When Aretha Franklin Rocked the Dressage World

Blogger and judge Margaret Freeman fondly remembers Debbie McDonald's freestyle performance aboard Brentina at the 2005 World Cup Dressage Final.
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When I heard the news last week that Aretha Franklin had died, I did what I know many dressage lovers often do: I pulled up You Tube and watched again the freestyle ride of Debbie McDonald and Brentina at the 2005 World Cup. It is my happy place. When I need a moment to brighten my day, I watch that 6-minute video. I know every note by heart. I imagine sometimes that I could ride it by heart as well. 

 If you haven’t done so already this week, honor Aretha Franklin by watching Brentina’s World Cup freestyle on your computer.

 If you haven’t done so already this week, honor Aretha Franklin by watching Brentina’s World Cup freestyle on your computer.

If you haven’t seen the video (and it’s hard to imagine a U.S. dressage fan who hasn’t seen it), or you weren’t in that packed Vegas arena yourself, you don’t know that the climax at the end of the rock/pop-music compilation is Aretha singing "Respect." I find it hard to imagine a more-perfect crescendo to a more-inspired performance. (Watch the video below or click here.) 

I also occasionally show that video to someone who asks about what dressage is or who hasn’t ever seen a Grand Prix freestyle. No further explanations are needed.

My first introduction to Aretha Franklin was actually a sort-of horsey reference. In 1968, I was writing back and forth (yes, actual letters, not email or texts) with an entering freshman at Mills College in California, my “little sister.” Her family in Ohio had horses, and she said one was named Aretha Baby. I needed an explanation. She said it was a beautiful bay mare they loved that reminded them of Aretha Franklin, so I asked who that was. Ever after, I always thought of the singer as Aretha Baby.

When I put together a freestyle myself, I am not always a fan of varied music for a compilation. I generally prefer two or three pieces by the same artist (ideally from the same recording source), matching the horse’s gait tempos, and I try to arrange the choreography to the music, not the music to the choreography, as often happens. I hope that creates more of a feeling of the horse dancing to music, rather than the music wrangled to match the horse.

But, the music and choreography that Terry Gallo so artfully created for Brentina defies my personal-preference quirk. Horse and rider and music and choreography all just seem to float together.

I was at that 2005 World Cup, in a judge’s forum that was situated in the corner at the A end of the arena. I recall the growing swell of excitement in that American crowd that Debbie had nailed her performance. The crowd wanted to cheer and to clap along to the music, realizing that it was near the end as she did a piaffe/pirouette by A. This little smile came on her face and the crowd took it as approval to explode. How often at a dressage show do we see thousands of people on their feet screaming?

It is my second favorite moment in my lifelong dressage experience. (The first is seeing Reiner Klimke’s victory “gallop” with one-tempis at the 1984 Olympics.) Every time I hear Aretha Franklin, I think at least briefly of Brentina, and every time I see a picture of Brentina I think briefly of Aretha. With all my respect.

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