A dazzlingly faultless redhead, Brentina loves life. She loves her life. And why shouldn’t she? A diva, a star, one of the elite athletes of the world, she moves through her days accompanied by a cast of supporters—her trainer, rider, groom, and a long list of admirers.
Mane flowing, Brentina is resplendent in a coat of deep chestnut red. Brilliant and powerful, she is a magnificent giant of a horse, beloved throughout the western United States and Europe. And yet, when stepping into the dressage ring to compete, she is quietly poetic and poised, her neck arched like a bow, her hooves dancing like raindrops at the edge of a field. Never in my life have I seen a horse in such graceful, fluid motion; yet, when standing still, her carriage is strong and statuesque.
Brentina’s rider, Debbie McDonald, is a diminutive outline beside her horse. Small of stature, she seems an unlikely match for this colossal gathering of muscle and hooves. At 16.2 hands (nearly 5’5” at the withers), Brentina stands a full eight to nine inches taller than Debbie shoulder to shoulder; head to head, it’s nearly two feet. You would expect the rider of such a horse to be strong, gruff, even domineering; yet laughter comes easily to Debbie, whose demeanor is casual and unassuming. Upon meeting her, you would never guess that she is one of the top three dressage riders in the world.
Together Debbie and Brentina have already ridden to one of the most distinguished careers in U.S. dressage history. The pair has won back-to-back U.S. Equestrian Team Grand Prix Championships, in 2001 and 2002, and again in 2003. Just two years earlier, they brought home both individual and team gold medals from the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Since then they have experienced a string of successes, including the distinction of 2003 U.S. Freestyle Champion, numerous Horse of the Year awards, the Whitney Stone Cup, Equestrian Athlete of the Year, and a sweep of the 2003 Royal Dressage Invitational in Canada. In 2002, Debbie and Brentina helped lead the U.S. to its highest team finish in dressage, with a team Silver Medal in the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain. A year later, they achieved the unprecedented honor of winning the World Cup championship title?at Gothenburg, Sweden. They began international competitions this year with a championship in Europe (Dortmund, Germany) in both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, marking the first time an American has ever won both titles. This summer, they have a strong shot at the Olympic Gold medal in Athens, Greece—an honor never before achieved by any American dressage rider or horse trained on American soil . . . let alone a horse and rider based on a beautiful, but relatively obscure farm in Hailey, Idaho.
When Debbie and her husband, trainer Bob McDonald, first spotted Brentina in Verden, Germany, ten years ago, she was a diamond in the rough. Of the many horses they studied in their four or five days in Germany, Brentina was not, technically, the best. While she had a great walk, her canter was her weakest trait and her trot needed to be smoothed out. Bob recognized something else, though.
“I knew it the first time I saw her,” he remembers. “She was unbelievably sharp mentally. She had incredible concentration and she was exactly the same . . . every time, with every rider.” This, Bob says, is an extremely rare quality in a horse of that age (Brentina was only three years old at the time) and training. “Even now,” Bob asserts, “Brentina is incredibly confident and very calm in any situation, which is unusual, especially in a mare.”
Debbie pauses now, remembering that even she didn’t see the tremendous strength and promise that Bob glimpsed. “Bob always told me she would be the best horse I ever rode,” she says, “but it wasn’t until after the Pan American Games that I truly knew what I had!” >>>
Debbie and Brentina’s story is all the more astonishing when you consider from where they have come. Although she had ridden her entire life (primarily hunter/jumper), Debbie arrived relatively late at dressage. She switched sports just 13 years ago, after an accumulation of neck and shoulder injuries and subsequent surgeries.
Training in the relative equestrian obscurity of Idaho, their talents hidden from the discerning eyes of dressage judges and riders, the pair was unknown in the sport. They were never expected to excel at this level, and Debbie remembers being dubbed the “housewife from Idaho” when they first entered competitions together. Both persevered, however, and Debbie and Brentina are now considered top athletes at the elite levels of world competition.
“She truly is the horse of a lifetime,” Debbie asserts. “There never will be another Brentina. You may get a horse that is related to her, even one of her brothers or sisters, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get her.”
At Brentina’s home, River Grove Farm north of Hailey, it is clear that she is a horse beloved by all, from the grooms and trainer to the owners, Peggy and Parry Thomas, and the other boarders. Her echo is everywhere—in photographs, display cases of ribbons and trophies, and magazine and newsprint clippings mounted alongside a select few of her numerous awards in an area everyone affectionately calls “Brentina’s wall.” In this place she seems to rise larger than life, a champion of mythic proportions.
Yet, when those close to Brentina are questioned about what makes her so special, few have an immediate answer. The psychology of a champion, it seems, is not one-dimensional. “I wish I knew,” Bob says and pauses. “She draws you in . . . her heart draws you in. She just does not give up. Ever!”
This is an important trait in dressage, an incredibly demanding sport that requires the utmost focus and concentration. The movements are precise and complex, designed to emphasize and test the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. Dressage is a French term meaning “training,” and the discipline traces its roots back to classical Greek horsemanship. Modern dressage principles, which are based on a training system established during the Renaissance in western Europe, involve a progression of increasingly complex movements: more and more is asked of the horse, but only as it becomes mentally and physically able to respond. It truly is a dance, a silent symphony of intense athletic feats. The graceful movements performed in competition—flying changes, pirouettes, piaffe, and passage—may look effortless, but, as in ballet or figure skating, they actually result from years and years of rigorous training.
