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Unlike many of the other 2008 US Olympic riders, Debbie didn’t grow up in a horsey family. She caught the equine fever after a visit to her uncle’s Kansas farm, and convinced her parents to buy her first pony for $800 under the condition that she would pay for his board. A pre-teen Debbie found a gaited horse trainer in her hometown in Idaho and worked as a groom and cleaning stalls to pay for his board.
At age 14, a scary turn of events drove Debbie to Bob McDonald’s hunter/jumper farm. One day when Debbie went to turn her pony Flanigan out, she discovered a strange man in his stall beating him. She went running for help and ran into a young trainer and her future husband, Bob. She captured his attention that day and he hired her to clean tack and groom horses. From there, she started training and selling green horses and working her way up to more elite mounts.
Debbie actually got her start in show jumping. After a serious fall in which her horse somersaulted over her breaking ribs, rupturing her spleen, and fracturing a vertebrae in her neck, Debbie faced a waning interest in jumping big jumps. And it was her jumper trainer husband who encouraged her to give dressage a shot. Debbie wasn’t so sure. But with her young son Ryan in the picture, the accident scared her enough that she decided to give dressage a try.
Debbie got her big break at a show in Las Vegas when Debbie won a catch ride on a horse who had been entered, but whose rider wasn’t able to attend. They won every class.
The owners were Parry and Peggy Thomas who also own River Grove Farm in Sun Valley, Idaho. They also own Brentina while Debbie trains and coaches at their farm. The Thomases are more than just Debbie’s ticket to ride, they are her family. “If they had not come into my life, I never would have had the opportunities I’ve had,” she said. “They care so much. If anything ever happened to me or my husband or children, I know they would be there.”
An Outstanding Career For Debbie and Brentina
Debbie and Bob went to an auction in Germany in 1994 looking for a promising horse; one sensitive enough to recognize and respect Debbie’s small five-foot-tall frame. It was love at first ride when they found Brentina and snatched her up.
“She was really in tune to me,” McDonald said. “She knew I was up there.” They bought her right away, and from that point on, McDonald and Brentina have had a great relationship. “From day one I can’t even remember having an argument with her,” she said. “She just got better and better; she always wants to work with enthusiasm.”
She and the now 17-year-old mare have had a long and outstanding career together. Together they’ve helped the US equestrian team win a team silver and team bronze at the World Equestrian games and a team bronze at the 2004 Olympics. In 2003, Brentina helped Debbie to become the first American rider to win the World Cup championship. They also came in third place at the 2005 World Cup. Brentina herself was named the 2005 Farnam/Platform USEF Horse of the Year.
Debbie’s other accomplishments include wins at both the 2005 and 2004 U.S. Grand Prix Freestyle/Championship/U.S. League Finals, 2003 Bayer Festival of Champions, U.S. Equestrian Team Grand Prix Championship, and both Individual and Team Gold medals at the 1999 Pan American Games. She was named Equestrian of the Year by the American Horse Shows Association (now the USEF) in 1999, as well as the 1999 United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year.
Bio courtesy of Regarding Horses