A Conversation With Robert Ridland: The Present & Future of Show Jumping in the United States

A Conversation With Robert Ridland: The Present & Future of Show Jumping in the United States
Robert Ridland on the ground at CHIO Aachen 2017.
Robert Ridland on the ground at CHIO Aachen 2017.

After a successful week of competition at CHIO Aachen with Team USA, Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland is back home in California. At the Mercedes-Benz Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany, The United States was represented by the four leading team riders in the country, and their efforts produced a tied 2nd place finish on a course that was nothing short of challenging. During an exciting night of top equestrian sport, Ridland was there to meet them at the ingate every step of the way.

In his role as show jumping chef d’equipe, he is in a position to shape both the present and future of show jumping in the United States. While the responsibility carries its weight, he’s witnessed the evolution of the sport through its various phases as a competitor, a course designer, a trainer and businessman, and as a member of the FEI Jumping Committee and USEF Board of Directors.

The state of show jumping in the U.S had been up for ongoing debate long before social media played a significant role in transmitting news and opinions. This occurrence is not uniquely attributed to equestrian sport; it is one of both nature and habit in any profession across the board. Nevertheless, it is a topic that will continue to have a presence so long as there is a sport, and it is one that deserves a continued discussion.

Noelle Floyd: How would you describe the current state of showjumping in the United States?
Robert Ridland: I’m pretty enthusiastic about the state of show jumping in the U.S. The short answer is, I think our country is in great shape right now. I’ve been in my current position for five years, and one of the aspects I felt needed to be dealt with was the growth of high level, international competitions in the U.S, which traditionally have been in Europe almost exclusively. We’ve seen such an increase in FEI investments here in the United States, and it’s done nothing but help the caliber of the sport. It gives so many new options to different riders, and from the very beginning five years ago, I’ve always felt that the depth of our riders is tremendous.

The young riders are our future and I’ve made it a big priority to make sure that they’ve had the right opportunities to represent our country in international events, particularly on Nations Cup teams. I think what has worked out very well has been balancing the teams with veteran and young riders. I’ve said that from the start, what’s important is putting our next generation of riders in positions where they’re more likely to succeed, and that scenario almost always involves them being teammates with our veterans. It’s worked well this year and it’s worked very well for the last few years. I think that’s a huge barometer in where our sport is; how many participants you have at the highest level, and we clearly have had more Nations Cup riders competing for us than any other country in the world.

NF: What were your thoughts on Katie Prudent’s recent remarks via podcast interview regarding the state of show jumping in the U.S?
RR: I don’t pay too much attention to social media. I am aware of her remarks but that will be something I would rather discuss with her in person. Because this debate is going on, I would like to emphasize what I just said. I think with our depth and our results, we’ve proven that we’re in great shape, and all I’m concerned about is what the riders do the minute they enter the arena until the time that they come out. This whole professional amateur nonsense is irrelevant to what really counts. Our most successful riders, ranging in age from 19 on up, are those that can walk in the ring, ride as professionals, and are dedicated to the job at hand. We have an immense group of riders that are doing just that, and that to me is what’s important.

NF: Do you believe that riders—at any level—who come from strong financial backings carry a sense of entitlement? At the level which your riders are competing, what expectations do you have of them when it comes to horsemanship?
RR: I have not experienced any sense of entitlement from any rider that’s ridden on our teams, young or old.

That question refers more to the changes that we’ve seen in our sport. As everyone acknowledges, every part of the sport is vastly different than it was back when I was competing in the Olympics. The courses were different and the horses that we sat on were different. They have changed, and as a result, courses and equipment have changed, and as a result, strategies change. In essence the sport has changed.

Like most other successful sports, including professional team sports, there is a lot more specialization. You see that in baseball. Babe Ruth hit more home runs than anybody and he had more strikeouts than anyone. You don’t see that anymore. Baseball has vastly changed, so comparing his era with the current era wouldn’t make any sense. In race car driving, the drivers used to be the mechanics back in the old days. They would know every part of the engine inside out, and you don’t see that anymore. But, that doesn’t mean that racing is worse.

Every sport evolves and every sport gets better. Every generation of athletes gets more competitive, so it would be similar to criticizing a race car driver because they aren’t as good mechanics as their predecessors, and that wouldn’t make sense. They have more time to analyze their driving skills, videos, and all the computer data and so forth. It’s not like they’re off on the beach because they don’t have to fix their cars anymore. They’re spending just as much time but it’s more specialized. The same thing applies in our sport. The successful riders are the ones with successful teams and every part of that team is critical.

NF: In the Fall 2015 issue of Noelle Floyd Magazine, you mentioned that “a rider doesn’t necessarily need to be self funded to get to the podium. You have to be good, and if you work harder than anyone else, and you have more talent than anyone else, then the horses will come to you.”

Do you believe that the current state of U.S show jumping is an environment that will allow extraordinary talents who lack the financial backing to thrive?
RR: Yes, and I stand by my statements.

