The Winding Road to the Red Coat
BY SISSY WICKES
Devin Ryan of Long Valley, NJ, barged on to the International Show Jumping scene with the beautiful grey gelding, Eddie Blue. The tall, handsome rider and elegant horse were Munnings-esque in their beauty. Standing atop podiums in Europe and the U.S., ultimately part of the storied WEG Gold Medal win, Ryan and Eddie were part of the 2018 panorama for fans of showjumping.
How winds the path to the top of our sport? Do doors open as points accumulate or is the “old-boy” network of the past alive and well? Our international teams used to be chosen by the powers that be. Bert de Nemethy, coach extraordinaire, chose, trained, and campaigned the team. The process was a monolith overseen by one man. Fast forward to Debbie Dolan’s lawsuit against the United States Equestrian Team after she and her mount, VIP, were not chosen for the 1990 World Equestrian Games. The USET and the Federation prevailed, but the lawsuit precipitated 12 years of a completely objective process, resulting in a decline of Olympic, Pan Am, and WEG Medals for the U.S.
The current selection system is complicated not by the tenuous mix of objective/subjective criteria, but by the opportunity to qualify. Horse and rider combinations have to earn the chance to participate in Ranking Classes throughout the world. With an ever- widening portal to global competitions, the FEI created a world wide ranking system whereby competitors gain points from placings in qualifying competitions. Makes sense. But, the problem has become qualifying for the qualifying classes. Another hurdle in the process, another chance for subjectivity to intercede. How does an outsider earn the opportunity to wear the US Equestrian Team’s iconic red coat? How difficult is it to break into the podium club?
I meet Devin Ryan in the aisle of his tent stalls in Ocala, Florida. Picking my way through the detritus of muck in the wet stabling area, I was certain that he was the only International Gold Medalist at the show grounds on that cold, blustery day in January. We sat on tack trunks in a 2 -sided stall that also housed his equine treadmill. As we talked for two hours, horse after horse came in, doing a walking session while munching hay, and going back to its stall. Ryan apologized for the pieces that littered my papers every time a horse took a bite out of the haynet. “Sorry, but I don’t buy a lot of extra stalls. We make it work without a big set-up.” Previously reluctant to schedule too much time to sit with me, Ryan turned out to be a friendly and loquacious interview.
Devin Ryan’s story starts the way many of our equestrian athletes do. Raised in New Jersey, he fell in love with riding as a youngster growing up in supportive, but non-horsey family. Geographically close to George Morris’ famous facility, Hunterdon, Ryan went to work for Morris and Chris Kappler at the age of 16. For four years, Ryan learned from the best in the showjumping business with Morris, a legendary teacher and Kappler, an Olympic Gold Medalist. “It was a stressful lifestyle, but I learned so much about the business, program, and organization and about how important that is at the top levels. I was pushed at Hunterdon and I didn’t mind; what I learned was so important.”
From Hunterdon, Ryan went to Europe at the age of 20 to work for famous horse dealer, Alan Waldman. Anticipating an opportunity to become one of Waldman’s first flight of riders, he instead found himself becoming more of a groom. He explains, “Over there, if they don’t think you are good enough, they just start taking rides away. I found myself driving horses to shows and grooming instead of having a group of horses to ride. It was so hard when I gave my notice that I was leaving. They asked me to stay on as manager because I was so organized and offered me a few horses for me to ride. I thanked them, said I wanted to ride, and went home.”
Ryan arrived back on U.S. soil at the age of 21. He had not made it as a rider in Europe, but somehow was undaunted by the slight. Living at home in New Jersey, he took a job refinishing floors to make his truck and rent payments and set about building a career. “It was Easter Day, I was 21, and starting over. I put flyers in local tack and feed stores that said, ‘Willing to come to your farm to exercise or train your horses. Problem and young horses welcome.’” Soon, the phone started ringing and Ryan found himself doing everything from breaking babies to taming rogues to teaching young horses to jump. “I rode anything,” he remembers. “Anything to pay the bills.”
