In My Boots: Life lessons from Mclain Ward

Kristen Kovatch learned a lot about her own sport from watching Ward compete in the Olympic show-jumping team observation event at Devon over the weekend.

From Kristen:

I spent the past weekend at the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania, getting back in touch with the hunt seat days of my youth and my hometown. We did not make it in time to get out wristbands for the Grand Prix jumpers, but did manage to scope out a spot standing at the rail to watch the Idle Dice Stakes on Saturday which doubled as an observation event for the Olympic jumping team. It’s been at least eight years since I attended Devon last, and a lot has changed since then—I’m no longer a mostly-hunt seat rider with dreams of making it big in show jumping. I show reined cowhorses and pleasure horses and coach two western equestrian teams—and I wouldn’t want to change a day of my equestrian life for any reason at all. Regardless, as my hunt seat coworker and I stood ringside watching the top names in show jumping tackle the incredibly challenging course at Devon, I learned a lot about my own discipline.

“Look at that man, his equitation is beautiful! Who is—oh right, it’s Mclain Ward.”

Perhaps we should have recognized this equestrian god from the moment he stepped into the ring. Regardless, I learned more in the seventy-two seconds of Ward’s ride than I had learned in awhile. I am counting down the days to my first reined cowhorse show of the season to take place this Saturday and Sunday. The tips I picked up from watching Mclain Ward will stick with me all week as I prepare myself and my horse.

1. Equitation matters.

As my coworker astutely pointed out, Ward’s got damn-near perfect equitation. Really, all of the high-stakes jumpers tend to ride almost perfectly. As my favorite western trainer Denny Wilcox mentioned in a lesson last week, “You have to ride perfect if you want to be perfect.”

So I’ve started thinking about that again. As a trainer, I tend to adopt a defensive western seat—feet ahead of where they should be to help keep my seat deep and keep my green mare from surprising me with some above-the-ground maneuvers. As Denny pointed out and Mclain demonstrated, good equitation happens for a reason—it puts you in a balanced seat to get the most out of your horse. I’ve started watching myself ride in the mirrors in my indoor, working to keep my leg back in a position where I can actually use it. The difference in my horse in less than a week has been astounding. If I’m balanced, she can be balanced. If my weight is shoved down into the saddle she can’t lift her back and use her body. My equitation helps her be the most she can be, just as Antares F could perform at his absolute best without his rider getting in the way

2. A little humility goes a long way.

We all cheered in the victory gallop when Mclain gave away his second-place ribbon. It was a great gesture, passing on a little inspiration to the next generation of riders. We similarly cheered when Mclain shook the hand of the winner of the Idle Dice, Charlie Jayne, a young up-and-comer who piloted Chill RZ to a winning round and beat out some of the top names in American show jumping. The grace demonstrated by Mr. Ward was as much of an inspiration as his riding.

I’m moving my mare up into a tougher class this coming weekend—we’re going to start going down the fence, which amplifies the danger and difficulty of reined cowhorse exponentially (imagine chasing a cow at top speed down the arena and then stopping and turning it to run it full-bore in the opposite direction—a lot can go wrong before it goes right.) I don’t have any illusions that this new class will be easy or that we will walk away easy winners. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with the fact that I’ll get beaten by some older, more experienced riders and horses. At the same time, we’ll probably be competitive. I just might get lucky and beat some of those old cowboys. I aspire to be as humble in victory as I would be in defeat—everything is a learning experience, after all, and you can learn as much from the people you beat as those that beat you.

3.      In the end, it’s all about the horse.

As we headed towards the parking lot immediately after the conclusion of the Idle Dice, we saw Mclain dismounting in a warm-up arena and speaking for a moment to a pair of young fans, thrilled to have a chance to say hello to their idol. Fighting the urge to stop and gawk, we nonetheless couldn’t help but overhear as Mclain mentioned “I didn’t get him together and we brought down a rail.”

For such a simple statement, he spoke a world of truth. There are times when a mistake is the horse’s fault. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s not. Mclain is wise and professional enough to know when he’s made an error and he’s not afraid to admit it.

I’m sure that this weekend I will fail my horse in some way. That’s a terrible way to say it, but it’s the truth. My mare is certainly far from perfect, but the only one I can blame for that is myself. If I don’t put in the time or get her adequately prepared, I can hardly pin it on her. If we lose a cow or miss a lead change it’s likely going to be thanks to my mare trying to cover for my own blunder. Ultimately we do this thing because we love it, not because we need to win. I ride for the love of my horses, not for another point or ribbon.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

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