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Reflecting on the FEI World Cup™ Finals with Debbie McDonald

by Leslie Potter | Apr 4, 2023, 3:00 PM EST

The 2023 FEI World Cup Finals are set to take place in Omaha, Neb., returning to the United States 20 years after the first-ever win by an American dressage athlete. In 2003, Debbie McDonald and Brentina, the 1991 Hanoverian mare owned by Parry and Peggy Thomas, earned the World Cup Final victory in Göteborg, Sweden. Two years later, they had another podium finish when they won third place at the 2005 FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, Nev., thanks in part to their electric musical freestyle performance that brought the crowd to its feet.

Debbie McDonald and Brentina during Brentina's retirement ceremony in 2009
Debbie McDonald and Brentina at Brentina's retirement in 2009. ©Shannon Brinkman

Brentina officially retired in 2009, and McDonald now serves as Technical Advisor to the U.S. Dressage program. She reflected on her experiences at the FEI World Cup Finals as a competitor and what the event means today.

“When we went to the World Cup in Sweden in 2003, that was when we ended up being the first American [combination] to win the World Cup, and that was special for sure,” said McDonald.

The 2003 outing was McDonald’s second time competing in a World Cup Final. She had competed in the 1998 Final, also in Göteborg, with a horse called Beaurivage, but says now that she was underprepared for that stage at the time, and her results reflected that.

“Since I’d had a previous experience that wasn’t so good at that same venue, I was a little bit nervous going in,” McDonald said of her 2003 experience. “But you know, the mare delivered like she always did, and it ended up being amazing.”

While the 2003 win was a historic achievement, it’s McDonald and Brentina’s 2005 World Cup Final that has become something of a legend in American dressage. It was a new freestyle, and one that was set to a lively medley of classic pop music that included The Commodores’ “Brick House” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” at a time when few freestyles included vocals in their music.

“I remember when we were practicing at home, every time I’d come down that last centerline and it would say, ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T,’ I would want to dance, kind of shimmy in the saddle,” said McDonald. “And they kept saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ And I said, ‘Oh, you’re right. I can’t.’”

When the pair debuted the freestyle at the World Cup Finals, McDonald left most of the dancing to Brentina. But the audience in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Arena didn’t sit still as McDonald and Brentina finished a stellar test with a piaffe pirouette and a passage down the centerline in perfect time to the music.

“During the buzz right before the event, people knew it was going to be new, but nobody knew what it was going to be,” she said. “And I just said, ‘This is for the audience. No matter where I finish, I want to do this ride for the audience.’ I think everybody has this thought of how they want things to go, and in my mind, what I wanted to happen is exactly what happened. And I started coming down that last centerline, and ‘Respect’ came on, and a couple people started to clap [along with the music.] I told people before, ‘Go ahead, I want you to clap! I don’t care if it ruins the ride; I want you to appreciate it.’”

At first, McDonald said, she could hear people shushing those who were clapping to the beat, but as Brentina brightened and Debbie grinned with the crowd participation, the clapping and cheering grew.

“By the time I was done, I could hardly hear my music, and when I saluted, there was a standing ovation,” McDonald remembered. “I went, ‘Oh my lord, I cannot believe that just happened.’ I can’t hardly watch it today because I just bawl my eyes out. It was a memory I won’t forget, and so many people who were actually able to see it say that still today it was one of their favorites. It was extra special because it was in the Thomas & Mack Arena, which [Brentina’s owner] Parry Thomas had donated to [the University of Nevada – Las Vegas].”

Performing on home soil has its advantages, not only because of the home crowd support, but because the U.S. horses won’t have to go through the process of overseas travel ahead of the event. McDonald expects that having the Finals in Omaha will make for a positive experience for the U.S. competitors at this year’s Final.

“Very rarely do our horses not have to travel, and it’s a nice switch-up for us to not have to put them on a flight for hours,” she said. “And the first World Cup Final in Omaha, they did a wonderful job, and I’m sure they’ll even improve on that. Everyone, even the Europeans, said that it was one of the best World Cup Finals they can remember. They really did a great job, and I am absolutely certain that they will do the same this year.”

During her competitive career, McDonald competed on multiple Olympic and FEI World Equestrian Games™ teams. The World Cup Finals is a different experience for the athletes.

“It’s an individual competition. You don’t have nearly the security and things that go with the World Equestrian Games and Olympic Games, so it is very different,” she said. “I think the pressure, to some extent, is always going to be on because we dressage riders are perfectionists. We always want things to be better and are going to be concerned about our performance, but there’s a little less pressure because you’re not holding up a team. For me, I felt like I could have fun at the World Cup. Not that the World Games and Olympics aren’t fun; it's just that there’s a lot of pressure that comes with those for sure.”

Since the World Cup Final is not a team event, McDonald’s role as Technical Advisor doesn’t come directly into play. She says she will be there as a “huge cheerleader,” standing by the ring to root for the American competitors, Anna Buffini, Steffen Peters, and Alice Tarjan.

“I think it’s going to be super exciting for the fans,” she said. “It’s not very often that [American fans] get to watch all of these competitors. So, for them, I’m sure that they are so excited to be watching this kind of competition, and at home.”

Learn more about the 2023 FEI World Cup Finals at

Watch the livestream on ClipMyHorse.TV.