In this monthly series leading up to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September and October, we watch a different competitor each month prepare for competition.
Does Adrienne Lyle ever sit up in bed in amazement at her situation?
“Every morning!” Lyle said.
In just one year, Lyle has gone from a Grand Prix novice to a contender for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. She’s headed to the WEG Selection Trials and Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF National Grand Prix Dressage Championship in 11th place in the rankings with Wizard, with an average score of 66.48 percent.
“When I was a kid, I never really dreamed of being on a team. I knew I wanted to do something with horses; I just wanted to get good enough to make a living doing what I liked,” said Lyle, 25.
She grew up riding and eventing in Washington state, then traveled to River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, in 2005 for a working student position with Olympic and WEG veteran Debbie McDonald.
“When I came to Debbie’s and got to see a little more of the international level of riding and competition, I was just fascinated by it. It’s so different and inspiring, so that starts to become a goal,” said Lyle, who quickly earned herself the title of assistant trainer for McDonald.
In the beginning of 2009, Lyle wanted to learn the ropes of showing at Grand Prix. She and Wizard had won the Brentina Cup in 2008 after she’d brought Wizard along from the Prix St. Georges level.
“Neither of us had done it before, so there’s something a little exciting about flying by the seat of your pants for that first year. But I have the best trainer and mentor [in Debbie], so that made that transition so much easier, just to have someone there to show me the ropes and support me. I never felt like I was lost at any point of it,” Lyle said.
Lots Of Time
Lyle made a big splash in her first appearance at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Grand Prix Championships (N.J.) last year, winning the Grand Prix freestyle with her country music performance on Wizard.
She backed that up with more wins earlier this year, at the Dressage Getaway CDI (Calif.) in February. She won the Grand Prix freestyle on Wizard and topped the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special aboard Felix.
“To have such a great outing on both horses at a CDI was great and another thing that really got me started thinking that Wizard could be a contender for the WEG,” Lyle said. “That was a pretty electric environment, inside a tent with people in the stands. It was a lot for them to handle, and they both did really well.”
Lyle has the ride on Felix as well, a horse McDonald developed to the Grand Prix level. Felix was also a strong contender for a WEG spot, but a bone bruise suffered this spring prevented him from earning the qualifying scores necessary for the selection trials. He’s back in work but will miss the trials.
With Wizard, Lyle is headed to the trials, which take place in Gladstone, N.J., on two consecutive weekends—Aug. 6-8 and 13-15—with a keen competitive attitude but without stressing herself.
“I’m not putting a whole bunch of pressure on myself, saying, ‘I have to make the team this time.’ I have a lot of time ahead of me, but I also have an amazing opportunity with an incredible horse, a great coach and wonderful sponsors. So I’m going to go there and try and make the best of it,” she said.
Since last year’s national championships, Lyle has become more comfortable with taking chances in the ring. “I think it’ll be better this year,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s capable of earning the kind of scores that would put him in the top of the horses of the country, it’s just if we can pull everything together on the day.”
McDonald said they had no big expectations—they just wanted to get Lyle into the trials.
“It was a real goal for her to jump in with the big horses,” McDonald said. “And I’m not going to count her out, because on a good day, it can be any of them.
“For me, it’ll be exciting to see everyone head-to-head at the selection trials,” she continued. “I think they’ll be the best trials we’ve had for a long time. Nobody has been really showing head-to-head yet. You know what you hear and see, but we won’t know who’s really exciting and peaking until we see them all in the same ring on the same day.”
The Wonderful Wizard
Lyle has had the ride on Wizard, an 11-year-old Oldenburg (Weltmeyer—Pica), for four years.
“He’s a horse that has an incredible range of motion and huge scope in his movement. I’ve been trying to tap into everything he’s got to offer even more now, and he’s really blossoming,” Lyle said.
She’s brought Wizard along from the Prix St. Georges level to Grand Prix, fulfilling the promise the horse showed at the lower levels.
Wizard—a big horse at 17.1 hands—has a hot temperament, but he’s not spooky. “There’s never been any question about his potential and his athletic ability—the biggest thing with him is that he’s huge and powerful, and he can be very opinionated when he wants to be. So just having him start to enjoy the work and work with me has been a goal for us,” she continued. “Because he’s so athletic, it’s been fun to watch his muscling change and the way he carries himself change as he develops into a true Grand Prix horse.”
“She’s such a cool competitor, and to watch the two of them grow together has been more than I ever could have asked for,” said McDonald. “They’ve both always had talent, but to watch them grow a little bit more month by month and show by show has been very exciting.”
Off To Europe
McDonald knew that showing in Europe would be an essential part of Lyle’s preparation for a bid for the WEG, so they shipped Wizard to Europe in April for a month. He and Lyle showed at the Hagen and Munich CDIs in Germany and trained with former U.S. team coach Klaus Balkenhol.
