It may not have been delivered at a podium, but McLain Ward’s acceptance speech after receiving USEF’s 2017 Equestrian of the Year award was captivating nonetheless.
They don’t come much more humble than Ward, but even he was deeply gratified by the recognition of the entire equestrian community, which awarded him the Robert P. Strub Trophy last week.
During a video message recorded on Thursday, January 18th from Wellington, Florida, and shared by US Equestrian, Ward delivered a candid yet elegant speech to the equestrian community at large, conveying his deep appreciation for those that have made him the man and rider he is today.
Whether you watched huddled around a laptop or cellphone screen, Ward’s words were a master class in professionalism and grace, and a testament to the inherent trials that come with a lifetime spent in this sometimes unforgiving sport.
“This for me, is a special award on many levels,” Ward said. “It is and should be a reflection of much more than simply being a good rider, driver, or trainer. It encompasses all that you do as a horsemen, mentor, and ambassador of our sports.”
Ward’s personal story—described as a journey, “about opportunity, great support, struggles and triumphs, mistakes and second chances and a few great horses”—was told through the listing of the many teachers, sponsors, owners, mentors, grooms, blacksmiths, and vets that have shaped his life and career.
Among them are a plethora of famed equestrians, including Hall of Fame horseman and judge, Artie Hawkins; veterinarians Bill Bradlee, Gabe Cook, Rick Mitchell, James Belden, and Tim Ober; and longtime blacksmith, Mikey Boylan.
Also mentioned: influential sponsor Mark Walters; teachers Rosemary Free, Dana Jungherr, Albert Voorn; and mentors Paul Schockemöhle, George Morris, and Bill Steinkraus. A host of owners were also recognized, including Susan Heller, Beth Johnson, Jamie and Elizabeth Dinan, Debbie and Brian Sweeney, and Tom Grossman.
The “game changers”, as Ward affectionately called them, were firstly his mother and father, Kris and Barney Ward, his wife Lauren, and daughter Lily.
“Hunter Harrison simply did all he could to help me reach my potentials and the goals I dreamed of. He was a man who could improve anything he touched and that included me,” Ward said.
Lee and Erica McKeever, who will have run Ward’s family operation for 30 years this coming April, were described by Ward as, “my greatest professional assets, most brutally honest critics, and most devoted supporters…they are everything to me and they are my family.”
Ward said that legendary rider François Mathy of Belgium—1976 individual and team gold medalist at the Montreal Olympics and half-owner of HH Azur—has had the biggest impact on how he’s chosen to live his life. “[He’s a] father figure, mentor, business partner and friend, and the single greatest influence in my life,” Ward said.
Lastly, in a rousing statement, Ward recognized the role of horses, themselves, without whom none of this would be possible.
“We owe them our lives. They give us so much and they ask for only basic kindness in return. I believe horses and humans have a connection that draws us to each other. I believe, in their own way, they know we need them and they are pleased to be our partners, whether it be in work or sport. We need to remember to never take this privilege of working and living with horses for granted. To never lose our appreciation for what they have given us throughout the history of time, and to be sure that their relevance in our society does not fade away. This is our greatest responsibility as equestrians.”
Unsurprisingly, Ward’s authentic and thoughtful speech has been received with widespread appreciation from the community, solidifying his place as one of the most distinguished and revered equestrian athletes alive today.
Those that know McLain well shared their thoughts on the 2017 USEF Equestrian of the Year and the speech that has everyone talking:
“What makes [McLain] great is his unbelievable dedication and his attention to detail. In my personal opinion, he is the only complete rider that the world has. He gave an amazing speech and I think it says it all about the person he is at the end of the day.
When I teach, I get asked who is the rider that I think about all of the time. My reply is, if you really want an example, if you really want to know how to ride, look at McLain Ward.
At the end of the day, as a trainer, you are only as good as the people who take your advice. I taught him at a young age, and the fact that he mentioned my name in his speech must show that it meant something to him. I feel very honored to be part of the names that were in his speech.”
“McLain and I have been lucky to have developed our championship run together starting in Athens in 2004. Throughout the years, we have fed off each other, pushed each other, benefited from each other, and that relationship has led to many successes and a longtime friendship. I am honored and thankful to have had that journey together.”
“I think McLain is such a deserving recipient for so many reasons. You can hold him up to all the highest levels for the up-and-coming generation to stand back and observe things like his position on a horse, his dedication, his detail in management, among many others.
Another component that I really admire, appreciate, and have huge respect for—that I believe has contributed to his many successes—is his loyalty to his longtime team.
I feel it’s equally as important, especially with the climate in today’s world, to be humble and appreciative of the people that have helped you along the way. That particular attitude is what I think makes him one of the best ambassadors for our sport in this country in this day and age.”
“There’s so many good things to say about McLain, it’s hard to even describe.
He’s one of the most professional horseman out there, his meticulous attention to detail is second to none. He’s always a strong member of the team, you can always rely on him to do his best and be ready to jump a clear. I hope I have the opportunity to ride on many more teams alongside him. He’s also so supportive, a good person, and a great friend.”
“The camaraderie, the confidence that he instills in riders and other team members is invaluable. He not only is a great competitor, himself, with his own goals, he also has the goals of the U.S. at the forefront.
The team player [McLain] is, [especially] in what can be such an individual sport is…the picture of a true equestrian.”
“[McLain] is a great friend; he’s very supportive of me, he’s almost like a son. He’s a superb rider, growing up from his background with his mother and father. They gave him every opportunity to be a very sophisticated, polished, and stylish rider.
I can’t say enough about McLain. He’s had his lumps to take, his ups and downs, like most people have had that that have gone the distance.
I foresee, even when he’s riding in later years, very easily, taking [on] quite big administrative roles, maybe with the FEI. I can see him, not now, but in his 50s and 60s, taking leadership roles.”
-George H. Morris