If there is a certainty about Robert Dover, it is that he is a gold mine of information. Journalists and protégés alike adore him for his astute insight which is readily given, often with wit, and always with enthusiasm.
One of the most recognizable figures in the dressage world, Dover rose to prominence as a rider, representing the USA at six Olympic Games and multiple world championships from 1992 to 2004. To this day he has earned more honours than any other US dressage rider.
After retiring and then un-retiring, he finally called quits on his competitive career and turned his considerable skills to full-time coaching. Robert coached the Canadian Dressage team for a year and a half, taking them to the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky before joining the US Dressage Team as technical advisor (and unofficial generalissimo of fundraising, growth and development) in 2013. Under his leadership, the US Dressage Team won team bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, its first Olympic medal since 2004.
Last September the squad gave Dover a handsome farewell gift in the form of team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon. However, Dover is not the retiring sort in any sense of the word. For the moment, the ‘chairman emeritus’ of the Equestrian Aid Foundation is revelling in the launch of his first company, Robert-Squared, an eco-friendly luxury vegan tack line. Once that is up and running to his total satisfaction, there undoubtedly will be another challenge ahead for the dynamo that is Dover.
How are you spending your days now that you’ve retired from your post with the USET?
I get up at 6 a.m. and walk the dog (Simon the Schnoodle) and then I will train and ride until noon. The rest of the day is spent on my new company, Robert-Squared, then I’ll go to the gym and afterwards pick up dinner or go out. I have five students, including Cat Malone and Matt Johnson, on a daily basis. Cat just had a baby, so I am riding her mare and will do a small grand prix with her just to get her into the ring. Matt has a fabulous young horse I ride quite often. I only have one horse now – a two-year-old stallion [Talis x Belissimo]. He is growing up in Belgium. We’ll see if he’s good enough to remain a stallion and take it from there.
When the shows [Global Dressage Festival] are happening, I run over there to give moral support. If Deb [Debbie McDonald, his successor as US Dressage technical advisor] has three riders going at the same time, I will take one to the ring or be there to give whatever support I can so they know I haven’t lost all interest. I haven’t at all. I love them all and I am really excited at how well they are doing.
Do you miss the job itself?
If you really look back at the time I spent coaching and being involved with the team, it’s been decades. I totally loved it, I am thrilled and honoured that I got to do the job these last five years and very satisfied with the results. I am very happy now to be past it as well and on to the next stage of my life.
Did you come from a horsey family?
My dad had a Pinto parade horse, Tex, which he loved and when my mom had her third child in the space of six years they agreed it was just too expensive to keep him, so they auctioned him off to raise funds for cancer research. Although I was born in Chicago, we moved to Toronto when I was seven so Dad could open a division of my grandfather’s Do-Ray Lamp Company. When I was twelve, the girl next door took me to her riding school near Lake Simcoe and soon after someone put me on a horse on a lunge line and that was the beginning.
When we moved to Freeport, Bahamas (because Dad had a real estate opportunity) I got a horse for my bar mitzvah. He cost a thousand dollars and we flew him over from Florida, so the flight was way more expensive than the horse! We moved to Florida when I was fifteen. After high school and during college, when I was riding with Elizabeth Lewis, I met Col. (Bengt) Lundquist, the US dressage team trainer. He became my mentor and changed my entire life. He gave me the values that I live by today in regard to horses and how I deal with the rest of my life.
Did you ever see yourself doing anything else?
If not for the horses, I would have most likely gone into law. That was the direction I was heading and the path my brother and sister went down. Truly, I feel like I was born to do what I do. I don’t think it was a choice; it was fate.
Can you identify a turning point in your riding career?
Success for me was about being really good at dressage, not necessarily achieving the competitive rewards of it. I remember setting my heart on making the team for the 1983 Pan Am Games and being crushed when I wasn’t selected. I said then that I would never do that again – set my heart on making a team – and instead I would concentrate on being really good at what I did and loving the process. It’s interesting that the failures in my life ended up producing the successes that occurred after them. Every failure brought me closer to understanding my craft and the art of success.
Do you feel that you had to make any sacrifices along the way?
There is no one worth anything that hasn’t made enormous sacrifices to succeed in sport or in life. If there is someone out there that has had great success without sacrifice, I would like to meet them and shake their hand!
Tell us something about yourself that would surprise people.
I always find it surprising when I hear that people think I’m not approachable. I think I am the easiest person to approach and say hello to, to ask a question or make a comment. I’m shocked if people don’t think this is the case.
How do you view yourself?
I have always been obsessed by the way things look; from my horses to my barns to my homes. I am really very OCD about everything. I don’t like when things aren’t perfect and I won’t rest until they are. I also need to feel that I control stuff. I am not good at being partly in control of things. It’s better for everybody when I say ‘I’ll step aside and let someone else do the job.’
What’s the toughest part of being Robert Dover?
When you are in the spotlight in any endeavour you open yourself up for criticism and you belong there because you have put yourself in the situation willingly. I learned over the years that there is no possible chance that everybody is going to love you. You can never please everyone. I’d love to say I accept that, but I really don’t like it when people don’t like me or find fault with me.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
I have so many! My most memorable and life-changing trips have been to South Africa and Israel. I have a real love for Fire Island. We lived there for many years and have only not had a home there for the past year and a half. I am very fond of Miami Beach. To be honest, I am a very happy person and I can find happiness almost anywhere as long as I have Robert and my dog with me.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
I’ve been very fortunate to go all over the world with the horses. I have been to South Africa but I have not been to other countries in Africa. I’d love to go to Rwanda and see the gorillas.
When and where did you last go on vacation?
Last Thanksgiving we went with friends to Seville for the annual SICAB [International Purebred Spanish Horse Fair] and then spent a fantastic week in London.
Do you have a fitness regimen?
Since the mid-’80s I have been a dedicated fitness maniac. I’m in the gym six days a week. It’s integral to my health because I’ve had so many issues with my back [because of an old surfing injury]. Without staying muscularly strong I would just crumble into a pile of dust.
Can you recommend a book or movie you’ve read or seen recently?
I loved both Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Both were amazing. If I clap at the end of a movie I know I really loved it. I also just watched The Assassination of Gianni Versace on Netflix. It’s gripping. I learned a lot about the standard I want to live up to with my company from watching it.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love desserts. I try to be very careful but sometimes I just can’t help myself. My favourite is warm pecan pie with vanilla ice cream.
If you had a life lesson to share with us, what would it be?
The biggest life lesson my mom taught us kids is that when you go to bed every night, if you have done one good thing for somebody else, whether they know it or not, you’ve had a good day and if you haven’t, you had better re-think your life. A mitzvah is a good deed and it doesn’t rely upon people knowing that you’ve done it.
If you were having a dinner party and you could invite four guests, living or dead, who would you invite and why?
Barack and Michelle Obama, Barbra Streisand and Martin Luther King. Wow, what a group! Two world-changing leaders, one who would make an incredible president herself, and the reason I have Streisand is because … I just have to. Someone has to entertain and be fabulous and she has the best voice in the world.
Do you have any burning ambitions?
To make my company a top-notch, world-class success. I wanted to create this company to produce beautiful products as an option for riders who may feel they want to ride in and on eco-friendly products that are not made out of leather. Everything is handmade and hand-stitched. We are refining the product daily. I won’t rest until everything is exactly the way that I want it to be.
Are you finding it a challenge?
It’s fun and a little scary, because I’ve never started a company before. It’s a steep learning curve, but I am really enjoying the newness and the struggle, the pitfalls and the small failures. I am actually revelling in it.