He’s a little guy, and when he picks up canter and throws in a buck he looks more like he should be heading in for a children’s jumper round than an international one.
It’s hard to marry the image of McLain on stylists like Sapphire with that of him on the scrappy Royal Belgian Warmblood who goes around the ring with his ears permanently pinned. But if you’ve watched Rothchild fight for McLain over the years, you know it’s impossible not to fall in love with him.
Rothchild’s the kind of horse that McLain originally turned down when he tried him, and his father, Barney Ward, bought him anyway. Rothchild and Ward bonded over time, and he got better and better under Ward’s saddle, eventually exceeding everyone’s expectations. One-time rider Gregory Wathelet of Belgium admitted he never thought Rothchild had the potential to be a championship horse, and attributed his success entirely to McLain.
McLain and Bongo missed a berth in the final four at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games by the skin of their teeth, which was for me the most heartwrenching moment of the Games. Heading into the final day of competition they were ranked 14th, and became one of only three pairs to lay down back-to-back clears to move as far up the leaderboard as possible. The eventual winner, Jeroen Dubbeldam came in ranked 13th and had the same stellar day on Zenith SFN, edging out McLain to earn an invitation to the clean slate final.
So many of us on the sidelines were rooting for McLain and his special horse to make the top four. We wanted to see the best riders in the world on traditional powerhouse mounts take a turn on the little chestnut firecracker. When McLain came in for the awards ceremony after finishing fifth, he had a sad smile on his face, and didn’t stop petting his mount the entire time. Sure he’d won the day with his clear rounds, and it’s a remarkable achievement to finish fifth in such outstanding company, but it’s so bittersweet to come so close one of the biggest achievements in the sport.
After the victory lap, a pack of journalists waited for McLain to come out to chat. Mind you, plenty of other riders with disappointing rides during the Games went out of their way to elude the press, but after taking a few minutes by himself, McLain came out to offer a heartfelt explanation of his disappointment, not for himself, but for Bongo.
“I think Rothchild has taught me a lot of lessons,” he said. “He’s taught me about meeting a horse in the middle. He’s taught me about believing in a horse and seeing the best in him. I really like this horse, aside from what he does in the ring. I just like him. If he were a person I’d go have a beer with him. He’s a cool character and he’s straight. It is how it is. I appreciate that.
“This is a little bittersweet,” he continued. “This is the last horse I’ll probably ride at a championship that my dad [Barney Ward, who died last year] trained. I was hoping the story would end a little differently, but it is how it is.”
There’s nothing wrong with the horses and riders that finished ahead of McLain, and McLain wished them the best. But it’s always inspiring to root for pairs that succeed thanks to true partnership, not just raw talent, and no one embodies that more than Bongo and McLain.
McLain, you and Bongo may have finished fifth at the World Games, but for so many of your fans, you’re first in our hearts.