For the first time since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, it looks as if the United States has the possibility of medaling in all three equestrian disciplines at the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 5–21. Rider talent and top horses are abundant. Now all that’s needed after a long and painstaking selection process in show jumping, eventing and dressage is some luck as South America stages its first Olympics.
The biggest difference from 2012 for the jumping team, said coach Robert Ridland, is the fact that “our depth is so vastly improved over four years ago. Our second team would be a real contender for the Games. That obviously reflects well on where we are.”
David O’Connor, the eventing chef d’équipe/technical adviser, said about his discipline’s team candidates: “The nice thing is that a couple of the more experienced guys have multiple horses. We have some new people who have gotten some experience under their belt. They’re on their second or third round of experience. That bodes well for the future.”
The dressage team also has its sights set high. “We don’t do anything in America without the intention of winning,” said Robert Dover, the team’s chef d’équipe and technical adviser. “I think that’s the nature of Americans. We don’t believe in other people as losers; we just believe in winning.”
The equestrian competition will be held at Rio’s Deodoro Complex, where 10 other sports also will be staged. Deodoro is where the equestrian center was built for the 2007 Pan American Games. The facility has been improved for the Olympics. It includes the stadium for jumping, dressage and eventing; arenas for schooling and warm-up; the cross-country course and stabling. Eventing will kick off the competition, running from Aug. 6–9. Dressage will be held Aug. 10–12 with the individual finals on Aug. 15. Jumping starts Aug. 14 and concludes Aug. 19.
The teams had not been picked at press time, but the chief contenders were emerging well before the final observation competitions. Here’s a look at each discipline in the run-up to Rio.
Robert Ridland, who prefers to be called “coach” rather than technical adviser/chef d’équipe, knew when he took his job he wanted a different selection process than the trials used for the 2012 Olympics, the first time since 2000 that the U.S. show jumpers came home without a medal.
He was on hand as George Morris finished his term as chef in London four years ago, when Robert thought the selection trials took too much out of horses and had them peaking at the wrong time.
A member of the fourth-placed 1976 Olympic team, Robert has used a selection system of observation competitions that fit into riders’ regular schedules just as nations that are the United States’ main competitors do. That way, “No one is being asked to do anything different than they would during the year, but it’s more important because the stakes are higher,” he explained.
The procedure worked well for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, where the U.S. collected both team and individual bronze medals. That squad was composed of Kent Farrington and Voyeur, McLain Ward and Rothchild, Beezie Madden and Cortes C and Lucy Davis and Barron. Those four riders were among 10 named to the USEF Short List to be on the Hermès squad for Rio, though McLain’s top horse while preparing for the Games was HH Azur; Rothchild served as a backup for the No. 1-ranked rider in the world. Kent also was listed with Gazelle and Beezie had Simon, Breitling LS and Quister in addition to Cortes C, her individual bronze-medal mount in 2014. Other riders in the mix included Laura Kraut (Deauville and Zeremonie), Callan Solem (VDL Wizard), Lauren Hough (Ohlala), Todd Minikus (Babalou), Margie Engle (Royce) and Reed Kessler (Cylana).
Selection of a team is part of a body of work that started in June 2015, when the first technical aspects of the “very objectively based” process began, said Robert. Naturally, “there is more emphasis on recent results than on past results,” he noted.
“A large part of [the depth of the U.S. team] is the ebb and flow in every sport,” he said. “Often, things are a little bit cyclical in nature. That being said, I think we’ve done some things to go in the right direction. We’ve markedly improved or increased the number of FEI events in North America. This has been very helpful.
“But I also think the system has worked. Everybody at the top level is really paying attention to the schedules ahead of time and peaking their horses correctly and not overdoing it. I think it’s producing results. If we can just keep it going through August, I think we’ll be in good stead.”
Robert and the three show-jumping selectors, Anthony D’Ambrosio Jr., Chris Kappler and Anne Kursinski, are furnished with videos of every round at the four designated observation events in Europe as well as metrics, statistics that can help them make decisions. Two discretionary choices are allowed.
“Metrics are a big part of professional sports,” Robert commented. “It’s pretty obvious what you want. You want clean rounds. It’s pretty obvious what you don’t want. You don’t want discard scores. It’s a pretty simple sport to quantify.
