For Baylee McKeever, learning to ride with McLain Ward looking over her shoulder has always been a fact of everyday life. Her parents, Lee and Erica McKeever, have worked for Ward at Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, New York, since long before Baylee was born. The two families live on the same farm, riding together and working together towards excellence.
Baylee has some of the finest horses in the country in her backyard, and she appreciates the unique opportunities she’s received. A hands-on equestrian, Baylee, who is just 15, is well on her way to becoming an essential team member at Castle Hill.
How long have you been riding?
I don’t really remember when I started because I grew up on the farm. So, I was riding ever since I remember.
Tell me about your horses.
Flirt shows in the 3’3″ junior hunters. We have had him for three years. I like how he is trustworthy, and he will do anything you ask. I’ve had Salvatore for a little over a year now. He shows in the Medal, Maclay and hopefully the [Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic] and [USEF Show Jumping Talent Search] soon. He is also a very sweet horse that has his sassy moments at times. I really love the way he goes around the ring at such a steady rhythm.
Cylana was owned by Reed Kessler [and went to the 2012 London Olympic Games], and I started riding her in February. She is a really sweet horse that has a kind heart. Right now she shows in the high children’s jumpers, hopefully the low juniors soon. I love her kind heart going around the course.
Catalyst, her barn name is Shannon, is owned by Adrienne Sternlicht. I started riding her last November. She is a really steady and fast horse. Sometimes when she is feeling good she will let out a buck. I show her in the high children’s jumpers. I love her personality.
Which classes are your favorite?
I don’t really have a favorite because they’re so hard to pick from because they’re all so different. In the hunters and equitation, you make one mistake, and you’re out of the top. Whereas in the jumpers, you can recover from that mistake, and you can still try to win the class.
What are you currently working on in your lessons right now?
We work on trying to put the whole thing together and not just parts of the course.
You show and train with Andre Dignelli of Heritage Farm. Is that right?
I live at Castle Hill, which is McLain Ward’s farm, and Andre helps me with the hunters and equitation.
And who does the jumpers with you?
What is it like working with McLain?
When I was little, I didn’t really think much of it, but now that I’ve grown up, I know I’m very lucky to be able to train with him.
Do you have any pre-show routines or good luck charms?
I have a lucky horse in my bag that’s been passed down. It’s a little marble horse.
Aw, cool. Where’d you get it?
My parents [Erica and Lee McKeever] actually gave it to McLain before his first Olympics. And he gave it to me before my first semifinals.
Tell me about your parents’ relationship with McLain?
My dad came over here from Ireland to work for him. And my mom came over from England to work for him here. Well, they actually worked for his dad when they first came here, and then they slowly started working for McLain.
What’s it like having your whole family working around one athlete?
They understand him, and they know everything. My dad travels with him, so he really knows him well. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes that’s not so good. My mom stays home and manages the offices and the property.
Tell me about a time when you really bonded with a horse.
There are a few horses that I’ve really bonded with. I’d say one that I’m really bonded to would be my first horse that I got, Flirt, because he took me up from ponies to horses.
What is he like?
He’s on the older side now—he’s 21—but he’s so sweet. But he has his moments sometimes where if he’s too fresh, he’ll surprise us all and bolt. He has these weird bursts of energy at times, but he’s the quietest horse ever.
Do you have any other hobbies other than riding?
I used to play sports as a kid. My brother [Bradlee] and I both did, but then he picked baseball, and I picked riding. So, I don’t do other hobbies, really, but I do run sometimes.
What have you been doing to pass the time during quarantine?
I made a tree swing with someone who works at the farm, and my mom’s put together little things with the barn to help everyone deal with the quarantine. But we’re lucky enough to live on the farm, so we have a pool, and we get to ride all day.
That’s fun. What is your mom working on?
The other day we did a 5K run, just with everyone from the farm, and we did a barbecue because everyone lives on the farm, so we’re all quarantined together.
What’s your favorite thing to do in the barn?
I love taking my horses on trail rides.
Who is a rider you admire?
There are probably a bunch of them, but a few would be Kent [Farrington] and McLain. They’re really good people, and they know what they’re doing. I feel like they’re well respected on and off the horse. You never really hear anyone speak badly about them.
What’s your social life like?
Well, since I go to public school, I have my friends there, and I also have friends in the horse world. But I’ve just been at Castle Hill during the virus mostly.
How often do you ride in lessons?
