U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland reflects on a fantastic year for U.S. show jumpers and shares his plans for staying at the top of the podium in 2018.
When we set out for the year, we had two main goals in mind: championships and Nations Cups. That’s what we do, and that’s what we focus on.
This was the second year in a row that the United States was the only team to hold current medals in all four championships: Olympic Games (Brazil), the Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games (France), the Longines FEI Nations Cup Final (Spain) and the continental championships—in our case the Pan American Games (Canada). We did it in 2016, and we did it again in 2017. No other team in the world even has three.
We were in 11 [senior] Nations Cups this year, and we were first or second in almost every one, including the Final. It’s a really phenomenal record. Of those 11 Nations Cups, we had 21 riders and 30 horses sharing the load. As usual we didn’t rely on a few hot horse/rider combinations. Spreading the load has always been one of our priorities; we want to do what’s right for the horses, and we want to use the depth that we have. Also, more than a third—36 percent—of the starts in Nations Cups this year were accomplished by riders under 25. These riders are the future of our sport, and they’re showing us that the future is strong.
While 2017 was a non-championship year, 2018 is a World Equestrian Games year. With that in mind we will use some major European Nations Cups like the Aachen CSIO (Germany) for selection and training purposes as we did in 2016 before the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Ten riders will go to Europe starting in June, and from those 10 we will pull the team that goes to the World Games in September.
On Top Of The World
We have two Nations Cups coming up in Florida, one at the Ocala CSIO and one at the Wellingon CSIO, and we’ll send totally different teams to each, but we haven’t named the teams yet. Generally we’ll send our A team of veterans to Ocala to start the year off with a bang, as that’s our home Nations Cup for point selection for Barcelona. Our Wellington team will have more younger riders.
The two other two Nations Cups that count toward qualifying for the Final are in Langley, British Columbia, and Xalapa, Mexico. We’ll be counting on our younger riders there because the calendar keeps getting more crowded. The 10 riders in contention for the WEG will already be in Europe, and quarantine restrictions make it tricky to do both Xalapa and Nations Cups in Europe.
In addition to our great team performances, we had individuals right at the top of the game as well. McLain Ward and HH Azur won the individual championship, the Longines FEI World Cup Final (Nebraska). We all knew going in we hadn’t won a home World Cup Final since Conrad [Homfeld] did it on Balbuco in Baltimore in 1980. On top of that, McLain didn’t just win; he did it phenomenally, leading from start to finish. That was a great highlight for the year.
And Kent Farrington spent nine months at the top of the Longines FEI World Rankings List, while McLain was second for much of the year as well. But it’s not just about the very top; we also had five riders in the top 30. None of those five riders will tell you that specifically was their goal; it was a byproduct—a very nice byproduct—of their planning and horsemanship. It’s another objective marker of where we are in the sport right now, but it’s not the end goal.
The big goal for this year, of course, will be the World Games in Tryon, North Carolina, where we acknowledge all the time that we have a home field disadvantage. The riders on the team will go through incredible pressure, because it means so much to have it here. Everyone in the world is gearing up for Tryon, and no one more than the Americans. There’s nothing better than winning at home, and these opportunities don’t come around very often.
Our Olympic qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is dependent on the WEG outcome. We’ll also have the Nations Cup Final as well—assuming we qualify. That one’s tricky for everyone because it’s so close on the heels of the World Games. It will probably be an entirely different team than the one we have in Tryon, much like it was after the 2016 Olympic Games.
Looking Toward The Future
As in most sports it’s one thing to get there but another thing to stay there. We had a phenomenal year in team competition and individually, but that can change tomorrow. These results are products of a huge amount of teamwork, starting with generous sponsors and owners to get the ball rolling, and the staff that keeps it all going is second to none.
I’m now heading into my sixth year at this job. From the beginning I said this isn’t a one-person job. I have no idea how George Morris did it alone, and before him Frank Chapot and Bert de Némethy. But part of that, perhaps, is that we didn’t have as many riders or as many events.
These days I have an awful lot of help. Anne Kursinski came on board last year as the developing rider coach, and DiAnn Langer is our young rider chef d’equipe, and it’s a full team effort led by our managing director of show jumping, Lizzy Chesson. We work together, communicate together and compare notes. One of our challenges, which is also a benefit, is our country’s vast size, which means riders aren’t based all in one area. We need to have many sets of eyes and ears on the ground, and now we have them. Anne and DiAnn and I run into each other a lot on the major circuits—this time of year we’re mostly in Florida and California—but we’re on the phone all the time too, so we can say things like, “Hey, there’s this young rider who’s come to the forefront; let’s keep our eye on them.”
So many people are giving back to help the next generation of show jumpers. The top two show jumpers in the world, Kent and McLain, both taught at the George Morris Horsemastership Clinic down in Wellington in January, as well as Beezie Madden and Anne, and in years past we’ve had other top riders like Laura Kraut help out. Even Tim Ober, our team veterinarian, donated his time to inspire and educate at the clinic. And DiAnn did a wonderful job with the first USHJA Gold Star Clinic, a new program starting this year. She’s done a tremendous job kickstarting that program.
These younger riders will keep us where we are. All these experts realize how fortunate they are to be in this position, and they’re giving back to the sport.
Robert Ridland, Irvine, California, attended two Olympic Games as a rider and co-founded Blenheim EquiSports, a show management company that 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 International in San Juan Capistrano, California, alongside his wife Hillary Ridland.