Interview by Jill Novotny
Robert Ridland was named the U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe and technical advisor in 2013, bringing his decades of international experience to the team. Ridland’s successful riding career includes two appearances in the Olympic Games, and his extensive involvement in the governance of the sport includes several terms as a board member of the USEF and the USET. After returning from the Nations Cup Finals in Barcelona earlier this year, Ridland spoke with Equestrian Living magazine.
What do you think of the depth of talent of up-and-coming riders in the U.S.?
When I first came into this job, contrary to what many had heard, I felt that the depth of talent coming up—our younger riders—was very strong when you compared it to the rest of the world. The proof is in the results. We’ve had amazing results from a very large group of young riders—much more than any other country.
How do we ensure that the talent pool keeps growing?
That’s a question we spend a lot of our time on. The short answer is that we’re going to continue and enhance what we’ve had in place for the last five years. When I first came into the job, I felt it was very important to incorporate the next generation of talent into our current teams, and I came up with what everybody knows now as the 3:2 formula, where, whenever possible, we pair up two younger riders with three veterans. It’s similar to what’s done in a lot of other sports and has been very successful for us. We finished in the top two of eight out of 11 nations cups. Also, more important than that, we had over a third of those starts from under-25 riders (U25). There’s no other country that has had that type of participation from their next generation of stars.
You serve as both chef d’equipe and technical advisor. What is your role as technical advisor?
What it basically means is my role isn’t just in the warm-up ring. It goes far beyond the competitions. There’s a limited amount of input you can have on the day of the competition itself; it’s everything that leads up to it. We’re all working to give our riders the best chance they have at success at the highest level of competition. Most of that doesn’t happen on the day or the week of the competition. As our nations cup season ends, we’re focusing on our upcoming goals, which, in the short term, are things like next year’s equestrian games in Tryon, and longer term goals like the Olympics in Tokyo, and beyond that. We spend hours every day providing programs and communicating with the riders.
How do you balance your family life with the time and travel demands of your job?
That was so important that I almost didn’t apply for the job. I was naturally concerned that the travel and the time required would take me away from my family more than I was prepared to agree to. My good friend, Jürgen Klinsmann, was coach of the U.S. Men’s World Cup Soccer Team, and he lives in California near me. We had coffee several times right up to the day before the deadline five years ago. He convinced me that there’s a way to do it, and I’ve been able to do it. First off, in this job you end up not being on the road as much as you’d think. Basically, we had 11 Nations cups this year. Also, I live in California, which has turned out not to be an issue at all. In many ways, flying from Los Angeles to Europe is easier than flying from New York because the flight is long enough that I can actually get some sleep.
Many times, our family has been able to travel together. Our daughter, McKenna, is at law school in Denver, so she isn’t able to travel with us very often. My son, Peyton, is a senior in high school, and during the summer he’s been able to join us at quite a few of the nations cups, and, of course, the Olympics. My wife, Hillary, is able to join me many times. I don’t consider myself away from the family when they’re able to come, too.
How do we increase spectatorship and sponsorship in America?
Whenever you’re looking to improve something, you look at who’s on top, and you ask, “How can we get there?” For nations cups, you’re looking at Aachen, Dublin, and Spruce Meadows, just to name a few nations cups with huge audiences and support. It would be great if eventually we could achieve the same. Of course, that takes time. Aachen has been around a century or so, and Dublin even longer than that. You can’t just snap your fingers and have that happen, but it’s definitely the direction we’d like to go. You go to Aachen and you see 40,000 people with standing room only on the big days of the competition, and similar numbers at Spruce Meadows and Dublin.
That’s the key to any sport’s success. How many spectators do you get at your most major events? The sport is very different from what it was 10 years ago, and in this country, just a few years ago. I think the organizers have stepped up to the plate, and I definitely think we’re going the right direction. The world cup qualifying system has changed in the last few years as well. Those sponsorships are really helping drive the numbers. I don’t think anything needs to be radically changed, and I think the direction we’re going is the right one. We just have to keep pushing.
Another goal is to spread the sport into more areas of the country. We just had a very successful world cup finals in Omaha. What was particularly encouraging was that, in a brand new area of the country where the No.1 individual competition in the world this year was held, there were standing-room-only crowds that were incredibly enthusiastic. And they witnessed one of the greatest world cup finals of all time. Of course, we would think so, because we won with McLain’s multiple clean rounds!
The highest levels of competition are obviously very intense. What do you do to unwind?
I have riders all around the world in various time zones. I’m constantly on the phone with them and watching videos and so on. I made a rule that, when I’m done, I’m done. I always like to be finished by 6:00 p.m., and then I usually run, mountain bike, or play tennis. I try to do something along those lines before Peyton gets home from school and Hillary gets back from the barn. We all have long days, and the best part is the evening, when we can all get together and compare notes on how our days have gone.
What does it mean for the U.S. with more countries coming up, such as Qatar and the UAE, and how will the new three-person team format impact the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and the Tokyo Olympics?
Well, first off, the three-rider format is not taking place before Tokyo; it won’t affect WEG. There are some changes to the format at WEG: The final four riders are not changing horses. The no-dropscore, three-rider team won’t come into play until Tokyo. How does that affect us? Well, we’ll have more teams to beat. It’s that simple. I understand why it’s coming into play, and it’s been a little bit controversial, but I look at the pluses that it will bring. From the point of view of the spectators, it will be very exciting without the drop score. Some of the most exciting world cups we ever had were with the current format, so it can be exciting either way, but obviously with the no-drop score, you need to have riders that are going to be comfortable with that level of pressure.
The U.S. team did very well at the Nations Cup in Barcelona with a silver medal.
We sent a different type of team this time from last, but it’s what we’ve been striving for all along: a dynamic mix, at the highest level, of our seniorveteran riders and our up-and-coming starters of the future. We had a U25 rider, Chloe Reed, as our reserve rider. The other four were veterans of several Olympics. The year before had similar results—this year we were the silver, and last year we were the bronze. We did something that no other country had done: three out of our five riders were U25 riders. They have stepped up and been part of these important teams, like the veterans. It’s been seamless.