Showjumping Superstar: 10 Tips McLain Ward

You proberbly already know the top showjumping superstar McLain Ward. If not, you will get to know him now, or at least the secrets to his big success in the showjumping arena. Among his accomplishments you find three Olympic team medals – one of silver and two of gold. He won the Longines FEI World Cup Championship and was ranked the best worldwide showjumping equestrian back in 2017. The 42-year-old American equestrian surely knows what it’s all about. Here, he gives you 10 of his best tips on how to become a better rider. 

Photos by FEI/Martin Dokoupil

1. Always think of your position 

More than anything, Ward cares about the position of the rider – and it begins with your head, he says. As a showjumper there is nothing more important than a great overview. You need to keep your eyes up constantly, knowing where you are and how to get to the next jump.   

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2. Find the right feeling 

Next, McLain Ward believes that you have to find the right feeling in the saddle. This feeling stems from the right and equal use of three basic things: your seat, your lower leg and the horse’s mouth. Achieving the right feeling is a matter of combining these things in a correct manner. If you are able to do that, your communication with your horse is precise and you are able to build a strong partnership with your four-legged partner. 

3. Keep your hands and arms soft 

Unless you want to damage both your own arms and your horse’s mouth, you have to keep your hands and arms soft. Instead, control the horse with your core, McLain Ward says. With soft hands and arms, you will get a close contact to the horse’s mouth without preventing it from moving forward.  

Top showjumper McLain Ward. Photo: FEI by Martin Dokoupil

4. Stay balanced and still in the saddle 

Regarding your seat, you should be placed in the middle of the saddle to obtain the right connection and balance on your horse. This is so important in the sharp turns. Another thing of great importance is to move as little as possible. When the horse takes off at a fence, let the wither come up to meet you, rather than you ducking forward to meet the wither, McLain Ward explains. 

“There should be very little movement from the upper body. A “snappy body” leads to a snappy take off and reduces the risk of having a fence down” 

5. Achieve strong lower legs 

McLain Ward also emphasizes the fact that strong lower legs keep you stable in the saddle. By regularly training without stirrups you will strengthen your lower legs and make it easier to impact your horse in the right way. Achieving such strength will furthermore make your signals more effective, building more confidence in both you and your horse. 

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Shorten your stirrups
Shortening your stirrups just a bit will make it easier for you to rise your body, when the horse takes off over a fence. And it is also a great way to make your lower legs stronger!

“My horses go hacking and do lots of flatwork every week. In fact, most of my horses only have two training sessions a week”

6. Remember variation and a game plan 

McLain Ward explains why it is important for his horses to be trained a certain way.
“Every day you need an objective, whatever you are doing. Whether it is improving suppleness in your horses or experimenting with your own riding technique. Every time you walk a course at a competition, you need a game plan. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve at this competition.” 

That’s McLain Ward´s recipe for a strong and happy horse. You need a game plan for everything you do, both for competition days and for the days where you are out hacking.  

7. It is not about the height 

An important thing is that he only jumps high fences on rare occasions.  
“It is not about the height, it is about training the right approach. For me, gymnastics is to improve confidence and technique rather than test the scope.” 
The point McLain Ward wants to bring across is the importance of staying humble and focus on the right technique on smaller jumps rather than a bad technique on higher ones.  

8. Be patient 

Patience is the key to success with any horse, McLain Ward believes. It will help you on your way to creating a special bond with your horse – and this is crucial to whether you will succeed together. You should never rush through training. Do not ignore – consciously or unconsciously – small, important signals from your horse. If you push the horse to far, the partnership between the two of you is quickly gone, and you have to spend a long time rebuilding it. 

9. Controle your nerves 

The best way to control your nerves is to focus on you and the horse’s work rather than the result, Ward says. Focus on what you can control rather than what you cannot. For example, maybe your preparation and warmup will be much more efficient if you arrive at the venue on time.  

Sure enough, all of Ward’s tips are about showjumping, but they can be used for all equestrian disciplines. Setting a goal, varying the training, feeling humble and consider your set-up. This is something we have all can learn from. In other words, the basic things will never be out of fashion. It is precisely the basic work that helps create success, according to the talented showjumper McLain Ward.



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