After years in the spotlight, Olympic dressage team superstar Brentina is enjoying retirement in sunny Santa Barbara — but she’s still an inspiration.
From the minute she stepped onto the scene, all eyes were on Brentina.
In her, fans of the sport placed their grandest hopes and dreams for American dominance in dressage. And this beautiful, charismatic Hanoverian mare didn’t disappoint.
Brentina was the type of super star horse that Olympic dreams are made of — the sort of talent you help identify, develop, and make shine for all the world to see.
At eight years old, Brentina cantered into the international spotlight at the Pan American Games with her longtime partner and lifelong “best friend” Debbie McDonald. There, they helped bring home not one gold medal but two. For the next decade, the pair dominated the sport — bringing home medal after medal at prestigious competitions from National Dressage Championships to the World Equestrian Games to the Athens Olympics. In 2003, Brentina became the very first American horse to win the FEI World Cup Final in dressage — an amazing and historic feat.
If you ever had the chance to watch Brentina perform, you know … it was pure magic. With her ears pricked forward and her light and lively gait, Brentina exuded confidence, pride, and sheer joy in her “work.” She was a star — and she knew it.
Peggy Thomas, Brentina’s owner, once said, “The bigger the crowd and more frightening the situation, the better she does. ‘Bring it on, I can take it,’ she seems to say. She lit up the minute she walked into the ring at the World Cup, as if to say, ‘Oh good, my public has arrived!’”
In 2009, after representing our U.S. Equestrian Team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, Brentina said goodbye to the spectacle, her adoring fans, and the constant travel. After many years spent at the Thomas family’s River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, Brentina is now enjoying her golden years in the golden state of California.
She lives year-round at In the Irons Farm, owned by Christi Sulzbach. With the Santa Ynez Mountains posing as a dramatic backdrop, the farm is the perfect place for the American darling of dressage to relax and enjoy retirement.
And though she may not be the star of the show ring anymore, Brentina is still full of personality. “It just oozes out of her,” says Christi. “She knows who she is. She knows she’s very special. She’s the queen of the barn. She loves all the attention she gets.”
“Momma,” as she’s commonly referred to around Christi’s barn, has a very specific schedule she expects her humans to stick to. “If you’re five minutes late,” Christi laughs, “she’s standing at the door banging on her stall door. If she could tap her watch, she would be tapping her watch.”
After her retirement, owners Peggy and Parry Thomas continued Brentina’s legacy through sponsorship of the Young Adult “Brentina Cup” with the hopes of supporting rising stars in American dressage. One example is Adrienne Lyle, who trains with Brentina’s partner, Debbie McDonald, now the U.S. Dressage Team Chef d’equipe and Technical Advisor.
And, even now, Brentina’s dressage moves continue to inspire the students that ride at Christi’s barn. “We show them the Las Vegas World Cup video of Brentina and Debbie. They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a horse could do that!’” She’s talking, of course, about Debbie and Brentina’s unforgettable ride to classic Motown bops, including Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
Few horses have the talent and swagger to pull of such a tremendous performance.
After being fortunate enough to ride such a stellar partner, it’s no wonder that part of Debbie’s mission as Chef d’equipe of the U.S. Dressage Team is to work with the Team to develop American horses with star potential. Shortly after taking over the role she explained:
“Our riders need a pipeline to bring up young horses, but board is thousands of dollars a month unless you have your own land. Trying to get U.S. bred horses out there with our top riders is essential; that’s what they do in Europe because it also promotes their breeding programs. I’d like to get some of our good riders on good horses – we have so many good riders who just don’t have the horses, and it’s sad to see the talented riders who haven’t had the special horse that can take them all the way. I tell people not to get discouraged – I was 50 at my first Olympics!”
As for Debbie’s “special horse”? Debbie says of Brentina, “I wish I could see her more.” Debbie’s important new role developing the next generation of dressage superstars keeps her very busy, but she finds it heartwarming to see the kind of care that Christi and her farm provide Brentina. “It’s a great situation for her,” Debbie says, adding that she loves to receive regular pictures, videos, and updates from Christi.
“Obviously,” says Christi, “Brentina has the best stall in our barn.” She’s fed small meals throughout the day to balance her dietary needs and her voracious appetite. “That woman loves her food,” laughs Christi. She still has the hunger of a champion. “Momma” also enjoys long, leisurely walks around the property multiple times a day and a steady supply of her favorite treat: bananas.
“She’s having a grand time in retirement,” Christi says. “We’re honored and delighted to be a part of this special mare’s existence.”