Editor’s note: Dressage Today has followed Debbie McDonald’s career from the time she and Brentina won double gold at the 1999 Pan American Games to the way she led the U.S. charge for a record-breaking team silver medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games and then her 2003 World Cup finals victory—the first for an American rider—as well as her team bronze efforts in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 WEG. In anticipation of the Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals’ return to Las Vegas in April, DT is offering an exciting new sweepstakes that will present one winner with two round-trip tickets to the finals plus a behind-the-scenes pass to spend time with Debbie. Award-winning equestrian photojournalist Nancy Jaffer, who wrote the popular book, Riding Through with Debbie, caught up with the dressage icon to get her take on where she’s been and where she sees herself in the future. Though no longer a rider, she continues to help promote the sport she loves.
Brentina is long retired and Debbie McDonald has moved on from riding to coaching. But one of America’s legendary dressage pairings enjoys a relationship that has withstood the test of time and remains an important part of both their lives. Even though Brentina spends the winters loafing in a pasture near Santa Barbara, California, when the mare returns each summer to owners Peggy and Parry Thomas’ River Grove Farm, in Hailey, Idaho, she and McDonald have a touching reunion. “That bond is way too strong to be forgotten,” McDonald emphasizes.
In the shadow of the mountains that look down on the scenic farm, the majestic horse and her petite trainer respond to each other as they always have. “She’ll give me my back rub and I’ll give her hers,” McDonald says with a smile.
Despite the fact that McDonald was the USA’s first Dressage World Cup Finals winner with the Hanoverian mare, or that the duo led the country to its first team silver medal in the World Equestrian Games, not to mention an Olympic team bronze, the two had their share of competitive trials and tribulations. “It was always hard for a 5-foot woman on a big chestnut mare to be taken either really seriously or respected as much as I thought I should have been respected,” McDonald recounts. “I was ‘the housewife from Idaho,’ [as a European journalist termed her at her first World Cup Finals in 1998] or I was ‘riding a schoolmaster.’” That was totally inaccurate. “So many people just really didn’t know who Brentina was, how quirky she could be about [a rider] getting on and off, except people who lived and dealt with her. She’d buck you off if you weren’t careful.
Today, even though she’s 24, I wouldn’t just hop on her. She was a very cold-backed mare. She didn’t get me off, but she got a lot of people off,” says McDonald.
In some respects, however, Brentina was as easy as everybody thought she was. “She was pretty much the same to ride every single day. She came out, did everything in 20 minutes and, after that, it was just trying to keep her as happy and fit as I could. She wasn’t one who ever needed drilling.”
A New Role to Play
Brentina no longer is ridden, and a neck condition keeps McDonald, 60, out of the saddle. “I can’t be foolish,” she says, explaining why she has to stay on the ground. “I totally miss it. I was so happy when my neck felt pretty good. I was riding two or three horses a day.”
McDonald particularly regrets being on the sidelines when her assistant trainer, Adrienne Lyle, is riding Brentina’s 4-year-old son, Dillinger, by Damsey. He is one of Brentina’s two foals, both carried by surrogate mares. The other is Brighton, by Kingston. He is with Button Baker, who ran the California farm where Brentina spent her winters for years. “I never rode Dillinger,” sighs McDonald, who does the training while Lyle rides. “That was a goal of mine, but my neck just isn’t good enough.”
Working as the USEF’s developing dressage coach isn’t something McDonald thought about during the height of her riding career. At that point, she didn’t plan what she would do next. “I guess I never thought it would end. And then, when I got a little more rickety and older, with pains and aches coming from the neck, and Brentina was coming to the end of her career, I had to make a plan. I’m not the type, at my age, to go out and think I’m going to bring a young one up myself and make that happen.”
McDonald acknowledges that her enjoyment of teaching kept her from sinking into the doldrums. “Thank God I love to teach. When Adrienne came on board, it was an exciting perk for me in a moment when you’re a little down and depressed from a retirement situation and realize you never really will have that euphoric moment again coming down centerline. Having Adrienne come at the time she did made me focus on where I could go. It made it very clear to me that it was a direction on which I needed to focus.”
It wasn’t an easy time for McDonald when she retired after the 2008 Olympics, which did not go well for Brentina. “People always say things happen for a reason,” says McDonald. “The only thing that keeps you going is that you love it. You wonder: What’s coming after this? Is another door going to open?”
A door did open for McDonald, and she walked through it. “If Adrienne had not been there, I don’t really know what I would have done. She gave me the incentive to keep moving forward in a direction I had not thought of, and Bob and the Thomas family were very supportive.”
Life Outside of Dressage
McDonald finds she has less free time than when she was riding. Not only is she committed to the developing rider program, but she also has people she helps regularly and does a few private clinics. After leaving home following Thanksgiving last year, for instance, she didn’t return to Idaho until late June. Last winter, she spent the season in Florida for the first time. She liked Wellington so much that she and her husband, a hunter/jumper trainer, bought a house in the Palm Beach Polo Club and hope to be working out of a stable in the area that he helped design.