In short order, Ryan began to build a clientele in the area. “Within one year, I had built up enough business to be able to quit my other job and just do horses full time,” he explains. He eventually took over the lease on his parents’ barn from another local professional and started a boarding and training business called River Run Stables. Early clients included Barbara Drake and Barbara Rowland who became loyal, longtime friends and sponsors. Rowland bred the very successful Grand Prix jumper No Worries, a horse Ryan broke, trained, and ended up winning the 4, 5, and 6 Year Old Jumper Futurity Finals. Before dying in a paddock accident at the age of twelve, No Worries garnered numerous Grand Prix wins and placings, including third at the Devon Grand Prix and second at the Grand Prix of Upperville. “It was so tragic. He was the first Grand Prix horse of my life and when he died, I did not have another one. It was the best year I had ever had and boom, it ended.”
Cooper and Eddie Blue
Undaunted as usual, Ryan pressed on by bringing along young horses, competing them up the ranks for as long as he had them. “I explained to the clients that the only way to get [a Grand Prix horse] without a ton of money was to buy them young and make them up.” Ryan spent the next few years with young sales horses and some of his clients’ homebreds. He acquired his famous mount, Cooper, after a partnership dissolved. Cooper became a huge success from the start in age restricted jumper classes right up through Grand Prix. He was second and third place in the Grand Prix’s of Devon in 2015 and 2017 and fourth place in the Hampton Classic Grand Prix.
Eddie Blue (Zirrocco Blue VDL), the mount that launched Ryan onto the international stage, was purchased as a four year old in Europe. “I bought him and left him over there because it is so much less expensive to raise a young horse. I went over to check on him and he was cheeky, gangly, and careful. I thought it was one for the future. Lori Larrabee bought him from me with the understanding that it was a long term situation.” Eddie won both the Five and Six Year Old Young Jumper Championships “without ever touching a pole,” Ryan boasts like proud parent. As an eight year old, Eddie Blue jumped the $1 Zoetis Million Grand Prix with one rail down – an omen of great things to come.
In 2017, Ryan rode Cooper to win the Longines World Ranking Class at Live Oak International and was second on Eddie Blue. He laughs, “It was the first time anyone at that level really noticed me. The Longines interviewer asked, ‘Who are you?’” Devin Ryan had been winning on the national stage for years, but to the international players, he was an upstart. Ryan explained to the interviewer, “Well, I have been knocking around for a few years and I’m known for developing young horses. But, hey, you’re only as good as your stock.” After years of apprenticing, working with any horse that came into the barn, sacrificing to take a shot at this career, Devin Ryan had finally positioned himself for success.
With the placing at Live Oak, he qualified for World Cup Finals in Paris in 2018- quite a jump up for someone who had never competed at an indoor show prior to 2017. In Cooper and Eddie Blue, Ryan found himself with two horses that could compete on any stage. He elevated his show schedule to include some of the toughest Grand Prix’s in the U.S.- Bromont, Silver Oak, Upperville, Devon, American Gold Cup, HITS 1$ Million Grand Prix’s, Lake Placid, Kentucky, Deeridge, Live Oak, Washington International- with consistent wins and top placings. Surely, this is the young talent that the USET is looking for. “No one cared,” Ryan chuckles. “No one cares about that level of showing, and you’re not part of the elite group yet.”
Slowly and steadily, Ryan and his two horses began to accumulate points on the FEI Rankings List. “I did that World Cup class and then boom, people started to notice me.” Having proved the merit of both himself as a rider and his horses as competitors, Ryan hoped for some support from our international showjumping gurus. He cold called Robert Ridland, coach of the US Showjumping team. Ridland said he had noticed Ryan, and to keep “doing what I was doing. He said to just keep trying to accumulate points. Robert’s system is very clear and precise – and has been very successful for us. I think everyone agrees that he has done a great job in developing our teams.”
