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February 6, 2011

Show Jumping Horseman Of The Year: McLain Ward

Arnd Bronkhorst Photo.

In 2010 McLain Ward experienced some of his biggest wins—and a few huge disappointments. But one of the old adages of riding is “never blame the horse,” and that’s a saying Ward takes to heart.

“If you look within yourself for why something wasn’t successful, you can find a way you could have ridden better, or prepared better, or trained better,” Ward said.

“That’s a habit and a way of thinking. It doesn’t mean you have to tear yourself apart every time something goes wrong, but you do need to always be looking for what could be better. I don’t think there’s a lot of that in our sport in this country anymore. There are a lot of excuses about why things didn’t go your way instead of seeking the solution.”

For the ways he orchestrated his victories, as well as the ways he handled misfortune, we selected him as the show jumping horseman of the year.

“We’re always trying to figure out a way we can do it better, even when we win,” Ward said. “I remember after winning the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix in Saugerties [N.Y.], we sat down and talked about a few things that needed to be fine tuned before the [Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games]. And it’s not just myself; it’s everyone on my team. We all weigh in on the situation.”

“There’s no luck involved in a person like McLain being so consistent for so long and with so many horses. It’s because of the quality of his horsemanship,” U.S. show jumping Chef d’Equipe George Morris said.

“It all starts with stable management. McLain is an old-fashioned horseman who runs an absolutely meticulous stable. He’s one of the two or three of the best in the world in his stable management,” Morris continued.

“He shows his horses so carefully, not overshowing them. And his riding is impeccable; he’s fastidious about his position and every nuance of the course.”

Ward is acutely aware that he may be the one in the spotlight, but his success is not purely self-generated. “I’m very much a product of the people around me and the horses I’m sitting on,” said Ward.

The core of his team is the husband-and-wife duo of Lee and Erica McKeever, who have worked for Ward for more than 20 years.

“All of our people stay for years; I think that speaks to the atmosphere, the way we do things, and the way we treat people,” Ward said.

“It’s not about a paycheck here, it’s about a way of life and contributing to something important,” he added. “Everyone lives on the farm. We eat at least two, if not three, meals together [per day], and it’s very much a family atmosphere.”

One of Ward’s major goals for 2010 was for his superstar Sapphire to win the individual international championship he believes she deserves along with her two Olympic team gold medals and a team silver from the 2006 World Equestrian Games. But it was not to be.

Sapphire was leading the Rolex FEI World Cup Final when she was disqualified in a controversial decision. Ward and U.S. Equestrian Federation officials protested through official channels, but to no avail. In a frustrating situation, Ward conducted himself calmly and with professional maturity, arguing his case rationally and even presenting Sapphire to the press.

“He handled it magnificently. I don’t know how he did it like that; I couldn’t ever have done it like that,” said Morris.

“I was very vocal and obvious; I was a bad loser about that because I think it was totally dishonest. McLain rose above it, which I think at his age and position was the best thing to do, and he did it magnificently.”

In the past Ward hasn’t had a flawless reputation, and public opinion has been divided, either glorifying or condemning him. But in 2010, he seemed to have found a new maturity that he attributes to the personal confidence to stand behind his horsemanship.

At the World Cup Ward couldn’t look within for a solution, so he shifted the focus from his personal disappointment to the larger issue of a questionable Fédération Equestre Internationale rule. Ward and the USEF pushed for reform of the hypersensitivity guidelines, and the FEI did refine the rules three months later.

“With a little bit of reflection, you realize that there’s a bigger picture. You don’t want anyone else, or myself, to go through that again,” Ward said.

“It’s important for changes to be put in place that protect the riders and owners and horses from the organization when it goes off the correct path, the same as there are rules to protect the horses when riders and trainers go off line.”

Then Sapphire’s chances at the WEG faded when she dropped three rails during the team competition, though she and Ward rebounded with two clears in the individual rounds to claim seventh. It’s a testament to the expectations placed upon them that finishing in the top 10 of the world didn’t satisfy Ward or his fans.

Likewise, Sapphire won seven of the biggest grand prix classes in the world. Titles that would be highlights of any other horse’s career seem like footnotes to everything else the big mare has accomplished.

“As I’m getting a little bit later in Sapphire’s career, you start to realize even more what she’s done, and it’s just remarkable. I’ve been very blessed to have that,” Ward said. 

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