Alice Debany-Clero — who grew up on her parents’ Bedford farm, the ninth of 10 children — earned her stripes in the competitive world of show jumping as one of the riders of the fabled jumper The Natural, owned by Old Salem Farm in North Salem. Aboard “Natty,” she won the Queen’s Cup at Spruce Meadows in Alberta, Canada, and the grand prix at the National Horse Show before marrying and taking off for a big international career in Europe and the Middle East. As an equestrian, she has represented the United States in 10 Nations Cups. As a trainer, she coached the Dubai Jumping Team for 14 years and coaches the jumping teams in Cairo and in Sharja, United Arab Emirates.
Recently, Debany-Clero returned to Old Salem Farm for a series of clinics that continue Aug. 17 through Aug. 20. We spoke with her via e-mail:
Alice, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. You grew up in Bedford and began riding at a young age. What drew you to it?
“My mother and father were both horse people. In fact, my mother was a very good show jumper in the 1950s. She ran a riding school at our home, so it was quite natural for me to begin riding, which I did so at the age of 3, quite seriously by the age of 4.”
You made an early hit riding the jumper The Natural, owned by Old Salem Farm. Tell us how that came about.
“My very lucky break to ride The Natural was an exceptional circumstance when I worked for Paul and Robin Greenwood just after my junior years. I was running the farm at Old Salem with Brooke Baldwin. (Equestrian) Katharine (Burdsall) had famously won the (1987 FEI) World Cup Final with The Natural. He went lame from a splint injury before the 1988 Olympic games, he had surgery and no one was sure he would come back. Katharine subsequently quit (competing) and Paul and Robin told me, ‘If The Natural comes back, he’s yours.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
What were your early impressions of Old Salem?
“Old Salem Farm was always a part of my life even before it was called Old Salem. It was called The Hill before that. Then Paul Newman bought the property, and improved it so much. Then Paul Greenwood bought it and improved it even further. I spent approximately eight years of my life working there for Paul (Greenwood). Not only did he give me a job, but he also paid for my university education at New York University, where I studied at night for five years while working full-time six days a week at Old Salem. This really changed my life, to be able to have a university education while continuing to ride at the level I was able to. I could never have afforded a university education if it was not for Paul Greenwood.”
You’ve had a big career on both sides of the Atlantic. What would you say are the main differences between American riders and those in Europe and the Middle East?
“The difference of jumping in Europe versus the United States was more sharp 23 years ago when I got there….The exposure to so many different styles of riding was an extraordinary experience over 23 years. I would say the world on a whole rides more homogeneously now than they did 23 years ago since so many Americans come over to Europe, and so many Europeans go to America now.
“Riding style is a bit like an accent in a spoken language. Riders developed their styles so much depending on the type of horses that they were breeding. Americans were riding hot Thoroughbreds off the track, while Germans were riding horses that were much colder, perhaps horses that were bred from plow horses. But now, the styles of the riders are, I would say, much more flexible. The best riders can ride the hot horses if they need to be ridden that way, and they can ride the colder horses the way they need to be ridden. That is always been my goal as a rider, to ride the horse in the style that is best suited for the blood and temperament at the horse.
“The riding style in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the 15 years that I have been there….As the sport evolved to more of a blood sport with faster time allowed and lighter material, (many older German trainers)…came to the Middle East to sell horses and taught the riders, in my opinion, a very heavy old German style that is not very well-suited to most of the good horses these days. So I believe I had some influence over there and then in the entire region in lightening up the style and modernizing their riding, which I’m quite proud of.”
What kind of horses do you have, how many and where are they stabled?
“I do not own a lot of horses personally. I bring along a few young horses at a time. If any of them become valuable, I will sell them, because I have three children and a family to take care of. I have one Grand Prix horse, a mare who was never sold because she is not extremely easy to ride, although I enjoy her tremendously. My favorite type of horse I would say is a mare with a positive attitude. I don’t like mares that are moody, but I do love the mares that are very positive in character and essentially like the job. Geldings, of course, can be lovely. I am not a big fan of stallions, but I have had the pleasure of riding several nice ones.”
Tell us how you train them and yourself.
“As far as training myself, I reassess my basics every single day. I really believe that a solid position is both beautiful and functional. I think it’s very easy for a rider to lose their basics if they are not reviewed every single day, so I do a lot of work in the two-point position (two points of contact with the saddle) and I do a lot of work without stirrups.
“For the horses, I always look for the way to bring out the best in a horse rather than exposing their weaknesses, especially a weakness that they cannot help. I like to teach the horse that this is really just a game we are playing together. I like to look at a course as a puzzle that we both have to solve together. I don’t like the idea of the riders dominating the horse, but rather it’s more like a dance that we are doing together and we have a puzzle to solve together, and it actually can be fun. Work is hard, for sure, just like when you go to the gym, it is hard work. But I don’t like it to be a drudgery or some thing that the horses only submit to, because they have to. I’d like to teach the horse that this sport can actually be quite fun if we work together.”
What’s it like to be back at Old Salem Farm for the clinics you’re giving?
“Coming back to Old Salem really feels like coming back home…. And the owner Scott Hakim, was my student when he was 16 and I was 19. So we have known each other for quite a long time.”
What do you hope your students take away from these clinics?
“My main goal in any lesson or clinic is that the riders and horses come out more confident than they began. The fashion of teaching when I was young was a bit more of a style that would break down the riders by humiliating them and putting them down. Luckily, I had a strong enough character to take it, but over the years I really disagreed with this method. Rarely do I think a rider needs to be shouted at and certainly not humiliated or insulted. I think that the goal is to help riders figure out how to bring the best out of themselves and their horses. That could be discovering a new bit, which is their communication with the horse, or learning to ride more forward yet in good control. Also, how to use their bodies and seats in all of the positions that get the best out of their horses in themselves.”
Now that you’re back, do you foresee splitting your time between Westchester and Europe?
“It’s a great thing for me to come back to Old Salem, because my husband and I see ourselves back in New York in the next few years. My three children are all in university now in Paris, but we have our roots very entrenched in New York and it is really where our hearts are. I am still very attached to my students in Dubai and Cairo, so I would like to continue working with them when I can.”
The Aug. 17 through Aug. 20 clinics have different sections each day at $225 a section. But you don’t have to be an equestrian to attend. Auditors are welcome, with admission set at $75.
To reserve your place, call 914-669-5610.