The USET had on its results radar a talented, proven young rider with access to a roster of two (only two) high caliber horses. And these were horses he had chosen, developed, and campaigned himself. And “campaigning” often meant personally driving the truck and trailer and grooming. Sounds like low hanging fruit for our team development network of coaches and facilitators? Ryan dispels the thought. “The only thing that counts are points. It’s get yourself onto the horse/rider ranking list and then we can think about a team. That’s the system; that’s the way to get there.”
The Road to the Team
Subjectivity, with all of its faults and liabilities, is banned from the selection process. Concurrently, the path to international qualification is prohibitively expensive. We have daily testaments on social media about the cost of horse showing at all levels. People are choking on the price tag. Now, add in the cost of competing in Europe and a new list of expenses. The most seasoned among us will blanche. Flights, quarantine, employees, accommodations, ground transportation, show fees- the expense column grows.
Ryan firmly implanted himself in the consciousness of the USEF Showjumping intelligentsia with his performance at the 2018 World Cup Finals in Paris, France. The young American who discovered, bought, and developed his mounts as young horses performed way beyond the world’s expectations. Having qualified on Eddie Blue as an eight year old, he was second in the storied event to Olympic veteran and superstar Beezie Madden on Breitling LS. Ryan stood atop a podium in the storied red coat for the first time in his life, bursting with pride for his country. “After the interviews were over, I walked back to the barn and no one was there.Everyone had left, gone off to their planes and their next competitions. The barn was deserted except for a couple of grooms and Lizzie Chesson (from USEF). It was a letdown, but everyone had somewhere else to be.” When he returned to Holland, his old boss, Alan Waldman, threw him a big party. Ryan smiles and remembers, “[Alan] said to me, ‘Kid, I never thought you would make it. I think I was wrong.’” Undaunted as usual, Ryan set his sights on the next target: making the US Showjumping Team.
The way to get onto an International Team? Ride on an International Team. Nations Cup classes are the trial ground for International Championships and Teams. Some international competitions are funded by USEF and some are not. Ryan- owning one horse in his two string stable- was in no position to pay to compete his way around Europe with other young riders hoping to be chosen for important upcoming events such as the World Equestrian Games. “I see wealthy riders competing at small shows throughout Europe and I realize that they are able to compete on teams because they can afford it. The classes don’t offer enough money to pay expenses, but they get you experience and visibility.”
Ryan educated himself about the process for getting on the short list in a championship year, a process that involves one’s ranking on the horse/rider combination list. He was not ranked within the top six as of mid-April, thereby not qualifying according to USEF rules. Yet, there was one spot designated for a rider who was not qualified but finished in the top ten at World Cup Finals. Devin had earned his way on to the coveted “short list” for international competitors. The door was open, now he had to walk through it.
USEF dictates that qualification for international teams is through competition in Nations Cup classes. Those on the short list are presented with a list of Nations Cup classes throughout the world and asked to pick their first two choices. Some of these classes are rich, iconic events in historic venues- Rome, Aachen, Rotterdam. Some are in more obscure locations with less money offered – Sopot, Falsterbo, and St. Gallen. Ryan chose Rotterdam and Aachen by calculating the least amount of time he had to stay away from his business in New Jersey, which was one month for those two shows. USEF awarded him Dublin and Sopot. The top four U.S. riders are given their first choices. Ryan, eighth on the list, was scheduled for two competitions on either side of the Nation’s Cup map – Poland and Ireland. In addition, they are scheduled months apart. “It’s a tough situation, but I understand. Send your best riders to the toughest venues. But, it is very difficult logistically. USEF covers air transport, not ground transport, and these shows are so far apart. The smaller shows are permitted by FEI to offer less money in their 5*s and the purse barely covers expenses. I ship to Poland, have a successful show, and I did not even cover my shipping from Holland with the prize money. And, the biggest kicker is that I can’t get into any other 5* shows over there because I don’t have the ranking points. I have to be on a team to prove myself for the Team.”
