Four summers ago, Pasadena native Ricky Neal got the chance to attend a European Young Riders competition with accomplished Belgian show jumper Ludo Philappaerts. "It was great to see the best Europe has to offer," says Ricky. This summer, Ricky jumped into that level of competition as a member of the USEF's Young Rider Tour. In mid-May, he joined Reed Kessler and Karen Polle, both of New York, Catherine Pasmore of Virginia, and Jessica Springsteen of New Jersey on a jaunt that ran through mid-June and hit competitions in Belgium, France, Austria and Germany. At presstime, the team was second in Belgium and France, first in Austria, with one June show to go.
Aggressive in the saddle and easy going out of it, Ricky doesn't see his tour berth as the culmination of any strategic plan. Rather, it's the result of one good thing leading to another. "I can't say I've had a timeline for myself as a rider. It's been more slow, but consistent personal development," he says.
A top contender in the hunter and equitation ranks before he zeroed in on the jumper division, Ricky landed on the hunter/jumper circuit's national radar screen in 2009, when he finished as co-champion of the USHJA's Emerging Athletes Program Finals.
"Ricky is one of the most naturally talented and gifted riders I have ever had the opportunity to teach," says Melanie Smith Taylor, clinician and co-chairman of the Emerging Athletes Committee. "I believe his future in the sport is unlimited."
The EAP accomplishment became a springboard to Spruce Meadows, Canada, where Ricky spent a few weeks of the 2010 summer training with international show jumping veteran Mario Deslauriers. Sessions with natural horsemanship trainer Mindy Bower added another dimension to his ongoing equestrian education.
Now 19, Ricky graduated high school in the spring of 2010 and postponed college to devote a year to advancing his riding, horsemanship knowledge and sense of the business. He picked up whatever he could during long days at Meadow Grove Farm, at Middle Ranch, where he's been in training with Dick and Francie Carvin and Susie Schroer for the last 10 years. Helping set courses, riding other horses and being available to do just about anything asked of him fleshed out his perspective on the sport. "I've just been soaking
up the ins and outs and daily routines of running
a show jumping stable," he explained shortly before flying off to Europe. "It's been a very insightful year."
Ricky's equine partner on the tour was Transmission, with whom he paired up early this year. Transmission is a veteran Grand Prix horse, formerly campaigned by British great Nick Skelton. He and Ricky came into their own quickly and put it all together during HITS Thermal. Their 10th place finish in the circuit's finale, the $200,000 Lamborghini Grand Prix in early March, secured their spot on the tour. After handling that difficult Olaf Peterson, Jr., track – "the triple bar was a mountain!" – and others at Spruce Meadows and the North American Young Riders Championships, Ricky felt ready for what lay ahead in Europe.
Some of Ricky's preparations for the tour were tinged with nostalgia. This fall, Ricky is headed to Wesleyan College in Middleton, CT. "The tour is sort of a grand finale for me," he says. "I am kind of saying goodbye to this place I've grown up with and things are winding down here." In late May, Dick relayed that Ricky was thinking about staying in Europe to compete through July, before returning to the States in August when school starts.
A direct path to an equine profession is "definitely tempting," Ricky admits. "Dick Carvin is one of my biggest mentors and he's always been sort of whispering in my ear, 'If you go to school, you can always come back. This will always be here,'" Ricky relays. Dick encouraged his protégé to get an education, give himself a little breathing room and discover who he is. The Meadow Grovers urge all their juniors to take a break for college and that path seems especially suited to Ricky, whose interests include philosophy and history: Charles Taylor's weighty tome, A Secular Age, was Ricky's read en route to Europe.
"I am thinking strongly of a professional career as a rider, but I am going to school," Ricky says. The small, private liberal arts college, Wesleyan, is close to plenty of top training barns, so he'll have no problem keeping up with riding.
Dick Carvin and his Meadow Grove partners have influenced Ricky well beyond the ring and the college track. "Dick and I are more like great friends," Ricky says. "We are quite similar. I ride like him and we see eye to eye on a lot of things." Susie (Schroer) might as well be my mom," Ricky laughs affectionately. "She's always on me to make me better, make sure I'm doing my best in the way I ride and the way I see the sport." Although Francie has her own string of jumpers to focus on, she, too, has been a huge influence. With a special emphasis on physical fitness, Francie encouraged Ricky to recognize his weaknesses and helped him address them. "I deal so much with Dick and Susie, but Francie has a major stake in the Meadow Grove legacy and she is very involved with all of the students."
Ricky's mom, Barbara Neal, gets the highest, yet hardest to articulate praise. "She sacrificed a whole lot for me and everything I am comes out of that," he says. "She's had my back the whole time." Ricky's father Richard Neal and his four older brothers also played their part as the supportive family any young rider needs to make it to the top.
Richard and Barbara were slated to catch Ricky in competition for the second half of the European tour. Their son will likely have several new friends to introduce them to. "Everybody loves Ricky," says his trainer. "He's the one that's always smiling and happy and easy to be around."