On Feb. 21, Robert Ridland was named as George Morris’ successor as the next U.S. show jumping chef d’ equipe , a position that will begin in 2013 when Morris retires.
Leading the U.S. show jumping program is a wide-ranging task that doesn’t begin or end with the riders. But Ridland is well prepared to meet the challenge. The family man from Southern California has multiple areas of expertise; his breadth of experience includes two Olympic Games (Montreal 1976, and as reserve at Munich, Germany, in 1972), service on the FEI Jumping Committee and USEF Board of Directors, course designing, and over 30 years in the business of horse sales and training. His company, Blenheim EquiSports  runs some of Southern California’s highest rated competitions, and with his wife Hillary, the Ridlands have operated a successful training program, Equi Sports International , for many years.
When he begins his new job, Ridland plans to be a good listener, look at every level of the sport and shake things up if necessary.
What led you to apply for the position of U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe?
I believe that at every level we need to get a better identity here in the United States for our own sport and to not feel that we’re continually subservient to a Euro-centered sport. Admittedly, it’s a sport that originated in Europe, but that was a long time ago. We have to do everything we possibly can to strengthen the sport in North America. There’s so much more to this now in the world that we’re currently in. We have to look at every level.
When did you decide to apply for the position of chef d’equipe?
I put a lot of thought into it, and I took a lot of time to consider applying. I never had any doubts that I was qualified or interested in it, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel I had a pretty good shot. It was more a question of whether I could fit it into my life. My first priority is my family.
I literally sent in the application the day before it was due. I knew that being U.S. coach is a challenge that would be right up there with the things I’ve always really wanted to do.
How has the United States benefitted from George Morris’ tenure as chef d’equipe, and how will you continue what he started?
There’s no question that George Morris is the greatest teacher our sport has ever seen, anywhere in the world. George told me in great detail how he will be supporting what we’re doing, and he will now be able to devote 100 percent of his time to what he does best and is most passionate about: coaching and bringing along our next generation of future stars. We are in a place in the sport where the balance will be shifted to some degree. We need to have a better idea of where the sport is going in our country, and this is the perfect time to form those tactical maneuvers.
Why is this the perfect time?
Well, the relegation from the Super League. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly a wake-up call. We need to figure out how we’ll get back to what we’ve done in the very recent past. The Federation and every level of the sport know we’re in a good place. At the riders meeting last Thursday in Thermal, Calif., I ran into more people who were excited with the direction we’re going to be heading in and the opportunities that we have. That’s why we’ve been having forums all over the country. The feedback has been quite consistent.
What will be your priorities as chef d’equipe?
My future objective is not only to win as many medals as we can in Rio [de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympic Games], but to also make sure the sport is still healthy in 25 years. If we continue on the path we’re on now, we won’t have a very healthy sport. So the future of our sport is the long-term priority, and the most important by far.
The second priority is clearly the present of our sport. How can we give it our best shot four years from now in Rio and all the major competitions prior to that? How can we give the current professionals a better shake? How can we get owners back on board like we had in the past?
And how do you plan to make progress in achieving the long- and short-term goals?
I hope to be a very good listener. I believe this will be a team effort between everybody—the High Performance Committee, the North American Riders Group, the FEI North American World Cup Working Group and all the other vested interests in our sport. I do want to say to every entity: Let’s stop for a second and ask why we’re doing everything we’re doing. If it’s not exactly clear, we have to question that, and reassess how we’re going to apply our future objectives.
I will have as many meetings as people can stand! It’s only going to work if we all listen to everybody and know the goal we’re all heading towards. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. When I showed up at Thermal and did the FEI course walk last week I kept hearing that. We can make this happen.
What are some of the different skills that you bring to the table?
I believe that I can bring many perspectives from my career to this position. From the course designer’s side, from the rider’s side, from the events side. Over the years, I’ve developed numerous partnerships with owners on grand prix horses, and I hope to bring that experience to the table as well when talking with owners. I know that the sport has to be feasible from a financial and business side to go on, and we need to come up with plans that are affordable for owners and riders.
You’ve said before that you want to improve U.S. shows, but how do you think that can happen?
You know, we all have one voice, and now my voice is one more. But it’s not a one-man charge. My voice will be loud and clear that we’re not afraid of shaking up some established ways of doing business and running our sport. We have to figure out who we’re going to reach out to, and we have to have a strategy of reaching out to different organizations. It’s not as simple as coming in and making a rule. There’s a lot more that goes into it.
How have things changed since you were a rider?
I have spanned a lot of eras. I started my international career when I was 19. That was near the end of the original team concept that started in the ‘50s. In that era the owners in our sport donated or loaned their horses to the USET and off they went to Gladstone (N.J.). There was a system where the best riders and horses would be found, and they would get them all to Gladstone and mix and match. When I first got there that was the system.
Shortly thereafter was the beginning of the professional era, and I quickly went from the youngest rider to the most experienced in a period of three years. By the 1976 Olympic Games my teammates and I all had owners. So it had completely changed in three years. That was the new world, and we were the first in the Olympic movement to be professional show jumpers.
Now it’s a different world again. When we prepared for the ’76 Olympics, Europe was the only game in town. You had to go there to knock heads with the very best. Since then the sport has grown at home, and we do have legitimate events. Should our events improve more? Of course. We have to take all of these movements that have been brewing and add to them. I want to make sure I do my part to keep that snowball going, to create a more equitable playing field so that our pro riders don’t have to sacrifice twice as much as the top riders in other countries.
You mentioned your family earlier. Can you tell us a little more about them and your interests outside of horses?
My wife, Hillary, and I have two children: our son Peyton, who is 12, and our daughter, McKenna, who is 19. McKenna is a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Peyton is a passionate soccer player. Our family lives in Orange County, Calif., just south of Los Angeles. Hillary runs our training operations out of two locations, in Malibu and in San Juan Capistrano, and she makes sure that I get on the board to ride a few whenever I can!
One activity that I make time for (and something that I know our current coach has always made time for) is staying fit. I try to play tennis twice a week, and when not playing tennis I ride a bike. We have great dedicated mountain bike trails where I live, so hopefully the United States won’t be at risk of losing their coach from being run over by a semi on the side of the road! Biking is relatively new for me, but it’s done a great job of keeping me fit for riding. I’m probably in better shape than I’ve been in since the Montreal Olympic Games!
Going forward, how will your schedule play out for the next six months or so?
I will definitely be racking up more frequent flier miles than I’d planned on this year! I will be at Gladstone quite often, and I will make at least one more trip back to Wellington, Fla., for the selection trials. The Federation has an immediate objective once the whirlwind over this announcement has died down, and that is getting back to the focus of winning a gold medal in London. Even though I won’t officially begin as chef until 2013, I’m a small part of the picture starting now, and I will do everything I can to be supportive of George’s goal of getting a third gold medal for the United States.