This excerpt from Riding for the Team from the USET and edited by Nancy Jaffer is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).
In this excerpt from Riding for the Team, US Show Jumping Team Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland dishes about Gladstone under de Némethy and riding alongside Steinkraus.
The few of us left who once were part of the old U.S. Equestrian Team, the original concept, can look at show jumping with a unique perspective to compare it with where the sport is today. So much time has passed that there are not that many current riders who are familiar with where the sport came from and the circumstances that led to what it has become.
Having Coach Bertalan de Némethy go around the country to select riders with potential was a totally different system than what we have now. Another difference was the fact that we didn’t have private owners to the degree that we do today. The top horses in the country were owned by the USET or loaned to the team, and we got matched with the ones we were going to ride.
When I got to team headquarters in Gladstone, I was young, only 18, and already enrolled at Yale. I was well prepared by my riding and competition experience to that point and had ridden at shows in the East. Even so, there was a bit of culture shock. The first time I met Bert was when he was in California for the screening trials. Bert was Hungarian nobility and very old world; I was very West Coast and didn’t leave my California ways at home. It was quite a proving ground.
U.S. Equestrian Team Coach Bertalan de Némethy with (left to right) Robert Ridland, Dennis Murphy,
Michael Matz, and Buddy Brown after winning the 1978 Nations Cup in Rotterdam. Photo courtesy of the USET.
The riders in training lived in rooms over the team stables. One of the many requirements involved always dressing appropriately in boots and breeches. It also meant making sure they were clean. A few times, we had to have the washer and dryers working on our breeches at the last minute before we got on the horses in the morning.
I wasn’t really prepared for winter, having grown up with California’s sunny version of the season. I will never forget a particularly cold morning when there was only time to wash the breeches, not dry them. And that was a problem, because at the time, I had just one pair of breeches (something I rectified soon after). Once we got outside, my breeches basically froze. We were riding on the flat in the indoor ring. Bert was there in front of this jet engine of a heater that was blasting at him! He was wearing this heavy overcoat and looked as if he could survive the Arctic, while I was practically shivering.
George Simmons, the barn manager, had been in the military and ran the place like a Marine sergeant. He gave us all lessons in tack cleaning. I had thought I was pretty good at it—that is, until I ran into George at Gladstone. And Dennis Haley, one of the grooms there, also was meticulous about making sure we cleaned our tack according to the team’s requirements.
I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of our team captain, Bill Steinkraus, the Olympic individual gold medalist who was one of the greatest riders of all time. When I first rode on the team, Billy was my mentor in so many ways. He needed someone to go golfing with, so he taught me how to play on our off days. That gave us a lot of time to talk, and I was always watching how he approached the sport.
I remember my first couple of shows in Europe when I joined the team. We got to Lucerne, Switzerland, which was the third one. As we were sitting on the Volkswagen bus being driven to the showgrounds, Billy turned around to us and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, now we start.”
I’ll never forget that because I thought we had started two weeks earlier! But Lucerne was the important Nations Cup, with the honor of our country riding on our performance.
Billy was all the things that everyone said about him—the class he brought to the sport, the sense of perfectionism. Billy never compromised on anything. He was the sport.
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