Emmett Ross – Endurance's Best Kept Secret - This Man Understands the Landscape of Endurance Riding

Thursday, April 29, 2010
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When I went to the very first World Equestrian Games held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1990 one of my fondest memories was watching Becky Hart and her little Arabian, R.D. Gran Sultan, cross the finish line first. I think it was that victory that inspired me to one day do Endurance riding. That was a dream I never fulfilled but speaking with Emmett Ross gave me a vision of Endurance that I hadn’t expected.
Though I was not familiar with Emmett, I was expecting him to tell me about how he’d grown up in the saddle and worked with horses all his life. Instead I uncovered a man that has done numerous things, lived many places and has arrived at a point in his life where he is happy and content. Emmett’s 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games title is Endurance Manager. He is undoubtedly the best person for the job because Emmett Ross has been involved in every aspect of this sport. He’s competed in endurance competitions, managed events, bought and sold endurance horses, trained riders to win major events and won many titles himself. He understands the terrain of both the course the riders compete over and the landscape of the job.

While Emmett now calls home Lexington, KY, over the years he’s lived in California, Texas, Dubai, Qatar and numerous other places and has traveled around the world for both work and competition. His lifetime of achievements read like a who’s who. He has been in the top ten at the famed Tevis Cup three times and was a Gold Medal team member at the first North American Championships. He has completed 50 of 53 rides and was the Race Director of two National Ride & Tie Championships. Ross was also the Race Director of the 7,000 person Manhattan Beach 10k run FEI Performance/Training Activities. And this is only a small sampling of his achievements to date.

Growing Up With Love and a Taste of Horses

His parents, though both deceased, Emmett (lived to be 92) and Portia (87), created the foundation of what beautiful people are all about. “They were good loving parents. They came from that era where they never argued in front of each other. You could see where the differences were but at home we always had a loving environment. I never saw my parents fight and those memories are special.” And while Emmett can’t say that his life has mimicked theirs (he’s been divorced twice and has one stepson – 15-year-old Nahuel) that influence has always stayed with him as a reminder to always do the best you can in any situation (good or bad).

Their example is something that sticks in the back of his mind. “You don’t consciously attempt to do anything against anybody, but life is so complicated,” he admitted.

Emmett’s horsey life began when he was just ten years old. At the time he was living in Cuba but for three summers (1958-1960) his parents sent him to Camp Kickaboo in North Carolina where he rode daily. At camp it was a horse named Davey Crockett that would be the first of many chestnuts that he would ride throughout his lifetime.

“It was just so much fun being on a horse. You never forget your first girlfriend or your first horse,” he commented with a chuckle. “Davey and I had fun on the trails and of course I read the history of Davey Crockett. It was a cool story. “

Once camp was over so was the horsey part of his life. He eventually picked it up later after first graduating the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1971 and then serving near the end of the Vietnam war (1972-1974). For Emmett the early 70s were filled with engineering duties repairing and refurbishing ships in the San Francisco Bay shipyard. But when he incurred a knee injury he had to change his focus.

After a brief respite, from 1976-1977, Emmett went to graduate school at the American Institute of Foreign Trade in Arizona. While horses weren’t a part of his life, his daily exercise program was helping to shape his future. “I was doing a lot of running and biking.”

Emmett took a non horse business direction for nine years from 1978-1985. He was working overseas for International Banking in England, Germany and Brazil and lived abroad for two of the years.

It was at this point that a conversation with a friend would change the direction of his life.

Getting Involved in Ride & Tie and Endurance Racing

“One day a fellow friend (Steve Shaw) said do you ride horses,” he explained. Steve told him about Ride & Tie where two people as a team run and ride. Being game for anything Emmett launched into the sport that would ultimately lead to his involvement in endurance riding.

He was in Malibu, CA at the time and borrowed a horse to practice. “We rode about eight or nine miles running and riding and that got me hooked on that sport.” Yet there was one moment when he wondered if this was for him. “When I got off my horse to run I trashed my legs because they are contradicting efforts with your muscles.”

He worked his way through those aches and pains and ultimately he and Steve bought two horses from Rush Creek Ranch in Nebraska. Rush Creek Earl and Rush Creek If were eight and nine-year-old chestnut Arabs that were bred at the ranch, which was unusual because this was a massive cattle ranch.

It was at that time that Emmett, who was born on August 13, 1948, switched gears to endurance riding for awhile because he discovered that it would help improve his Ride & Tie performance. His two new mounts were perfect for this sport and ultimately carried him into the winner’s circle many times. They were very good endurance horses and Emmett admitted that once he started competing in endurance riding “I got hooked.”