“When you come down to it, it’s an objectively-based sport. Yes, subjective judgments have to be made, but they have to be made within the framework of objective results. What we’re trying to do is predict probabilities of what will happen in the future.”
He pointed out that in terms of selection, “The top riders are usually far ahead whenever the selection is made, but you win or lose medals often on the third and fourth riders. [Selecting] those can be difficult decisions.”
Fifteen teams are competing in show jumping in Rio, of which probably nine or 10, including the U.S., are medal contenders. The Dutch, winners at the WEG, know just when to peak. The British, gold medalists at the 2012 Olympics, still have three riders from that team. Germany is a show-jumping superpower, France has quite an arsenal, Ukraine, Sweden and Switzerland shouldn’t be counted out and neither should Qatar. A long shot is Brazil. Although that team doesn’t look quite as muscular as it was in years past, there is a motivational advantage and incentive to being on home turf.
A host of horses and riders were Olympic contenders this year. It has just been a matter of sorting out who should go to Brazil. Not so simple, perhaps, but certainly doable within the exacting parameters set by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
“With the group that’s being looked at, there’s a good team in there,” David O’Connor maintained before the squad was named.
Selection Committee Chairman Bobby Costello has seen the selection process from both sides. He was the eighth-place individual finisher at the 2000 Olympics and a Pan American Games team gold medalist. He offered insight into the way it works.
“What we are looking for is consistency.” While the nearly two dozen selection trials in the U.S. and Europe from April 2015 to June 2016 were deciding factors with candidates required to complete at least one, the candidates also were casually watched at other competitions as well, so they had the chance to show how good they were over a period of time. “We want to see consistent form over not just one competition, but several,” Bobby said.
“Several horses will do more than one selection trial, but it’s obvious that the last selection trial you do is important for us,” Bobby said, because it’s close to the Games. “If someone goes to one selection trial and doesn’t produce, then their road to making the team is going to be pretty short.”
He did note, however, “There’s room in the process to be subjective,” depending on the type of problem a candidate encounters. “If a horse trips coming up a bank out of the water, that can be forgiven a lot more than not holding your line and having a refusal or a fall.”
Considerations in picking team members run from the overall performance and soundness of the athlete/horse to fitness, boldness, rideability, experience and a horse/rider combination’s will to win among other things.
David, the 2000 Olympic individual gold medalist, has been a hands-on trainer, unlike the other U.S. equestrian chefs in the Olympic disciplines. Part of his mission has been “trying to improve the technical and philosophical side of the riding.”
The riders “have things to work on and that’s created this momentum. I’m a believer that the dressage work is the communication level for everything you do in the show jumping and cross country—working on how horses physically do it and how the rider becomes part of that to expand the movement or work on that communication. That’s been a big change in philosophy with a couple of the big-time riders working down that line.”
Among the U.S. eventing standouts in the large group of team candidates this past spring have been the world’s No. 4 rider Phillip Dutton and No. 7 Boyd Martin with their usual vast collection of mounts along with British-based Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen, second in the Bramham Event Rider Masters CIC*** during June. Lauren Kieffer showed her prowess on Veronica by finishing in second place, the top American, in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and another contender was Maya Black with Doesn’t Play Fair, third at Rolex. In regard to the opposition the U.S. Land Rover Eventing Team will face from 14 squads in Rio, Germany can only be called a formidable favorite for the team and individual gold medals. David commented that world No. 1 Michael Jung “has raised the bar of the whole game.”
That type of phenomenon is often seen in sports. “Do I think Tiger Woods made [Masters and U.S. Open winner] Jordan Spieth in golf?” David asked. “Absolutely.”
Continuing to discuss Michael, David noted, “It’s his time right now. And if he gets backed up by the other guys, the Germans will be the hard ones to beat.” Those other guys include world champion Sandra Auffarth and the always formidable Ingrid Klimke.
