By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
From a cattle ranch on a small island all the way to the Olympic Games, Adrienne Lyle is inspiring riders from around the world. As one of our country’s top dressage riders, Adrienne is proving it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what horse you have — with hard work and passion, even the biggest dreams can come true.
Adrienne grew up on a sprawling farm on Whidbey Island, situated in Washington’s Puget Sound. Though Adrienne’s parents weren’t horse people, they allowed friends to keep horses on their 180 acres, along with herds of cattle. Adrienne spent her childhood outdoors, and explored fields, forests and beaches from the back of a horse. “We’d pack a lunch in the morning and head off bareback on our ponies, and often we didn’t return until after dark. We would build forts for our ponies, herd the cows, jump the fallen trees, swim the horses in the ocean and otherwise occupy our time with great adventures,” she said.
Though Adrienne started riding Western, she wanted to learn to jump. Growing up in a rural area, Adrienne didn’t have access to private instructors or professional barns to take lessons. Instead, she discovered the United States Pony Club and joined her local chapter to learn more about three-day eventing.
“I remember showing up to my first-ever dressage lesson in a Western saddle on a wild auction pony named Salsa — who’d only run backwards if you weren’t allowing her to gallop forward!” Adrienne laughed. “I’d watched some old VHS tapes about the Spanish Riding School, and I was determined I was going to teach my pony to do dressage like that. I put in a valiant effort, although I never got so far as getting the pony on the bit.”
Adrienne competed in eventing during her time in Pony Club, but by age 13 she’d made up her mind — dressage was her passion. “Dressage captivated me and I knew I wanted to learn everything I could about it. The combination of understanding a horse’s mind and understanding the mechanics of a horse’s movement and balance was absolutely fascinating to me,” she said. “I was often given difficult horses to ride and train by people, and I found that by focusing on the basics of dressage, a lot of their so-called ‘problem’ behaviors went away.”
Taking a Leap of Faith
Adrienne’s determination to bring the best out of every horse explains why her mount for her first North American Youth Championships was a Thoroughbred mare that had previously been used as a rodeo bucking horse in California. Adrienne affectionately described her as “slightly neurotic.” The pair competed at the championships at Paxton Farms, Ohio, in the Junior division, equivalent to Third Level. “Looking back now, I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I had lots of fun and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of dressage,” she said.
After getting a taste of this new world of big competition, Adrienne set her mind on a career in horses. Although her parents were supportive of her endeavors, they recommended a college degree. Adrienne attended Washington State University through her junior year — when she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I had always admired Debbie McDonald’s riding. She was one of my heroes and I’d always wanted to learn from her,” Adrienne said. At the time, Debbie was training out of Peggy and Parry Thomas’ River Grove Farm in Sun Valley, Idaho. Coincidentally, Adrienne’s parents owned a ski condo in Sun Valley. “They decided they were going to sell the condo,” she said, “so that prompted me to reach out to Debbie to try and get lessons over the summer while I still had a place to stay.”
Much to Adrienne’s excitement, Debbie agreed to give her some lessons. “I kept my horse at a friend’s barn there and hauled in to the gorgeous River Grove Farm for my lesson,” she said. “It was amazing, and I’m pretty sure Debbie could tell I was a broke college student because she hardly charged me anything for the lesson.”
After hauling in a few more times, Adrienne was shocked when Debbie’s husband, Bob, offered her a working student position for the remainder of the summer. “Of course I jumped at the opportunity! At the end of the summer, they offered me a full-time job, and it took me less than one second to make up my mind,” she said.
The London Olympics
Adrienne’s time as a working student was invaluable to her education. She likens the experience to going to grad school for training. “I had already been training horses and teaching lessons for years before going to River Grove Farm, but I knew that if I wanted to reach my goal of being a top rider someday, I needed to gain as much education as possible from top riders,” she said. “I tried to soak in every bit of knowledge I could.”
After proving herself, she was offered an opportunity to ride one of Peggy Thomas’ horses, Wizard. Though the Oldenburg gelding was sometimes a hot-head, he was quite a character and captured Adrienne’s heart. “When I first rode Wizard, it never crossed my mind that he could take me to the Olympics,” she reflected. “I was just so honored that Debbie let me ride him one day in a lesson, and that she then allowed me to keep the ride on him.”
Together, the pair competed in the small tour before competing in their first Grand Prix. In 2008, they won the U25 Grand Prix Brentina Cup at the Festival of Champions. “I had no idea Parry Thomas would want to take the chance to back a working student all the way to an Olympic Games,” Adrienne said, but ever grateful for the opportunity, she set her sights on the 2012 London Olympics and never looked back.
When she found out she made the Olympic team, she was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Her lifelong dream was coming true, and she was grateful to the village of people who helped make it happen. “I’m not sure if I had any concrete expectations of what it’d be like to ride at the Olympics, but I can say the whole experience was amazing,” she said.
