McDonald, Brentina lead U.S. dressage

Like every other Olympic athlete, Brentina loves to compete. And once she's in that zone, she's tough to beat, as evidenced by her No. 2 world ranking.

"She loves to perform," said Debbie McDonald, perhaps the person who knows Brentina best. "She loves the limelight. She loves to go in an arena that's electric and the crowd is screaming and clapping. She's unique that way, she really is."

A slight tendon strain in her leg forced her to take three months off from competition, but conservative treatment and a warm-up event in Germany this month should be enough preparation for Athens, her first Olympic Games at the tender age of 13.

While 13 may be considered young for an Olympian, it's not if that athlete happens to be a horse.

The horse-as-athlete debate doesn't have a place in equestrian, as the outcome of a competition depends just as much on the animal as it does on its rider. So with Brentina on the mend, the U.S. Equestrian Federation exempted her and McDonald, her rider, from the selection trials and added them to the short list of candidates to be considered for the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. It's a provision that gives the selection committee wiggleroom when injuries arise should the selectors, according to the selection rules, "ascertain that by the combination not being named to the Short List as one of the top three, it would have a direct bearing upon obtaining the best qualified team for the Games."

McDonald and Brentina, who were ranked No. 1 in the USEF Grand Prix standings when the discretionary selection was made on June 4, are expected to be a vital part of Team USA's chances to extend its team medal streak of three straight Games (all bronze) and to capture the first individual medal for the U.S. since Hiram Tuttle won the bronze in Los Angeles in 1932. The Germans, who won the last five gold medals, are the favorites in the team event.

"Our first concern right now is the team," McDonald said. "Then if we have the opportunity to go on, then my particular horse could very possibly bring home a medal."

McDonald is also a first-time Olympian. But her experience and age (she'll turn 50 during the Games, on Aug. 27) combined with Brentina's confidence and demeanor in international competition temper the usual first-time jitters.

"She's quite a diva, I must say," McDonald said when asked to compare Brentina to a celebrity. "Marilyn Monroe. (Brentina) thinks she's one of the best women on the face of the earth."

McDonald, who started working with the chestnut-colored Hanoverian when the mare was 3, didn't discover Brentina's true personality until the Pan American Games in 1999.

"That was our first time really, I would say, in a large crowd in different situations," McDonald recalled. "There we brought home the team and the individual gold medal. She really held up to the expectation."

The objective for a dressage rider is to guide the horse though a series of complex maneuvers by slight and precise movements, making it appear as if the horse is performing the routine on its own. Compared to jumping and eventing, disciplines that both include guiding a horse over obstacles, dressage doesn't seem difficult. But one wrong move, no matter how tiny, can cost a pairing valuable percentage points.

"Most of the time, I would say, if you have an error in the sport of dressage, it's the rider's fault," McDonald said. "If the rider unintentionally gave a little too strong of an aid or moved a leg a quarter of an inch too far back, it makes a difference. You really have to stay focused."

So does the horse. Because horses are natural creatures of habit, the rider will seldom practice run the test (the term used for the competition routine) so the horse doesn't start anticipating and getting too far ahead of the rhythmic pace that's required. Instead, riders will practice movements in varied sequences. When competitions roll around, it's imperative that the horse be able to block out all distractions and concentrate on the rider's commands.

Elite horses can maintain that focus on a regular basis with brief lapses. But the ability to do it day in and day out, year after year with the same rider is a rare trait, one that McDonald found in Brentina.

"That's what's so unique about this particular horse. She really had never had one of those days, and I've had her since she was 3," McDonald said. "She's the perfect child. That's exactly what she is. It's very uncommon.

"Sometimes just like people, they don't want to get up and go to work. There is a little bit of resistance in wanting to do the movement or some horses have a harder time coordinating certain movements. But she's always been one who kind of figures it out and it stays there forever. She puts it in her little computer brain and it's there for good."

There is still a lot of luck involved, McDonald added. People filing into the stadium often have distracted horses. So have television cameras, especially the ones on the ground that move along with the horse. Still, McDonald points out, a pairing can still medal if the rider can refocus the horse.

"You just have to keep thinking ahead," she said. "Even if you have a mistake in one movement, it doesn't eliminate you. You can still get great scores and come out ahead."

If McDonald and Brentina do finish in the top three, they'll only receive one medal, which McDonald will wear. But Brentina won't trot away empty-handed.

"She'll get a lot of lovin'," McDonald said, "and a lot of extra carrots."