Guessing who will make the three-member teams for the Tokyo Olympics is a popular pastime, but with a little more than four months until the squads are named, there’s still time for horse/rider combinations who are not headliners to make an impression.

In the forefront of the speculation following retirement of the USA’s top dressage horse, Verdades, are 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games silver medal teammates Steffen Peters (Suppenkasper), Adrienne Lyle (Salvino) and Kasey Perry-Glass (Dublet).

Although Adrienne is showing her second mount, Harmony’s Duval, this week in the Adequan Global Dressage Festival’s 5-star competition, Salvino is still waiting in the wings for a 2020 AGDF appearance, along with the 17-year-old Dublet. Another high-profile contender is Lonoir, the mount of Olivia Lagoy-Weltz, although she says her first goal is to qualify for April’s FEI World Cup finals in Las Vegas before focusing on Tokyo.

But more combinations deserve speculation, and they’re not always the obvious choice. The best-known name among them is Ashley Holzer, the four-time Canadian Olympian who is now a U.S. citizen and says she would be “thrilled” to represent America in Tokyo.

However, she only debuted her current mount, Mango Eastwood, in the Grand Prix Special – the test for which the Olympic team medals will be awarded – during the first week in February. Despite Mango’s lack of experience, his quality shone through as he won the class with 74.128 percent.

Previously ridden by Jordi Domingo Coll of Spain, the 11-year-old KWPN gelding by Wynton, with Sandro Hit on his dam’s side, began training with Ashley two years ago after the horse was purchased for owner Diane Fellows.

“I thought he’d be a good schoolmaster for her, because at the time, he was so quiet and steady,” said Ashley.

“But as we started working him a bit more, and he got hotter and hotter instead of quieter and quieter. I said to Di, ‘I think I need to ride him now.’” As he continued to get fit, he also “got quite spicy,” which meant it was necessary for a professional to be in the saddle.

U.S. team selection is hinging on how candidates perform in the Special, and the 5-star show in Wellington, Florida, was supposed to be mandatory for team aspirants.

Ashley is showing in the 3-star division that is being held during the show, instead of the 5-star itself, but USEF Managing Director of Dressage Hallye Griffin said there was some flexibility in the requirement. The absence of Salvino and Doublet also attest to that.

“I’m on a horse that’s very green. I didn’t know this would happen, that he would be so good,” noted Ashley.

“I hadn’t done enough shows to qualify for the 5-star when they said it was mandatory. It was a little late to be told. I wanted to just take it slowly; they said it would be okay, as long as I showed up.”

So Ashley was the top American in the Grand Prix for the Special last week, third with a score of 70.261 percent, 0.674 percent behind winner Megan Lane of Canada on Zodiac MW, and Japanese rider Masanao Takahashi (Rubicon Unitechno) with 70.870 percent. Mango’s Grand Prix was 2.5% below his early February Grand Prix, but he bounced back when it counted to win the Grand Prix Special on the weekend with a percentage of 71.979.

On a statistical basis, Ashley and Mango would seem like a real longshot combo, but U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald knows better.

“When it comes to Ashley, you can never count her out. She is a master in the ring and an amazing trainer,” said Debbie.

While Ashley calls herself “a huge realist,” she added: “It would be a dream of mine to go to the Olympics again; that would be a huge dream come true. If you don’t dream it and you don’t think it, it will never happen, that’s for sure.”

From a realistic perspective, her goal is to go to Europe with the top eight contenders before final selection. She noted, “Kasey, Adrienne and Steffen are seasoned competitors.” Their horses, she pointed out, “know how to go through tests, they’re pros and in my opinion, should probably be the ones to represent the country.”

On the other hand, as we all know too well, “Anything can happen,” she pointed out. “They’re horses. You try your best, you go out there, you train as hard as you can and you hope they stay in tip-top shape and they get there.”

I asked how she’d feel about representing the U.S. at the Games, rather than her native Canada, as she did in past Games.

“I love the Canadians. I love Canada,” she replied, but noted she has lived in America for years, her family is American and her sponsors are American.

“I would be so honored to be able to ride with the American flag. I am so honored that I am embraced so well by everyone. They cheer me on and don’t treat me like an outsider at all.”

And she isn’t turning her back on Canada.

“I’m proud I can help the Canadians from a schooling point of view and help them with their education. It’s not like I’ve abandoned Canadian riders. I’m doing my very best to help them become their best, and I think they also appreciate the fact that I’m trying to be a great American.”

~ Nancy Jaffer