Gymnastics With McLain Ward: Stay Out Of Their Way And Work On Your Mental Fitness

Jan 10, 2023 - 2:58 PM

Talent can only take a rider so far at the top of the sport, McLain Ward told the dozen young riders watching his demonstration ride during the second day of the 2023 Horsemastership Training Series, held Jan. 6-8 in Wellington, Florida. Although gymnastics was the theme of the day, Ward started and ended his session talking about the mental discipline needed to become better horsemen and competitors.

“I would say that I was not the talent of my generation,” he said, “but I know I’m more organized than you. I’m more disciplined and consistent about that discipline. I’ve always had goals, and I’ve been doggedly determined about those goals. And I’m surrounded by the best people, who help me achieve those goals.”

So how does one go about improving their discipline skills? The five-time Olympic show jumper believes this starts with being prepared for any possible situation.

McLain Ward Horsemastership_T Pence
McLain Ward discusses the importance of position, starting with a solid lower leg that allows the rider to use their seat effectively and stay balanced, giving them freedom to use the arms without collapsing forward, with clinic participant Jake Endicott. Taylor Pence Photo

“You need to be observant about everything,” he said. “It starts with yourself and your own equipment. I’m responsible for having all the things I need for competing and training, including in my ring bag. Under stress and pressure, you don’t turn a bad habit into a good habit. Looking for the next jump is a habit. You practice great habits every day. Why am I faster than you? Because I’m diligent and practice good habits.”

As he spoke, Ward warmed up his mount, grand prix jumper Lezaro, a 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Lord Pezzi—La-Montana) he co-owns with Susan Heller, for the gymnastics demonstration ride. Lezaro has been in Ward’s string since last summer, and one of their biggest victories together was last year at the $216,000 CSI3* Grand Prix of Greenwich (Connecticut).

“He’s a very sensitive horse, and I have to be very delicate with him,” Ward explained as he trotted around. “He might be a little spicy, which is why I chose him. Riding a prepped equitation horse isn’t really riding, so I felt this horse was more beneficial for this clinic.”

The Gymnastics Course

The gymnastics course, which the riders had helped set the day before, started with a crossrail at the far end of the arena, which was used as a warm-up fence. From there, riders cantered on the right lead to a vertical and then turned left to a Swedish oxer set in the middle of the ring, followed by a right turn to a skinny vertical.

The first gymnastic combination was next, set on the outside line, with three fences each one stride apart and placing rails on the ground between them. This was set as three crossrails at first and then raised to three verticals for the riders’ second round.

From the quiet line, rider next jumped a liverpool as a single fence—an exercise to help riders learn to finesse their horses through a potentially spooky obstacle—before turning back to another triple. This second combination was set as a three-stride to three-stride line with an oxer, plank vertical and oxer. A “V” of guide poles was placed on the lower front rail of each oxer.

Riders finished with a left rollback turn to another water jump set next to the liverpool.

Ward made quick work of his demonstration ride over the course, saying he wanted the riders to have more opportunities to practice it themselves. When he jumped the open water, Lezaro got quick on landing, so Ward turned right onto a small, approximately 20-meter circle.

“Turn the horse to slow him down,” Ward instructed the riders. “Don’t just run and yank on his mouth. As soon as he gives me what I want, then I give him a little bit of what he wants.”

The placing V-poles on the oxers line help a horse’s straightness and form, Ward said—including his own mount Lezaro.

“They will help him tighten his front legs up,” he said. “Lezaro likes to put his legs out in front of him instead of bringing them up and together.”

Balance Is Crucial: ‘Stay Out Of Their Way’

As in the previous day’s flatwork session, the dozen riders then split into two groups of six for their mounted sessions. In each, Ward began by instructing the riders briefly on the flat first, encouraging them to work on maintaining consistent contact with their seat, hand and leg.

Throughout the clinic, he emphasized the importance of having a strong, balanced seat, calling it another piece of the discipline puzzle.

“Unlike Anne [Kursinski], my formal education on the flat is less,” he said. “But I compensate for that in two ways: I have a very good sense of where a horse is underneath me, and I have the ability to completely control my position. It has given me the opportunity to get a lot out of many different horses because I stay out of their way.”

