Thursday, Sep. 28, 2023

Teaching Lilly Life’s Lessons



Our columnist takes a look back at how he grew up in the horse world and the kind of upbringing he and his wife Lauren are hoping to provide their daughter Lilly.

The American dream is that for every generation we can provide more. My wife Lauren and I were provided more opportunities than our parents were able to have, and I’m sure for our child there will be even more.

Lauren and I have talked about parents who are lucky enough to get to a comfortable place where they can afford certain things. And we were wondering how we are going to teach our daughter Lilly the lessons we learned, whether we were taught or through experience—the value of hard work, the value of money, the value of going from one place to another in life? Because unless I really mess this up, we have a very charmed life.

Then I looked at Lauren, and I said, “Yeah, but I really like the Four Seasons. I don’t want to go back to the Motel 6.” I’m sure anybody who’s been lucky enough to succeed in a career to some degree has that thought: How do you teach the tough lessons to your children?

But you find a way. And making a life with horses is a great way to teach those lessons.

I bring it up to a lot of parents who come to try horses and are maybe concerned about the cost of it all. And yes, the expense is a problem, but there are incredible lessons to be learned from this sport. You’re learning responsibility, respect for an animal, a work ethic, organization, appreciation for competition. Whether people choose to continue on after their junior career or not, there’s a lot to be learned from this life.

Lessons From The Circus Life

Raising a 2-year-old on the road is kind of a slightly fancier version of a circus. But I think most people who grew up in the circus have fond memories.

I feel blessed for having grown up in the circus, so to speak. I don’t have one regret about it; I can’t imagine not having traveled and seen the places and stayed in the hotels and visited the cities around the world. I’m sure they weren’t all good days, but they’re all good memories.

Lauren and I really feel that it’s great life exposure for our daughter. We’ve always been aware that we have to find a balance for her, but we’ve always said that we’re going to take our daughter to see the world. At some point she can choose what she wants to do, but for as long as we can, those life experiences are just as important as a formal education. The two go hand in hand for us.

To see how other people live and to have a broad understanding of that will make her a better person and let her have a well-fulfilled life.

The thing about the horse business is that you have exposure to every walk of life. It has this unfortunate reputation of being an elitist sport, but actually you have exposure to an unbelievably diverse group of economic levels on a very equal basis.

A friend who is a father figure to me says, “When I’m at my summer home I play golf on Saturday with the plumbers, and I play golf on Sunday with the hedge fund guys, and I’m just as comfortable with both of them.” My father could relate to the most normal person involved with horses and the highest level client and had the same amount of respect for both. That’s something that’s been a little lost in our business.

But respect for everyone is so important, and it’s something I want to teach my daughter. We always base out of François Mathy’s in Europe, and before the Olympic Games we were there for several weeks. The last night we were there, I told François, “I want to take everybody out to dinner to thank them for our time here.” François said, “OK, so like 10 people.” And I said, “No, everybody who works on the farm.” There were some guys from Poland there who did the groundskeeping, and with all the grooms, it was probably 30 people.

After the dinner, François told me how nice it was that everybody was included, and he said that when the Olympics went on, they were all watching the television and cheering. I think that’s important to teach anyone, that you can show the same respect level for whatever role the person is playing in the sport. They all come with different qualities and assets and skills and interesting stories. That’s a big goal for me in bringing up Lilly.


Day-To-Day Exposure

My own childhood in the sport was glorious and terrifying at the same time. I had two professional parents in the sport, both personalities in their own right. There was good and bad in that. There was no guidance at times in some ways, and there was a tremendous amount of guidance at times in some ways. It was a childhood of a little bit of extremes.

I don’t look back and have regrets, and I very much think that the skills and the opportunities provided to me have made me who I am. But I wouldn’t say it was a quintessential “Leave It To Beaver” type upbringing.

My parents were divorced when I was very young. My father [Barney] was on the road, and all my early years were spent with my mother [Kris]. My mother was from California and had been a student of the Jimmy Williams school. If you really look at my position on a horse, which I think is one of my greatest assets as a rider, it comes from my mother 100 percent. My mother was a stickler for details and very sharp about small things. People who knew my mother for sure know how that’s part of what I am today as a professional.

My father was a very big personality, and in a lot of ways my father was ahead of his time because he was self-taught and very seat of the pants. He had the foresight to realize that for me to be as successful as possible, he had to be open-minded and really take massive steps as far as my riding education and exposure.

Beyond my parents, who had incredible assets in the horse world as far as teaching and knowledge, I was exposed to so many other teachers. I grew up around Michael Matz and Rodney Jenkins and Leslie Burr and François Mathy. It wasn’t just lessons—it was the day-to-day exposure to top people. I was lucky to have that, and my daughter will be lucky to have that. That will be helpful to her whether she does horses or something else, because a lot of it is about the process and work ethic and all of those qualities that go into it.