“The Olympics is so special because it’s not just a horse show — there are all the other sports there with you, and the feeling of camaraderie, pride and unity that goes along with bringing people together from all around the world for a common purpose,” Adrienne said. Her favorite memories were walking in the opening ceremony and taking a tour of London with her family and grooms. “There were also fun little moments that I will always remember, such as our team workouts at the barn, where everyone inevitably ended up laughing so hard they couldn’t continue.”
While many riders feel the pressure of riding at an Olympic Games, Wizard made sure Adrienne kept full focus where it belonged — on him. “Wizard was such a handful to deal with, I was always too busy trying to keep him contained to have any time to think about the fact that I was going down centerline in the biggest venue in the world,” she laughed.
A New Partnership
In 2014, Wizard earned his retirement after a strong performance at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy. After Wizard’s retirement, Adrienne knew she had her work cut out for her to find another special horse to take her back to the international stage. Then, she received a phone call that Akiko Yamazaki was interested in syndicating a horse for a top rider, and they’d chosen Adrienne. “I was absolutely speechless and so incredibly honored,” she said.
The search began, and after seven months and five trips to Europe, Adrienne found an 8-year-old stallion in Spain, through Jochen Arl. “We didn’t click right away in our communication when riding, but I loved his suppleness, scope and power,” she said. “When riding him, I got little glimpses of what I thought could turn into an amazing feel.”
The stallion, first known by Sandronnerhall , was renamed Salvino. Upon arriving home, Adrienne and Salvino spent the next year establishing the basics and building their partnership, supported by patient owners and trainers.
For Adrienne, the waiting was worth it. “I feel our decision to initially delay competing Salvino for a year absolutely paid off,” she said. Following a year of competition in Europe and on the Nations Cup team, the pair competed at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, earning a silver medal with the United States team.
“Betsy Juliano had taken over sole ownership of Salvino in January of 2018,” Adrienne said. “Betsy is the most amazing owner, and supporter of dressage in general, and it has been an incredible honor to ride for her. It’s so fun to be surrounded by people who share the same philosophies about riding, training and life in general.”
COVID-19 and Future Goals
For Adrienne, horses are part of every aspect of her life, a passion she said she “lives, breathes, and dreams about.” Her fiancé, David Da Silva, also shares Adrienne’s passion for horses, and is a practicing equine veterinarian and specialist in sports medicine. Also a beloved member of Adrienne’s family is Tia, her 13-year-old miniature Australian Shepherd. “Tia’s been with me through a lot of life’s adventures. I adore her,” Adrienne said.
Currently based out of Kylee Lourie’s farms, Adrienne travels from Colorado in the summers to Wellington in the winters. “Wellington is truly the Disneyland for horse lovers. I’d never seen anything like it when I first came,” Adrienne said. “The number of shows, clinics, events and other educational opportunities crammed into a small area is mind boggling. Not to mention the number of amazing world-class riders all in one town. You can sit at the warm-up ring and learn so much just from watching the top riders.”
Adrienne’s training philosophy has been greatly influenced by Debbie McDonald, who believes in breaking things down to the basics. In teaching students, Adrienne aims to develop empathetic riders who understand how horses think and move. Adrienne’s notable students in her barn include Katie Johnson, Susie Dutta, Natalie Pai, Christian Simonson, and her assistant, Quinn Iverson.
“Adrienne is a phenomenal rider and makes everything look effortless,” Natalie, a U25 rider, said. “She has trained so many different horses all the way to Grand Prix. It doesn’t matter what horse she gets on, within five minutes she has them figured out and it looks like she has been riding them for years.”
With her horses, Adrienne spends her time working on connection, straightness and adjustability to minimize repetitive schooling of movements. “I do a lot of gymnastic exercises with my horses, and mix in cross-training work, hacking, fitness rides, hill work and AquaTred exercise as well,” she said. “Our horses are top athletes, and they need to be treated as such.”
Adrienne recognizes that for all athletes, and horses especially, it’s difficult to maintain peak performance over time. The cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games was a huge disappointment for Adrienne and her team. Campaigning both Salvino and KWPN gelding Harmony’s Duval, Adrienne had high hopes for a summer tour in Europe to prepare for the Games.
“Of course, they had no choice but to postpone the Games, and we’ve had to quickly adjust our path, set a new timeline and new goals, and come up with a new strategy for how to have the horses peak at the right time, when that time does finally come,” Adrienne explained. “I’m hoping that my horses will be even better next year, after having this summer to stay home and train.”
Apart from competing at another Olympic Games, Adrienne’s goals remain humble and driven by her passion for training horses through the levels. Along with coaching students who share her passion, Adrienne’s dream is to create a pipeline of horses for herself to train to the top. “It’s a great joy to watch a horse learn something new and feel proud of themselves,” she said. “I’m always in awe of the kindness and generosity of horses, and I’m happy any day I get to spend working with them.”
For more information, visit adriennelyle.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise