Adrienne Lyle’s Chance of A Lifetime

As a small child, Adrienne Lyle visited River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, to watch a horse show.? Adrienne Lyle’s memories of the trip to the home base of future Olympic dressage rider Debbie McDonald are a little hazy, but one experience there made a permanent impression.? Lyle’s experiences with dressage rider Debbie McDonald have changed her life forever.

Whidbey, also known as Joey, is one of the young prospects Adrienne is developing for the Thomases. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

“I remember being led into the ring on the back of a big, beautiful warmblood, and it was all over after that,” says Adrienne Lyle, recalling that she’d been put on the horse for an awards presentation because “everyone knew what a horse-crazy little girl I was.? Lyle was excited to be working with Olympic dressage rider Debbie McDonald.

“I grew up on a small cattle ranch, and I’d never been around anything like that.”

Someday, though, Adrienne knew she’d be riding those warmbloods for real. What she didn’t know was that she’d return to River Grove in 2005 as Debbie’s working student. Or that her work ethic and riding ability would parlay that experience into a full-time position, which includes training and showing young horses and even exercising Debbie’s Olympic and World Equestrian Games partner, Brentina.

But at that time, Debbie’s universe?at the high end of the dressage spectrum with trips to shows in Europe and competing against the world’s best?was a long way from Adrienne’s life on rural Whidbey Island in Washington state.

Starting Out in a Western Saddle
“We had cows and a couple of ponies,” Adrienne recalls of life on her parents’ small farm. “I started hacking around, riding Western and bareback?I never had formal lessons then. I joined the US Pony Clubs when I was 9 years old because some of my friends joined.”

Adrienne went to her first Pony Club dressage lesson with a Western saddle on a $200 pony named Salsa. From there, she rode in Pony Club Mounted Games and started eventing. Her instruction came in group lessons because her mother, Ann, a doctor, and her father, Greg, a lawyer, “had a vision of a hoity-toity” horse-show world and wanted to keep their daughter grounded.

“My parents have always been supportive, but they’ve totally kept my head in the real world, because it’s so easy to go to a horse show where everything’s gorgeous and fancy and get swept away,” she says. Her big birthday present was always two private lessons a year.

As Adrienne continued with Pony Club, she also began to develop a small business at her parents’ farm, both bringing horses in to train and managing the barn. “I was mucking and grooming,” she recalls. “I learned how to write down all my income and expenses?what you can write off and what you can’t?and how to keep track of everything.”

Often at the beginning of the summer, Adrienne would take on a group of young, inexperienced horses belonging to people from her area. She trained them over the cross-country course her father built and at eventing competitions. “I’d get to Novice level with them and then send them back to the owners,” she says.

Fascinated by Dressage
As her event riding progressed, though, Adrienne found herself fascinated by the dressage aspect of it. “I’d get problem horses and spend so much time in dressage work that when I finally put a jump in front of them, it wasn’t a big deal anymore,” she says. “I just loved the training process.”

One of Adrienne’s duties is cleaning tack:

Though still dabbling in lower-level eventing, Adrienne started to focus seriously on dressage in 1998 when she was 13?a move that surprised her parents. “I’ve always been a thrill-seeker. Mom called me a total adrenaline junkie,” she laughs. “But I find dressage more challenging than anything else I’ve ever been involved in. I never get bored because there’s always something more to improve on.”

She soon began taking lessons with dressage trainer Carol McArdle of Bellevue, Washington. “I very much admire her gentle training philosophies?being sure to look at things from the horse’s perspective,” Adrienne says of her mentor. “She taught me that every horse is different, so you have to evaluate each one on an individual basis. While you, of course, stick to some general training guidelines and principles, you cannot be arrogant and think you can bully a horse into doing something your way.”

Adrienne was often riding and training by herself, so Carol taught her “how to evaluate things thoroughly and truly understand the mechanics of what was going on, because then I was able to create a plan and fix things on my own.

“She reinforced that to be an effective rider, I need to always think ?What do I feel, what’s going on underneath me?’ and then react.” So, Adrienne says, “If I’m trotting on a circle and my horse is heavy on the inside rein, my first reaction might be to pull back on the inside rein. However, instead, I must think through the mechanics of why the horse is heavy on the inside rein. Perhaps it’s because he’s leaning on his inside shoulder. And because the trot is a diagonal gait, the inside front leg and outside hind leg share the weight at that moment in the stride. So if the horse has too much weight on the inside front leg and shoulder, then he must not have enough weight on the outside hind leg. If I do some exercises to engage that outside hind leg and make him carry his share of the weight, then all of a sudden, my problem of the horse being heavy on the inside rein is fixed.”

Under Carol’s guidance, Adrienne began competing in dressage on Savannah, a Thoroughbred mare who liked to buck. “Savannah taught me a ton about riding with finesse and confidence, as well as taking winning, losing and bolting out of the arena in stride,” Adrienne recalls.

“We were able to work up to Fourth Level and compete in the 2001 North American Junior Dressage Championship at Paxton Farm in Ohio,” she says. “We did horribly in our actual tests, because Savannah was very spooky and tense, but I got some great comments from the judges on my tactful riding through difficult moments.”

The competition also gave her a taste of high-level dressage. “That was the first time I’d even seen a show of that caliber or ridden under judges at that level,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience and an overall wonderful time I will never forget.”

To continue advancing, Adrienne sold Savannah to buy Miguel, a Swedish Warmblood gelding. Together they earned a team silver medal at the 2002 Cosequin Junior Dressage Championship at Dressage at Devonwood in Portland, Oregon. They moved up in 2004, competing in the North American Young Riders’ Championships at Tempel Farms in Wadsworth, Illinois, helping bring home a team bronze medal for Region 6.