At the levels at which she is competing, Brentina regularly performs moves that require unbelievable feats of strength and finesse. On Debbie’s unspoken cue the horse is able to perform varying combinations of the most difficult moves, including multiple pirouettes, turning in place at a canter (imagine running in place on a dinner plate . . . essentially on one leg); half pass passage, where she appears to float, crossing her front legs and springing from one diagonal to the other in a perfectly straight line; and—my personal favorite, though not necessarily the most difficult—incredibly animated single or double flying changes, where she appears to “skip” across the arena at a canter while switching the leading front and hind hooves (with every step, or with every other step). Imagine the intensity of piaffe, a highly cadenced trot-in-place in which Brentina springs lightly from one diagonal to the other in an even rhythm, with a breathtaking moment of absolute suspension between each step.
With the suppleness of a dancer, Brentina may move from a twirling pirouette directly into piaffe, then lengthen into the elegant flow of an extended trot or, perhaps, flash into the skipping suspension of a flying change before floating across the arena in passage. To watch her move in this precise, disciplined, yet graceful way is to witness sunlight in motion—but deeper, richer, controlled.
“You can set a metronome on her movement,” Debbie says. “She never misses a beat.”
When they perform, the communication between horse and rider is nearly imperceptible. No words are spoken as Debbie’s confidence and focus translate directly to Brentina, who responds: the slightest touch of a leg or squeeze of a calf, a shifting of weight in the saddle or closing of fingers on the reins is all that is required to change movements, direction, or leads. Each signal from Debbie is careful, sensitive and exact; each response from Brentina is perfectly balanced.
This is a partnership, a friendship. During their training rides, Debbie affectionately calls the horse LaLa and offers her constant words of encouragement, rewards, and little pats— “sugar from the saddle,” as she calls it.
“She is totally tuned to my cues,” Debbie says. “We think alike and work well together. She knows when I’m down and picks me up, and I do the same for her.”
Debbie and her trainers and teammates cite numerous occasions when the trust cultivated from this bond has proved critical. At the USET Grand Prix Championship in 2001, Brentina broke out in a mysterious case of hives just moments before her final competition. It was touch and go, with an agonizing period of uncertainty and consultation with the team vet and numerous experts. Brentina wanted to perform, however, and in the end, after a simple cool-water spritz, she rode to the championship, the hives having subsided by the end of her round. A similar situation occurred when Brentina’s breathing was impaired during competitions just last summer in Europe.
“You could hear her breathing during the competition, it was that loud,” Debbie remembers. “She was laboring for each breath, and I would get off and just cry.” But, she adds, “Brentina doesn’t want you to hold her back. She thinks she wants to go, and you really need to focus on her and how she feels.”
That energy can be misunderstood upon first meeting Brentina. When confined to her stall, she has a tendency to pin her ears back and watch you intently—a trait, Debbie assured me, that reflects her desire to be part of the action, to have you right next to her, scratching her neck or rubbing her ears. I later discovered that it could also be a spirited search for any treats that might be lurking in my pockets. Peppermints are her favorite and, when she is not working, a fairly steady stream of them disappear into Brentina’s stall—along with carrots, apples, and cubes of sugar.
“She is a diva,” Debbie laughs. “She thinks she’s pretty great.” Bob echoes this sentiment, adding that Brentina is a show horse, a performer. “Yes,” says Debbie. “The minute she steps into that ring, she puffs up to say, ‘Here I am!’ It’s as if she’s thinking, ‘They have all come here for me, to see me. I’m the one.’”
And, of course, she is right. Fans pack the arenas to see Brentina. Ruben Palomera, who moved to Idaho three years ago to tend to Brentina’s grooming needs and travel with her wherever she goes, says that she has quite the following abroad: “Everybody knows Brentina in Europe. Everybody comes to see her—she is famous.”
“People expect so much from her now,” Bob says in reference to her many triumphs. “It could be difficult, but she’s amazing; she just keeps on giving.”
What does the future hold for Brentina? Debbie and Bob (and, in all likelihood, Brentina herself) hope that an Olympic gold medal is in store. “At the very least,” Debbie says, “she has many more years of elite level competition in her.” Dressage horses reach their prime at about 13 (after many years of training), and are still strong competitors until about the age of 18. Brentina is just 13, which leaves her with a breezy five to six years of world competiton. “She will tell me when it’s time to stop,” her rider says.
Debbie then adds one more hope: “Brentina would make a wonderful mother. She loves to nuzzle. I’d like to wait until she isn’t competing so much, though, so she would have time to communicate with her foal . . . to enjoy the full experience of motherhood. She deserves to live all her dreams.”
This sentiment points to perhaps the single most compelling trait shared by Brentina and Debbie. If you were to describe the championship quality of either, you would have to say that, clearly, it resides in the heart.
When not behind her desk or on her laptop, Editor in Chief Laurie Sammis enjoys researching and writing every assignment the editorial department allows her to write. After meeting Brentina, she discovered she may not have outgrown her childhood passion for horses after all. And, she still dreams of riding the open range at a gallop.