Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Debbie McDonald Bids Brentina Adieu, Looks Ahead to Olympics
Adrienne Lyle and Salvino compete at the U.S. Dressage Mandatory Observation Event. PHOTO: Leslie Potter/U.S. Equestrian
Wednesday, June 16, 2021


Debbie McDonald’s freestyle prance to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” atop Brentina in the 2005 FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas still stands among the most memorable in U.S. equestrian history.

And those who were there will never forget the pair’s moves to Gershwin in a gala performance for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony at River Grove Farm in Hailey.

Now McDonald is hoping that the equestrians she coaches for the U.S. Equestrian Dressage Team will put on the memorable shows they need to medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games July 23-Aug. 8.

Debbie McDonald was named technical adviser for the U.S. Equestrian Team in 2018. PHOTO: Taylor Pence/U.S. Equestrian

The leading candidate for the team, which will be announced by June 21, is Adrienne Lyle, a 5-foot-11, 36-year-old who trained at River Grove Farm under McDonald as a college student.

“This group is one of the strongest the United States has had since I started doing dressage,” said McDonald, who serves as the technical advisor for U.S. Equestrian’s Dressage team, working with riders and horses and helping riders determine which shows are best for them. “We’re never going to beat Germany, and there are a couple other countries that also look strong. But, if all goes well, we’ll be on the podium.”

This is a bittersweet—and unusual—year for the 5-foot McDonald, who has lived in Hailey for 38 years, as she looks forward to the Games.

Brentina, a chestnut Hanoverian mare, passed away last month at the Santa Barbara horse ranch she retired to. She was 31—very old for horses, which are lucky to live to 25, said McDonald.

Brentina and Debbie McDonald, who autographed this picture for Hailey resident Jennifer Montgomery, were the nation’s top equestrians at one time.

But, still, it was sad to say goodbye to her partner who with her dominated American dressage for years.

“She was purchased as a 3-year-old by (the late River Grove Farm owner) Perry Thomas in an auction in Germany that he went to once or twice a year,” McDonald recalled. “She had a great attitude and lovely movements. I sat on her and thought she was quite nice and then Bob, my husband, told me he thought she would be the best horse I ever had. Of course, until you do a big international event, you don’t know if you have a good international horse. When we won individual and team gold medals in the Pan Am Games in 1999, I knew we had an international star.”

The two were the first Americans ever to win a World Cup Dressage Finals Champion’s title in 2003. They won a team bronze at Athens 2004 Games, team silver and bronze medals at the 2002 and 2006 World Equestrian Games.

“Brentina was a horse of a lifetime. We had a great relationship—it was like she could read my mind when I was riding. That was so unique about her. She was so intelligent,” said McDonald.

Adrienne Lyle, who trained under Debbie McDonald at Hailey’s River Grove Farm, made the short list with Harmony’s Duval and Salvino.

“Her performance in the arena at Las Vegas got a long-standing ovation. It was one of those magical times--she was just amazing. And I always think about the Sun Valley Symphony performance. To be stepping to an 80-member orchestra is so different, so rare.”

McDonald has guided three athletes and their horses to the Olympics since 2012. Among them: Lyle,   the No. 1 equestrian in the United States.

Lyle, who grew up on a cattle farm on Whidbey Island, Wash., met Debbie McDonald, whose riding she’d always admired, at River Grove Farm near her family’s Sun Valley ski condo. McDonald was so impressed with Lyle’s skills and compassion for horses that she hardly charged anything for the “nearly broke college student.”

Debbie’s husband Bob McDonald gave Lyle a job training horses at River Grove Farm. And, as she proved herself, she was offered the chance to ride Peggy Thomas’ horse Wizard, an Oldenburg gelding. Together they won the U25 Grand Prix Brentina Cup at the Festival of Champions and they competed in the 2012 London Summer Olympics with Perry and Peggy Thomas sponsoring them.

Lyle rode to fourth place in team at the individual dressage competition at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. And she and Salvino placed second in the 2018 World Equestrian Games and seventh in the 2019 World Cup Finals.

“She rides with so much feel, and she has amazing timing,” said McDonald. “And she’s as gifted at teaching as she is riding.”

Lyle and Salvino, a 2007 Hanoverian stallion with an appetite for bananas, posted personal bests with first-place show-stopping performances in the U.S. Dressage Short List Mandatory Observation Event in Wellington, Fla., June 8-12. Their 82.413 percent and 82.413 percent were good enough for second in the world given the team trial results of Germany and other countries.

Lyle also made the short list with Harmony’s Duval, a 2008 Dutch Warmblood gelding that Debbie’s husband Bob McDonald spotted in Colorado.

“Salvina is one of best in world--a black stallion, big and absolutely gorgeous,” McDonald said. “He’s also a very steady, reliable horse. When Adrienne’s atop him, it’s a lovely picture.”

Much of Adrienne’s talent is natural, McDonald sasid.

“Also, she had a good situation when she came on board at River Grove Farm. She came on as my working student in her 20s, whereas some of us are in our 30s, 40s and 50s. And, when I retired, I handed over a couple of my horses getting ready for the Grand Prix for her to train. It takes at least eight years to get horse to Grand Prix level--it’s a long process until you know what got.

“She has empathy for horses and she herself is now training riders. Three of her students went to Europe to compete at the international level there. And she’s produced several Grand Prix horses.”

Dressage is kind of like ice skating in that horses and riders have a specific test they have to do, all the while making it look effortless. Champion horses have to have a little fire in them, McDonald said.

“Sometimes it can be harder to bring them along because they’re full of themselves. But, usually, that’s  what makes them Grand Prix.”

In normal times, McDonald and the U.S. equestrians would have toured Europe during spring, evaluating how they stack up against the competition. But the dressage team stayed in Wellington, instead, because of COVID.

Still, McDonald says the U.S. equestrians may have an advantage over strong European teams since competitions there came to a standstill for several months. U.S. riders were able to have a complete show season from December through April, albeit without fans in the stands.

Twelve riders are on the short list for three team positions and a reserve position. In addition to scrutinizing each move they make, McDonald has to consider which horses are likely to do best with the  journey to Tokyo, which involves 24 hours of flights and trailer rides. Some horses may also be better able to weather Japan’s humidity, which is reputed to be worse than Florida’s.

“It’s going to be brutal conditions—very, very hot, humid and likely raining. So, not ideal,” said McDonald, who served as U.S. Equestrian’s Dressage development coach from 2010 to 2018, identifying and cultivating stars for the U.S. team.

The athletes had to hold their emotions in check when the 2020 Games were postponed because of the pandemic.

“The whole thing was so disappointing--like the carpet pulled out from underneath them,” said McDonald. “Everything shut down, everyone went home, took a break and trained their horses.  It’s not like you can have a horse this long at this level. Eighteen years is prime.”

It’s still not guaranteed the Games will go on. One of Japan’s largest newspapers is among those that  have called for the games to be cancelled as Japan’s COVID infections runs amok.

“Everybody says they’re going to cancel but, until they do, we’re going,” McDonald said. “We’re vaccinated so that gives us a little more comfort. And we will be in bubble going from our hotel room to the van to the venue where we’ll ride the horses and then go back to our hotel rooms.”

Sadly, the athletes will miss getting to be part of the Opening Ceremonies, which many say is the highlight of their Olympic experience. And they won’t get to sightsee in Tokyo.

“It’s sad that they won’t get the experience of Olympics, but we have to do this,” McDonald. “They’ll still be representing our country, and that’s something they’ve worked for all their lives. Anytime you get to stand on podium and watch the flag go up on the pole is pretty special.”

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