I normally ride every day besides Monday. Normally on Tuesdays, since they had a day off on Monday, we just flat them. And then sometimes I have lessons maybe three or four times a week.
How often do you normally show?
We generally show three weekends a month. But during [the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida)], I try to go down every other weekend. My mom likes to give my horses a week off in between.
When you are showing, what’s one thing that makes you feel calmer when you’re getting ready?
I always like to think that my horses are really experienced and they’re really good, that I should just trust them. And once I think of that, I know they’re going through it too, so once I just relax and trust them and trust that I can do this, then I feel much more relaxed before I go in the ring knowing that I’m capable and my horses are very capable of doing it.
Does anyone else in your family ride?
My parents did grow up riding. My dad still flats McLain’s horses daily. But my mom and my brother don’t anymore.
What’s something that’s unique about living on the farm around McLain Ward all the time?
I feel like it’s much different than some barns because you get to see the competitive side and how hard everyone has to work in order to be at the top.
What’s something you’re afraid of?
I’m a little afraid of the dark, when you’re outside in the dark.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I feel that way at night check sometimes.
Yeah. Going to the barn is creepy, but once I’m with the horses I’m all right, but when I’m walking, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like this.’ That barn is so old, and they say it’s haunted. When you’re doing night check, and you’re going between barns, it can be scary. You feel like you’re always seeing something, or someone’s watching you. It used to be a dairy farm a long time ago. Way before. It was built in 1910. And it’s still the original with some updates, but it’s still the original barn. People said they’ve seen a lady in the white dress walking around.
That’s the ghost we have, the lady in the white dress.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to young riders?
Try not to take it so seriously. At the beginning, you’re just starting out. A lot of people just say, ‘Have fun,’ but they really should. Yeah, it’s a competitive sport, and it’s really nice seeing people who say that they really enjoy it, but it’s sad when people get burnt out.
Describe what a day looks like for you.
Normally I wake up, do some schoolwork, and then I go down to the barn and help out with what they need help with, [which might be] bringing a horse in or helping with jumps down at the ring. And then once everything’s calmed down a bit, I ride my horses. And then afterward, my family and I would normally go on a walk or a hike or something. And then my dad and I go to the gym here.
How often do you go to the gym?
I do pilates on Monday at the studio, and that’s been on a Zoom call lately, and then I try to go to the gym for the rest of the week, if I can. On those days I do a lot of core and leg work mostly, and I try to change things up. So normally five days a week. But sometimes things happen where I can’t.
What’s it like working with your dad and McLain together?
They both help me with my horses. My dad’s quiet during lessons, and then afterward he’ll tell me what to do, and he makes what McLain says simpler. Then out of the barn, they’re like family. Well, my dad’s actually the family, but some nights we’ll all have dinner together and go swimming together.
What is one horse show you wish you could re-do?
I’d say [the Dover Saddlery USEF] Medal Finals [at the Pennsylvania National in] Harrisburg last year because it was just one mistake, and the rest of the round was so good. I went too far in a bending line; it got really long, and my horse stopped, but it was totally my fault, and it was good he didn’t try to jump the jump or else I don’t know what would’ve happened.
What is something people probably don’t know about you?
They may not know just how very involved I am with the horses, and my family is too.
What’s a good example of that?
I take care of them. I don’t just get off them at the ring and hand them off, that I actually go back to the barn with them and take care of them.
Baylee, I love that. I’m with my ponies for everything as well, and I think it really transforms the sport and deepens the bond between you and your horse when you are also caring for them.
Do you have any pets?
Yeah. We have four dogs in the house, and we have a cat, and I have a pig that lives in the garage. He walks around the farm all day, and then at night he’ll come and sleep in the garage. His name’s Cash.
Robin Greenwood has a pet pig, and she is adorable. She makes all these cute noises, and she’s really funny. I love watching her eat fruit; it’s really cute.
She’s one of the reasons we got our pig. My mom knows her well, and then I went to train with her a couple of years ago for a little bit on the pony. I met her pig, and we wanted one after that.
I’d like to ask you a USHJA Horsemanship Quiz question. Name three bits.
A snaffle, a Pelham and a gag.
Ella Doerr, 16, from Avon, North Carolina, is a recipient of the USHJA Youth Leadership Award, the USHJA Sportsmanship Award and the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant. She competes in the pony hunter division and the equitation, and she keeps her ponies at home.