Road To The Olympics: Robert Ridland On What It Takes To Make The Team

Apr 12, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Robert Ridland is approaching his second Olympic cycle as chef d’equipe of the U.S. show jumping team. His team selection process has been tried and tested over the past eight years. And amid the haze of the coronavirus pandemic, it has served as a northern star for riders looking to wear the pinque coat at the Tokyo Olympic Games, to be held July 23-Aug. 8.

Ten riders will be named to the Olympic shortlist by the U.S. Equestrian Federation no later than Wednesday. The decision encompasses the top four riders from the Rolex/USEF Show Jumping Average Ranking List—Kent Farrington, Laura Kraut, McLain Ward and Jessica Springsteen—the top three riders on the April 9 Rolex/USEF Show Jumping Horse List—Lucy Deslauriers (Hester), Bliss Heers (Antidote De Mars) and Devin Ryan (Eddie Blue)—and three discretionary selections chosen by advisors Molly Ashe Cawley, Leslie Howard and Anthony D’Ambrosio.

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“Championships are all about consistency—jumping multiple clean rounds in successive days—and it’s always been that way,” said Robert Ridland (right), pictured with course designer Leopoldo Palacios at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Mollie Bailey Photo

Ridland, the advisors and USEF Jumping Managing Director Lizzy Chesson will assess shortlisted riders at three CSIO5* events in Europe: Rome on May 26-30, Sopot (Poland) on June 17-20, and Rotterdam (the Netherlands) on June 24-27. Three combinations and a reserve entry will be recommended to the Olympic team no later than July 4.

Below, Ridland discusses the selection process and its factors of consideration.

What are your thoughts on show jumping’s new Olympic format, which features three riders per team, a reserve combination, and no discard score?

I’m fine with that. That decision was made, and I know the reasons why. On the positive side, it’s going to be very exciting both for people familiar with the sport and newcomers.

[The format] is easy to understand; you add up the faults, just like watching golf. If you have one bad hole in the Final 18 of the U.S. Open, you don’t get to discard that score just because your ball went in the water twice.

I think it’s going to be exciting and good for the sport. The fact that the team [competition] is following the individual is different. We’ve got to deal with it, and you plan accordingly.

What is your overall assessment on how the winter circuit fared for the U.S. riders in contention for Tokyo?

I think we would all agree it’s fortunate that we can even have a circuit. It’s probably—as a result of COVID—created the most competitive circuit that we’ve ever seen at [the Winter Equestrian Festival], just with the infusion of the top European riders that came over since Europe is not open right now.

It was incredibly competitive, which was good for us to have that kind of competition at home. Overall, I certainly had a very positive feeling about how things went throughout the circuit.

We mostly saw non-U.S. riders dominating the feature grand prix classes at WEF. What does that say about how the U.S. riders are positioned going into Tokyo?

Nothing. Championships are won on clean rounds. Championships are not won, in general, on jump-offs, and I’m saying this despite the fact we won a jump-off at the [2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina)] three years ago in Tryon. That was an unusual situation that definitely doesn’t happen very often.

Championships are all about consistency—jumping multiple clean rounds in successive days—and it’s always been that way. So, the fact that we have winners that were European over an event that takes place in one afternoon with two rounds, including a very fast round, has not a lot of relevance to what we’re going to be doing in Tokyo.

It also doesn’t have any relevance with the riders trying to be on the Top 10 shortlist. They know that the priority is clean rounds, and that one afternoon where you force yourself to go lightning fast in a grand prix is not that relevant when you’re talking about the entire body of work. The one team event we had, the [March 5, $150,000 Nations Cup CSIO4* (Wellington)], we won. That’s what these riders are peaking for.

The Nations Cup, and the team element, is a very important part of championships. The riders on the shortlist are riders we see as potential [candidates] either for Tokyo or beyond, and beyond isn’t that far down the road. We have the World Championships a year from now in Denmark. So, it’s all part of the process. Having those riders—basically, our next generation of riders—doing what they did against some strong foreign teams in the Nations Cup was super impressive. And, the fact is, that it’s the third time in a row.

That has much greater relevance on where we’re going in the future than winning a few grands prix that—are spectacular in the moment—but don’t necessarily have implications of consistency and so forth.

Having followed results and the consistency of horse-rider combinations throughout the winter circuit, would you agree the most viable combinations heading into the selection trials are riders of the new guard?

That’s a question I’m certainly not going to answer because that involves the selection process. The final 10 will be announced (in mid-April), and several of the positions are objectively based and have already been set off the ranking list where applicable. The three discretionary spots will be determined between now and April 14.

Do you have an idea of who the three discretionary riders are?

Yes, I do, but I meet and consult on a regular basis with the advisors for the process, and those meetings haven’t happened since the end of WEF 12. We’ve had meetings throughout the circuit, but we’re going to have a couple (more). No decision has been made, and no decision will be made until we all get together.

