Debbie McDonald's protégée, Adrienne Lyle, has a Wizard of
a chance to take the London Olympics by storm.
At the tender age of 20, Adrienne Lyle didn't know she was attracted to a particular type of male. But she quickly found out it was big, strong, hot-headed and athletic. As soon as she pressed her heels around a dark chocolate-colored Oldenburg horse named Wizard, she knew she had a chance to chase the rainbow. "Wizard and I clicked from the first time I rode him," Lyle said from training in Westlake, California.
The magic that is the relationship between the now 27-year-old Lyle and the 13-year-old gelding has taken the pair on a challenging course through the world of dressage—the art of teaching a horse precision movement. That journey, which began at Hailey's River Grove Farm, could lead them to the gates of the hallowed "Oz" of the horse competition world, the summer Olympics.
"I came to River Grove in 2005 a broke college student with no expectations. I simply wanted to get some education to improve my riding skills," Lyle said. At 5-feet 11-inches, she doesn't fit the mold of the typical dressage rider. "And I'm younger than many of my peers, but I'm 100 percent driven when it comes to my training and competing."
That drive has taken horse and rider to the 2012 Olympic Selection Trials (see sidebar). "Wizard is one of the top horses in our country right now, but we definitely still have to fight for a spot on the team," Lyle said. If they make it, the duo will be the second Olympic team to come from the Hailey barn, trotting in the footsteps of Lyle's trainer, the first lady of American dressage, Debbie McDonald.
McDonald and a chestnut 16.2-hand Hanoverian mare named Brentina pranced across the international circuit for a decade before reaching the 2004 Athens Olympics, where they placed fourth overall and took a team bronze. Following Brentina's retirement in 2009, McDonald accepted designation as the U.S. Equestrian Federation's developing dressage coach, a role designed to identify and cultivate future stars for the sport.
It was this role that brought her to Lyle.
Dreams of being a horse trainer—or at least a stable hand
Lyle grew up riding Western and wild style on Whidbey Island in Washington before she switched to jumping and three-day eventing at the age of 8. Her family spent summers in Sun Valley, and she would always insist on a trip to River Grove to watch world-class athletes at work.
Despite her adrenaline-seeking nature, she was fascinated by the dressage horses: thick necks curled in almost like a seahorse's, hooves snapping out and back in such perfect timing that they appear to be controlled by resistance bands, horse and rider as in sync as carousel horses ridden by toy soldiers.
In the summer of 2005, Lyle began trading work for board and training, eventually becoming a full-time member of the River Grove Team. "Before I met Adrienne, I had thought about mentoring someone, but wanted to wait for that special person," McDonald said. It was shortly after Lyle arrived that McDonald realized she had found that person. "I was so surprised by what I was watching—she has such a natural feel and such a wonderful position on a horse. There are so many qualities about Adrienne that make her special. One that stands out is her work ethic, which I find many of today's young adults don't have, especially for what it takes in our sport." But what makes her an international competitor, according to McDonald, is the ice in her veins. "Under the most intense pressure she can still focus and ride like she has done this for 25 years."
Lyle calls working with McDonald an incredible experience. "She is a very focused and detail-oriented trainer, which I love. But she is also very fun, friendly and easy to get along with. We have a great working relationship."
Respect is earned, not given
Lyle and Wizard have a long and arduous road ahead of them, but Lyle is confident they have what it takes. "If I could guarantee one goal for Wizard, it would be for us to compete to the best of our abilities at the Olympic Selection Trials, and put in the kind of ride I know we are capable of."
During a dressage practice, the intensity of the horse's reserve is comparable to that which a race horse experiences in a full sprint. Triple that, once they enter a ring. Muscles are overexerted easily, especially while horse and rider learn each other. "It takes years of training to teach a horse to respond to the subtle signals the rider gives," Lyle explains. "And it takes a lot of time to build the horse's confidence in its rider."
This point was drilled in to her when she spent two weeks with dressage master Klaus Blakenhol, a German coach revered for his innate ability to understand and draw out the best in every horse. It was while with Blakenhol that Lyle fully realized how in tune she and Wizard are. "It really is a partnership. When you see the final product, the horse in competition, the goal is for the rider to appear to not be signaling the horse, but the rider is in fact constantly communicating to the horse."
The pair have developed that bond over the past six years traveling the globe, going from show to show. "I've spent every day of my life around him, grooming, riding, hand walking. Hours sitting by him on airplanes holding a treat for him to lick, riding next to him in horse trailers to make sure he's safe and happy.
"I know his every little quirk and insecurity and can read every subtle emotion in his eyes," she said. Contrary to Lyle's outgoing nature, Wizard can appear aloof, or even mean, when he first meets people. "You really have to earn his trust and affection," Lyle said. "He is not a horse that will cozy up to any stranger, but if you can earn his approval, he will always fight for you. I feel humbled by him daily and honored to have earned his love and trust."
The 2012 U.S. Olympic team selection is set for June 8-17 at the U.S. Equestrian Foundation Dressage Festival of Champions & Olympic Games Selection Trials in Gladstone, N.J. The event will stream live on USEFNetwork.com.
The top 15 ranked horse/rider combinations in the country will participate in the trials. Riders begin with a clean slate, and compete in four events over two weekends. The top three horse/rider pairs at the end of the trial become the USA Olympic dressage team.
Lyle last competed at the CDI Del Mar, where she took second in the Grand Prix behind top U.S. rider Steffen Peters, and won the Grand Prix Special competition. Prior to that, Lyle and Wizard won the only five-star rated competition held in the U.S., the FEI Grand Prix at West Palm Beach.