Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland analyzes how and why the U.S. high performance show jumpers excelled around the world.
When I took over as chef d’equipe in 2013, I was brought in to implement a new four-year plan, and I view our successes this year as the culmination of that program.
Everyone knows what we accomplished, and it’s important to point out that there were so many different individuals who contributed to our winning year. We were the only country to medal in all four major championships in this cycle: our continental championships, the 2015 Pan American Games (Toronto); the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France); the 2016 Olympic Games (Brazil); and the 2016 Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final (Spain). That’s a great accomplishment for everybody.
The revised Olympic selection process was based on rider and owner suggestions as well as input from every segment of our sport five years ago. I did benefit from having a year to prepare before I took over George [Morris’] job, which gave me time to shadow him and talk to riders and see where they wanted the sport to go within our own country.
One common theme was the over-scheduling of events. Our calendar was getting more and more complicated, and Olympic trials were adding to the problem and making it more difficult to peak the horse/rider combinations for what you needed them to peak for.
It would have been tough to preach to the riders that we have to have a focused schedule and be sparing with the horses to save them for the Olympics if, at the same time, we had required them to go in a series of trials, on top of all the grand prix classes that were already on the calendar.
That was the impetus for the format this year, and I think we came up with the correct formula for all the right reasons. The solution worked: We were able to use objective criteria [the USEF rankings list] as the overall broad net to get down to the 10 riders who would go to Europe to compete in Nations Cups. The idea of 10 riders was from George, and that formula had worked for a long time. His theory, which I completely agreed with, was that those 10 riders needed to be prepared and tested against the best riders in the world, so that the team that went to the Olympic Games would be fully prepared for what they needed to do. I think, overall, it has worked well.
We expected to medal. That was our goal, and that’s what all U.S. teams have had in their sights decade after decade. At every level we try to give our horses, riders and owners the best resources we can by providing exceptional staff and logistical support that is second to none. After that, it’s a sport, and it comes down to plenty of preparation and a little bit of luck on any given day. All you can do is put yourself in the best position to do well, which we did, but so did the French, and so did the other top three or four teams.
We were fortunate to get the silver, but I think the French were also fortunate to get the gold. There were quite a few things that could easily have gone the other way. They had their bad luck, like we did, and their good luck, like we did. Their bad luck started early with a veterinary problem, and they were able to use their reserve rider. We had bad luck too, when Beezie Madden and Cortes ‘C’ had to withdraw midway through the competition, and we were down to three. We lost the rider who had been our anchor rider for the last four years (and before), but that’s part of the sport. The other U.S. riders had been in positions of pressure before, and even though it wasn’t how we planned it, Beezie’s teammates did a remarkable job, and the results showed.
Four years ago I introduced the concept of putting three veteran team riders alongside two slightly less experienced pairs, but it was always just a concept—not a mandatory strategy. It was strictly an idea that I came up with as a sports fan watching professional teams in other sports where the younger players gleaned experience from the older ones in the right situations. That last part is key: It has to be in the right situation, with the right teammates. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and it doesn’t always work. But when we went to the Olympic Games, we took the best five we had.
Watching Lucy Davis at the Olympics you could see how that 3:2 format paid off. By the time Lucy got there, at 23, she was no rookie. Her preparation started long before her bronze medal in the World Games. She got her first five-star double clear in the Nations Cup at Rotterdam (the Netherlands) three years ago, and she’s been a regular team member ever since.
During the final team round at the Olympics, Barron saw something out of the corner of his eye on the way to the triple combination, although it wasn’t as obvious to the fans watching on TV as it was to those of us right behind her holding our breath. Lucy ended up saving our silver medal with an absolutely unbelievable ride getting through the triple, because without a discard score the entire team result could have gone one way or the other. I give partial credit to the 3:2 concept, because by the time she went to Rio she was already a seasoned championship veteran.
