Top Freestyle Competitions Decimated in USA by Focus on Olympic Team Competition

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James Koford and Pharaoh at the Global Dressage Festival World Cup. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Grand Prix musical freestyle competition that has been promoted and marketed for more than a quarter century to popularize dressage has been decimated in the United States this year despite record prize money because of U.S. Olympic selection requirements and international rules that restrict how horses compete.

International judges, show organizers and sponsors who contribute prize money have all questioned the procedures that have led to Grand Prix Freestyles with just a handful of competitors on the intensive Florida winter circuit of 11 CDI competitions, including five World Cup qualifiers.

Spectators have been bewildered by as few as two or three combinations in freestyles that have been promoted as the centerpiece of shows, of horses and riders performing choreography of the rider’s choosing in the highest and most artistic expression of the sport and with the highest prize money, as much as $20,000.

The lion’s share of the $275,000 in Global Dressage Ferstival purses has been allocated to freestyles.

California, the only other region of North America that has World Cup events in winter, faces the same problem with two qualifiers–one in February and one in March ahead of the Final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, in April.

Only a single combination is entered in February’s Mid Winter Dressage Fair World Cup competition in Burbank. Entries had not closed for the Del Mar World Cup in March so the number in the Freestyle is unknown.

As of this writing, only the Global Dressage Festival’s World Cup event in Wellington this weekend will have a full complement of 15 horses and riders in the Freestyle. That is up from an initial seven entries, because the organizers asked riders to state a second option so those who did not make the Olympic Grand Prix Special cutoff could choose the Freestyle.

The actions that have removed the Grand Prix Freestyle from the limelight in 2012 comes just two years after a low point in World Cup competition in North America when there were no qualifying shows in Canada or the U.S. West Coast and neither nation sent a representative to the only annual global dressage championship for the first time since it was created in 1985. North America is allocated two places in the Final and competitors pay for themselves and their horses when the event is in Europe.

The main causes of the decline in freestyles so far in 2012, according to riders and show organizers, are:

* Changes in the format at the Olympics in London this summer in which the team competition will be decided by the results of both the Grand Prix and a specially created Olympic Grand Prix Special, an abbreviated version of the standard Special, instead of Grand Prix only. The teams will comprise only three horses and riders instead of four as is usual in championships. So no score can be discarded. Instead of individual medals being decided by the Special and the Freestyle, the freestyle alone will decide. In addition to the team, one individual combination can also qualify based on Olympic ranking points.

* The U.S. selection procedures as drawn up by the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s High Performance Dressage Committee, only Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special/Olympic Grand Prix Special results in CDIs by May 27 will count toward qualifying for the trials to be held in Gladstone, New Jersey, June 8-17. The selection procedures emphasize: “No FEI Grand Prix Freestyle will be required for qualification.”

The FEI does not allow horses to compete at Grand Prix, Special and Freestyle at a single competition except for championships and CDIOs such as the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany.

So far this year, of the three Florida CDIs, two of them World Cup qualifiers in which only the Freestyle counts for ranking points, the number of competitors in the Freestyle and Special have been:

1. Gold Coast Dressage Association Opener CDI-W: seven in the Freestyle, 12 in the Special;

2. Global Dressage Festival Wellington Dressage CDI-W: three in the Freestyle, 11 in the Special, and

3. Wellington Spring Challenge CDI3*: two in the Freestyle, 15 in the Special.

Yvonne Losos de Muñiz and Liebling II who won the Wellington Spring Challenge CDI3* Grand Prix Freestyle . © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“It is very disappointing that we have created these competitions with all this prize money to develop the World Cup and other classes and not get the participation because of a decision to use them to qualify for trials,” said Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions that organizes the Global Dressage Festival and has made a major push to market horse sports to non-equestrians.

“It may help the selection process but it won’t do anything to promote the sport.”

Leif Torblad of Denmark, a judge at the Wellington Dressage CDI-W, suggested that national federations or the FEI should consider allowing combinations to compete in all three components–the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle–at World Cup qualifiers.

It was a shame, he said, that riders from Canada and other nations competing in the U.S. were forced to make a choice of either the Special or the Freestyle.

“They should be able to ride the three tests,” he said. “It is not the organizer’s fault but the national federation and maybe the FEI can consider a change.”

Glenda McElroy, organizer of the Burbank competition, said that at her World Cup event the Freestyle “is very small, only one rider, and why not–there is no reason for the GP riders to enter any freestyle class this qualifying season. They won’t have to ride the Freestyle at Gladstone, either. Because of the team competition in London being based on the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, I guess the committee wanted the riders to concentrate on those tests as well. The riders moving on to the individual  competition in London will ride their Freestyle. I am sure Ann (Gribbons, U.S. team coach) will make sure they have a good freestyle.”

Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, president of the ground jury at the London Olympics. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Stephen Clarke of Great Britain who will be president of the ground jury at London and judged at two of the three Florida compeititions said he was not sure he would “want to change anythng to make it different.”

“Everybody is focused on the Olympic Grand Prix Special. I think a lot of it is about being careful, about mileage on the horse.”

The focus on the Special this year, he said, is a direct result of the Olympic format and after the Games the freestyle again “might well be the real highlight.”