I had figured that all the top horse/rider combinations would come out for the only 5-star-rated dressage competition in the Western Hemisphere this month, so in December, I made my plane reservation for Florida and looked forward to a spectacular Grand Prix Freestyle on my arrival in Wellington.

But some big names were missing last week at the 5-star Adequan Global Dressage Festival, and you can blame it on the new North American League qualifying rules for the FEI World Cup finals.

Those vying for the continent’s two berths at the finals in Gothenburg, Sweden, this April need to compete in three qualifiers, rather than two as in the past. Since riders on the East Coast tend to do all their qualifying at Global, they have to make choices on their competition schedules if they don’t want to stress their horses.

Even before she won her second “Friday Night Stars” freestyle this year with Verdades last month on a wow mark of 84.935 percent for the World Cup qualifier, Laura Graves said her U.S. Equestrian Federation International Horse of the Year would not compete in the 5-star. The world’s number two-ranked rider is focused on qualifying for the World Cup, and felt doing the 5-star (which was not a Cup qualifier) would be too much for Verdades since he has to do three qualifiers.

Kasey Perry-Glass, runner-up to Laura in the second qualifier with her Dublet, was at the 5-star but only as a spectator. Meanwhile, Laura and Kasey’s 2019 FEI World Equestrian Games silver medal teammate, Adrienne Lyle, chose to do the 5-star Special instead of the Freestyle with Salvino because that will be the team medal competition at the Tokyo Olympics next year.

While she would like to go to the World Cup finals and is hoping she might get a wild card invitation, Adrienne only plans to do two qualifiers.

“The three World Cup qualifying scores I think really puts a cramp on, especially here when we don’t have indoors going all winter like a lot of the Europeans do. It’s just too much on the horses in my opinion to do that many and the 5-star,” she said.

“I really wanted to support the 5-star – it’s important when we have a show like this in our country. So I chose to do two World Cup qualifiers and see where the chips fall. I don’t think having three scores is going to change who goes (to the final) and I think it takes away from a lot of the other events.”

British dressage mastermind Carl Hester, who was on hand at the 5-star, said of the situation, “It’s a shame, obviously, because people expect to see the best. But we still have to realize that your average dressage rider, whether they’re a top rider or not, doesn’t have a team of horses. They have a horse. And quite rightly, those who decide to do the World Cup aren’t competing here at this time, which is a shame for the public. But from a horse welfare point of view, you cannot possibly manage the whole lot.”

Hallye Griffin, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s managing director of dressage, said that while the qualifying period for the World Cup started last April in California, “it’s just that many people focus their competition calendar on Wellington, which makes the season in Wellington very condensed. There are a lot of people looking at the World Cup qualifying process right now and looking at the overall competition calendar.

“There’s a North American League Committee that advises the FEI, so there’s a lot of discussion around it now. I think there’s going to be a push for athlete feedback.”

There also could be an effort to get an another finals slot for North America and meanwhile, she added, “there are extra starting places that could be allocated to us that pretty much come out of the world rankings.”

Debbie McDonald, the U.S. dressage coach, said, “I think you’re going to see the World Cup globally change in the way they do things, I’m guessing, in a little bit.

For now, she has her own way of dealing with the situation.

“When I have riders who are trying for the World Cup, they go in and do two. If they’re in the standings, keep going. If they’re not, go to the Special.”

Only six riders appeared in the Freestyle, which was won by Canada’s Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu with a score of 76.520 percent on All In. It was the last competitive ride by Brittany until after she has her baby in June, so she wasn’t worrying about the World Cup and knows All In will have a long rest before September’s Dressage at Devon, as she makes plans for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

~ Nancy Jaffer