Nations Cup Performances
When you look at the statistics of the U.S. teams’ Nations Cups
|Nations Cups By The Numbers
The U.S. show jumping teams outrode every other squad on the planet in Nations Cup competition this season. Here are a few of statistics guru Robert Ridland’s favorite Nations Cup metrics that show the quality and depth of the high performance show jumping program:
Number of podium finishes by U.S. teams, not counting the Olympic Games or Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final (Spain): 9
Number of podium finishes by the second-best team, Germany: 6
Number of U.S. riders competing on Nations Cups teams: 28
Number of clean rounds by U.S. riders in Nations Cup competition: 47
Number of clean rounds by the second-best team, Germany: 42
performances throughout the year, we had a record second to none. Not only did we qualify in our own league, but we also sent our Olympic contenders to Europe as part of our preparation process. There we rode against Europeans who had extra pressure to qualify for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final in their home league. Still, we had more clean rounds than anybody else, and our performances were so strong we would have tied on points for the win in the Western European league if it was our home league.
Originally we planned that the core of the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final team would come from the Olympic team. I gave those riders that option but didn’t force them to go. We wanted to make sure the horses came out of the Olympics in the right situation to go to Barcelona, and obviously there were many other important events going on at the same time.
As it turned out, I had a few irons in the fire, which was fortunate. The one everyone points to is Lillie Keenan, who came up with a clutch clear round when she only found out a couple hours before the Nations Cup that she was riding.
Lillie didn’t surprise us, or her teammates, because she’d been extremely successful in her first five-star Nations Cup at the Hickstead CSIO (Great Britain) earlier in the year. When she was picked at the last minute for the team at the Spruce Meadows Masters (Alberta), the idea was she would do the Nations Cup there but not the grand prix. Now, there aren’t too many riders who would go to the Masters and intentionally skip a $3 million grand prix. But that was what we planned ahead of time. That was our priority, and that was her priority, so that there would be enough left in the tank if we needed her for Barcelona. By then we’d picked her as the reserve rider for Barcelona, but as every rider who has served as a reserve knows, when you’re the reserve you have to feel that you’re in a position to add to the team if called upon. Of course, you hope you don’t get called upon two hours before when you’re warming up for another class, which is exactly what happened to Lillie, and yet she managed to pull out a clear round.
It was amazing to see that team pull together, with three riders under 25, being able to earn the team bronze. It was just remarkable, and the world took notice of our young talent.
These results show how important it is to bring along our young riders. We talked about it four years ago, and we continue to talk about it today. We can’t rest on our laurels; we have to be looking toward the future. Four years ago, we didn’t have a young rider chef d’equipe so we created that position, because the need was pressing. DiAnn Langer has done a wonderful job in that role.
2017 is the first year of the next quadrennium, so we’re thinking of Tokyo, host of the 2020 Olympic Games, right now. Obviously it’s a ways off, and the more immediate targets are our home Longines FEI World Cup Final in Omaha, Neb., and the following year our home World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C. We have to keep them all in our focus. And, of course, this year we’ll be focused as well on qualifying for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final.
We’re in a much different situation coming into 2017 than we were in 2013. One main difference is the increased number of Fédération Equestre Internationale competitions that we have on our continent. There will be a lot of options this year at home. We will be competing in some Nations Cups in Europe, but it’s not going to be the heavy onslaught we’ve done in some years. Each competition will have its value and stated purpose, and we’re going to coordinate that with the riders and their home schedules.
What is that for? Whether it’s a young horse or a young rider, a seasoned horse or a seasoned rider, or a combination thereof, it’s all pointing toward the next benchmarks so we can be strong when it counts.
Robert Ridland, Irvine, Calif., attended two Olympic Games and co-founded Blenheim EquiSports, a show management company which has run five FEI Show Jumping World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, the last three of which also included dressage. He has served as the chef d’equipe to the U.S. show jumping team since 2013, and he runs Equi Sports Inc. in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., alongside his wife Hillary Ridland.