Middleburg, Va. – June 7, 2018 – Nestled in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, four riders and a crowd of enthusiastic auditors gathered at Rutledge Farm to attend an exclusive one-hour Olympic session with two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward. Hunt country Virginia natives, Gavin Moylan, Matt Hollberg, Tiffany Cambria and Agustin Rosales stepped in the ring eager to absorb prolific knowledge from one of America’s top equestrian athletes.
The session kicked off with a flatwork warm-up, emphasizing the importance of simple, classical training. Riders were instructed to focus on straightness, moving forward and pushing the horse up into the bridle. Ward said, “Don’t let the horse get lazy and low — forward and straight is always the go-to. If I can be forward, straight and in a good rhythm, I’m going to beat you more often than not — people get too complicated.”
Ward explained that equestrians today have a tendency to overcomplicate their riding. According to his program, success lies in the ability to embrace simplicity in every aspect of the sport. He said, “Everything is simple. We start with good care of the horses, we don’t grind on our horses. When our horses are good, we give them time off, we work them out of the ring or give them long walks. The sport grinds enough as it is. The stuff we’re going to do today is exactly what I’m going to do [this week] and then carry it over to the show. You need a good plan and a simple warm-up. If you can have your horse relaxed, forward and straight, you’re going to have success.”
Hand carriage was another skill Ward focused on improving on the flat. He said, “In every equestrian discipline, people ride with a slightly elevated hand. Throughout the world, we have an epidemic of being taught a low, stiff, locked hand. It pulls the horse’s mouth, they naturally go against it and raise their head in a stiff manner. I think you need to have a slightly elevated hand. A nice direct line from your elbow down to the corners of your horse’s mouth.”
Following flatwork, Ward began working with riders over fences. Riders started by warming up over a cross rail then working their horses over a gymnastic combination. Ward told the crowd how important gymnastics were in his training program. He said, “We have two rings at home — one has a course, a simple course, and the bottom ring is all gymnastics. Our horses live in the gymnastics — they rarely will jump in the top ring over the course. We’ll adjust the gymnastics according to each horse’s needs, but we have a set framework. I’ve never seen a horse that it doesn’t help.”
Gymnastics, Ward explained, are a great tool to train both the rider and the horse. He said, “First off, having the canter pole coming in is great discipline for the rider’s eye, and the vertical slows the horses down. I’m a big fan of ground lines. I think it teaches the horse to have better technique in front. Everything that we do is connected — the way we start on the cross rail to this, it all connects. We’re building through our training.”
Riders then moved on to coursework, where Ward employed a unique technique to improve a rider’s round. It’s not often that you would expect to hold a conversation about what you had for breakfast while jumping a course, but for Rosales, Ward used simple questions as a distraction to create better corners.
As Rosales navigated the course, he replied to Ward, commenting that he ate cereal and drank French coffee. After Rosales completed the course, Ward looked to the crowd and asked, “Did anyone notice his corners?” Ward explained that by distracting Rosales with just a few simple questions, the corners were smoother, and he wasn’t focusing so much on flatting his horse in between the fences. “Trust what you’ve trained,” Ward explained to Rosales. “Even if you have to play tricks with yourself, do something so that you’re not working every stride.”
Riders were encouraged to continue focusing on simplicity throughout every aspect of their courses. Ward instructed riders to discipline themselves by constantly practicing good habits such as proper hand carriage, seat and leg connection and eye level. “Start properly and let’s carry over the basic things we’ve been working on,” Ward said. “It’s basic stuff, but it’s about being disciplined on that basic stuff.”
The afternoon concluded with a question and answer session where Ward opened up the floor to the audience. Auditors had the opportunity to ask Ward anything from where to draw the line with a horse that isn’t coming around to training, to tips on training a green horse and even insight into Ward’s fitness routine.
Ward also opened up about his struggle with mental blocks and his journey to overcoming perfectionism. Ward said, “I grew up with a lot of expectations on me from a pretty strong training point of view and really struggled with it. Even through winning two gold medals, it was my greatest weakness.” He continued, “When things are going well, it’s easy. Where it really applies are when things aren’t going so well and there are variables you can’t control.”
The year 2008 was when it all changed for Ward. “From the outside, it seemed like I was having a fairytale career,” he said. But behind-the-scenes, he was struggling with self-doubt and the crippling pressures of the sport. After discovering Dr. Bob Rotella through his famous book, The Golfer’s Mind, Ward began meeting with Rotella to develop better coping strategies.
“Results-wise I won 30 percent more annually,” Ward said. “Applying the concepts and skills he gave me —it was all stuff that I did, I just didn’t have them in an order and I wasn’t aware of when I did them. It changed my career and it’s something I work at every day. I battle with what other people think of my riding. It’s such an important part of me and I try not to let it get the better of me, but I’m struggling with it too. I work at it every day and I’ve been able to help a lot of people.”
Ward is excited to be in Middleburg, Virginia, this week competing at the historic Upperville Colt & Horse Show. “This is a great show,” he said. “It’s a special place for me. I think I jumped this grand prix when I was 15. To have that [experience] with my father was a special time in my life for me. It’s nice to be back, and a great compliment to everybody involved who make this show great.”
Auditors were able to access this unique Olympic session through Event Clinics, a platform designed to connect organizers and riders. For more information on future events, visit https://www.eventclinics.com