In a regular Olympic year, U.S. dressage chef d’equipe Debbie McDonald would be in Europe by now with her shortlisted horses and riders, evaluating how they stacked up against other countries’ best.
But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, along with the recent EHV-1 outbreak, led U.S. officials to opt against the usual trip. Unlike U.S. show jumping shortlisted riders, the dressage team is staying Stateside prior to the Tokyo Olympic Games and instead will hold a mandatory U.S. Dressage Short List Observation Event in Wellington, Florida, on June 8-12, as their final preparation.
“Every movement you make with those horses is documented,” McDonald said. “That has to be so closely watched right now because we have to somewhat contain a bubble within our own group. So, to have a bunch of people going here and there just didn’t make sense. It’s just not keeping us enough in a good place. So, I really feel like this was the only safe and secure event that we could think of without having the horses back and forth another whole time to Europe.”
The event will take place at night under the lights, in the summertime Florida humidity. Though not as potent as the expected weather conditions in Japan, it should approximate the environment in Tokyo.
It is not a selection trial, where top finishes determine the team. The selectors also are looking at each pair’s scores from 2020-2021 and how they are trending, as well as factoring which horses are likely to fare best with the long journey and expected humidity. McDonald said prior international experience also will be considered.
“Because this year, especially, and last year, there was no European tour, so international experience is very helpful,” she said. “There are several of the ones that are up and coming that unfortunately don’t have that yet, but they’re our future.”
The 12 athletes on the shortlist, which was announced April 28, show an exciting future for U.S. dressage, McDonald said.
“Right now, we have the strongest group of horses. This whole group coming into this observation event is probably one of the strongest that I’ve known since I’ve been doing dressage in the United States,” she said. “So, what it really proves, honestly, is that our pipeline more or less—from the young horses to the emerging to the youth to the young riders and the U25, and then the elite, pre-elite and the developing under that—it just proves that it’s taken years, yet we’re starting to see now how important this is.”
Though head-to-head competitions with European powerhouses aren’t a part of the leadup, McDonald feels that the U.S. has an advantage. Competitions in Europe came to a standstill for several months while the U.S. found ways to maintain a healthy show calendar.
“In a lot of ways, we have been very lucky here in the United States. We kept our whole show season open and going, and Europe has not,” she said, noting the number of competitions canceled or postponed there. “They’re having to travel some distances sometimes to get to that event so they can qualify.
“Yes, we would like to know how we stack up in person. That, we won’t know until we’re all in the ring,” she added. “We did have several judges that are five-star judges and did score us quite well. And I think that that was very fortunate for us, that those scores were out there for the world to see.”
This Olympic cycle debuts the three-man team with no drop score across equestrian disciplines. Dressage has used the format several times previously, including at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, though it will have slight changes this year. For example, reserve rider substitutions will be permitted up to two hours ahead of time.
This places more importance on the traveling reserve than ever before, McDonald said.
“With the trip being pretty darn hard on the horses, there is a very good likelihood—or hopefully not—that traveling reserve, that ends up being that fourth position, could play a huge role in this year’s Olympics,” she said. “I think that’s for every country.”
The trip to Tokyo is a concern for many athletes. Like the eventing team, the dressage team will fly to Europe and quarantine in Aachen, Germany, before flying to Tokyo. Only one groom or one veterinarian per team will be allowed to fly with the horses.
“I think we’re going to take a big sigh of relief when the horses get over there safely,” she said. “That’s, I think, the biggest thing on everybody’s mind right now.”
In addition to the smaller teams and substitution rules, the format has changed slightly: The Grand Prix will serve as a qualifying ride for the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix freestyle; the scores do not carry over. The top eight teams will advance to the Special, which will determine the team medals. The Special also will be set to music, and McDonald hopes the riders won’t react to this change by riding it like a freestyle.
The top 18 athletes in the Grand Prix will advance to the freestyle, which determines the individual medals.
Regardless of the uncertainty that COVID-19 has caused in the competition calendar, and for the Olympics itself—as cases surge in Japan, calls to cancel the Games are intensifying—McDonald said the athletes are prepared.
“Everybody keeps saying are they going to still cancel. Well, until they do, we’re going,” she said. “And we have to keep that mindset for the riders too. They’re so excited and so ready for this observation event.”
“There’s lots of things that won’t happen for these athletes,” she added. “But when you’ve worked all your life to represent the United States of America at an Olympic Games, you’re going to do it. And that’s the way you have to go in looking at it. You’re representing your country, and you got a job to do. So, they think of it that way. They want to do the best they can.”