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The Outfield: Robert Dover's foundation doesn't horse around
The Outfield: Robert Dover's foundation doesn't horse around
by Dan Woog - SGN Contributing Writer

As a six-time captain of the U.S. equestrian team and a four-time Olympic bronze medalist in dressage, Robert Dover is often asked to ride in benefit shows. A Gay man who saw many close friends in the horse world die of AIDS complications, he vowed long ago to use those performances to raise funds for HIV/AIDS organizations.

But, he says, in the mid-1990s, the equestrian community was like show business: "Despite large numbers of Gay men and women, it was still pretty conservative." A defining moment came in Washington, D.C., when benefit organizers shied away from saying "AIDS" on the public ?address system.

Dover refused to perform. Other riders took a similar stand. Organizers relented, but Dover realized that more direct action was needed.

With Robert Ross (his longtime partner and an international show-jumping rider) and Mason Phelps (an Olympic equestrian three-day eventing athlete), Dover founded the Equestrian AIDS Foundation. For a decade, it raised funds for members of the horse world who were living with ?HIV/AIDS.

Hundreds of riders, grooms, walkers, farriers, and equipment makers of all ages received financial assistance and advocacy. Again and again, Dover heard: "You were my equestrian angels. Without your group, I couldn't live."

But as HIV/AIDS transformed from a death sentence into a chronic illness, Dover and his fellow angels decided to broaden their focus. Dropping one letter, they changed the name to the Equestrian Aid Foundation. The EAF now provides medical assistance, health insurance, food, housing, transportation, and physical therapy to equestrians suffering from catastrophic illnesses or injuries.

"There are so many accidents in the horse industry," Dover says, explaining the need for aid beyond AIDS. "A Christopher Reeve-type injury - when you hit a jump that doesn't give way - is not uncommon." This year, the greatest number of requests for help has been from equestrians paralyzed by accidents.

"We still serve men, women, and children living with AIDS," Dover notes. "But by changing our focus to 'aid,' we're now embraced by many more donors. Believe it or not, there's still a Gay stigma attached to AIDS. People are much more willing to give money to an organization they think helps lots of different people." Dover says that the group's fundraising base is 10 times greater than before.

Of course, Dover is not turning his back on the Gay community. "They're still a major focus, both for service and fundraising," he says, citing a benefit last spring at the Mandalay Bay Hotel called "Divas Las Vegas." Nearly 2,000 people - many drawn by advertisements on Gay websites - danced and enjoyed live performances by Taylor Dane, Martha Wash, Deborah Cox, and Jennifer Holliday. "The most fantastic drag queens greeted people and ran the raffle," Dover says. "We raised about $400,000."

Yet more money is always needed. The Equestrian Aid Foundation's first membership campaign kicks off Labor Day weekend at the Hampton Classic, one of the nation's premier horse events. TV and movie stars will be prominent.

"The equestrian world is still pretty Gay, and it probably always will be," says Dover, who came out at the University of Georgia following his first same-sex experience (with a man who kept his horse at the same stable). Dover's equestrian specialty, dressage, can seem especially Gay; in fact, it originated in ancient Greece when war horses leaped high in the air, kicking out their front feet to avoid foot soldiers.

Later those movements were transformed into equine ballet dances to entertain royalty. The sport grew elegant, with riders adopting top hat and tails. Today, dressage combines both art and athleticism. Like compulsory skaters, riders are scored on the exactness of their figures during a series of choreographed events.

While Dover has met Gay men and Lesbians in all areas of the horse world, including riding and jumping, equestrians are seldom cited as "Gay athletes." Dover shrugs: "You hardly ever see equestrian sports mentioned in North America anyway." In Europe, it's different: Crowds of 60,000 fill stadiums for equestrian events.

The sport's profile may be raised this fall, when five episodes of a new reality show, Search for America's Next Equestrian Star, debut. Dover serves as producer, host, and head judge. With that, and his increasing workload at the EAF, he plans to retire from equestrian administrative work following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But before he leaves the international scene, Dover has one hope. "I wish that all Gay athletes would come out in all disciplines - football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever," he says. "After six Olympics, I know they're in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we're all over."

Dover can't help them all. But thanks to the Equestrian Aid Foundation, he's doing what he can, in one small ring of society. For more information, visit www.equestrianaidfoundation.org, or call 800-792-6068.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.

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