Olympics, World Cup and More: A Conversation with U.S. Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland

Phelps Sports chatted with U.S. Show Jumping Chef d‘Equipe Robert Ridland as he prepares for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. With a different World Cup procedure, no current Nations Cup Competitions and an Olympic Games around the corner, Ridland discussed his plan for the team and how he hopes to prepare for the Games. He also focuses on the bigger picture, with the World Championships just a year away and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics in the coming future.

For specifics regarding qualification for the World Cup Finals click here and for the Olympic Games selection process click here.

I just wanted to start by talking where you are in the planning process for the Olympics. Have there been meetings with FEI, USOC, that kind of thing? And the confidence that Tokyo will in fact happen this year?

I mean, the answer is yes to all the above and we are confident that it will happen.

What is happening with the World Cup Finals as there are no World Cup Qualifiers this year?

I’m frankly a little surprised it hasn’t [been canceled], but they say they’re on with no spectators and so forth. [FEI] allowed our league, the North American League, to determine its own qualifying system, and I believe they did that for all the leagues worldwide. There are no World Cup qualifiers, but there is a qualifying procedure that the riders have been aware of for months.

For the United States, we have 10 World Cup slots, seven from the East and three from the West, and of the seven on the East Coast, five are going to come off the rider ranking list and two off of the horse list. Then on the West Coast for the three riders two come off the rider list and someone comes off the horse list, so that’s the way it’s set up right now.

Now let’s talk about the selection process for the Olympics. When you’re looking at horses for the Olympics, you have the opportunity to watch them go at Nations Cups and those kinds of events where you can see a horse that’s not just a Sunday Grand Prix winner – a horse that can do five days of competition in a row. COVID has kind of taken out that piece of observation. What are you going to be looking for from horses that you feel confident are going to be able to handle the strenuous nature of the Olympics?

You bring up a very good question. The selection system that is in place is not going to change right now. Four people will come from the rider ranking list and then an additional three people will come from the horse list, and that’s all to be determined after Thermal and Florida seasons are over. So seven come off of that, then one from the World Cup Final. If the World Cup final doesn’t happen or we don’t have a rider in the top 10, then that reverts for three discretionary choices. That process is how we come up with 10 riders.

Now, what you just asked is ‘From then on what do we do?’ As you know our plan has always been that we use four Nations Cups in Europe for that next month or two for preparation and selection before the final selections are done for Tokyo. Should those Nations Cups not happen, we obviously have a Plan B where we stay in North America. If there are not any Nations Cups to go to, that evaluation comes from the horse and rider records and you put everything into the hopper and you try to figure it out.

What would be the best horse and rider combinations for Olympics in August? You’re correct, horses and riders have to be able to perform at their best, multiple days under fairly warm climate conditions, even though it’s being held at night, which will help a little bit. Every team has got those decisions to make.We would be in no different situation than our competitors – if Nations Cups aren’t available for us, they probably aren’t available for them either.

Will you be looking for a horse that you’ve seen compete under physically challenging circumstances and that are consistently clear throughout the week? I’m assuming those types of horses would be what you would want on the team if Nations Cups become an issue.

Obviously, it would be nice to have events with multiple rounds so that we can use those situations, for analysis, but if we don’t have those types of events, we have to make a decision based on all the facts that we know and based on what the important parameters are. It’s an Olympics with no discard score, and there’s that aspect as well which no coach has ever gone through. For starters you want a reliability quotient for every horse/rider combination that you have. It becomes quite important f>r both the horse and the rider to have a record of consistency because with no discard scores to play with, the game’s over if one of the horse/rider combinations doesn’t meet expectations, so that is something that’s important. Horses and riders that are in great shape fitness wise and show the ability to be able to be in top form the end of the week, versus the beginning is quite important, especially with the warm weather condition or horses that jump well under the lights. That’s going to be pretty important because all the jumping events are at night, under the lights. Horse/rider combinations that show you know a very good record of clear rounds and a low average score throughout their recent history is very important.

We know the type of tracks that will be there. We have jumped many of the tracks made by Santiago [Varela], who is the course designer at the Olympics, especially in Barcelona at the Nations Cup Final. With 20-teams in the mix, those are going to be courses that reflect what their strong suits are. You really have to put all those factors together with whatever information that you have at your disposal, and we certainly have all of the information that is needed. I’ve seen everything – I’ve either seen all the rounds, and the same with the advisors, live or on video. Right now I’ve got two video monitors going – one is the WEF class live in Florida. All you can do is analyze the information that you have and put it into the hopper based on what the conditions are going into the championship that they are going into. There are certain aspects of Tokyo that are different from three years ago in Tryon at the World Championships or be different during the World Championships next year in Denmark.

If traveling to Europe is not an option, does Plan B have a consideration for doing a US-on-US type of Nations Cup at a show or someone’s facility to at least see how those horses are performing? Or would the plan be to continue competing as normal and use all available rounds as observation opportunities?

