Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

Ward, French Named USEF Equestrians Of The Year

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The U.S. Equestrian Federation named McLain Ward as the 2023 international equestrian of the year and John French as the 2023 national equestrian of the year on Sunday at the 2023 Pegasus Awards Dinner at the USEF Annual Meeting, held in Louisville, Kentucky. Ward and French were nominated as Equestrians of Honor and selected by USEF member voting in December.

International Equestrian of the Year: McLain Ward

The 2023 season marked a masterful year for McLain Ward (Brewster, New York), who campaigned 11 horses at the international level. Most notably, the beginning of the 2023 season started with consecutive wins aboard HH Azur in the Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva (Switzerland) and the Rolex Grand Prix of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands) at the Dutch Masters, making the duo only the second combination to win two consecutive legs of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping since its inception in 2013. Ward then helped the NetJets U.S. Jumping Team to a win in the FEI Jumping Nations Cup USA in San Juan Capistrano, California, aboard Contagious and secured another victory in the grand prix aboard Kasper van het Hellehof. He rode Callas to a top result for the team in the Mercedes-Benz Jumping Nations Cup at CHIO Aachen (Germany), followed by another strong performance for the pair at the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final in Barcelona.

McLain Ward and Contagious representing the U.S. at the 2023 Pan American Games (Chile). Shannon Brinkman Photography Photo

Ward was named to his third Pan American Games Team, this time aboard Contagious. The duo was consistent and efficient throughout the entire week in Santiago, Chile, helping the team to secure Olympic qualification for Paris 2024, and standing atop the podium with team gold. Ward also traveled home with an individual bronze medal in his fourth championship appearance for the United States with Contagious. In 2023 alone, Ward notched 25 international victories and represented the U.S. in five different countries.

This is Ward’s second USEF International Equestrian of the Year award. He previously won in 2017.

“We are very honored to receive this award because it is chosen by our US Equestrian community. It is a reflection of our team’s hard work, and how that work is having a positive impact,” Ward said in an acceptance video. “You might ask why I started this speech with the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ The reality is that [it is] because of the individuals and professionals around me, both past and present, that any of our accomplishments have been possible. The people around me have been some of the most brilliant and knowledgeable minds who have not only been the reason for that success in the sport, but have also, more importantly, made sure our horses have had a wonderful quality of life because of the care they receive.”

Ward continued by acknowledging his groom of over 35 years, Lee McKeever. 

“My first thought was that I was not truly the horseman behind our success,” Ward said. “My job in this operation has always been to ride, train and compete, but Lee is the true horseman. I believe that true geniuses don’t often realize they are a genius, and that is true for Lee. He wakes up every morning thinking about the horses, and he spends his days figuring out what they need to be the best in the sport and, much more importantly, in their lives.” 

Watch Ward’s acceptance video, courtesy of USEF:

Ward is a 2023 winner of the William C. Steinkraus Trophy, which is presented to an equestrian competing in the Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing or show jumping. 

National Equestrian of the Year: John French

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For over two decades as a competitor, John French (Wellington, Florida) has established himself as one of the most accomplished hunter riders in the sport. The winner of the 2012 WCHR Lifetime Achievement Award and a four-time World Champion Hunter Rider, French is a member of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame and is also a highly regarded clinician and coach.

In 2023, French won three major events on three different horses, all of whose hunter careers he started himself. He added to his list of career successes by besting a field of 83 competitors to win the Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Rolex Stadium with Paradigm, Meredith Lipke’s 12-year-old warmblood gelding.

USEF 2023 National Equestrian of the Year John French. Shawn McMillen Photo

French also took home top honors in the $100,000 WCHR Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular on Kent Farrington, LLC’s Milagro and the $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge on Marnell Sport Horses’ Babylon—his third consecutive WCHR Pro Challenge win. On top of his success in the ring as a rider, French received the inaugural Jeff Wirthman Memorial Trophy as the Winter Equestrian Festival’s Leading Hunter Trainer by money won in 2023.

“This year I was lucky enough to have three great horses and win three really big events in the hunter world,” French said. “Since I started these horses, it’s like having children and they made it to Princeton.

“I would like to really thank Kent Farrington because four years ago, I pretty much thought I was going to wind down,” he continued. “I don’t think I would’ve had the success without the team that I have. I couldn’t do this on my own, and I don’t see myself doing it on my own. These last few years with having a team and having someone like Kent, hopefully now maybe I can go on for several more years. I really hope so.” 

French is the 2023 winner of the Emerson Burr Trophy, which is presented to an equestrian competing with any horse or pony breed shown in over-fences hunter classes. 