While Emmett’s sport life was filled with cross country competitions his business life continued to follow new and ever changing landscapes. In 1983, he started a business in Los Angeles called Frontrunners. It was a chain of six stores that carried sports shoes and clothing.

That same year an unusual opportunity was presented to him to be on staff for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as Sports Manager for all FEI equestrian events. It was during that time that he first met Kate Jackson, who is handling the WEG 2010 Equestrian Operations. At the time his knowledge of the equestrian world was so non-existent that he relied on Kate’s knowledge to succeed in that position. “I had some horse knowledge but I didn’t know what the FEI was or dressage, show jumping or eventing; nothing. Kate kept me out of a lot of potential messes.”

Emmett was not as incapable as he would make you believe because by then he had managed a lot of running events and two national Ride & Tie Championships. “I had experience of sorts but not in this type of environment. Then Kate worked for me and we became quick friends.”

Looking For a New Challenge
After the Olympics, Emmett continued competing but by then he had mastered both Ride & Tie and endurance riding and it was time to look for new challenges. He decided to zero in on the most famous ride in the world, the 100-mile Tevis Cup.

“So, in 1985 I took the challenge on a horse named Kachina Firewind,” he explained. Nicknamed Rocky, the chestnut gelding carried him to a 5th place but it was the joy of winning the Hagin Cup for the Best Conditioned Horse that Emmett is most proud of.

In 1987, Ross sold Frontrunners and began another company in Mexico for three years (1988-1990) manufacturing wooden boxes for trees that were sold to real estate developers when they needed to transport trees to various developments. “I made all the boxes in Mexico because we got tax breaks and good labor for which we paid them twice the going rate.”

In 1989-1990 there was a huge recession, construction ceased in Southern California and Ross found himself again in the position he had grown to be quite talented at: changing jobs.

From 1990 to 1995 he joined forces with the family business (Malibu Training Center) doing crisis management turnaround work all the while continuing to ride.

Then in 1994 another door opened. “My farrier was shoeing my purebred Arabian gelding Rojo (another chestnut) and he asked if I wanted to sell the horses to some overseas interest (Italian).” Emmett later would find out it wasn’t the Italian he was selling to but to the Royal Family in Qatar.

Ross explained his reaction when presented with this opportunity by referring to the book, “’Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.’ Men listen to deals and so I sold the horse. A woman would have said no because of the emotional connection with the horse.” Little did Ross know that this would catapult him into a whole new direction just a short time later.

“One day I got a call from a woman named Val Bunty. She said she was calling for Sheik Abdullah Al Thani from the Royal Family of Qatar.” It was Al Thani that really purchased his horse and she explained to Emmett that “This was his favorite horse and he wanted to know if I had more.” Of course Emmett said yes and proceeded to trace back to where the horse was bred to find out if there were more offspring. “I found them, trained up a few and they bought a bunch of horses from me.”

That was followed by an invitation to Qatar. “I was not married at the time and looking for a career change and so when they asked me if I would be interested in working for them I said sure.”

However, he had already committed to help Kate at the Atlanta Olympic Games where he took on the title of Senior Consultant and Senior Staff Member for the FEI Equestrian Activities. “Kate now had my job in Atlanta and she called and asked if I could help with certain things. And so from March 1995 to September 1996 I was hired to help Kate.”

Immediately after that Ross made the biggest leap of his life and for the next 11 years he lived in the Middle East (1995-2006). During that time he participated in over 120 FEI 2-4* endurance events as a trainer, coach, Chef d’Equipe, manager and rider. In 2004 he reorganized the entire State of Qatar FEI endurance policies and procedures and in 2005 was the Managing Director for the Organizing Committee for the FEI GCC (six Middle East gulf countries) Endurance Championships. He was also Chef d’Equipe three times for the State of Qatar Endurance team and his team achieved a junior gold medal and junior individual silver as well as senior team silver at the 2005 FEI GCC Endurance Championship.

Throughout this time he called home first Qatar for two years, then Dubai where in 1997 he started up some of their programs. By then Ross was married. Once the programs were finished Ross was asked if he’d be interested in starting a Young Rider’s program. “My wife inspired me to do that. So I spent 2½ years there doing that (2004-2006).”

Moving Back Home
Finally in 2006 his Middle East adventures found closure and he moved to Texas. There he again took a new direction with his life. “I started an endurance training program to sell horses to the Middle East.”

During that year Ross headed over to the Aachen World Equestrian Games. “I helped out some of my endurance ride friends but while I was there I saw the booth for WEG and stopped by to talk to them and give them my background and experience.” That opened a door that he soon walked through and he and Kate would be back working together again in shifted roles. This time Kate got the job of Equestrian Organizer and Ross Endurance Manager.”

