In Response: McLain Ward Believes Show Jumping Is Evolving, Not In A Downward Spiral

Jul 14, 2017 - 1:07 PM
McLain Ward. Photo by Kimberly Loushin

I read what Katie Prudent has to say about the state of U.S. show jumping, and I felt the need to respond.

I have the deepest respect for Katie Prudent as a rider and as a trainer of riders. I think she’s the finest there is, and I appreciate the compliment she pays me in her words. And while I think she has some very valid points for sure, the general tone of the article, I believe, is not on point for the state of the sport in the United States.

Looking at the state of the sport—yes, the sport has evolved. The sport has changed. There’s no doubt that the great riders of times gone by would still be great today, but they would have to change and evolve the same way the great riders of today would have to do things slightly differently if they were riding back then.

It’s very hard to compare the two times. A six-foot wide oxer with 10 trees in the middle with 20’ poles isn’t harder or easier than a 1.55-meter oxer today with three poles and a false groundline and breakaway cups and a fast time allowed. The sport has had to change internally and because of external pressures, and the greats of any generation will adjust to what the sport is.

Like in any other sport, the highest level is always getting better. And the people who don’t recognize that are the ones who do get left behind. The great riders, the great trainers, recognize that the highest level of the sport, in every sport in the world, is always evolving and getting better and faster and stronger.

Are there more people doing our sport today? Absolutely. There’s more access to it.

But to say that money now governs the sport is misleading. The reality is that horse sports were for the elite and the wealthiest more than 100 years ago, too. If anything, today, there’s more access to horse sports. Going back long before Katie Prudent’s time or my father’s time, you could only compete at horse shows if you rode for the very richest families. So the money has always had to come from somewhere.

I’ve heard, in every decade of my career, that “in five years there aren’t going to be any good riders left because the sport is only for the rich,” and it never actually happens.

We all want to fight the “elitist” label. We all want to show that people can rise to the top of the sport no matter their financial backing, and we see that daily. We see that throughout the world—the top riders in America all came down roads where in one way or another, they had to find the means and the opportunity.

The ability to help less fortunate young riders as a professional is challenging because of the cost of showing, and that’s something we have to work on as a community to always provide those opportunities. But that shouldn’t take away from the kids who do have the opportunities, whether they’re financial or otherwise. In my own case, as the son of a professional rider and dealer, there were different doors opened and different challenges.

The price of horses is what it is. I say this to all the students that I help and all the parents of those students who are trying to get a leg up in the sport. I present prices of horses at the highest level. I tell them, “Don’t think for a moment that Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut and I are riding $50,000 horses. We have worked to find the backing to do this at this level.” We have people behind us spending great deals of money; they’re just not our family. That’s part of any sport today—it’s no different with the New York Yankees or the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve figured out a way to get revenue to spend on players.

I also think it’s unfair to label someone as not being ambitious or tough or having a great work ethic just because they come from means. I’ve had to learn this through my own career. The reality is that in my own riding and my own teaching, I’ve come across a number of young people, including people with whom I’ve worked directly, who come from great means and are every bit as ambitious as I am, every bit as tough as I am and often have a skill set I don’t have.

I was the biggest believer in Lucy Davis for the Olympic Games last year, and that’s a wonderful example. I’ve ridden on the last two championship teams with her, and she’s been nothing but ambitious and professional and hard working.

The reality, and this is something Katie touches on, is whether people from that financial background will sustain that level of intensity. But once they reach certain goals in the sport, maybe it isn’t necessary for them to. Where for someone like myself or Beezie or Kent, it’s how we make a living, so there has to be sustained intensity. That doesn’t mean that those young riders, or anybody from that financial situation, can’t be of the same level not only for a certain point in time but for as long as they desire to be. So I think that’s a little bit unfair.

There have been wealthy kids coming up through the sport for the better part of the last 50 years. To label that as a downward spiral of American show jumping is incorrect about those young riders and is incorrect about the state of show jumping in our country.


The winner of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final (Neb.) and member of the 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 at age 14 and has served on Nations Cup teams for more than 15 years. He also has team silver from the 2006 World Equestrian Games and team bronze from the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to his credit, and he jumped on the U.S. team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games. He operates his family’s Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla.

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