By Jan Westmark
Debbie McDonald and Brentina, a chestnut Hanoverian mare, spent years setting the dressage world on fire. Together, the small rider and big horse brought home Pan Am team and individual gold medals, an Olympic team bronze medal and World Equestrian team silver and bronze medals, and Debbie became the first American to win an FEI World Cup Dressage Final. Debbie continues to be an integral part of the U.S. dressage world, and in 2018 was selected as Robert Dover’s successor in the role of U.S. Dressage Team Chef d’Equipe and Technical Advisor. She’s also a personal trainer for athletes and their horses, including Adrienne Lyle and Wizard in the 2012 London Olympics and Rio 2016 team bronze medalists Laura Graves and Verdades and Kasey Perry-Glass and Gorklintgaards Duble. Debbie has also taken on a new role as a grandmother to granddaughter Maris. “Being a grandmother is amazing!” Debbie said. “It’s a love that is hard to describe.”
You are in love with your granddaughter, but you will always love Brentina. How is she doing?
She will be 30 this coming year and is doing very well. She is still at In The Irons Farm in Santa Barbara, California, and will remain there for the rest of her life. I couldn’t have found a better place for her to be. I was very picky about where she went because she has had two colic surgeries. She needed to go someplace where they had eyes on her all the time. They know her so well that if she even seems at all off her feed the vet is called. She goes out in a pasture for a few hours every day and then into a stall with a run the rest of the time. I owe her longevity to Christi Sulzbach, her daughter Kate and all the staff. If it weren’t for them, I would be worried all the time and a mental mess. I love that they love her and will do everything in her best interest. Hard to find, but I did!
What’s it like being a grandmother?
I think one of the most rewarding parts is seeing my son be such a wonderful daddy. Maris is now 19 months and in such a fun stage.
You’ve lived in Idaho for 37 years. What do you like about it?
I love the mountains, lakes, hikes, clear water and fresh, clean air. Cool nights even on hot summer days. Sun Valley is a little piece of heaven!
How have you and your husband, Bob, shared the horse world together over the years?
Bob is my biggest fan and always gives me the support I’ve needed; truly someone that has gotten me through some tough times and is always there for me. I couldn’t be where I am today without him!
You’ve coached so many riders to great success — any favorite memories?
Way too many to even say, but of course any time you see them on the podium, I get all choked up and cry!
Favorite shows you’ve traveled to?
My all-time favorite both when I competed and since I’ve been coaching is Aachen. It truly is the best show in the world to me!
Have you had a funny horse moment that still makes you laugh?
I have several, but almost all of those were when I was starting to learn to jump! I had a heck of a time staying on over the jump. When we were at the Orange County Fairgrounds, everyone there had bets on how many times I would fall off. But I don’t give up on anything, and I finally did figure it out!
What’s your favorite thing about being part of the horse world?
The horses: I’m always so blown away at how these big animals let us do what we do with them. They’re amazing, and I can’t imagine my life without them.
If you weren’t involved with the horse world, what career do you think you would have picked?
I wanted to train therapy and seeing eye dogs. I have always been so fascinated in what you can teach them to do. So loyal and loving!
If you had a week off, what would you do?
I’d love to take a vacation somewhere without cell phones and with warm water. I’m looking forward to that after this next year.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by kind people and doing good things for others. I think the most inspiring moments I have been able to be a part of have been through Make A Wish. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of three wishes. Those young children are the most inspiring; they never complain and are so grateful for every day.
What talents do you feel you have?
I would have to say coaching. I think to be good at this, you have to love it.
What three items can usually be found in your refrigerator?
Water, coffee and frozen dinners
What would be the best gift in the world?
Peace for the world
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
That I could transport our horses and athletes with a wiggle of my nose. I hate that they have to travel so far. It makes me nervous every time they do.
How would you like people to remember you?
Someone that was passionate and kind, was a good voice for the horse and tried very hard to do the right things