That daily exposure is so valuable—in addition to the actual teaching, you absorb the understanding of the sport and the horses and the training, whether it’s picking a bit or horse care or how to set a horse up for a certain competition and plan their career. I picked the influences that I would study on my own as I got older, which everybody does. You pick the influences who interest you more, who you respect, and you study their systems, and if you’re smart, you incorporate the parts that work for you.

Eventually you develop and, as Kent Farrington says, “Learn to be the best version of yourself.” I think that’s a great line, and it applies whether you’re riding or doing anything else.

Ponies As A Stepping-Stone

If Lilly wants to do horses that would be a dream come true. I am always a little shocked when I hear parents in our business say, “Oh, I hope my kid does something else. I’m going to give him a basketball.”

In the end, I had an incredible relationship with my father for 30 years because I chose to do horses. It’s not that we wouldn’t have had a nice relationship if I hadn’t, but I chose to do what he loved to do more than anything else in the world.

And at the end of the day, Lauren and I love to do horses more than anything else in the entire world. If my daughter chooses to be a gymnast or a spelling bee competitor, of course I’ll be interested and engaged. But if she chooses to do what I love more than anything, that’s a dream come true.

I think Lauren will teach her to start, because I have no idea what to do with a child and a pony. My wife tells a story about a clinic I taught with pony kids where I set up a triple combination and had to catch the kids at C.

I had nice ponies, probably a bit workmanlike, and I consider that a blessing. I saw the kids whose parents were a bit obsessed with the pony ring, and it became a be-all and end-all and not a stepping-stone. Those kids didn’t get the lessons that I got from it.

When I look forward to my daughter riding, there won’t be a lot of emphasis on the ponies. It’s nice to do it and do it well at a certain level, but at that age I want the focus more about riding well and learning good basics. I don’t care if she has a hack and model winner; I want her to learn to appreciate the horses and the sport.


Lauren trained ponies at one point, and our nature is not to lose. So, I’m sure there will be a fine line between my idea of workmanlike and some other people’s. But I want riding ponies, if Lilly does it, to be a stepping-stone and a learning process and a catalyst for something larger, whether it be horses or something else.

The winner of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final (Neb.) and member of the gold medal-winning teams at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games, McLain Ward, 41, has been jumping at the grand prix level since he was a teenager. He won the USET Show Jumping Talent Search at age 14 and has served on Nations Cup teams for more than 15 years. He also has team silver from the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games (Germany) and 2016 Rio Olympic Games and team bronze from the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France) to his credit. He operates his family’s Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla.




Lauren Ward’s Perspective As A Mother

Both of my parents rode, not professionally. My dad played polo when I was little. I started taking lessons when I was 3, and it’s always been all I ever wanted to do. I think McLain and I are very much on the same page. We always say we’d like Lilly to ride and compete, but at the very least we want her to love the horses and love to be around them. It’s what we do.

We do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I really wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s fun to be able to expose your little person to what you love. We have a pony for her, and she can have fun and do it herself.

People started asking me a while ago, “When is Lilly going to do her first show?” And I said, “When she asks me.” I didn’t want to do it because we wanted her to do it; I wanted it to happen because it was what she wanted.

She started to ask about it this spring. We’d be at the ring, and she’d say, “Mommy, I go in there.” So, we did it. And she loved it. She loved her ribbon.

But you do have to find a balance. You have to let them have the opportunity to see other things. At home she goes to gymnastics twice a week, and she seems to really enjoy music, and so I’m going to look into getting her into a dance class. I want to definitely give her the opportunity to try things.

But most of all, she loves her pony. I describe [Lilly’s pony] Daisy as a hooved dog, because Lilly can do everything herself with her. Sometimes she goes weeks without riding and just grooms Daisy and drags her around the farm. I want her to be involved and not be afraid to get her hands dirty and learn all the aspects of the sport. I came through the ranks as a working student. When I was about 12, I would groom at the shows and show myself, and get there at 5:30 in the morning and help other riders at the show. That’s how I grew up, which I loved.

Having kids grow up around animals in general, not just horses, teaches so much, including about great responsibility. You just always have to stress that it’s a relationship between yourself and a living animal, and you have to make sure that you’re both on the same page.

And some days it’s not going to go 100 percent according to plan, and you can only blame yourself; you can never blame your horse. Hopefully we won’t put too much pressure if she does decide to compete. We can give her all of the exposure and opportunity to be very well educated about it and to help her understand it’s not always going to go perfectly.



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