2023 USEF Equestrians of Honor

Ten equestrians were named Equestrians of Honor and recognized for their achievements in 2023 with the following trophies:

  • William C. Steinkraus Trophy: Tamie Smith (eventing) and McLain Ward (jumping)
  • Becky Grand Hart Trophy: Tracy Bowman (para driving) and Cynthia Screnci (para dressage)
  • Norman K. Dunn Trophy: Tim Roesink (Morgan)
  • Barbara Worth Oakford Trophy: Colby Powell (Arabian)
  • Vaughan Smith Trophy: Duane Esser (Arabian)
  • Bill Robinson Trophy: Shannon Price-Heald (Arabian)
  • C.J. “June” Cronan Trophy: Shanna Gish (Morgan)
  • Emerson Burr Trophy: John French (hunter)

2023 USEF Lifetime Achievement Award: Cecile Hetzel Dunn

Cecile Hetzel Dunn (Weirsdale, Florida) has been involved with horses all her life and shared that passion with her daughters Martha Rattner and Merri Murdock-Krehl and her late husband Norman K. Dunn. Her love of the horse started at an early age, when she learned to ride her pony before she could walk. Dunn’s equestrian career began in earnest as an instructor at her family’s Arabian farm in South Miami, Florida.

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Dunn branched out into officiating and became a licensed USEF judge at age 21. During her officiating career of nearly 50 years, Dunn held “R” judge licenses for Andalusian/Lusitano, Arabian, Connemara, Friesian, National Show Horse, saddle seat equitation, Saddlebred, Welsh and Western. She also held C1 and C2 steward licenses and shared her knowledge with others as a clinician.

After graduating from Stephens College (Missouri), Dunn worked at Northwestern State University (Louisiana) to develop their equestrian studies program. She then returned to her alma mater as a professor and director of their Equestrian Department. Dunn then went to Salem International University (West Virginia) to develop their Equine Careers and Industry Management degree program, as well as a horsemanship teaching certification program. As a professor and coach, she inspired young equestrians by helping them set goals and guiding them toward future endeavors.

Following her years in higher education, Dunn served as the Arabian Horse Association Region 6 Director, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Board of Directors, and a member of various AHA and USEF committees. Dunn has dedicated her life to equestrian sport, and the industry is better for her years of service and involvement.

2023 USEF Junior Equestrian of the Year: Marin McKee

Marin McKee (Medical Lake, Washington) is a member of the Arabian Horse Association who competes in hunter seat equitation, showmanship, sport horse under saddle, ranch horse riding, Western horsemanship and Western pleasure classes. She earned top results across disciplines in 2023, tallying numerous wins at the IEAHC Memorial Day Classic and six top-10 finishes at the AHA Youth/Mid-Summer National Championship Show.

In addition to her competitive results, McKee served as the AHA Region 5 Youth Director from 2020 to 2023 and the Vice President of the AHA Youth Board from 2021 to 2023. During her service, she promoted the Are U Okay campaign for mental health awareness with T-shirt giveaways, awareness days at local shows, and kindness boards featuring words of encouragement to fellow competitors. McKee was named the 2023 AHA Youth of the Year for her contributions to the Arabian horse community.

McKee is a student at Rocky Mountain College (Montana) pursuing an equine sciences degree with a pre-veterinary concentration and an emphasis on nutrition and rehabilitation. She is also minoring in equine management. McKee is also a member of the college’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Team. After graduation, she plans to become a certified veterinary technician and manage an equine facility.

“To have the horse acting as a positive force in your life can bring out a better you,” McKee said in her application essay. “The amazing thing is the horses’ presence is enough to boost your morale, and you do not have to own them to experience their joy.”

2023 Pegasus Award Recipients

In addition to the above awards, the following annual award recipients were recognized at this year’s Pegasus Awards Dinner.

  • Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeders’ Award: Dragonsmeade Farm
  • Kip Rosenthal Memorial High Score Equitation Award: Carlee McCutcheon
  • Pegasus Medal of Honor: Nancy Harvey, Karen Homer-Brown, Dianne Johnson, C.A. “Tony” Lee III, Lynn Palm, William Shatner
  • Richard E. McDevitt Award of Merit: Philip “Phil” DeVita, Kevin Freeman, Karen Golding, William “Bill” Hughes, Carol Lavell, Suzy Lucine, Dr. Meg “Muggy” Mullin, Dr. Stephen G. Soule, Peggy Thomas
  • Sallie Busch Wheeler Trophy: Deborah Johnson
  • USEF/EQUUS Foundation Humanitarian Award: Neda DeMayo
  • USEF National Youth Sportsman’s Award: Kiley Hamilton
  • Walter B. Devereux Sportsmanship Award: Misdee Wrigley Miller

Find more information on the 2024 US Equestrian Annual Meeting, visit www.usef.org/annual-meeting.

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