BY MEGAN HOFFMAN
Late last year, I shared the story of my son, Ziggy. How he went from being bullied in school, to finding his happy place in the barn. While his trainer has had an immense role in Ziggy’s journey with horse showing, another important figure in our household is his idol, McLain Ward. When I wrote about my son’s passion for riding, I had no idea that a few months later we’d be flying down to Wellington, Florida to meet Ziggy’s hero himself.
Ziggy and I weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived, but our trip to meet McLain at the Winter Equestrian Festival will forever live in our hearts as a time that renewed our faith in the world and its people. The trip showed me the importance of membership. It showed Ziggy that you can’t control much in this life, but you can control how you behave and treat others.
McLain graciously messaged me before Christmas, inviting Ziggy and I to come visit, and I jumped at the chance. We hoped for a handshake, a photo and a good day. What we got was so much more. After we arrived we called McLain, and he told us to meet up with him at the Marshall & Sterling Grand Prix.
“Just walk up and introduce yourself!” he said like he wasn’t one of the most people in my son’s entire world.
We got there early, and found a spot on the grassy hill overlooking the massive grass ring. Ziggy wore his full riding show outfit, because he wanted to look perfect for McLain. We watched the riders, Ziggy fixated on everything happening below us, and saw McLain trot in. He rode and rode, until his horse stopped at a jump.
“See?” I whispered to Zig. “It happens to the best riders too.”
Back at home, Zig had been beating himself up about his green pony stopping at jumps. After the round, McLain jumped off and we shuffled down the hill to the schooling ring. Massive horses cantered around while we wanted for McLain to finish a phone call.
“Not a great way to introduce myself after that run!” he laughed.
My voice shook, “No! It was perfect. He sees now that it happens to the best of riders!”
McLain laughed, and went through all the plans he had for our time; touring his farm, walking courses, hanging out at the barn, schooling the horses, lessons for Zig. He also wanted to be sure Zig got some pony time with Bill Schaub. I was blown away, and so began our four days with McLain.
First things first, Zig was outfitted as a team member. He bounced around after McLain all weekend like his smaller twin – show boots and MW hats. We got to love on Clinta, joke with Susie Heller (who is a riot by the way), and lesson with McLain and his working student extraordinaire, Samantha Schaefer.
Zig walked the Longines Masters course with Mclain and Adrienne Sternlicht. He met the coach of the USA Olympic equestrian team, George Morris, and so many other legends that I couldn’t keep count. McLain coached Zig in and out of the ring. Before walking up to another expert, he reminded my son, “Good handshake. Look them in the eye.”
McLain’s barn was a lesson in itself. Perfect order, with a place for everything and everything in its place. “This is your home, be comfortable. Come and let’s plan tomorrow!” McLain said as he grabbed peanut butter filled pretzels and sat at the table. We watched Lauren and McLain organize their whiteboard with what the next day’s plan would be. Lilly Ward sat next to her dad playing with little dolls with Zig at her side, smiling from ear to ear.
The days flew by in a blur. Sunday morning we decided to head over to Pony Island to meet up with Bill Schaub. Zig was so excited to get in some pony time, but this wasn’t just any pony… it was Havens Heaven Sent, ultimate dream pony. Bill was a ball of joyful energy and gave just what Zig was needing — pony confidence.
While I sat with some of the other pony moms laughing and talking Wellington, Zig floated around the ring with Bill cheering him on. We made plans to meet up with him at Pony Finals 2019, then moved on to watch McLain in the Longines Grand Prix. Zig and McLain walked the course, and then we all sat in the bleachers and chatted about how high the jumps were and the highest he had ever jumped.
Watching my son talk shop with his idol, I tried to soak it all in. It was our last day in this world for a while.
McLain told us to come by the farm one last time before we headed home, because he had a small gift for Zig. “He has a gift, for me?!” Zig asked. He knew just how much McLain, his team and family had given us already.
When we arrived, McLain was up on HH Azur. Standing next to them, Zig looked so small. His working student came out and handed Zig a long, orange box.
“This is for you,” McLain told him. “Every year I get myself a new tie. I want you to do the same. I want you to wear this to show, but not everyday, Zig. It will be hot!” In a few short days, he learned how meticulous my child is. “And when you move to white ties, I will buy you your first. Okay?”
Later when I told my husband, he cried. He knew how significant this gift was. It was a gesture a father would make to a son. It meant McLain would be in Zig’s life beyond this weekend.
Of all the amazing things we learned in Wellington, a simple one stands out the most. Before Zig lessoned with Mclain, Sam Schaefer looked at Zig’s boots and grabbed a rag.
“We have to clean these boots. McLain doesn’t like muddy boots.”
This stuck with me, and we’re making it the new family motto. It reminds us that you can’t control much in life. Ponies might stop, things will get hard. But you can control how you present yourself. How you tackle challenges, and treat others. Especially those people who might need a leg up, because you never know how far that kindness may carry them.
We will hang on to the memories of our weekend in Wellington, and our new motto in our barn and in life. To remind us all to be the best we can every day, just like our gentleman hero, McLain Ward.