Despite her hectic travel and work schedule, McDonald always tries to make time for family. She put everything else on hold in July when she and Bob watched their son, Ryan, 30, marry MacKenzie Fowler in Idaho on a day of joy and high emotion. Ryan, who owns a restaurant in Boise, had been with his fiancée for several years. “When we went on a family vacation to Mexico, after watching MacKenzie and Ryan together, I knew she was the one for him,” McDonald says. “I’ve considered her part of the family ever since.”
The newlyweds just bought their first home, a two-bedroom house, and McDonald notes that at some point, the second bedroom will become a nursery. Her husband already is planning on buying a pony, but their son would like a boy with whom he could play ice hockey, his favorite sport.
Moments at home are all too rare for McDonald, who relishes being in her beautiful Hailey house, designed by her husband. They share it with Halle, a jackapoo, and Shooter, a yellow Labrador retriever. The rare respite of taking a break from her many responsibilities is something to which she looks forward during her months of nonstop motion. “I cannot wait until I get back to Idaho and I can hike with my dogs in the mountains and just smell fresh air and enjoy peace of mind,” McDonald says.
While McDonald doesn’t see herself as working nonstop forever, she’s not ready to wind down quite yet. “It’s not the luxury life that some would like to believe,” she observes. “The only thing that keeps me going are the riders, and I love the group I get to work with.”
For the Love of Vegas
“I’ll always have this ride in my head,” a thrilled Debbie McDonald said after her freestyle on Brentina (shown below with McDonald) at the 2005 World Cup Dressage Finals in Las Vegas, where she rocked the sold-out house at the Thomas & Mack Center to the beat of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
As Brentina piaffed on centerline before her final salute, McDonald encouraged the crowd to clap in time to the music. So much for the sedate image of the sport, as fans complied and a new enthusiasm was born. “That’s better than winning anything,” McDonald recalls. “The people who were there still talk about it. It was incredibly special.”
Dressage Joins the World Cup
Dressage certainly took a great step forward with that year’s finals, which proved the sport is fun and can really draw a crowd. “I’ll still have people who call me out of the blue and say, ‘They’re playing Brentina’s song,’” McDonald says.
That performance was indeed fantastic, but it was by no means an anomaly for cup finals at the Thomas & Mack Center (named after McDonald’s sponsor, Parry Thomas, who helped play a role in the World Cup coming to Vegas).
Since dressage joined the finals program at the arena in 2005, there were many memorable rides there in the 2007 and 2009 renewals. Something about being in Vegas seems to bring out the showmanship in horses and riders, rivaling the flair of the colorful acts that pepper the four-day World Cup program in the country’s entertainment capital. McDonald was part of the scene at the first cup finals in Vegas, when the 2000 event was limited to show jumping. Less than a year after winning double gold at the 1999 Pan American Games, she gave an exhibition performance with Brentina that had everyone thinking dressage should be a part of the show. Many of the spectators did not know anything about the discipline, and McDonald gave them a memorable introduction to it.
McDonald, whose riding career started in the hunter/jumper ranks, was thrilled when she heard she would be riding there. “I was delighted to do it; it was a no-brainer for me because I knew it was in Thomas & Mack and it was with my old jumping crowd. So there were a lot of people I kept up with in the jumping world at that time.”
Riding in the arena just a few miles from Vegas’ famous strip is a unique experience. “It’s one of the most fun environments to go in to. You come down this long tunnel and they open the curtains and the crowd is all above you and they’re crazy. You feel like everyone’s there looking at you, not like in a big, big arena, where they’re farther away. It’s a very special place for me.”
Naturally, she would love to see her protégé, Adrienne Lyle, compete in the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Finals with Wizard, her 2012 Olympic mount. The draw of Vegas should ensure a star-studded group vying for the title. From the U.S., it would be great to have Steffen Peters (Legolas) and Laura Graves (Verdades) join Adrienne and face off against the likes of Germany’s Matthias Alexander Rath (Totilas) and former champion Helen Langehanenberg (Damon Hill NRW) as well as the Netherlands’ Edward Gal (Glock’s Undercover). Of course, the biggest excitement would be to have Great Britain’s Olympic double gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin defend her 2014 title with the fabulous Valegro.
It’s too early to say who will qualify for the finals, but there’s no doubt it will be a remarkable field.
“Everybody who went there and competed [in Vegas] definitely wants to come back,” says McDonald. “I don’t know anybody who didn’t have a blast. Anybody who came as a spectator I think would come back now that it’s been a few years because they also have memories and fun times they won’t ever forget. If it’s something you come and do for four or five days with friends, it’s a no-brainer. It’s going to be a sold-out, packed house.”
Juxtapose that with the city’s attractions and you have a win/win. McDonald is also a fan of Las Vegas as a place to relax. Great restaurants bearing the names of celebrity chefs abound, but there is something for all price ranges. She enjoys the National Rodeo Finals each December and stays at the Bellagio, where she particularly appreciates its conservatory, a lush and lovely floral setting. One night of her visit always is devoted to a show. Among her favorites is ventriloquist Terry Fator, who has a theater named after him at the Mirage.
McDonald is looking forward to the return of the World Cup Finals in April after an absence of five years. “Vegas is very smart in how they’ve done this,” she observes. “They’ve let it go away for a while to bring back all that enthusiasm and excitement.”
Learn how you can win tickets to the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Finals in Las Vegas, plus a backstage pass with Debbie McDonald at dressagetoday.com.