By Jackie McFarland
Life’s path is paved with decisions. In the show jumping world, if a young rider truly aspires to go the highest levels, achieve the Olympic dream, the road is not only paved with tough choices, it is long and challenging. Gifted junior riders all reach that impasse where the dreamy junior years are drifting away and the rest of their lives are ahead of them. If college is in their future, how do horses fit in? If they want a future filled with international horses, world-class competition and having their names synonymous with those they now idolize, how do they make this happen?
There is no panacea. No surefire solution. Making a lot of choices along the way, maybe some wrong turns, possibly with a pace that seems too slow; sometimes the path may even may go an entirely different direction. To choose to be a rider that represents his/her country is not only a big decision but to get there takes perseverance, dedication, hard work and certainly some hard knocks.
But when a rider actually reaches those ultimate goals that define him or her – the opportunity to compete internationally, to be chosen to represent a country on a team, to find, bring along and win on not just one but several horses. Those moments make it all worthwhile. So Ricky Neal decided to put the schoolbooks aside for a year, pull up his bootstraps and jump in to the world of show jumping with the big boys and girls. He’s ready to emerge as an equestrian athlete.
EqSol: Your start in horses – a brief history…
RN: When I was 4 or 5 years old we had a babysitter, who happened to be a dressage rider, looking after my two older brothers and me. She asked my mom if she could take us out to the barn for a lesson. We went to the LA Equestrian Center. My brothers decided that horses were for sissies. But I was having fun on these big animals, so I started taking more lessons. A few years later I got my own pony and got further hooked from there.
I rode at the Flintridge Riding Club with Heidi Misrahy and started showing. And then with Susie Artes for a short time; she was great. I started with Meadow Grove in 2001 at the same time as Paris [Sellon]. We both had ponies back then.
Right after we moved to Meadow Grove we bought a children’s hunter and later that year we bought Randy Sherman’s old children’s jumper. That was six or seven years ago.
EqSol: Tell us about the horses you’ve had that have brought you to this point.
RN: The horses I have now are Cavalier Tommi Tank, Luke Skywalker and Larina.
We bought Tommi in February; he needed some solid flatwork and to get fit, but he has a lot of talent. He’s matured so much this year and the change over the last few months has been awesome. He showed at Spruce in the 1.45m and he’s my Young Rider horse. He’s eight this year and just ready to step into some bigger Grand Prix classes and serious money classes. I’m really excited about his potential.
Luke Skywalker was my Junior and Young Rider horse last year. He’s a winning 1.40m Jr/Am horse, scopey and talented for his size. We bought him two years ago and he’s been with me at the height of my Junior Jumper career. He’s been a big part of my evolvement. He’s going east with me and he’s for sale.
Larina is the love of my life. After giving me five solid years, taking me to the 1.40m level, she’s taking a well-deserved year off to have a baby. She’s bred to Uno de Laubry (Karl Cook’s chestnut stallion). Larina will be a great mother – strong-willed, solid, sound but kind with a big heart. This will be her first baby. She’ll come back afterwards and take care of someone else like she did me.
EqSol: And of course behind every aspiring star is not only talent and great trainers, but at least one dedicated parent. A little bit about your mom, Barbara.
RN: My mom would do anything for me. She’s made a lot of sacrifices to get me where I am today. I owe a lot to her. She’s always looking out for me – looking for ways for me to expand my options – she found EAP (USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program).
All of my success through the years goes back to her, either directly by encouraging me or indirectly by financing the path. She’s willing to sell everything except her two cats to help me get what I need to achieve my goals.
EqSol: You participated in USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program (EAP) in its inaugural year (2009) – tell us more about how you found out about it.
RN: Mom. She heard about it and encouraged me to apply. From there on I took the responsibility.
