For many young riders, meeting elite show jumper McLain Ward would be a dream come true, even if that encounter was over a table during a book signing, or snatched at the sidelines during a grand prix. Ziggy Hoffman, 12, got to live that dream and more when he and his mother, Megan Hoffman, made a trip to Wellington, Florida, at Ward’s invitation.
Ziggy first learned about Ward when his trainer Liza Russell Muñoz showed him videos of Ward riding. Ziggy was enchanted by Ward’s equitation and his horsemanship, and Ward quickly became Ziggy’s riding hero. Megan reached out to their CWD Sellier saddle representative, who got Ward to sign a hat that now holds a revered place next to Ziggy’s bed.
Megan created the hashtag #MakingMcLain on Instagram to track Ziggy as he works toward his Olympic goals. She also penned a blog for The Plaid Horse in December 2018, detailing Ziggy’s budding relationship with horse sport and how it helped him find confidence after being bullied at school. Ziggy went from taking his first lesson to competing at the USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky) in less than a year, and Megan’s post went viral, attracting some of the sport’s biggest names.
“We’re not horse people,” Megan said. “So I had to ask who Andre Dignelli and Bill Schaub were. I had no idea how big of a deal it was at first!”
Ward also saw the blog and agreed that Ziggy should experience the equestrian mecca that is the Winter Equestrian Festival.
“I kind of jokingly replied, ‘Well sure, if you’re inviting us!’ ” Megan said. “Then McLain sent me a message with his cell number. He said, ‘When you get here give me a call,’ so we went! We planned the trip expecting nothing; maybe a handshake and a pat on the back, and we thought it was so cool that he was even going to say hello to us. We got there, and he didn’t realize how new we were to the sport, but he was like a father figure to Ziggy the whole weekend.”
Ward had originally planned to have Ziggy around for a single day but was so charmed by Ziggy’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning that he orchestrated a full weekend that included barn tours, schooling sessions and introductions to some of Wellington’s big players. Ward, Samantha Schaefer and Schaub all gave Ziggy lessons and let him borrow mounts like Baylee McKeever’s ride, Flirt.
“[Ziggy] was such a pleasure to have around—so interested and focused—that we kind of kept him all weekend,” Ward said. “It was a great experience for everyone involved. He’s a very serious young man, so we got him to loosen up a little. It was more focused on having him be exposed to what goes into these major operations and what it takes to be successful.”
Ziggy admitted that he was nervous to meet Ward, but those nerves vanished when the two came face to face.
“He’s so nice; he’s like a normal person,” Ziggy said. “The first day we met him his horse stopped [at a jump], and that made me feel better because my ponies stop a lot.”
Ward concluded Ziggy’s visit by passing on a special gift, a blue Hermès tie.
“Before we had to only wear white I used to start every year with a new tie,” Ward explained. “And it was always a good tie. People used to say ‘Why choose such a good tie to ride? You’re only going to ruin it.’ But I think, well, this is what I do every day, so I might as well wear something of some quality. I gave [Ziggy] a nice tie to start his career off with and hopefully bring him a little bit of luck. He’s a young man who took a lot of pride in his turnout and professionalism already at such a young age. It’s pretty amazing to see that he’s very disciplined. Hopefully he puts that tie on and tries to live up to the standards that we all live up to trying to be the best.”