From?a Few Lessons To Working?Student

In 2005, Adrienne began working on a plan to take some lessons with Debbie McDonald. She arranged to stay at the farm of family friend Ingrid Gladics, in Hailey, Idaho?doing chores in exchange for Miguel’s board?so she could trailer to River Grove for training.

As part of her working-student stint at River Grove Farm in 2005, Adrienne took lessons from Debbie on her Young Rider horse Miguel. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

During Adrienne’s first lesson, Debbie saw something special. “The first thing I noticed when she came to me for lessons was her natural ability and the feel she has for riding. I was impressed with the training she had done and how far she had brought this horse.”

Debbie’s husband, Bob, who buys and sells hunters, jumpers and dressage horses, had watched some of the lesson, so when Debbie mentioned that she needed someone to exercise horses, he asked, “What about the girl who came today? She rode beautifully, and she had a great chemistry for the people and the horses.”

He called Adrienne and asked if she wanted a working-student position. Her response was an enthusiastic “yes!”

Adrienne impressed the McDonalds in how she dealt with both the horses and the people. “She’s straightforward and she cares,” Bob says. “She has a great deal of patience and is calm, which for me is really important.” She never made the different horses she worked with feel pressured, so the result was always positive.

“She’s a joy to be around,” says Debbie. “She gets along with anybody.”

Adrienne also proved to be a hard worker. Her workday started at 7 or 8 a.m. In addition to riding, she groomed, wrapped and iced the horse’s legs when needed. She cleaned tack, laundered blankets and bandages, fed, watered, turned out horses, and helped manage the veterinary care and shoeing schedules. And if there was sweeping and vacuuming to do, she did that, too.

“Most kids today just want to ride,” Debbie says. “She knows there’s a lot of work involved in horses. You don’t look at the clock when you’re working with horses and she’s willing to do all that. She accepts all aspects of the business. If it means cleaning a bathroom or a stall, she is up for it.”

For her part, Adrienne says, “I enjoy all kinds of barn work, and I thoroughly believe that being a good horseperson means you must participate in ALL aspects of the horse’s care.”

The summer passed quickly. At the end of it, Adrienne sold Miguel to a student of Olympic medalist Sue Blinks and returned to Washington State University, where she had enrolled in 2003, to continue her studies as a pre-vet major with a business minor.

But shortly after she returned to school, Bob called to see if she wanted to work full-time at Peggy and Parry Thomas’ River Grove. It didn’t take Adrienne long to decide. After finishing the fall semester, she returned to Idaho last winter, her college degree still a year and half away. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” she explains. “This is my dream apprentice job.”

A Different Continuing Education

Adrienne still does much of the same barn work that she did as a working student, but her education has continued in other ways. “Bob has given me a ton of insight when it comes to business in the horse world, because he’s involved in the finances,” she says.

Adrienne says Debbie’s training philosophy is to always go back to the basics if you have a problem. Work on improving the horse’s back-to-front connection, Debbie says, so you can use soft aids. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

He’s also teaching her how to select equine prospects as investments. “You’ve got to look at temperament and regularity of gaits, then start nitpicking down: This one steps wide in front, this one goes too low in its neck when you put pressure on,” Adrienne says. “Some of this may not be a big deal when they’re 3 years old, but Bob has such an eye for what could become a problem later on. Some flashy movers, instead of putting their hind legs under them, put them out to the side, so you’ll never get good collection work out of them.”

And on the riding end of it, “Debbie is an incredible instructor,” Adrienne says. “She has a way of breaking stuff down and always bringing it back to the basics, so you understand not only what to do when, but why you’re doing it. It’s a very logical progression. With Debbie, the work is always ?back to the connection.'”

For instance, if a horse threw his head in the air, long-legged Adrienne tended to correct the problem with too much hand. Debbie taught her to handle the situation differently, saying, “Let’s go back and re-school, get the hind legs coming through and get him relaxed. Then let’s do it with a soft aid.”

Adrienne has so much natural feel and timing, though, and is so responsible in her work that Debbie is comfortable having her exercise Brentina when she’s away. Adrienne can’t say enough about the mare: “She is so sensitive. She looks docile and calm, but she just floats and is so supple.”

Working Her Way Up
Adrienne has made an impression on Brentina’s owners, the Thomases, too. Along with the McDonalds, Adrienne went to the 2005 Hanoverian auction in Verden, Germany, where the Thomases bought two young investment horses, whom Adrienne has been developing for the last year: Joey (whose show name is Whidbey, after the island) and Dolce.

In California last April, the 4-year-old Dolce earned 82 percent in a First Level class, and Joey distinguished himself at Second Level. In addition, Adrienne was reserve champion in a Young Riders’ class on Linda Edwards’ Jonkara. While that was gratifying, Adrienne sees showing as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Adrienne (left) spends a lot of time with Bob and Debbie McDonald (and their dog, Gretzky) off the job as well as on.

“My goals are training goals,” she explains. If the training goes well, that will come out in the showing. I’d like to ride at the Grand Prix level and internationally, but I am in no hurry to rush there and cram it all together. What I’m doing now is perfect?to start with younger horses and work my way up slowly.”

Debbie, who became the US Developing Rider coach during the fall of 2006, thinks the arrangement is an investment in the future. “Adrienne wants to do this and be a top international rider someday,” she says. “We all need help along the way, and the biggest thrill in my life would be to bring somebody up in the future of our sport who’s a real factor, a key player. I think she has all the makings.”

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