BY ANNIE BIRMINGHAM
McLain Ward taught the first “Masters Squad” clinic following the historic inaugural year of the Longines Masters of New York on May 5th, 2018 at Old Salem Farm.
The Masters Squad premiered as an incentive based program for young equestrians (particularly those local to the Longines Masters of New York), in which both products and opportunities are offered in exchange for ticket sales to the event. Earned rewards were given with as few as 25 sales, which won participants in-ring recognition before the Longines Speed Challenge for their efforts, and capped off with 115 sales, which rewarded an invitation to participate in the clinic.
Ward, a native New Yorker currently ranked #8 in the world on the FEI World Rankings list, was the winner of the first Longines Masters Grand Prix at the NYCB Live center last Sunday and agreed to teach this year’s clinic.
The clinic was composed of three groups with three riders at three different heights: 2’-2’6”, 2’6”-2’9”, and 3’-3’6”. Of his participation in the program and his focus for the session, Ward says, “I wanted to help out and encourage participation, so I said I would do it. My main focus is to give the students an idea of not only how we go about training riders and horses, but also for them to learn some tools to apply in their own training for improvement. I am teaching the basics and simple things they can use to grow in their riding and horsemanship.”
Each session began with Ward stressing the importance of strong flatwork; utilizing circles, half halts, and straightness for the proper results. He noted that horses should stay soft and polite, but not lazy, and that as riders, the goal should be to manage our horses energy rather than adding to it. He offered the reminder, “What was the original purpose of the horse? To carry us. People forget that…. The horse has to carry you! I’m not a big stickler that the horse has to be in a frame or have their nose in…. the horse should be able to carry themselves where they are comfortable.”
After wrapping up the flat portions, Ward had each horse and rider combination warm up over poles. They began over a raised cavaletti at the canter, first off of the right lead, and then the left. Ward stated the importance of utilizing shorter distances to cavalettis and poles to build confidence for both horse and rider, and noted that every jump, regardless of size, should be “treated like the water in Aachen.”
Each rider was encouraged to take a conservative distance, and reminded of the infamous George Morris quote, “Distances are like men, you should never take the first one you see!”. Building on that, Ward added that he doesn’t believe that there’s such a thing as a natural eye. “My career wasn’t built because I have some divine, God-given talent. I was a terrible pony rider as a kid, I could never find a distance. But somewhere along the way, somebody taught me to create the distance I want, whether that’s short or moving up…. The difference with the more experienced riders is that they trust where they’re at and understand the steps they need to take to change it if they aren’t where they want to be.”
The sessions ended over-fences, with courses designed by Ward to put to the test the knowledge the riders had garnered earlier. Ward again reminded the participants to ride each fence like a cavaletti (even noting that this was the mentality he often held with his 2016 Olympic mount, Antares F) to prevent causing any angst to your horse and to maintain smoothness.
The first two groups of riders began with the same cavaletti off the right lead used earlier in the sessions, to a diagonal oxer, to a five stride line, back to another line. This was where Ward’s teachings of adjustability, balance, and straightness really paid off, because riders stayed to the outside of the in of the line and caught the second fence, followed by a figure-eight type turn back to the first fence of the line off of the opposite lead. The third and final group began with this course as well, but Ward then added a one stride line and an inside turn to create a “jump off” style course, to ensure that riders were “always thinking about where [they] want to go.”
Beyond just the work riders did in their hour and a half sessions, Ward offered lots of insight for riders and auditors alike to take home. When one participant’s horses polo wraps began to slip, Ward asked the young rider to hop down and had an Old Salem Farm groom show her the proper way to prevent it from happening again. When he caught another participant slouching waiting for her turn to take on the course, he slid her crop behind her back to help hold the proper upper body position. One young horse was often studying the jumps, and Ward was quick to reassure his rider that, while spooking is an evasion, “studying is just looking. Be there for him, but don’t hustle him.”
After each session, Ward stuck around to answer any questions the participants had. When asked of the importance of a strong mind, he reflected to a moment a few years back, when an injury sidelined him from the competition in Florida and tested is mental stamina. “It has less to do with how you ride, and more to do with how you think. You have to make the best of the situation, but I’ve found I need that pressure to keep my focus and drive.”
Particularly following the panel discussion during the final week of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, including Ward, fellow USA Olympian Lucy Davis, legendary horseman George Morris, and more, Ward feels the program is a great step in the right direction towards creating accessibility to top level opportunities and education for the youth. “If you can expose grassroots-level riders to top trainers and professionals, they’re going to gain and benefit and feel they can grow and be a part of the sport… that’s encouraging for everyone.”
For information on how to join the Masters Squad for the 2019 Longines Masters of New York, be sure to visit the Longines Masters here!
About the Author: Annie Birmingham is an 18 year old equestrian from Long Island, New York. A freshman at Long Island University studying equine management, Annie can usually be found spending time at the barn and grooming at horse shows up and down the East Coast.
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