New Zealand might have been right behind Germany in David’s estimation, but he thinks the Kiwis are at the same level as the U.S. at this point. Key player Tim Price doesn’t have his best mount, Rolex 2015 runner-up Wesko, because the horse is out with an injury. Tim had a fall at Rolex this year with Bango, but also has a possibility in Ringwood Sky Boy. Two-time Olympic individual gold medalist Mark Todd was ranked No. 3 in June, giving New Zealand another high-profile competitor and Tim’s wife, Jonelle, also has been doing well.
Discussing British chances, David commented, “We’ll have to see if William [Fox-Pitt] is going to go or not because without him, it’s at a different level.” William was out for months after a bad fall last year and withdrew from the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials this year but did go on to score his 10th Tattersalls International Horse Trials’ victory in May and placed well at Bramham.
France also bears watching as a team on the rise, and if Australia can back up its lead man, Chris Burton—ranked No. 2 in the world in June—it, too, could be a threat.
Dressage selection is different from the way it has to be done for eventing or show jumping. The overall pool of top-level riders ready for the Games is smaller than in the other disciplines and candidates are easier to gauge in terms of their readiness because they do the same tests in the Olympics as they do in their other international competitions.
As Robert Dover pointed out, “regardless of whether it’s Germany, Rio or London, we’re still basically in a sandbox that’s exactly like the sandbox in Wellington or Aachen.”
And, of course, unlike the other two disciplines, no course designers are involved to throw a monkey wrench into things with unusual fences or difficult layouts.
The dressage riders vying for a spot on the Olympic team have been based in Belgium since May. Having the team working together there has contributed to high morale. Though everyone is involved with their own personal trainers, the riders have melded into a unit. Robert was pleased with “the camaraderie among our athletes” in Europe. They were “there clapping for each other and waving the flag for each other and truly walking hand in hand as they competed, not only as a team, but against each other still for these four spots on the [Dutta Corp.] Olympic team.”
One of the most exciting things about the U.S. victory in the Compiègne France Nations’ Cup in May was the emergence of Kasey Perry-Glass’s Goerklintgaards Dublet as the top-scoring horse in the Grand Prix with 77.440 percent. Laura Graves and Verdades were second with 75.440. The other team members were Allison Brock on Rosevelt, 73.920 and Shelley Francis with Doktor, 71.120.
Even if the Grand Prix Special, which was supposed to be the second part of the Cup at Compiègne, had not been cancelled by rain, “I felt extremely confident that our lead would hold easily,” said Robert. Dublet “has had a great show season in Florida, moving himself from national shows into international shows to becoming a major superstar by the last show in Florida,” said Robert. But he quickly added, “I don’t want [Kasey] to feel any more pressure than she felt in the past. I think she’s enjoying the compliments in both the correctness and the expression of the horse under her and what everyone is talking about is the great harmony.
“This has been the beauty of our riders and horses in America. We see these love affairs, like Debbie [McDonald] had with Brentina, Steffen [Peters] with his horses, Guenter [Seidel] with his horses. That harmony is very visceral, a feeling everyone who’s watching gets.”
The final observation show was Rotterdam, where Steffen was picked to be on the Nations’ Cup team with Legolas along with Kasey, Laura and Shelley. All the riders were required to do two shows in Europe (Laura decided to do three) so Steffen rode at Roosendaal, the Netherlands, when he arrived in June. The seventh-ranked rider in the world, he earned 76.820 percent with Legolas to win the four-star Grand Prix. In the Special, they were marked at 75.863 percent. In the three-star Grand Prix, he was third with the less-experienced Rosamunde (72.220) and earned 77.250 percent in the Freestyle, just 0.400 percent off the winner’s score.
The U.S., which also had a victory in the Nations’ Cup in Wellington, Florida, during the spring, was leading the standings for that series after Compiègne and following Rotterdam was heading for Aachen in July to contest the next Cup, though Robert wasn’t sure if Olympic riders would be on that squad.
In Rio, the U.S. faces stiff competition, although only 11 countries are in contention for dressage team honors, less than in show jumping or eventing. Germany has a very strong hand and could be headed for gold. The Netherlands and Great Britain do not appear to be quite as threatening as they have in the past, though in many quarters they still are considered favorites to collect a prize. The well-prepared U.S. team at its best should find a path to step up to the podium. Other challengers include Sweden and possibly Spain, but they are less likely to unseat one of the top four.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.