McLain Ward began 2004 with two major goals–the FEI Show Jumping World Cup Finals and the Olympic Games.
With his meticulous attention to detail, he aimed his string of horses for those competitions. “He’ll have a plan for each horse, with the flatwork to the jumping, to when they show. It’s all very well thought out,” said Lee McKeever, Ward’s barn manager.
So when April’s World Cup Finals ended in disaster, with Goldika falling twice and getting eliminated, Ward had to take a hard look at his plan. “That was certainly a low point. I honestly believe it was just a freak terrible week, and something went drastically wrong. It was difficult and humiliating, and to some degree very humbling. But to fight on is my nature, and I think it’s a true measure of a competitor to see how they come back from adversity,” Ward said.
His troubles with Goldika highlighted what McKeever thinks is an integral part of Ward’s approach to horsemanship. “The first thing he’ll always do, if there was a problem in the ring, is look at himself and see if it’s anything he’s doing wrong, instead of blaming the horse,” he said.
And Ward didn’t give up on Goldika. He did rebound, winning the $75,000 Grand Prix of Devon (Pa.) with her just a month later, and she went on to win three more major grand prix classes. “I was really at an impasse with her after the World Cup, and my father [former grand prix rider Barney Ward] really helped me turn things around. He helped me with a new way to ride her,” said Ward.
Bouncing back from that setback typifies Ward’s approach. And in May he earned a spot on the Olympic team with Sapphire and then ended up on the podium, accepting the team silver medal (which could become gold, pending Ludger Beerbaum’s medication case ruling) with teammates Beezie Madden, Chris Kappler and Peter Wylde.
But for Ward, the pressure of actually riding in Athens paled in comparison to his desire to make a championship team for the first time. “Funnily enough, the trials were much more stressful and intimidating for me than the Olympics themselves,” he said. That’s because he’d suffered a series of near misses at selection trials since 1996.
Ward and the mare Sapphire, just 9, turned in two eight-fault rounds in the Olympic Nations Cup. “I made some small mistakes with a slightly inexperienced horse, but basically she jumped very well. But she was a 9-year-old mare, just in her first season of grand prix, so when I would make a mistake, we would end up paying for it,” said Ward.
But in typical Ward fashion, he galloped Sapphire to a blazing fast, clean round in the jump-off, a round that all but sealed the silver medal over Sweden. “I was particularly happy that I was able to do something very useful for my team,” he said.
The Olympics may have been the highlight of Ward’s year, but he also won three grand prix classes on Hurricane, the $100,000 National Horse Show (Fla.) Jumper Championship on Quickstar II Z, and six blues with Goldika. “He’s very good at adapting to a lot of different horses. He’s great at getting horses to perform well,” said Madden.
Said owner Hunter Harrison, “I had always been impressed with McLain’s riding ability–he’s a true competitor and professional. But even more, I was impressed with his work ethic. He’s one of the hardest workers, and he’s always looking to continue learning and getting better.”
Ward plans each horse’s schedule and training program carefully. “At the end of the day, we both talk and discuss the whole program for each horse,” said McKeever, who, along with his wife, Erica, has been with Ward for 18 years. “He treats the horses more like people than horses.”
The flip side of Ward’s intense competitive drive and critical attention to detail is a tenacious personality, which he knows can be a drawback. “I think I still need to mature a little more. I still have my moments of regret. I’ve always been a little hotheaded, and I have a temper, and I’m extremely passionate about what I do. It’s a combination that can also get me in a lot of trouble sometimes. It’s a part of me, and something I work on improving,” he said.
Ward is no stranger to defending himself. As the son of Barney, he’s been under a magnifying glass ever since his father pleaded guilty in 1996 to mail and wire fraud in arranging for four horses to be killed during the insurance-fraud scandal of the ’90s. Ward has stood by his father throughout, and he’s always looked to him for training advice and counsel. “I know people will be upset when I say this, but the reality is that every goal I have ever had and attained, he has helped me reach. I’m closer to my father than to anyone in the world,” said McLain.
That loyalty to controversial figure has meant that McLain has had to weather criticism himself. He’s philosophical about being a lightning rod for controversy. “There are times when it’s gotten to me, but at this point in time, people are going to have their opinions, whether they’re about my father or about me. You can either love me and my family or hate us. I’m not a wishy-washy person. I am who I am, and what you see is what you get–my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said.
“I can’t influence peoples’ opinions,” McLain added. “They’re going to say what they say. If they have dislike for me or my father or how we do things, I’m very sorry about that, but I can’t control that. I do my job very well, and I think we run our business well, and our horses are treated as well as they can be.”
Birthdate: Oct. 17, 1975
Hometown: Castle Hill Farm, Brewster, N.Y.
Team: Father Barney Ward, grooms/barn managers Lee and Erica McKeever, sponsor Hunter Harrison, blacksmith Mike Boylen, girlfriend Erin Stewart.
Grand Prix String: Goldika, Sapphire, Quickstar II Z.
Mental Approach: “It’s a lifelong battle, dealing with pressure. Anyone who tells you they don’t feel the pressure doesn’t want it very badly. You battle those demons. There are days when you can use that pressure to help you focus, and there are days when it beats you,” said Ward.
2004 Competitive Highlights
Team Silver, Athens Olympic Games (Sapphire)
Nations Cup, Aachen, Germany–team 2nd, 4-0 (Sapphire)
Nations Cup, Spruce Meadows, Canada–team 2nd, 0-8 (Sapphire)
1st – $100,000 National Horse Show Jumper Championship (Fla.) (Quickstar II Z)
1st – $100,000 President’s Cup Grand Prix (D.C.) (Goldika)
1st – $75,000 New Albany Classic (Ohio) (Goldika)
1st – $75,000 Grand Prix of Devon (Pa.) (Goldika)
1st – $35,000 Lexington Grand Prix CSI-W (Ky.) (Goldika)
1st – $25,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round 1 (Fla.) (Goldika)
1st – $25,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round 2 (Fla.) (Hurricane)
1st – $25,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round 3 (Fla.) (Hurricane)
1st – $26,700 WEF Challenge Cup Round 6 (Fla.) (Goldika)
1st – $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Series Final (Fla.) (Hurricane)
2nd – $65,000 Grandprix de Penn National (Pa.) (Sapphire)
2nd – $50,000 Bayer/USET Wellington Cup (Fla.) (Sapphire)
3rd – $100,000 Cosequin U.S. Open Jumper Championship (Fla.) (Sapphire)