Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 11
When Baylee McKeever trotted into the ring aboard Rosé at U.S. Pony Finals, her mother Erica watched from the in-gate.
Her father Lee, however, watched from much farther away. Lee tuned into the live stream of Pony Finals from Rio de Janeiro, where he’s caring for McLain Ward’s Olympic mount HH Azur. (Ward and his wife Lauren also joined Lee to cheer Baylee on from the live feed.)
“She walked out of the ring and they were all calling—it was awesome,” Erica said. “It was sad because he’s not here, he had to be with the horse in Rio, and you want to be at your kid’s first pony finals, but they were both together watching it. All [McLain] could say was ‘That was impressive,’ so we have the best support ever.”
Baylee has an upbringing unlike any other rider at U.S. Pony Finals. As the daughter of two of the top grooms in U.S. show jumping, she’s always been surrounded by the highest level of the sport. Lee and Erica have worked for McLain for more than 20 years, and the relationship is more of family than employer/employee. Baylee grew up leading McLain’s two-time team gold medalist Sapphire around Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., where the McKeever family lives on-site.
“It’s inspirational,” Baylee said of spending her childhood in the center of an Olympic rider’s program.
Baylee rode Maggie McAlary’s pony Rosé in the small regular pony division, and though an unfortunate added stride in a line kept her out of the top ribbons (she was ranked 24th of 124 pairs going into the final jumping round) she’s looking forward to taking another whack at it aboard her mount in the medium pony division, Greystone’s Star Bright, owned by Lee.
Baylee McKeever on Rosé. Photo by Kimberly Loushin
Between Baylee and her mom Erica, they do all of their own care for her two ponies (save for braiding—Baylee said her mom “wanted to do it, but wasn’t sure she remembered how.”).
Baylee talked about her pony and her round as we walked back to the barn a few paces behind Erica, who led Rosé with one hand and held a phone to her ear with the other, going over the round with Lee from Rio. Once we arrived back at the barn, Baylee was all business. She undid her number string and took off her shadbelly, laying it neatly across a well worn tack trunk emblazoned with Ward’s name and farm colors. After letting her pony take a drink and short break in her stall, Baylee pulled her out and set to work bathing her as Erica looked on.
I asked her if Baylee always did her own care, and she said of course. “That comes with the deal—I can’t do it all myself,” Erica said with a laugh. “It’s funny, she went to Aachen a couple weeks ago with Lee and McLain, and she was back in the barns with them a lot. We’ve created a bit of a monster.
“She’ll tell me ‘Daddy doesn’t do it like that, Bongo [top grand prix horse Rothchild] doesn’t get that,” Erica continued, smiling and shaking her head. “You kind of know they’ve got the bug when they want to do everything themselves. She wanted to do everything—she wanted to drive the horse here and ride in the trailer with them.”
Baylee holding grand prix star Rothchild at Aachen (Germany). Photo courtesy of Erica McKeever
Baylee just moved up to doing the division ponies in November of 2015. She had spent the previous season in the children’s pony division, and once she qualified for pony finals with Rosé and Greystone’s Star Bright, McLain approached the McKeevers about taking the next step in Baylee’s competitive career.
“McLain said during Old Salem ‘She’s riding great, she does a great job, but we’ve got to take the next step,’” Erica recalled. And so the McKeevers and McLain reached out to junior training powerhouse program Heritage Farm, right down the road from them in Katonah, N.Y. Headed by Andre Dignelli with Patricia Griffith focusing on the ponies, Heritage trains some of the best junior riders in the country.
“McLain is so supportive of all of this, he’s amazing, so we started riding with Heritage about five weeks ago,” Erica said. “And she’s really gone crazy about [riding] now.”
Indeed, when asked what she would like to be when she grows up, Baylee answered matter-of-factly “a rider.” She’s certainly well on her way—along with riding the two ponies she brought to finals, Baylee also rides a pony jumper owned by Ward’s business. Baylee wasn’t ready to bring the jumper to pony finals this year, but Erica said that’s the goal for next year.
“The morning he was leaving for Rio, McLain wanted to give her a lesson, so he got up and met her in the ring at 7:30 a.m. in the morning at Castle Hill, and taught her on her pony jumper,” Erica said.
Erica said Baylee is just starting to realize the iconic status Ward hold in most show riders’ eyes—after all, she’s grown up seeing horses like Sapphire, HH Carlos, Rothchild and HH Azur every day at her home barn.
Baylee McKeever sitting on the legendary mare Sapphire at home at Castle Hill. Photo courtesy of Erica McKeever
“When Sapphire was alive, that was my third child. I went everywhere with her, and [Baylee and her brother Bradlee] came with me,” Erica said. “It was just Sapphire, what’s the big deal, but now you can see when people come to ask McLain for autographs, she’s impressed by that. She gets it.”
McLain Ward gives Baylee McKeever a few pointers ring-side. Photo courtesy of Erica McKeever
We wrap up the interview as well-wishers stop by the barn to congratulate Erica and Baylee. Erica isn’t sure if she and Baylee will fly out to Rio to watch McLain compete—it will depend on what Erica needs to do with horses at the home farm, and whether McLain makes the individual final.
Baylee, unsurprisingly, is dying to go to Rio. Presumably, to restock on retorts to her mother about her ponies with some tips from HH Azur’s show care routine for her own ponies—”Daddy doesn’t do that for Annie.”
Stay tuned to www.coth.com for all the news from U.S. Pony Finals. Read all about Roll Call’s win in the small pony division, Mimi Gochman’s large pony title journey, and Caroline Passarelli’s victory in the small green division.