Fresh off his win at the $382,800 Longines Grand Prix of New York on April 29, McLain Ward was ready to impart his winning wisdom during the Longines Masters of New York Masters Squad clinic at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, New York, on May 5.
In the Masters Squad program, young riders ranging in age from elementary to college students enroll in the program as Masters Squad Captains. Those who sold the most tickets to the Longines Masters of New York were able to ride in the clinic. Auditors were participants who also sold large numbers of tickets, but not enough to earn the top prize.
Four groups of young riders participated in the clinic. Ward focused on the importance of having a solid position, having the right rhythm and balance, and planning ahead; all while staying focused on the small details that make a winning difference in the show ring.
Riders started on the flat, working on having the correct position and the horses moving forward off the leg. The riders rode small circles and practiced compressing the stride on the short ends of the ring with a sitting trot, and then producing a rising trot with more energy, not an extended trot, on the long sides. He wanted the riders to push their horses up to the bridle.
“The horse has to be like a slinky, like a spring,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to feel with this exercise, that there are two different ways that the horse can go and that they are adjustable.”
Shelby Phillips’ mare, Chanel, wanted to poke her nose out long and get heavy on the bit. Ward instructed Phillips to “bump her off the bridle” by bumping her hand upwards and then giving forward to help Chanel find the proper balance and stay light on the bit.
“I’m not a big stickler that the horse has to be in a frame or have their nose in,” he said. “The horse should be able to carry themselves where they are comfortable; just don’t let the reins get too long. We have an epidemic in show jumping of people teaching a low hand. Every other discipline in horse riding has an elevated hand. Dressage, reining, saddle horses; they all have a slightly elevated connection to the mouth.”
When Phillips had trouble, Ward hopped on Chanel to show how the mare could be light on her front feet. “I might even keep my rein a little higher than I normally would because she wants to be low,” he explained. “The only option is to go forward in a straight line. If she starts to go a little left or a little right, I correct her and go forward. I’m not driving with my seat because when you drive with the seat, the horse gets stronger and stronger. The horse has to be up, light and straight. What was the original purpose of the horse, in life? To carry us! People forget that. The horse has to go forward off the leg and carry you.”
Chanel softened into the bridle while staying straight, light in front and forward off of Ward’s leg.
Riders started jumping on the right lead over a low cavaletti at the short end of the ring. Ward wanted a conservative distance to the small fence. When riders went for a longer distance, Ward emphasized George Morris’ famous quote: “Distances are like men. Don’t take the first one you see!”
“People talk about riders having a natural eye. That is nonsense,” he said. “Everybody sees the jump the same way. The difference is with more experienced riders, they trust where they’re at and understand the steps they need to take to change it if they are not where they want to be. I was a terrible pony rider as a kid, just terrible. But, somewhere along the way in my career, somebody taught me to create the distance I want. Whether it’s short and adding, or moving up.”
When riders had difficulty shortening the stride, he stated: “Let that jump come to you. You’re not attacking the jump; you’re letting it come to you.”
He also discussed the importance of the rider’s position in placing the horse at the right take-off point. “We always talk about angles, but we don’t talk about why,” he said. “We have angles because it gives us leverage. If you have a strong horse, you need leverage. I have a good base of support, and I have good angles, which gives me leverage.”
He also stressed the importance of the rider’s torso: “The job of your torso is to keep [itself] out of the way. Your torso just puts weight on the horse,” he said.
Riders then cantered on the right lead over the cavaletti, continued right diagonally over an oxer, then rolled back on the left lead up a five-stride line, vertical to oxer. When the fences were added in after the cavaletti, Ward was particular about little details. He stressed that the riders had to build on what they worked on on the flat and jumping the cavaletti and to stay focused.
“Before I start, I go through a checklist in my head,” he said. “Is my foot in the right position? Is my rein length correct? Is the horse in front of my leg?”
In the second group, Chrystal Reilly’s hot mare had difficulty staying relaxed in front of the jump. Ward hopped on to show how the mare could go quietly and smoothly on the flat. When Reilly got back on and started with the jumping exercises, she had trouble maintaining the same rhythm, as her mare would start propping towards the fence instead of staying smooth.
“The first thing I do [in this situation] is ride small circles so that the horse has to find their own balance and slow themselves down,” Ward said. “When I canter, I am in a light seat so I don’t put pressure on her. I’m not saying she’s not a hot horse, but because you’re worried about it and anticipating how she gets hot, she’s getting worried about it. You have to play a little bit of a mind game with this horse.”
Ward had Reilly repeat the jumping exercise, taking the rails off the jumps and then putting them back up when the mare relaxed. “You are creating more of the problem, because you are strong with your leg and your seat,” he explained. “She’s sensing from you that you want her to be perfect. You have to ride every fence like it is a rail on the ground. I had a horse, Antares, that was like that. You had to ride every fence like it was a rail on the ground. They sense that angst.”
Ward then had the riders jump the original exercise and continue to the “outs” of a green line on the opposite side of the ring. The riders jumped on the left lead on a long approach to an oxer, short rollback on the right lead, and then a long approach to a vertical. The riders had to focus on keeping their horses straight before and after the fence. He had the riders repeat the exercise to smooth out any mistakes.
The third group completed the same cavaletti to oxer, rollback on the five-stride line. They then rolled back left lead on an oxer one-stride vertical combination and then continued right lead up the green line on the other side of the ring.
With the combination, Ward said: “You have to always ride up to an oxer-vertical combination. If I have a horse or I am trying a horse that I think is a bit chicken or has a bit of a stop, I always build oxer-to-vertical combination and add leg. That will get the stop out of them. Ride up to it.”
The third group of riders then rode the same course backwards. Sarah Nir’s gelding needed a little extra leg to get down the lines. Ward liked that the green horse studied the fences and was careful.
“When he comes through the corner and he studies the jump, he’s not spooking, he’s studying the jump,” he said. “When he’s studying the jump, just be there for him, don’t hustle him, just support with leg and hold his hand. Don’t hustle him; don’t chuck him away.” Nir softened her aids a bit, and her horse jumped beautifully.
He then had the last group of riders ride a short course like a jump-off. He told them to focus on where they could save time in the course without sacrificing the rhythm and distances to the fences. On a short rollback turn out of the corner, riders had difficulty finding the right distance. Ward asked riders which part of the ring would help them jump the rollback better.
“You need the second half of the turn to set the fence up,” he explained. “What are you doing in the corner over there on the first side of the turn?”
Riders shaved the first side, found the distance to the rollback more smoothly, and were a second faster in their time.
Riders had time at the end for questions. Phillips asked Ward about his thoughts on mental stamina and how to stay sharp over time.
Ward said he works daily on being strong mentally. When he was badly injured a few years ago, he was frustrated that he was “out of the game,” and it was very difficult for him mentally. He said there are lots of ups and downs with the sport, but the stress helps him stay focused. “If I don’t have all those emotions, I’m not at my best,” he said.