photography: Jim Volkert
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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!” >>>