With roots in the fabled Bertalan de Nemethy era of the U.S. Equestrian Team while operating in the techno-savvy present, Robert Ridland has a unique resume for his new job as the country’s show jumping chef d’equipe/technical advisor.
He continues the unbroken team link from Bert, who put the U.S. on the post-World War II show jumping map in a big way. Bert was succeeded by Frank Chapot, with whom Robert rode on many teams — including at the 1976 Olympics. Frank, in turn, was succeeded by George Morris, who holds the job through 2012.
Robert, who was selected this week to take over from George next year, has a different style from his legendary predecessor.
George, a bachelor Florida resident who turns 74 on Sunday, is a noted author who writes and gives clinics around the country when he is not coaching.
Robert, 61, lives in California with his family, wife, Hillary, and children McKenna, 19, and Peyton, 12. Involved in a broad spectrum of activities, Robert serves as president of the West Coast show management company Blenheim EquiSports; as well as a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and the FEI Jumping Committee. An international course designer who also has been a World Cup finals technical delegate, the Yale University graduate has run the Las Vegas World Cup finals and is co-manager of the Washington International Horse Show.
He plans to use the same approach in his new job as he does with EquiSports, where he has a crew that has worked together closely for years.
“I believe it’s a team effort; I’m not going solo on this. I’m not going to be the king,” said Robert.
“I’ll hopefully be steering the ship, but there’s a big difference. While on the one hand, I believe in very detailed planning, I don’t believe in micromanagement,” he continued, underscoring the importance of the roles played by the show jumping high performance and athletes committees.
He plans to continue his association with Blenheim, where he notes his role is “not hands-on, day-to-day.”
Robert, who obviously has been busy on a number of fronts, deliberated for months before filing his application for the job on the last possible day. The first thing he told the screening committee was that his priority is his family, which he said is excited and very supportive of him taking the job.
He’s coming on board at a difficult time for the sport. The U.S. finished 10th in the 2010 World Equestrian Games and was relegated from the FEI Nations’ Cup League (formerly the Super League) last year. There has been a lot of soul-searching in the show jumping ranks, with forums around the country to discuss possible remedies for the discipline’s malaise.
“I believe we’re in a very perilous position in the sport because it has not fundamentally changed from the way it’s been forever, and that’s a very Euro-centered sport,” Robert observed.
As a counterpoint to the current problems, he noted the U.S. has won the last two Olympic gold medals.
Even so, he said, “We have a situation where it is felt that in order to really compete, you have to be in Europe. In order for us to be and remain competitive for the next 20 years, we have to truly level the playing field so the perception, and to some degree the reality, is not there that you have to go to Europe in order to compete at the highest level.
“Because otherwise, we will not be bringing up a generation of young riders and strengthening a group of owners who will constantly be hit over the head by this unspoken thought that if you don’t play in Europe, it doesn’t work; you’re not up to snuff.”
He wonders why owners would want to get into the sport when, “The first thing you tell them when they invest in a horse is, `By the way, the horse has to go 5,000 miles away to do such and such.'”
But he was quick to add, “That doesn’t mean we should never show in Europe.”
Robert appreciates Europe, having ridden on every U.S. team that went abroad during the 1970s, but he feels “we need to strengthen the sport in North America.”
He added, “I feel it is something the coach of the U.S. team should have a voice in and be active in. It’s something I’ve always done, even back in the ’70s, when I was the equestrian delegate to the U.S. Olympic Committee Olympic Athletes Advisory Council. I’ve always believed that working in the structure of the sport is important; its part of the give-back. One person cannot do it all, that’s for sure. But that one person should not be silent. I do not intend to be silent.”