Would there be pressure to put a veteran on the team if the strongest contenders prove to be riders of the new guard?

I wouldn’t say anybody is pressured into anything. It’s a factor that’s part of the competition, and a factor that every major country is going to have to go through when they’re selecting their teams. It’s one of multiple factors that go into who would be the best horse-rider combinations.

Talk about the factors of consideration.

You have a no-discard score situation that’s never been used in the Olympic Games before, so that’s a factor. You have the factor that it’s in Tokyo, which happens to be an average 92 degrees and 100% humidity. And, it’s a championship that has multiple rounds, so there’s a fitness aspect for both horses and riders.

You have a situation where the team event follows the individual, which hasn’t been done recently. All those factors weigh into it. You take all the factors together, and you do your best to come up with a team that will be successful. Those are the elements of the immediate championship that we’re selecting and preparing for, and the selection process has been no different than it’s been within the last eight years.

You obviously take into account the experience of the horses and riders but also extremely important is their recent results.

Some of them are on newer horses, and that makes a difference, so that’s where Florida comes in. The results from this year fall into that category of recent results, but you also take into consideration that that’s also in one facility and that there’s a comfort factor of being in a show environment that’s not normal.

When we go to Europe at CSIO5* [events], nobody’s coming from home. Horses travel great distances to come to any of the CSIOs, and that’s not the case in Florida. In Florida, these are horses that have been there for months. They’re acclimated to the weather; they’re very familiar with the arenas, so you take that into consideration, too. While recent results are very important, so is the fact that there’s more to be seen, and that’s what we’re looking forward to with the 10 going to Europe.

Every championship year, we’ve done exactly this same system—we go to Europe and really fine-tune. For some of the younger horse-and-rider combinations, it’s been a trial by fire against the best riders in the world. That has led us to be battle-tested when the championship comes along. That system has worked, and there’s no reason to change it.

You touched on the importance of having the selection trials in neutral territory, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic and EHV-1 outbreak in Europe, were there alternative considerations? U.S. Dressage, for example, is hosting the selection trials at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in July.

We know the schedule is flexible due to COVID and EHV-1, but we’re hoping we’ll be able to compete in the majority of the [events] we were planning on. Going to Europe is our Plan A, our No. 1 objective for all the reasons I said. Staying home? You can’t get riders battle-tested in international situations because we don’t have any Nations Cups over here. If we want to go head-to-head with the countries that we’re hoping to be competitive with when we get to Tokyo, we have to go where they are.

That’s always been Plan A, but we have a Plan B and a Plan C. If everything gets shut down and we’re not able to go over there, we’re not just going to be twiddling our thumbs; we’ll do it in the States.

Dressage, I know, did that, but it’s a slightly different situation when you’re jumping jumps that can change and configurations that change in every arena. In our sport, every course is different, all the jumps are different. In dressage, the test doesn’t change, and the dimensions of the ring don’t change. So, I can see that they would be potentially more comfortable being able to keep it in the U.S. Also, they can basically duplicate the weather later on in the spring, early summer, when the weather is relatively similar to Tokyo. But we’re in a slightly different situation just because of the nature of the sport.

Factoring in Tokyo weather conditions and the inconsistency of shows on the international calendar due to COVID, do you have concerns about the horses’ fitness levels as they head into the four-day Olympic format?

I wouldn’t say concerned. It’s just the hand that you’re dealt. CSIOs in Europe are what they are, but no regular horse show has five tough rounds of jumping. If we did, we’d be out of horses pretty quickly, so you can’t duplicate exactly what you’re trying to qualify for.

Obviously, in Florida, it’s not five days of jumping. Often, riders will qualify for the grand prix on Thursday on one horse and use a different horse Saturday. So, nobody would expect to jump five days in a row at a regular horse show, and that includes CSIOs as well in Europe. It’s the same for every team.

You have to prepare for the fitness level and the weather conditions that you have, but you can’t have an absolute try-out under those conditions like you can in other sports.

In all my communications with the riders, either in Zoom group meetings or one-on-one, I’ve always said from the very beginning, “Heading into Florida, make sure you schedule your horse’s activities the next couple months for what’s best for them.” What’s not best for them in most situations is showing too much.

You could hypothetically dream up situations that were similar to what we’re going to have in Tokyo. You could have trials with five rounds if you wanted to, and you might end up selecting a pretty good team that would be completely washed out before Tokyo even shows up.

So, you have to do what’s best for the horses and what’s best for their fitness, and you go from there. But showing too much or too many times in one week, multiple weeks in a row, might show some degree of fitness but also you could lose the edge that you would have. And, I think the riders, overall, have been very cognizant of that. They’ve done a really good job in the last couple months to not over-show their horses and to put their horses in the best condition possible.

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