NF: For a young talent who can’t afford to ride at WEF or shows that will gain them exposure and access to the upper leveled trainers and horses, how can we bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be?
RR: I maintain and I’ve always maintained that the athletes who are driven enough and have enough talent will find a way to do it.

NF:  So, you are maintaining that finances alone do not inhibit a rider’s ability to progress in the sport, that the major factor, is doing the hard work with the willingness to do everything required to achieve a goal.
RR: I stand by what I see all the time, and that is the athletes who are truly driven to be the best at the sport will find a way. There is no difference from any other sport or any other profession for that matter. You’ll succeed if you have talent, passion, and a strong work ethic. If you wake up every morning thinking “how can I achieve what I’m looking to achieve,” you’ll figure out how. But your question really [refers] to what happens before they get to that stage.

If those athletes at a very young age are so driven, they’re going to be on the rail of the warm up area watching every move that our top riders do. Before they get on, when they’re on, what they do, how they walk the course, and they’ll figure out the answers. No one is going to hand it to them on a silver platter, that’s for sure, but I think in life that’s the case. If you want to be a top engineer, you’re going to figure out how you can put yourself in situations where you can glean knowledge from the top in your field. I don’t think that’s any different from anything else. Of course it takes a lot of work, but that’s what it takes.

I’m sure the drivers are no different. Most professional drivers don’t end up owning a $5 million race car. They’ve got to prove to somebody that they’re talented enough to drive it, and they’re going to start on the dirt tracks and they’re going to work their way up. They’ll be fiddling around with some form of car and all of a sudden someone will see that they that have talent. It’s no different, it’s the same thing. It’s hard work and talent, and I don’t know what profession or what sport would be any different. There are a lot of sports where the equipment costs a lot. America’s Cup skippers don’t necessarily own the boats, and the same is true with Indy 500 and Formula 1 drivers. Who owns your equipment is irrelevant to what you do when you’re on the field of play, and you will get to the field of play if you prove to the owners of the equipment that you deserve to be there.

NF: What faults do you believe have hindered the U.S from developing an identity where show jumping is credited as a sport rather than as an elitist luxury?
RR: I would dispute that assertion. We just got a team back from Aachen, arguably the Wimbledon of our sport. 40,000 spectators crammed into their seats in the international arena in Aachen. This is a worldwide sport of a highest level. When we were in Rio, [show jumping] was one of the few sports where every seat was taken, and we all know that the ticket sales in other sports were down in Rio for a variety of reasons. It’s televised worldwide, and as long as we keep our current position in the world rankings, we will maintain visibility with American sports fans. We can never rest on our laurels, but the U.S is arguably the best team in the world right now. With the current 5 championships, starting back from the 2014 World Championships in Normandy and on up to the 2017 World Cup Final in Omaha, we are the only country in the world that has medals in all five. The next country behind us has medaled in three. We are in an enviable position in one of the prominent, individual sports in the world.

NF: What are your thoughts on the comparisons between show jumping in Europe and in the United States?
RR: The main difference is that the sport came from Europe and it’s had a foothold there for probably half a century longer than ours. Aachen has been going on for 100 years and we were at the 100th Nations Cup in Germany back in Mannheim a couple of years ago. Dublin, where we go next, has had a horse show there for 150 years, so the sport has had a foothold in Europe for a much longer time than it has in the U.S. Clearly there are some very established CSIO5* Nations Cups that have been around for a long time in Europe and we don’t have it to that level in the United States. There’s no question, however, that the number of international events that we have recently gained in North America is significant.

NF: What do you currently believe is the greatest threat to show jumping’s sustainability and longevity in the U.S?
RR: I don’t think there are any great threats but I think in any sport, certainly, there’s always the threat of standing still. We always have to keep forcing ourselves to stay at the forefront of the sport; how to produce it and how it relates to spectators, sponsors, and owners. As long as we are willing — and I believe that we currently are — and we stay cutting edge, the sport’s going to be in great shape. The balance between tradition and innovation is crucial. The 2000 Las Vegas World Cup Final produced a high energy production, which pushed the envelope for a sport normally thought of as quite traditional. Now, that type of production in show jumping is the norm. We can never accept “we’ve always done it that way” as the answer.

The sport is evolving, it is different than it was, and as in many sports you can’t compare eras. You can’t compare that this era is better than that era. We wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for the past and the past is obviously very important to us. But, we have to constantly move forward. As long as we are going to do that, as long as our federation – which it certainly is doing right now —  continues to look forward, our sport’s going to be in good hands for a long time.

NF: When USEF announced that you would continue on with your role as Chef d’Equipe, you mentioned that you were “excited to continue working with what you believe is the most talented group of horses and riders in the sport today.”

How do you think this group of young riders will revolutionize and impact show jumping within the next few years?
RR: I think it’s been a hallmark of our last several years how many of these talented young riders we’ve seen do some extraordinary things in their early experiences on Nation Cup teams, and we’ve seen it consistently. As long as that continues, I say the future is very bright for us.