Future Stars Need Grit And Polish

Dec 11, 2017 - 2:21 PM

Our columnist notes that equitation riders with big dreams must have both style and a seat-of-the-pants attitude to succeed at the highest levels.

The greatest compliment that I’ve ever received in my career came from George Morris. It was in 1996, and we were walking to the ring for the Olympic trials in Palm Beach, Fla.

He said to me that I was a great blend of my father [Barney Ward] and Bill Steinkraus. The point of that was that I was the “get-it-done, seat-of-the-pants, find-a-way-to-be-successful” horseman of my father matched with the polish and sophistication of Bill Steinkraus. George knew it was a blend of two great things that both have value.

For me, that was the greatest compliment ever, and I’ve always tried to continue to be that. I’ve had opportunities that a lot of people maybe haven’t had to have spit and polish and great teaching. But I’ve also tried not to lose touch with my horsemanship background and my “find-a-way-to-get-it-done” instinct. There are moments in the sport where you have to have some grit and strength. And you have to find a way to blend that with style and technique.

I never want to give up my standards of quality and excellence, but at the same time I don’t want to lose the ability to dig in and get dirty. That’s what we all should strive for.

Those are the characteristics I think you see in some of the best riders for the team over the years: Beezie Madden, Kent Farrington, Laura Kraut, Conrad Homfeld, Leslie Howard and Katie Prudent, to name just a few. They all have that ability to be as sophisticated and fine-tuned and polished as anyone, but when the going gets tough, there’s nobody tougher, nobody who will dig in harder. That is what we try to create in our young riders.

Granted, not every young rider is striving to make the U.S. Equestrian Team. Not every young rider wants to be an Olympian. Some are in it for enjoyment of the sport and to be an amateur, and that’s fine. But for those who aspire to be greater than that, they must have that blend, or at some point they’ll fall by the wayside. That doesn’t mean they’re not talented enough, but at some point they just won’t sustain that level and that effort.

Find A Balance

The fate of equitation is the same as the rest of the sport. It’s constantly evolving and changing, and that’s a good thing. The riders are getting better and better, and the performances are getting stronger and stronger.

On Judging The Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East

It’s brilliant to be able to judge with Jimmy Torano because not only do we look at the sport the same way, but he also brings a technical side to judging that really helps me, as I don’t do it as often.

People in the equitation industry expect certain standards. There are certain scores for certain mistakes that need to be consistent, and Jimmy is brilliant at that. And he’s a very fair and honest judge. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to make mistakes; there will always be some mistakes in that kind of activity. But we try to be as fair to what you see as possible.

I enjoy judging. I love being able to come in and have no preconceived ideas about who the kids are. Obviously it’s impossible not to know some of them, but for the most part I don’t know them very well, and I think that’s a very interesting perspective.

Anybody who judges on a regular basis, it’s impossible not to think, “Well, they won last week and the week before, so maybe they should be the winner.” It’s just human nature. When you bring in judges for these equitation finals, with one judge who doesn’t see these kids all the time mixed with a more practiced judge, so to speak, it’s a really interesting perspective. You often see kids coming up in the results who maybe aren’t the “expected” ones. The judges said, “This is the performance they had this week. I don’t know what they did last week or last month. Maybe they’re not that good usually, but this week they were great.” And I think that’s phenomenal and how it should be.

There was a lot of discussion, particularly at the [Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—East], of the gymnastics phase. I was disappointed in the gymnastics phase there. I felt that it was a departure from what gymnastics truly are. I would have loved to have been able to share, for just a glimpse in time, with these kids and with the trainers, what I do that makes me successful. I wasn’t able to do that because of the restrictions on the gymnastics phase. I think that’s maybe going to be revised for future years.

When I look back at videos of the [USET Show Jumping Talent Search Finals] from the ’80s, the people in the top 10 wouldn’t even be in the hunt today. When I look back at videos of me doing equitation, I wouldn’t be in the hunt today. The riding has gotten so sophisticated and precise.

But in that evolution, we also lose something. We give up a little bit of the fun of riding. We give up the interaction with our horse, because it’s become so commercialized and professionalized. And sometimes we lose some of that gritty, get-it-done side of things in favor of the polish and style.

We also see around the world riders who have very gritty, seat-of-the-pants styles, but the kids never get that polish. For me, England is an example of that. A lot of the kids who come out of the county shows and the pony jumpers there are rough and ready, but they never get the polish. And when you look at the ones who truly make it and sustain themselves at that level, they have both.

So, we always have to try to find the balance between our sport and our industry becoming so sophisticated, which is exciting to see in competition, and keeping touch with our roots and the seat-of-the-pants instinct.

It’s always a pendulum that swings back and forth. It’s the responsibility of the trainers—and it’s a great responsibility—to maintain that balance. It shouldn’t be a spa service industry. The trainers have to have the confidence to teach the kids to have that strength and grittiness in addition to the polish.

That’s sometimes harder to do in today’s world because a lot of people want their kids to be coddled. And it takes a lot of confidence as a trainer to push kids these days, more than it did before. It’s big business. I have great admiration and respect for the trainers who can understand that it’s a big business, but also know that they have a responsibility to teach the grittiness. It’s not simple; it’s not as easy as people think.

The second responsibility falls to the people who run the shows, build the courses and judge the classes. They need to reward the kids who step up and give that extra effort and push themselves. It’s not just economic situation that creates that in kids, it’s something that they have within themselves to be better. That needs to be rewarded in the style and structure of the event, and it needs to be rewarded in the difficulty of the course, and it needs to be rewarded by the judges who can recognize it.

Focus On Show Jumping

In general, the courses in all the equitation finals need to go more toward the direction of show jumping. There has to be a big push in that direction. That’s where most of these kids are going, and I think that needs to be acknowledged.

Show jumping and the hunters are becoming very separate, arguably more separate than disciplines such as dressage and show jumping. I don’t want to disparage the industry of show hunters, but it’s not what I do, and it’s not where the sport is going—it’s not what the Olympic movement is about. So for me, the focus has to be on the sport, and the sport is show jumping.

I would like to think that these equitation finals are stepping stones to identifying and encouraging the top talent that could go on to be competitors in show jumping. The hunter industry has become an industry of its own, and it’s not a segue to show jumping any longer. It was at one time, but that’s changed. And that’s fine!

This is the modern sport. That’s what the evolution has been; we’re not preparing these kids to go hunting. The majority of them aren’t going into the hunter industry. If you sit them down and take the top 20 kids and ask them what their ultimate goal be, most of them are going to say to be successful show jumpers. That’s the evolution of it, and the courses need to reflect that now.


The winner of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final (Neb.) and member of gold medal-winning teams at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games, McLain Ward, 42, has been jumping at the grand prix level since he was a teenager. He won the USET Show Jumping Talent Search Final (N.J.) at age 14 and has served on Nations Cup teams for more than 15 years. He also has team silver from the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games (Germany) and 2016 Rio Olympic Games and team bronze from the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France) to his credit. He operates his family’s Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla.

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