McLain Ward: Steady As He Goes

by Erin Gilmore
| Sidelines Magazine, March 2010

McLain Ward is late. I’m waiting for him at one end of his modest barn outside the WEF showgrounds in Wellington, Florida. Around me his staff smoothly go about their business; moving supplies, washing legs. Dogs mill about at knee level, Sapphire and her full brother stare expectantly down the aisle, and the winter wind ruffles a dozen or so ribbons hanging above the tackroom doorway. 

At this very moment McLain is down the road, winning the $8,000 1.45 Jumpers at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. It’s another drop in the bucket for a man who won 1.4 million in show jumping prize money last year, much of it with Sapphire, who is arguably the most famous mare in show jumping.  But after two Olympic gold medals, wins in the biggest classes in the world, a silver medal in the last World Equestrian Games, and countless other victories, McLain still wakes up in the morning thinking about what he hasn’t won. Maybe never being satisfied is the key to success.

Miss Liberty 7, the horse that just carried McLain to victory, arrives back at the barn before he does. She’s carrying her groom, a skinny redhead whose Irish voice adds to the mix of lilting accents that drift around the barn. Top riders seem to attract a collection of grooms from different countries, and McLain’s staff is no different. What does make these ones unique is that they stick around – the “newest” groom has been there for a year and a half, the most senior for over twenty-five. Miss Liberty stands in the crossties as her cooler, saddle, boots and bridle are stripped off and sorted. She’s moved to the wash rack and hosed off, oversized standing wraps are rolled around her legs. It’s a simple routine, but one that’s effective, thorough, and relaxing.

“The nice thing about horses is you do the same thing every day,” McLain says. “We practice classical horsemanship, which is doing the right thing and then repeating it. To ride well and train well it should be boring. It should be methodical. It shouldn’t be great highs and lows. If you’re having big highs and lows you’re not doing well.”

By that logic, McLain does his best to make what would be everyone else’s great high his norm. Winning the million-dollar class at Spruce last year. Taking the $250,000 Hampton Classic for the fourth time. Seven WIHS Puissance victories. Down to the monogrammed initials on his shirt pocket, he is precise, neat, buttoned up. Maybe methodology is the key to success.

Even at the end of the day, McLain’s crisp tie remains tucked in and smooth. He was late because he stayed to watch Marley Goodman, one of a small number of riders he helps with coaching and advice. He drives himself over to the barn in a golf cart, and skids to a stop as every dog on the property rushes to greet him. He doesn’t remove his dark sunglasses when he talks, making it impossible to judge him by the expression in his eyes. His staff doesn’t seem to perk up noticeably at his arrival, but then again, they were already working like a well-oiled machine before he got here.

It’s not as if there haven’t been cracks in the careful image McLain Ward Inc. projects. The past sins of the father reverberated heavily on his son, but with every new win, McLain drives another nail into the lid of that Pandora’s box. To McLain, failure is making foolish mistakes. Not being able to get the most out of a horse or solve everyday problems. It’s been over ten years since McLain’s last brush with big trouble, and in the time since he’s systematically proven himself through his relentless ability to win, win, and win again.

He has also become a leading voice in show jumping; he’s most interested in improving the sport to make it more accessible and less expensive for all. If the man who won over a million dollars in prize money last year admits that that’s barely enough to break even on expenses, there’s a problem somewhere.

“Expense is a real struggle in the industry,” he says. “We need to win $12,000 a week to break even at a show, and it’s a real shame it’s that way. It’s not the horse shows’ fault, it’s the Federation’s fault, and someone needs to step up and create cost and quality control.”

To that end, McLain helped form the North American Rider’s Group, which hopes to evolve into a united voice of respected riders, trainers and owners. One of their first orders of business: address the escalating cost of showing with one strong, unified voice. Maybe the key to success
is leadership.

The property is almost small enough to watch all goings on from one point, and as the day ends the girls at the barn are joined by the rest of the staff, who materialize from nowhere. McLain tracks them from behind his sunglasses as he talks, asking about a horse, watching as they pack supplies for an upcoming trip to California. For a moment, he drops his guard and lets a little slump round his shoulders, and a slower drone drop into his voice. A side effect of jumping horses all day in the sun. But a second later it’s gone, and his back straightens as he describes the essential business end of his operation.

McLain and his father, Barney Ward, run a large sales business out of their farm in Brewster, New York and the winter base in Wellington. They import over 100 horses per year from Europe, and as McLain becomes more choosey with the amount that Sapphire jumps, he’s had more time to bring along young horses and drive sales.

Sapphire is the Wards’ most carefully managed asset. She jumped just 14 times in 2009, and her competition year from now until the World Equestrian Games is planned down to the week. Even though she’s creeping up on her late teens, McLain doesn’t see why she won’t go another three years. She’s freakishly talented, very sound (knock on wood), and predictable. A rider can’t really ask for more.

“I would have been supported in anything I wanted to do, but I loved all of this from the beginning,” he says. “And I decided very early on that if I was going to do it, I was going to be the best at it. I didn’t want to be mediocre.”

So as he looks forward to an important year, McLain doesn’t really bother himself with definitions of success. To him, success is relative; the combination of every element drives him. The insatiable desire to win. Methodical training. Leadership. McLain tasted success today, but that doesn’t stop him from wondering how he can better himself tomorrow.

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Copyright © 2010 Erin Gilmore. All rights reserved.