with a balmy climate that allows year-round training outdoors, that a major dressage circuit was springing up there. Students flocked to Dover – he was one of the few international-level riders teaching in the U.S. Dover and Ross also started construction on a second home in New York, plus an addition on their Florida home. Rainier, still owned by Jane Clark, went off to be ridden by another U.S. team member.

Meanwhile Kennedy was busy on the show circuit, gaining a big reputation. At the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain, the chestnut gelding didn’t win a medal for Jorgensen, but he did win attention – even amid all the glittery showcasing of Iberian horse breeds. HorsesDaily wondered if Kennedy was “the cutest horse at the Games.” Their reporter went on: “Though most riders are not partial to the word 'cute' when it comes to their Grand Prix horse, this one certainly fits the bill in the most complimentary way. FBW Kennedy’s movements are shown off to best advantage by his four dazzling white stockings.”

A Time for Mourning

But in 2003, the roof suddenly fell in on Robert Dover’s world. He told me:

“First my father was diagnosed with an aneurysm. With only fair chance for his survival, we waited through the surgery. All went well with my Dad. But then a CAT scan revealed my mother to be in fifth-stage small cell lung cancer (though she never smoked a day in her life), which had already metastasized to her bones. We were completely shocked, as she had shown no symptoms of such a severe disease. A specialist concurred with her oncologist and gave her very little time left.

“This was now May of 2003 and I proceeded to go into mourning which was basically very little help to anyone. My Dad, meanwhile, was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s. My builder, who was supposed to be finishing my house in NY, ran off with $350,000 of my money. With all this, I threw my back out for the umpteenth time and that was pretty much the last straw. I withdrew into my very dusty, livable part of my house and didn't come out for weeks. People sent me books on death and dying, which actually helped a great deal. But if not for my amazing best friend and lover of 16 years, I am not sure if I could have come through it.

“With Robert’s help as well as the help of friends and family, I decided to look on this experience with my folks as an adventure through which we would go together. They had voiced many times their opinion that I should not have so hastily ended my show career, and I knew it would make them very happy if I would go for one more Olympics.

“I started to think more seriously about it when, in September 2003, I heard that Kennedy might be for sale. Lone had done extremely well with him but had difficulties with her federation over funding and, therefore, invited me to come try him. I decided to call my longtime sponsor, Jane Clark. Jane told me to get on the next plane. Three days later, Kennedy was ours.”

Imagine a basketball player of Michael Jordan’s caliber switching from the U.S. team to the team of a rival country just months before the Games. It would make the same wave as this horse did when he changed flags. “FBW KENNEDY SOLD TO THE UNITED STATES” was the dismayed headline in EuroDressage.

The third week in September, Kennedy arrived in New York on a KLM flight. The American horse world buzzed. Robert Dover was making a comeback – and he was making it on his best horse yet. But first he had to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. Asked by a reporter if it got any easier making the U.S. team after five Olympics, he said, “Definitely not. It's gotten harder. The competition is fierce.”

“Olympicitis”

In October 2003, DressageDaily reported: “As the 2004 show season is rapidly approaching, ‘Olympicitis’ has started to spread wildly amongst dressage riders worldwide. Undoubtedly the sale of Denmark's number one Grand Prix dressage horse FBW Kennedy to Jane Clark has been the first, major symptom of Olympic Fever rising.”

To qualify, Dover and Kennedy would have to complete at least two U.S. Grand Prix qualifying competitions. The pair would also have to get certificates of current Olympic eligibility from the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale, the world governing body of horse sport). This would include scores of at least 63% from at least two non-American FEI judges.

Dover spent the next two months quietly training at home. He told me: “I have had a great time riding Kennedy, who is more clever than any horse I have ever met. Beyond his amazing athleticism and his fantastic obedience, I am sure that the reason he has been and continues to be so successful, is that he definitely knows he is loved! He is so happy every day and is so self-confident without being overpowering, that everyone can see the joy he takes in his work. It is truly an honor to ride such a horse, and I have Jane, my parents and Robert to thank for it.”

Not till November 2003 did Dover and the striking chestnut made their debut at the 119th National Horse Show in Wellington, Fla. A big crowd had turned out to see the pair, who wowed them by winning the Grand Prix Special. Jane Clark told the press, “I’m looking forward to two or three years of Robert competing on him. To me it’s not about just the Olympic Games or whatever, it’s about going to the ring with someone with a big smile on their face like he did today.”

Dover told DressageDaily: "My parents both have been very ill during this last year and this has been a big boost for them, which makes me very happy.”

After that came a couple of local shows, so the two could get in more mileage together. U.S. dressage coach Klaus Balkenhol, himself a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist for Germany, was there for support. At the USET Grand Prix, the first qualifying event for the U.S. Olympic trials, Dover and Kennedy won again, becoming the 2004 USET National Champions. Along the way, international judges gave the duo those high scores needed for FEI certification.

By June, when Dover and Kennedy hit the U.S. Olympic Selection trials at San Juan Capistrano, Calif., with all the other potential team members battling to be on the short list for Athens, “Olympicitis” was at fever pitch. The biggest crowd ever to attend a U.S. dressage show packed the stands. Would the brand-new pair hold up? Kennedy started answering that question by winning the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special.

Dover said, “You know, every single time I go in with that horse, he never ceases to amaze me. His heart is so amazingly wonderful and his work ethic is fantastic.”

By the time the pair reached the Grand Prix Freestyle, DressageDaily was reporting: “Guenter Seidel on Aragon and Steffen Peters on Floriano had exceptional rides, creating an electric atmosphere, but Dover and Kennedy marched down the center line, saluted and never looked back.” The two danced through their choreography to a recorded medley that Dover calls “Kennedy’s Music.” A friend of mine was watching in the crowd and later told me, “Kennedy was awesome … majestic, full of energy and power.” The judges gave the ride a resounding 81.700%.