It probably would be the latter, but it could be what you suggest, because that would be relatively easy to set up. The problem is with the Nations Cups and what we see at an event like Aachen or Rotterdam. It’s several aspects, it’s two full rounds twice jumping the water in the same day back-to-back, which you don’t see at any normal show. That in some ways isn’t the most important requirement because at the Olympics you don’t do two rounds in one day. You have multiple days, of course, but you don’t have the identical course twice in the same day. The other aspect of a 5* Nations Cup, like one of the top ones in Europe, is that those are real 1.60m courses. You cannot duplicate the pressure of wearing the flag. Now obviously in COVID situations even if you went to Aachen, you probably are not going to have people waving their white towels, which in a normal situation would be kind of a crucial aspect to see how the horses and the riders respond because that’s going to be more like what happens at the Olympics. From a rider point of view, the riders that may not have been through that kind of pressure before, having them go against the top teams, in the same competition in Europe, against legendary riders that they’ve heard about, that’s a completely different aspect than just having a two round event US vs US. That pressure is not really the same thing, so that would probably be our last choice of options.

You talked a little bit about how it would be a level playing field if there’s no Nations Cups in Europe. Do you think the US has an advantage given that we are open and showing more so than other countries?

I do think we have an advantage. I think that’s one of the few aspects of this whole puzzle that gives us a slight advantage.I don’t think it’s a major advantage because you’re talking about the top teams in Europe. These tend to be veteran laden teams – these riders can adapt to the situation that they’re not competing full throttle in the winter. In the winter you don’t have outdoor competitions anyway, even in non-COVID situations, so what they’re really missing is the World Cup qualifying series of indoor shows that they have over there. How that would apply in a negative way to their preparation for the Olympics in August is probably negligible. I do think they have a slight advantage in that our riders and our horses are competing at a very high level, but I don’t think it’s a tremendous advantage because the Europeans are only missing their indoor circuit.

Does the change in format change your approach of allowing younger horse/rider combinations the opportunity to be on the team?

We’ve always tried to give as much opportunity to the up-and-coming talents horse/rider wise, so that doesn’t change. We’ve always been able to, in all the most recent championships, Rio, Tryon, Normandy, as far back as I can remember, had representation of younger riders, but they’ve all been tested. They’ve been tested under fire. Nobody has been thrown into the fire without knowing what the consequences could be. When I say they’re going to be three top riders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all going to be riders with 20 years of international experience.

Is there anything else that you have been focused on as a goal for 2021?

One of the messages that I’ve been focused on is that 2021 isn’t just about Tokyo. It’s easy to get completely wrapped up in the Olympics because of the year but what is actually more important is the long-term planning and keeping our eye on the ball for the future. This year is of course the Olympics and it is an unusual year because it’s an Olympics with a couple aspects to it, including one less rider and no discard score, which nobody has gone through before. In a normal year after the Olympics, you have the off year for championships on our side, to set up the quadrennial, and we don’t have that right now. Basically, before we even get to the Olympics, the selection period for the World Championships in Denmark will have already started.

Something that I’ve been stressing to the riders is how the next seven years are the lead up to Los Angeles 2028 for young riders, veteran riders, and new combinations. We have to keep our eyes on all of these championship competitions and realize this is a road map. These younger riders that are coming into play, they are going to be involved in LA 2028. Then of course four years before that there’s quite a mix involved for the Olympics in Paris.

The fact that the World Championships are really next year in Denmark, we have to think about these riders that are going through the selection process right now for Tokyo – it’s not just about Tokyo. Most of those riders are not going to be in Tokyo because there are only going to be three riders plus the reserve. But many of those riders and those horse and rider combinations are going to be instrumental to the plans going forward – the World Championships in Denmark, followed by the Pan Am Games in Santiago, followed by the next year by the Olympics in Paris, and so forth, all the way down to LA 28 which takes on added importance because it’s a home Olympics.

To have a championship on home soil, that takes on added importance, and we’ve stressed that importantance the last few years. We’ve been fortunate with our home field Championships recently. The last World Cup Final held in the United States was won by McLain [Ward], and so we won the last World Cup final that we’ve had in this country. Unfortunately, Las Vegas was cancelled, so we didn’t have an opportunity to build on that. We also won the most recent World Championships on our home soil. So, while seven years seems like a long time away, it really is not when you’re really trying to develop horse and rider combinations of the future and the present.

I point this out to riders and owners since we need to remain strong throughout this whole program and not just get tunnel visioned on one championship that happens to be happening right in our face to the detriment of everything else that goes on. We’ve done well historically at in-home Olympics. Last time we had one was in Atlanta where we won the silver medal and of course before that was in LA where we won the gold medal.

It’s easy to get bogged down on what’s happening today and what’s happening next week, and it’s particularly easy to get bogged down in COVID times, and if you get too bogged down on that, it’s really easy to take your eye off the ball. Our global situation is changing daily and weekly, so you have to keep your head high above the fray and just say this is where we’re going. We’re fortunate within our sport to be a major power with huge resources of horses and riders and we need to use them all.

Looking ahead is so important, and I am sure the fact that we are just a year away from another World Championship is easy to forget!

It’s a very important message, I believe. Very few riders are going to Tokyo and it’s a big deal to not have that post-Olympic year that you can sort of settle back into and re-group. Traditionally, that year has been a year for the newer combinations to go to Nations Cups without any championship pressure. We can’t do that right now and we want to have the best representation we possibly can in Denmark next year. Just as we want to in Tokyo this year, so I think that’s a very important aspect of all of this.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Phelps Sports, it’s great to hear what happens behind the scenes with everything!

Great! Thank you!

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