Since we were finally caught up on the ever changing landscape of his life we began to chat about the evolution of endurance riding. In 1990 when I attended my first World Equestrian Games the United States was at the top of the sport but it was Emmett Ross who helped change that. The time he spent growing the sport in the Middle East bode well for them as nowadays it is that part of the world that dominates the sport and a lot of that had to do with Emmett.

“The sport really changed during my 11 years overseas. Since then the American results have diminished. We dominated through 1998 but we also had so many assets. In Qatar and Dubai I had any amount of ready-made horses and veterinary care. We had whatever we wanted. That’s what brought the top talent to the Middle East and that combined with the unlimited resources allowed us to push the envelope in all directions.”

The years Ross spent in the Middle East are why he is the perfect person to fill the shoes he now wears full time at WEG 2010. That job includes being responsible for putting together all the elements for the endurance competition. All of the other disciplines have the Kentucky Horse Park and ready-made venues but with endurance they rely on the surrounding property owners. “So, it’s been a long slow process to get the landowners in agreement. And it is a sport that not many have an experience at the level we did overseas.”

His day usually begins at 4:30 “because I am thinking what I have to get done. I read in the morning and prepare for the day and am at the office from 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. His day is filled with all the administrative stuff. “My primary focus is crafting out a course with about 28 or 29 landowners and 60 or 70 parcels. I spend lots of time walking and measuring the course.”

Once at home Ross doesn’t mind doing even more walking. He also reads or spends time with friends or enjoying the local area. And when asked about the difficulties of his job, Ross swiftly responded, “It’s not a job. It is fun.”

The Man Behind the Landscape

When asked who was the most influential person in his life Ross was quick to point to several people “for slices in my life. There is one man, a professor at the American Institute of Foreign Trade, and although I can’t recall his name, there was just something about him. I worked for him as a student aide. I always admired the way he handled himself. He was thoughtful, kind and decisive.”

Ross also pointed to his parents and the “interplay we had in the family.” Then there was his best friend Steve Shaw.

“We have similar personalities and he is so comfortable to be around. It is rare when you find that person. We are still very close.”

For advice, Ross trusts his own judgment and again refers to the “Men are from Mars” book. “When men get into uncomfortable situations they go into their cave because they don’t want to have that uncomfortable confrontation, whereas women want to talk about it.”

What Ross considers the highest point in his career may surprise you. “When I graduated I was elected as the company commander. Only 36 out of over 900 were chosen.”

He added to that a victory for his team during 2008 when they competed in the Endurance World Championships in Malaysia where he coached both the UAE and Qatar teams and they placed 1st and 2nd. “People complimented me on the legacy I left them with.”

And then Ross made mention of that legacy and the fact that he is one of only two trainers that have gotten a win in nine different countries. The Middle East owes Ross a great deal of gratitude for their many successes.

But not everything has been roses and chocolates for Ross. “Having gone through two divorces makes you re-evaluate what it is that you didn’t do or should have done.”

And although he has achieved so much he still has goals – setting the right standard is one of them. While not pointing fingers Ross made it clear that some recent major endurance events were not up to the standard and he wants to ensure that doesn’t happen with WEG 2010. Yet, having a discipline manager that has actually competed as a rider, coach and Chef will make a huge difference. “I know all the international people who will be here. I know what they need and what is and isn’t important and now I know all the top people at the FEI.”

For his life beyond horses, Ross admits that he loves to hike and does that a lot with friends. “I like to go into remote areas. Everywhere I’ve traveled with the horses a bunch of us always went out hiking.” He also enjoys going out to dinner.

As for who he stands for Ross said, "I am a fair and balanced person. To go around in our complex world you bump up against things and you deal with them in certain ways, but I always try to be fair.”

And when asked for what advice he would offer others, Ross looked back at his mixture of a life with gratitude and suggested that you should “try everything and anything. My life has been a smattering of different things. I’ve started small companies and more. To me it is a book and every chapter is a different part of my life.”

Looking back Ross is reminded of a recent Naval Academy class reunion, his 35th. “I hadn’t seen some of these guys for 35 years and it was pretty special. But you realize that life goes by so fast. We all look different but by the second day you felt comfortable around the people. You see them with their more senior appearance and you see what they’ve done with their career and what they are doing and it strikes you as strange at first. Some have put on a little more weight or have a little less hair but yet their core personality is still there. You suddenly realize that as a person you don’t change and your best friends are still your best friends.”

And so there you have it. Emmett Ross has lived a life with an ever changing landscape, but each chapter of that life has created the man he is today; a gentle, soft spoken man who is accomplished, well respected, loved by all who know him and determined to create an endurance event that will stamp its mark of excellence in the history books for years to come.