Secrets to World-Class Success in Dressage

The all-American dream team of Debbie McDonald, Adrienne Lyle, and Peggy and Parry Thomas shares its winning formula.
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Olympian Debbie McDonald (facing page) trains Adrienne Lyle and Wizard, a 1999 Oldenburg gelding owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas. They will represent the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Olympian Debbie McDonald (facing page) trains Adrienne Lyle and Wizard, a 1999 Oldenburg gelding owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas. They will represent the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games.

As I wind my rental car through the labyrinth of driveways and barns at Betsy Juliano’s Florida farm, I search for anything that will direct me to where I am supposed to go. I slowly pass reserved parking signs for George Williams and Kathy Connelly as well as a stunning horse schooling piaffe in a covered arena. On any other day, in any other place, I would have stopped at all three. But during the winter season in Wellington, Florida, everyone, including me, is trying to get a week’s worth of work done in a day, and if you stop every time you see a dressage legend or world-class horse, you would never get anything done. However, even if I did have all day, I would still be hurrying. This afternoon, I have an interview with Olympian Debbie McDonald and her protégé Adrienne Lyle.

I had met them one time before—Debbie at a fundraiser, and Adrienne at Dressage at Devon. Each seemed impressive in her own right. As one of the best international competitors U.S. dressage has ever had, Debbie did not have to say anything to leave an impression. However, this petite blonde was casually friendly in a way that belied her accomplishments, and it said something that she had taken time to speak at a fundraiser in Maryland. When I met Adrienne, she also seemed reserved despite her recent win in a Grand Prix freestyle aboard Peggy and Parry Thomas’ Wizard. Though in height she is Debbie’s exact opposite, the two reminded me of each other. 

So, when I finally found their stabling area at Betsy’s farm, it was no surprise that everything was impressive but humble. While the horses were groomed to perfection and the custom trunks were spotless, everything gave off the feeling of being lived in. The leather on the neatly stored tack looked broken in, and the clean wraps looked slightly worn. As I took a seat, Adrienne came in with a horse, fresh off a 30-minute hand-walk. 


Adrienne Joins the Team 

“How did I get here?” Adrienne asks herself in response to my question. “This all began in the summer of 2006, when I started as a groom for Debbie in Sun Valley, Idaho, home base for Parry and Peggy Thomas’ River Grove Farm. It was great to see the horsemanship, and I got to ride the hunters for Bob [Debbie’s husband]. It was nice just to get on horses. Then Debbie let me get on horses faster than I ever thought possible. When she was away, she let me ride. It was then that I learned that it is important to treat everyone with courtesy because you never know where it will take you.”

When I ask Debbie to recount her version of the story, she adds details that explain why Adrienne became a trusted member of their business. Adrienne had come to take lessons one summer, and she recognized that she had a lot of natural talent. At the time. Adrienne had a Prix St. Georges horse that she had done most of the training on with lessons when she could afford it. Within a short period of time, they were working the Grand Prix movements. Unfortunately, Adrienne was forced to sell that horse for financial reasons before heading back to college. 

When Adrienne left to go back to school, Debbie was starting to look at her long-term plans. At the time, she was riding the Thomas’ 1999 Oldenburg gelding, Wizard, and he was strong. Riding him along with multiple younger horses was becoming too much, and Debbie recognized that she needed a younger person to move into her role. She thought she was getting older. She thought that Adrienne could fill that position, so Bob called her and asked if she would like to come back. She said she had to finish the semester, which spoke of her character to Debbie. She came back that winter, and right away Debbie felt really confident that when she was gone Adrienne could take care of the horses. “I felt that I could leave my horses and she would not practice piaffe and passage when we didn’t want her to,” adds Debbie.

Passing the Torch 

Adrienne’s return to Debbie’s allowed her to take the ride on Wizard almost right away. She also got the ride on Felix, another of Debbie’s top mounts. “I knew that after the 2008 Olympics I was going to retire,” says Debbie, “so, when I got home, I told her she could have the ride on him.” The fact that Adrienne didn’t come to Debbie desperate for a sponsor is what appealed to her. “You can’t just drop in and ride well. People need the chance to recognize your work ethic and commitment,” says Debbie. One example of this was when Adrienne worked over Christmas so Debbie could take the holiday off. 

A good work ethic isn’t the only quality Debbie recognized in Adrienne. She points out that the way she handles pressure, being firm and positive, makes her a pleasure to teach. She calls it a gift. Debbie’s hope is for Adrienne to be an up-and-coming rider in the United States. Thanks to Peggy and Parry Thomas, Adrienne has been well-sponsored. Debbie points out that Adrienne has been fortunate to have quality mounts so far, and, unlike herself, Adrienne doesn’t suffer from show nerves. “It was neat for me to see someone with that quality whom I could share my knowledge with that is so gifted.”

Through the combination of Adrienne’s talents, Debbie’s knowledge and the Thomas’ incredible support, the team certainly has plans to stay on the international stage. This is the main reason this West Coast team is in Florida for the winter. With only three CDIs in California, choosing to bring the horses east has allowed them to pick and choose more freely from the 10 in Florida. This keeps Adrienne and her horses sharper by showing more often. Any shows Adrienne is not competing in provide her with an opportunity to watch her competition. 

Despite the team’s long-term, successful plan of getting Adrienne to the Olympics, Debbie is quick to note that this is not what makes a person successful. “What makes you successful is what you are inside and how you train. Don’t always have your vision of how to be successful point one way because you can get there in several different ways. Even if you don’t have the money, it doesn’t mean that when someone sees that young horse you have been working with they won’t pay you a ton of money for that horse. Or they will see what you have done to get that horse where you did, and you never know who will want to be your next sponsor.” 

Six years and thousands of miles away from where their partnership began, Adrienne and Debbie consider each other family. When I ask them where they see themselves in five or 10 years, they don’t answer by talking about international-competition plans. Instead, they are realistic in pointing out that Peggy and Parry Thomas have supported them for longer than most of the sponsors in dressage. Debbie notes that it would be unwise to count on something to last forever, especially with the Thomas’ age. Looking at all of their options is another reason they are in Florida—to scout out possible locations for a new home base. The key is that they are making plans. Debbie ends by saying, “As long as we can possibly stay together, as long as I can support her, I will always be there for Adrienne. For sure.”

Debbie McDonald is the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Developing Coach. She was the first American to win the World Cup Dressage Final with Peggy and Parry Thomas’ Brentina in 2009. The pair has represented the United States at Olympic Games, World Championships and a Pan American Games.

Adrienne Lyle is McDonald’s assistant trainer at River Grove Farm. She and Wizard were named to the United States team for the 2012 Olympics in London, England. The pair also won the 2008 Brentina Cup (adriennelyle.com).

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