By Darci Miller | May 22, 2017, 1:46 p.m. (ET)

 

Each month, the Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. McLain Ward won Male Athlete of the Month for April 2017, during which he won the FEI World Cup Jumping Final. In Ward's Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, he gives a first-hand look behind the scenes at the life of an equestrian.

 

McLain Ward is a name synonymous with show jumping. A three-time Olympic medalist – team gold in 2004 and 2008, and team silver in 2016 – he won the FEI World Cup Jumping Final on his 17th try, earning Best of April honors for his efforts. Not content to just be a competitor, he also owns his own stable and several dozen horses.

So when one wants to know a little bit more about the sport of equestrian, there’s nobody better than Ward to give the inside scoop. From his typical training day to his traveling entourage at competitions to, yes, what goes into those unique horse names, Ward gets candid about what the world of equestrian is really like.

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What do you look for when choosing a horse you’re going to compete with?

McLain Ward congratulates HH Azur in the prize giving after winning the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final on April 2, 2017 in Omaha, Neb.

It’s one of the biggest challenges in our sport nowadays, because we are a partnership, and the horses that can compete at the highest level of the sport are few and far between. The most important quality is what you can’t see. The horse’s desire or simple wanting to please, to what level they want to please us, and answer and understand the questions that aren’t natural to them. And then there’s obviously the physical makeup of the horse, the athletic ability… But I have to say, in reflection of most of the great horses I’ve had or some of the greatest horses you see, there’s something undefinable about them.

[Current mount HH Azur’s] raw athletic ability has always been a step above the other horses. That was obvious back when I saw her when she was 6 years old. That’s a huge factor. From there, very brave. One thing that we need is for the horse to be very careful. The horse really, truly has to not want to touch the fences. For sure, through training that can be learned, but he had an innate instinct to not want to touch the jump, and that’s what really stuck with me.

Do horses get nervous before competitions?

It really depends on the level of competition. There are some days that are quite relaxed, some that are medium, and then an Olympics or a major championship where the stress level is ratcheted up quite a bit for the rider and I think for the horse. I think particularly for the top seasoned horses, they have some understanding of the importance of it – obviously not the way we do – but certainly there are ones in your career you see that understand it better than others. So they have to feel the stress or sense the moment. Again, it may not be as we see it as humans, but they feel the environment.

[As a rider] you try to stay calm, but I think they sense our emotions better than we realize.

Horse names can be weird, wacky and downright fascinating. What goes into choosing a name for a horse?

It can be a wide variety of reasons. Sapphire, the horse I took to the first two Olympic Games [in 2004 and 2008], the gentleman we bought it from in Europe, the lady who runs my operations was on the telephone with him and he had a French accent and kept saying her name was Safari. She only heard Sapphire. By the time we realized it was Safari, the paperwork had already been filled out to call her Sapphire. So her name was Sapphire. A lot of names come from breeding, where they come from, the names of the breeders. And some are getting a bit too complicated, to be frank, but that’s how we name them nowadays.

We import approximately 75-80 horses a year because we also run a horse-selling business, and we’ve had times where we’ve had a run of names – So What, So Long, So Far – because you just run out of ideas. In the last 10 years, to keep identifying with the breeders and horses and try to give exposure to the breeders, a lot of times the names relate to the breeders.

How many people does it take to care for the horses?

We have anywhere between 20 and 30 horses in our operation. We have about 10 different employees, as well as a pretty regular veterinarian and blacksmith. I have a couple that’s worked with me and my family for 29 years now who manage both sides of our operation. It takes an army. It’s an individual sport in many ways but, like many individual sports, there’s a pretty big force behind what you see on a Sunday afternoon.

And what does your entourage look like at a competition?

It really depends on how many horses we’re bringing. At some competitions, like a major championship, we bring one horse. We’ll be going to Calgary in a few weeks to compete for a month at four different events, four different tournaments, and we’ll have five or six horses there. So when there’s one horse at an Olympic Games, you’ll have two with the horse, as well as a gentleman I call my ‘ground person,’ my right-hand man. I guess in other sports this would be some sort of a trainer. And then there’s also a veterinarian with us, there’s a blacksmith with us. So the riders are obviously well-cared for, as all athletes at that level are, but the horses are also true athletes and receive the same attention. We should all be as well-pampered as these top horses!

What does your typical training day look like when you’re not on the road competing?

At home, we have a nice farm about an hour north of New York City. When we’re home we try to keep it a little more low-key, have a more mellow day. We typically start riding at around 9 a.m. after a kind of communal breakfast [with staff] at our place, which I think is pretty unique – we all eat breakfast together. I’ll go to the gym in the morning for an hour or so before coming to the stable because there’s a lot of work that goes on in the barn prior to us getting riding. I’ll ride anywhere from 4-8 horses a day, and it probably takes about 4-5 hours. And then, because our staff works so hard, we try to end at a civilized hour so people can get a little rest and freshen up. It really is a 24-hour job, particularly for the stable staff, so it’s nice to have a little balance in your life.

Before and after training, how much time do you spend taking care of your horses?

Myself in this type of operation now, it’s so large that I don’t do a lot of the day-to-day handling of the horses other than training them. Between my business obligations, sport obligations, personal obligations, with the amount of time it takes to care for the horse daily, it would be impossible to do everything. You can use race-car driving as an example; the driver isn’t also the mechanic. It’s the same.

Equestrian athletes can compete at the Olympic level into their 50s, so can someone pick up the sport later on in life and still reach an elite level?

I think probably like most sports nowadays you have to start pretty early. We have the luxury of a little more time than most sports because a lot of the impact is actually on the horse rather than the rider, so our careers can be a little more lengthy than in track and field or gymnastics. But certainly it’s not something you pick up in your later teens and then reach the Olympic level. So I think it’s important to have an early start and get a base. To what seriousness you do it early on probably can be a little more varied.

I started very young and I was in the sport as a kid for a long time, and now the back side of my career is closer than the front side. I’d always thought [I’d retire at] 50, but as you get closer to the end, if you’re in good health and take care of yourself, it gets harder because you love what you do. So my goal would be to go to the LA Olympics [in 2024], hopefully, if we get the Olympics there. That would be a great way to finish. But I’d like a few more Games before it’s all said and done.