EqSol: Tell us about how the EAP process – a bit about each level. Creating the next generation of top riders – continuing the integrity of the top of the sport…
RN: Of all the applicants, 250 riders within the 12 zones are picked to participate in the Level I session. Melanie Smith Taylor was the clinician. Then Melanie and the committee pick a few riders from each Level I session to go on to the state level, also called Level II. Bernie Traurig worked with the Level II riders from our zone. Next Melanie rated all the riders who participated in Level II, no matter where we were from. Those top 12 were invited to Level 3, the National Level. Julie Winkel’s Maplewood Stables in Reno, NV hosted this session, including providing horses for all 12 riders.
Definitely the most intensive experience, I learned a ton at that last session. Over the three days, we worked with the clinician Peter Wylde, a vet, a farrier, an FEI Steward – a number of people with a variety of experiences in the horse industry.
On the third day we had a team competition in a Nations Cup format. Since we were on borrowed horses, the height and placing wasn’t as important as how we handled the pressure and worked as a team.
We were judged, essentially ‘watched’, the whole time. Carly Anthony and I may have been the most experienced competitors but we certainly weren’t above any of the group – there were some very knowledgeable horsemen, great riders in that group. I learned a lot from them.
The goal of EAP is to find one rider who could potentially represent the US in International Competition as part of a USEF Team. So many factors are considered – riding ability, competence and horsemanship are some. They want to know if you are willing to learn and better yourself as a horseman as well as help others. Another important part was media literacy. We each had to stand in front of everyone on night and give a thank you speech where we were judged on our public speaking.
I have to say that my trainers Dick Carvin and Susie Schroer make similar demands on me all the time. Essentially they are perfectionists, so I was well prepared for what the judges were looking for at EAP.
EqSol: And being one of the two winners – what has that led to?
RN: As winners we got to choose with whom we’d like to train for 30 days. I decided to split up the time between Mario Deslauriers and Mindy Bower.
I rode with Mario for two weeks at Spruce Meadows. He is a great rider, trainer, horseman – he’s just the whole package. Dick and Susie not only helped me coordinate my schedules with Mario, they helped prepare me for an advanced level program like Mario’s. After Spruce I decided to be a working student, so I am going to Ottawa and the Hamptons with Mario. After the Hamptons I will be back in California with Dick and Susie.
I plan to book two weeks in the fall with Mindy Bower. I’m looking forward to learning groundwork with her; she was great at the National Session.
EqSol: How do you think the experience has boosted your riding and career, and how it will it continue to?
RN: EAP has had a huge impact – it has really brought out the horseman in me. I went from a junior rider to the path of a professional rider. I honestly don’t think I would’ve been inspired to do so without EAP. The experience led me further down the path of becoming a professional horseman.
EAP allowed me access to Melanie Smith Taylor, Bernie Traurig and Peter Wylde to start. And the chance to work with Mario Delauriers and next Mindy Bower as a winner of USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program put the whole experience in a different light.
EqSol: How/when did you know that you wanted to pursue ‘the big time’?
RN: I think the turning point was the decision to take a gap year next year and hold off on college. Take the year to work and spend time learning more about the business side of the horse world. That decision was and will be a turning point.
I’ve known about the possibility but I wasn’t certain until I now. Dick and Susie have been preparing me for this decision for several years. Starting with the summer I turned 15 when I went to Belgium and worked for Ludo Philippaerts in preparation for the ‘big time’ to see if this is what I really wanted to do. Seems the more I get involved in the sport the more I like it – it’s enveloped me bit by bit.
I still have a lot to learn. I still have to get out into the real horse world and see how it fits. That’s what I plan to get a taste of during this next year. I’m going to jump in with both feet and see how it feels.
EqSol: Your future – competing, school, horses, etc?
RN: I’m aiming for winter in Wellington. Then I will make a plan from there.
I’ll start at Wesleyan (Middletown, CT) in the fall of 2011. Since I deferred I have to submit an essay on what I’ve been doing this year. Once I get to school I’ll keep riding but not certain of the plan. There are tons of barns close Wesleyan. We will figure that out as it gets closer; lots to do before then.
It’s always a pleasure to talk with you, Ricky – and we congratulate you on emerging as an athlete!