Ryder Richardson was already in Kentucky with his pony, RR Cool Play, when the USEF Pony Finals was canceled. The 14-year-old, who made his Pony Finals debut in 2018 with the support of a Gochman Grant, doesn’t have much of a budget for showing, so it might have been understandable if he’d spent a couple of days in mourning.
But Richardson, who does all of his own horse care, didn’t have time for that—he was too busy making the most of his opportunity to train with Shane Sweetnam while at Spy Coast Farm in Lexington. The Irish grand prix rider had offered to coach him at Finals and gave Richardson a few lessons before the young rider headed home.
“It was incredible—Shane gave me some of the best lessons I ever had,” Richardson said. “He challenged me. It was so much fun.”
Finding the positive in every situation comes naturally to Richardson, whose single mother, Kelle Richardson, holds two jobs to help support his riding. He chips in by working for local professional Karen Cranham in his hometown of Parker, Colorado, doing chores and schooling six to eight horses a day. Then he heads to Alexia Honegger’s Millbrook Equestrian to ride his own Connemara cross (Bentley O’Dea—Corner Oak Penelope), nicknamed “Beckham.”
“Most of that time is either kissing him, riding him or playing in the indoor,” said Ryder. “After that I come home, or I play lacrosse if it’s lacrosse season. And then I’m really tired, but it’s worth it.”
Despite spending every spare moment at the barn, Ryder struggled to find a pony fancy enough to be competitive at local shows. Receiving the Gochman Grant in 2018 provided a bridge to that opportunity.
“Ryder was putting in all this time with these ponies and watching all his friends showing,” said Kelle. “He would always go to the [Colorado] Horse Park and watch for hours and hours and offer to help everyone else. When he heard about the grant, he became so interested that it might be a possibility that he could someday attend Pony Finals.”
He ended up competing Elle Gibbs’ Nominee (Woodrow Carisbrooke—Manouska Van De Stompslag) in the large regular pony hunter division.
“The grant helped me a lot with confidence because I did not think that I could go to an A show like that or a huge competition like that,” said Ryder. “I was kind of scared a little bit because I didn’t think I was a good enough rider, or I didn’t have the nicest boots or the nicest saddle or show gear.”
The pair also contested the Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal Finals. “It was such an experience, just to get into an arena like that, even if I was a little out of it because I was so nervous,” Ryder said. “Just to experience the whole thing, because I’ve always wanted to do that since I was 8 years old.”
Last year, Ryder returned to Pony Finals with Beckham and was part of the combined team from Zones 3, 5, 7 and 8 that took third place in the USEF Pony Jumper National Team Championship. Though the 2020 edition was canceled, Ryder was one of the recipients of this year’s USEF Betsy Fishback Sportsmanship Award.
Kelle noted that these experiences helped Ryder connect with national equestrian figures out of the saddle, too. “It helped him, because he’s such a nice kid, it gave him some networking opportunities,” she said. “It helped trainers, like Robin Greenwood, [who volunteers to train the Gochman Grant winners], to take notice a little bit more that he is so dedicated.”
Networking comes naturally to Ryder, who is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues faced by young people. The death by suicide of his close friend, Jack Padilla, in February 2019 motivated him to join others lobbying the Colorado legislature for reform.
“It’s really just a sad thing that happens,” Ryder said. “It devastates many people’s lives. It happened to a good friend of mine. It was very, very sad. That’s when I started thinking, ‘How can I help? How can I make a difference?’ ”
Ryder and others visited the state capitol building last February to encourage lawmakers to consider introducing a new bill that would standardize anti-bullying practices across the state.
The experience of lobbying for change made a significant impact on Ryder. “I hadn’t done anything like that,” he said. “It was a large amount of people all there for one cause. It was very powerful. That’s the only way I can really say it. It was sad because I miss my friend. There were a lot of emotions.”
Ryder also honors his friend with the hashtag #JackStrong on his Facebook account to encourage people to talk about mental health and kindness. Bullying is another cause he makes time to address.
“It happens to a lot of people these days,” Ryder said. “With my riding and not having a lot of money, sometimes I’ll get bullied for that, or that I don’t have a dad—that’s what I got bullied for a little bit.”
Ryder participates in the Sources Of Strength peer leadership program through his school and carries the message of communication and support into the barn, too.
“Just having somebody to talk to is a big thing,” Ryder said. “I’ve had a few people talk to me about it. A lot of the time you just need somebody to talk to.”
As a USHJA Youth Ambassador, Ryder plans to continue encouraging kindness in equestrian sport while trying to increase its accessibility for more riders.
“[In the future] I’d want to open up a fundraiser for kids who can’t afford riding, and another thing called ‘Boy Ryder’ I’ve thought about, to get more boys in the sport having ponies to ride,” he said.
His advice for younger children who can’t afford to buy made show ponies? “Work as hard as you can; try to get noticed,” he said. “Try to hop on different ponies. Be at the barn at the start of the day and the end of the day.”
Ryder also suggests reaching out to top riders for help. “I have some really nice mentors, and I look up to them so much,” he said. “That’s been a very big part of my life.”
In the short term, he’ll continue riding ponies—and a few horses—with Cranham and Honegger in the jumper, hunter and equitation divisions. Sweetnam invited Ryder to train with him in Florida this winter if circumstances allow. With their and other professionals’ support, Ryder hopes to gain more experience in the ring.
“Last year at pony jumper finals, I really felt good about myself,” he said. “I was really happy with my pony. I felt I rode the course well. I just love the feeling when the course is over, and you look behind you, and you see what you’ve done.”