Sure, Lilly Ward’s father McLain Ward has two Olympic gold medals, world championship titles and countless grand prix wins to his name, but what he didn’t have on his resume was an Upperville Colt & Horse Show family class blue ribbon. And on June 12 in Upperville, Virginia, Lilly made it her mission to change that.
The idea came from Samantha Schaefer, who runs Shadow Ridge Farm. She has worked for McLain part-time on and off over the past couple years, and the two share some partnerships on horses. When talking to McLain’s Castle Hill farm manager Erica McKeever at Old Salem Horse Show (New York), the two thought the Upperville family class could be a special opportunity for McLain and his wife Lauren to venture from the jumper ring over to the hunter side with their 6-year-old daughter.
“I was like, ‘We have horses; let’s do it,’ ” Schaefer said. “I think it was kind of a coffee conversation that turned into, ‘Let’s actually do this.’ ”
Using Lilly’s pony First Romance, a.k.a. “Romie” (owned by the Schaefer family), as inspiration with her big blaze and white stockings, Schaefer sourced out two more chrome-y bays, children’s hunter Emilio and 3’3″ junior hunter Unanimous, from clients Ava Berman and Rose Campbell.
“If we’re going to do the family class, you have to do it full force,” Schaefer said. “We got to go all out, of course.”
“Lauren was always, I think, pretty on board,” she added. “I was just concerned that McLain was going to be busy at that time, or there was going to be some kind of hold-up that didn’t allow him to get over there.”
Sure enough, when it came down to the big day, McLain fretted at first over how they would pull it all off. But as fellow dads can attest, determined little girls are forces of nature; not even the best riders in the world are a match for them. Lilly had one goal, and she would not be deterred.
“I have to say when I woke up in the morning, I wasn’t too sure about it,” McLain said. “I had a few other things going on at the show.”
(Riding Blossom Z to a second-placed finish in the Upperville Speed Stakes, for example.)
“But Lilly was pretty adamant that we were going to do it. So, we went over there. And that was a new scene for me. That was something to see the leadline and pony side of Upperville in full force. It’s nice to see; it’s a real love for the horse and love for the sport.”
Lilly got her game face on by riding Romie first in the walk-trot, 7 & under, class. With leg muscles warmed up and ready, she and Romie marched around the Parker Ring, setting the pace for her parents who rode alongside her.
Was it hard to keep up with their big horses, Lilly? “No.”
“It was kind of hard for us to keep up with you, I think,” McLain elaborated. “Mom and Dad were falling behind.
“When we finally got up and started to do it, it was a blast,” he continued. “To be able to share that not only with your wife, but with your children, it’s really a dream come true.”
Though it’s been more than 30 years since McLain won the USET Medal Finals, and nearly as long since he last wore a back number, he didn’t need to worry about being in unfamiliar territory. He and Lauren had Lilly, a veteran hunter crossrail competitor, at their side to show them the ropes.
“I think I rode a horse of Don Stewart’s probably more than 20 years ago,” Mclain said. “It’s been a while. I was never very good on the hunter side of things, so it was never my area of expertise. But it was fun to do.”
When the family lined up, backs to the judge, their names were called first. Lilly collected the blue ribbon and earned a fist bump from the family’s senior member for her captain’s job well done.
And Lilly’s reaction when she heard their number called? “Kind of happy and excited.”
When asked if she thought she carried the team, she giggles and answered, “kind of”—to which her father retorted, “Ho, ho; no lack of confidence!”
Sounds like just the right self-assuredness needed for a 2044 Olympic Games anchor rider.