Unlike most of the international caliber riders, Ryan is unable to base in Europe for any amount of time due to tending to his home business in New Jersey. He has rent to pay and customers to serve. “I told them that I would do anything for the opportunity to be on the Team, but I’m still trying to make a living here,” he states. Ryan asked to be informed if a space happened to open up in Aachen and, low and behold, it did. Kent Farrington and Gazelle decided to sit out the event, and Ryan got the nod. Aachen, the cathedral of showjumping, was a great event for Ryan and Eddie Blue. They were double clean in the Nations Cup and eleventh in the Grand Prix with one rail down in the second round.
Ryan’s Nations Cup performance in Aachen was the best on the U.S. team. “Everyone was really nice and shook my hand. Some of us didn’t have a great day over there, and they were very supportive.” Again, Ryan found himself in the position of arguing with USEF in advocacy of his horses and his livelihood. Now ranked for placement on the World Equestrian Games Team, he needed to arrange his competition schedule with Eddie while serving the needs of River Run clients. “I wanted to jump at Dublin so that I did not have to ship Eddie home and enter the Hampton Classic only because I was worried about one of those freak summer storms cancelling the Grand Prix. If that happened, I would be running to WEG with no classes in between Aachen and Tryon – not a good thing. I couldn’t afford to buy my way into the shows in Europe – pay to play – and I couldn’t get them (USEF) to let me jump. I remember driving my own horses and equipment in the dark back from Aachen in this little horse bus that I had rented and I was really upset. Here we had jumped clean and I couldn’t find another show to jump in. I understand the value of the system, but it was frustrating.”
Again, fate intervened, the U.S. had a withdrawal at the Dublin Horse Show and Ryan was in. Preferring to skip the Nations Cup, he and Eddie Blue jumped in three classes and finished ninth in the Grand Prix. Ryan and his string left Europe with their mission accomplished: a berth on the World Equestrian Games Team. In Tryon, NC, the American Showjumping Team pulled off a nail biting jump off round to achieve the ultimate in any athlete’s career, a Gold Medal. Devin stood on the podium with Laura Kraut, McLain Ward, and Adrienne Sternlicht, the best team in the world that day. Theirs was the first Showjumping Team Gold for the U.S. in World Equestrian Games history. “It was a dream come true,” said Ryan. “I think it’s in our blood as Americans to be fighters. And we came out wanting to win.”
It is in Devin Ryan’s blood to be a fighter, to be undaunted by rebuke, to believe in himself and his horses. He began his career as a working student shining the boots of his mentor George Morris at the end of the day, if that was his job. He went to Europe to launch his riding career and was told he didn’t match up. Starting from scratch with ads in the feed store, Ryan kept putting one foot in front of the other. He forged a path by finding and developing young horses that would go on to compete and win against the best in the world. Ryan is confident to the point of cocky, irreverent at times, and never afraid of a challenge. He has outlived bad press, reconstructed a reputation, and found more talented young horses to reinforce the fact that he is on the scene to stay. Did the Federation serve him in ascending to the podium? Or did he accomplish this feat despite the odds?
The USEF is assiduously touting construction of a “pathway” to success for developing athletes. Murray. Kessler (USEF President), Bill Moroney (USEF CEO), and Robert Ridland (USEF Chef d’Equipe Showjumping) believe with conviction that the cream of our sport can rise to the top despite constraints of finances or opportunity. Devin Ryan clawed up the “pathway” with two good horses, consistent success, and an attitude that would not let up. Sometimes brash and bristly, Ryan never stopped kicking forward toward his goals. He pushed the system until it ultimately worked for him – and worked for him it did. One talented young rider with an excellent young horse progressed from the Young Jumper Championships to National Grand Prix successes to International Nations Cup and World Equestrian Games wins. Is the system skewed toward the wealthy? Certainly the equestrian world’s axis has tilted toward privilege throughout history. Yet, indisputably, Ryan and Eddie Blue ascended to glorious heights in showjumping through talent, guts, and perseverance. Well done, all.