“The fact that Klaus is Debbie’s mentor is nice because there aren’t many trainers you can go to for a few weeks before a show and just feel like it fits in your program perfectly. It was amazing to ride with him,” Lyle said.
At both Hagen and Munich, Wizard placed 13th in the Grand Prix and eighth in the Grand Prix Special with scores in the mid- and high-60s.
“A couple of our scores weren’t by far our best scores, but I was very happy with it all overall,” Lyle said. “We had some nice comments from the judges, and several judges came up to me afterward saying how much they liked Wizard and that they thought we were a great combination for the future. He is still young, and neither of us has shown internationally before, so our goal for going over there was to at least get a little exposure and get some people familiar with him. So I was happy with the positive feedback.”
Despite the fact that McDonald competed in the 2006 World Equestrian Games and 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong while Lyle worked for her, Lyle never accompanied her to international competitions. She was responsible for holding down the fort, riding the horses left at home in Idaho. So Lyle made every moment of her European trip count, soaking in the atmosphere and watching every ride she could.
“The biggest part for me was getting to watch hours and hours of these top riders training and showing and getting the visual of how they do everything. I think it was invaluable. You can have as many lessons as you want, but until you sit there and see the best in the world and what you have to do to step up to their level, it’s hard to imagine,” she said.
In Europe, she learned more about how to present a test. “I have a better understanding of what the judges are looking for when they see those horses go—the huge scope and range of motion,” she said. “In the United States, you can put in a clean test and win—that may be good enough over here, but that’s not going to cut it in the big leagues. You have to take it beyond a clean test to really figuring out how to get every point. They go all out when they show—there’s nothing conservative about it.”
After their spring European tour, Lyle and Wizard returned to River Grove Farm in Idaho to continue polishing their performances before the WEG selection trials in August.
“I want to make sure there aren’t any holes in any of our tests,” said Lyle. “Every little transition and halt we work on. We pick one part a day. We do our normal schooling, and then at the end, Debbie will make me run through one part of a test and we’ll talk about it and work on it.
“Normally, I’m not a big person at all about running through tests, but as we get closer, we’re really drilling each part so I know where every footfall goes and how I have to ride every inch of the test.”
McDonald is impressed by Wizard’s presence. “He doesn’t really have a hole. He can do everything very well. It’s just a matter of getting him to the point where he’s with you. It’s Adrienne learning for both of them to get that perfect warm-up to get it done in the ring. That, with any horse, is half the trick of being successful,” McDonald said.
Long Legs, Big Dreams
Lyle has a bit of an advantage in having McDonald as her mentor. McDonald has a FEI World Cup Final win, a team silver and bronze from the 2002 and ’06 WEGs and team bronze from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games with the legendary Brentina to her name.
But after the ’08 Olympic Games, McDonald decided to step out of the spotlight, and Lyle stepped into her shoes as head rider at Parry and Peggy Thomas’ River Grove Farm. The deal included the ride on the talented Felix.
“I was in shock at first. Not many people get handed an incredible Grand Prix horse, especially when they’re as young as I am,” Lyle said. “I’m so grateful—I feel like I’m in the luckiest situation here. The Thomases have been so generous in continuing to support me. I think the timing worked well for them, so that they had someone following in Debbie’s shoes and there’s some continuity to it. Parry is still at the barn every day from 8 in the morning until we’re done riding. He loves watching all his horses go.
“I never dreamed of this,” she added. “I came here to groom, and I thought I’d be a working student for a lot more years. They were so generous to give me this huge chance at such a young age.”
McDonald is petite at just 5′, while Lyle is almost a foot taller, but Lyle said the difference in height works in her favor.
“It’s so easy for me to get away with using strength and leverage from my body size to make something work or to get through a test. But Debbie can’t do that, because she’s so small. So she’s a real stickler about making sure I refine my aids and that nothing’s from strength but everything is correct. That’s something that I think that if I was training with someone who wasn’t her size, they might not pick up on,” Lyle said.
While Lyle has innate talent, McDonald points to more intangible attributes as key in her decision to pass the torch to Lyle.
“So much has to do with one’s character, desire and willingness to work hard to get where you want,” McDonald said. “I’ve seen a lot of promising riders who really don’t know how to work for anything anymore. The horsemanship aspect of the sport has been lost to some extent. But she comes with great morals and a great work ethic. She has a great competitive spirit and patience. Everything that I would love to develop into someone, she came with. It’s just my job to fine-tune these things that God—and her parents!—have given her.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Journey To The WEG: Adrienne Lyle Is On The Fast Track To Success“ ran in the July 16 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.