Ward cited his successes with Rothchild, who was one of his most successful partners despite his unusual jumping style.

“I always maintained my position and stayed out of his way, and over time his style become more orthodox,” he said. “If you plan on being a top rider, you will have to learn to adjust your comfort level to your horse’s, more than your horse adjusts to yours.”

Exercises To Build Skills And Confidence

When the riders began jumping, Ward had them jump the crossrail twice off each lead before adding the placing rail 9 feet in front of it, which each jumped before starting on the course Ward rode.

After jumping the water the first time off the left-lead canter, the riders made a right rollback turn to the open water and then another right rollback turn to the quiet one-stride to one-stride. This was designed to regain control and collection after the water jump.

Once the riders completed the course, Ward discussed the positives and negatives of their round with each rider. He also reiterated the importance of not practicing the same exercises day in and day out.

“I see riders all the time who ride their horses an hour every day, and those horses have no muscle tone,” Ward said. “We work our horses for 25 minutes, but they work: We do cross-training in and out of the ring, work different muscle groups. It’s interesting for the horses.”

In group two, Ward fondly recognized one of the horses: Kate Hagerty was riding Noche De Ronda, a 14-year-old Oldenburg mare (Quintender—Ritschina Ratschione) that Ward previously competed successfully at grand prix. Hagerty started riding “Ronda” last August, and since then the mare has taken her to Hagerty’s first Prix De States at the 2022 Pennsylvania National Horse Show and to the 2022 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East (New Jersey), where the pair finished seventh.

“At that time I felt inexperienced, but I feel really lucky to have her as a partner,” Hagerty said. “I really appreciated McLain’s insight because he knows her so well. When he was explaining little things I could improve, it all made sense.”

Over the first course, Ward warned Hagerty that “Ronda” might get nervous through the V-poles, and he offered to remove them if the mare didn’t like them, knowing they weren’t necessary for that particular horse to do a good job in the ring. (To the others, he made the broader point of evaluating an exercise for its costs and benefits, and not to create a new problem that would have a bigger cost than the intended benefit.) But the mare proved him wrong; she jumped right through the entire exercise without any issues. “Looks better than she ever did with me!” Ward joked, and the audience laughed.

When the riders were instructed to jump the course a second time, Ward raised some fences three or four holes and narrowed the V-poles in the oxer-vertical-oxer combination. He reiterated to the riders what his goals are with gymnastic work.

“We all gravitate toward more complicated, but gymnastics should be easy,” he said. “I gravitate away from tricking or trapping a horse, I gravitate to repetition so they are confident. Then they understand what I’m asking of them.”

The Importance Of Mental Training

Near the end of the session, Ward discussed the importance of mental training, and he told the riders that it’s a practice he embraces on a daily basis.

“In 2008, I was mentally struggling with some things outside of the horse world,” Ward said. “I have struggled with having a bad round, and I can feel my body temperature going up coming out of the ring. I was the guy in Rotterdam [the Netherlands] who, after a bad day, was debating if I had earned sleeping in my bed that night. I embraced it, and I did something about it. I share my experience with you because you will be a better athlete if you work on your mental fitness. Training, discipline and organization are all tools to make me better prepared.”

Every rider, no matter how talented and well-mounted, will have ups and downs, he said, and discipline is key to staying on track.

“You have to understand that you ride a horse—a 1,200-pound living animal that really doesn’t think anything like we do—and you need to come together with this horse to reach your personal goals,” he said. “It’s not that you can or can’t [reach your goals]—it’s how you keep working to put it together.”

One of the things Luke Jensen appreciated the most was Ward being so candid about his mental battles.

“I really relate to what McLain was saying because it’s hard not to weigh your self-worth on your results in the ring,” Jensen said. “A bad day in the ring means I struggle to function or that I’m a bad person, and then a good day means I am a good person, and all is fine. You would never think of McLain as someone who struggles mentally, so for me, it’s nice that he’s so open about it.”

The three-day USEF Horsemastership Training Series also included a Friday flatwork taught by Anne Kursinski and a Sunday jumping session by Kent Farrington. Check back tomorrow for continued clinic coverage, or USEF members can watch every session on demand at USEF Network.

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