Dover said afterwards: "I had not ridden in this kind of environment or climate with this horse until then. I was so thrilled with him that I was on a high right after.”

Meanwhile, healing was happening in Dover’s private life. He told me:

“My Mom had gone through two rounds of chemo, unsuccessfully. I had heard of an experimental drug called Arissa. It is not a chemotherapy but rather a new-age drug which, in 10% of the people it is given to, has had good effects. We got my mother on this drug in the trial stage. It has reduced the cancer to a fine line of what it was. Truly a miracle from God! My Dad is on medication, which is also rather new, and he is having a lot of fun in the moment. Houses are now completed.”

When the USET announced its short list of six, Dover was on it. So were Debbie McDonald, Guenter Seidel and Lisa Wilcox. McDonald and her Hanoverian mare Brentina were ranked #1 in the U.S. Steffen Peters and Leslie Morse were listed as alternates/substitutes. But it wasn’t a done deal. The six pairs would continue vying at an international show -- the mammoth World Equestrian Festival (CHIO) at Aachen in July. After the CHIO, final selection of four U.S. pairs would be announced on July 19.

U.S. coach Balkenhol agreed that it was a strong team, but said there was a long way to go before Athens. His training focused on helping each pair add potential points to their scores.

For Dover and Kennedy, the comeback cliffhanger would continue.

'A Duel of Giants'

In late June the U.S. equestrian team flew to Europe and continued training. Their base of operations was Balkenhol’s farm in Coesfeld, a small town near Düsseldorf. Dover e-mailed me from Coesfeld. He said: “Robert is coming back and forth every two weeks to visit, as we have never been apart for more than two weeks at a time since we got together 16 years ago. It works best for our relationship to do so.”

Then the team hauled their horses to Aachen for the CHIO. On July 13, Dover e-mailed me again:

“All the Olympic teams from all the countries, save for a few, are competing with the same panel of judges who will officiate in Athens. It is exactly like the Games themselves, only much bigger, with loads of pomp and circumstance. I ride today at 3:28 pm on Kennedy. It is very exciting! Jane Clark is coming later today and will miss my first ride here but, I hope, will see me in the next class. My family is waiting to come to Athens. Robert is here and is doing the usual masterful job of putting up with my show nerves.”

Pressures were intense. It was the first time Dover had ridden Kennedy in world competition, which possibly accounted for Dover’s “show nerves.” For everyone non-German, there was the daunting circumstance of playing on the Germans’ home court.

Europeans love horse shows the way Americans love the Super Bowl. Each day, an average 50,000 spectators flooded the show grounds, including noisy fan clubs of a dozen riders. In the Deutsche-Bank Stadium, the first Grand Prix event got underway -- the two-day Nation’s Cup for the team awards. What Dressagedaily.com called "a duel of giants" shaped up as the two top-ranking horses in the world met for the first time -- Germany’s Rusty and the Netherlands’ Gestion Salinero. As the two duked it out, German fans waved flags and placards and erupted with fierce partisan applause when their adored Rusty left the ring.

Amidst the uproar, Dover and Kennedy were fighting to do their best. True to his record, Kennedy carried his rider into the Top 10 – the two placed ninth in the Nation’s Cup. Debbie McDonald and Brentina took fourth. The seemingly inevitable German victory went to Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty. And the seemingly inevitable team bronze went to the Americans.

On Saturday, Kennedy and Dover advanced to the Uniroyal Grand Prix Special. This time Salinero scored an upset over Rusty, amidst wild ovations from his own adoring fans. Once again Dover and Kennedy placed ninth.This put them in the final round -- the Deutsch Bank Grand Prix Freestyle for the top 15 finalists.

Next day, with the show’s attendance now topping 200,000, Salinero nabbed another win with a monster score of 83.650. This victory made him CHIO dressage champion and – for the moment -- Numero Uno in the whole world. Rusty placed second.

Once again Kennedy and Dover took ninth place with 75.775%. Weighed against the other U.S. performances, was it enough to get them on the team?

The next day, July 19, the USET’s press release went out. Dover, McDonald, Siedel and Wilcox would go to Athens.

On Aug. 18, Dover’s parents will fly to Athens to join their son and his partner and his amazing horse. As I finish this article, the world’s four-legged champions are moving restlessly around in their roomy box stalls in the Marcopoulo Centre. Misting fans keep them cool in the searing heat. Surely they’re picking up on the human tensions in the air – not just show nerves, but the political concerns about terrorist attacks on the Games, and the Greek government’s concern that tourism has been frightened away. Ticket sales have been slow.

Whatever the future holds for this valiant team of man and horse, Robert Dover faces it with that attitude that makes him so respected in the horse world. He told me, “I'm shooting to do the best possible job with this horse as I can, and help the team every way that I can. I am hopeful and confident that it will be a very successful games for all, particularly the American Team.”

In the past, dressage has often been passed over by Olympic coverage. But this time the NBC networks promise us unprecedented coverage of every event, 24 hours daily. Outsports readers wishing to get more familiar with dressage can find re-runs of shows and clinics on RFD-TV (available on Dish Network and Direct TV). Consult program scheduling at www.rfd-tv.com. Major shows like the CHIO Aachen may have websites and live streaming video available.

Patricia Nell Warren, author of the 1974 bestselling sports novel The Front Runner, competed in various amateur equestrian sports in her younger years – from 4-H rodeo, o-mok-see and barrel racing in high school in Montana, to gaited horses while in college in Missouri, and finally some hunter and jumper showing in the Northeast during the 1970s.