‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands – March 08, 2023 – As the current contender for the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, McLain Ward (USA) had a Q&A with the folks at Rolex and here’s his interview:
Congratulations! You are the Rolex Grand Slam Live Contender, how are you feeling ahead of The Dutch Masters? Which horse do you plan to compete with in the Rolex Grand Prix?
I am extremely excited to attend and compete at The Dutch Masters. The four Rolex Grand Slam Majors are some of the most prestigious events in the show jumping calendar. These Majors have elevated the sport as they represent an opportunity to showcase the highest quality of jumping in the sport.
I am planning on bringing two of my horses, HH Azur and Contagious, both of whom competed at CHI Geneva. They have been performing very well on the winter circuit. For HH Azur, I have been adapting her training schedule to ensure that she is at her peak performance at The Dutch Masters. Hopefully we will have prepared correctly so that we execute a great performance.
What have you been up to since winning the Rolex Grand Prix at CHI Geneva, and how have you been preparing yourself and your horses for The Dutch Masters?
It is important to take time to yourself between seasons to reset and to feel prepared. Currently, I am competing on the winter circuit in Wellington, Florida as this provides a variety of classes that all my horses can compete in. In terms of the preparations for HH Azur and Contagious prior to The Dutch Masters, it is important for them to compete in the build-up to the show. HH Azur is 17-years-old now, so she does not compete as often anymore – instead we just aim her at the most important competitions. On the other hand, Contagious competes more often, I am planning on jumping with him this week at the 5* classes here in Florida. This will be his last show before we travel abroad.
You have had great success at the Winter Equestrian Festival over the past few weeks – how does that affect your confidence going into The Dutch Masters?
I have a lot of great horses thanks to my fantastic owners, who are very enthusiastic in supporting my goals. I am incredibly grateful to my grooms and my team within the stable, as they keep the horses fresh and healthy. However, in the lead up to these Majors, I can find myself internally questioning whether we have prepared correctly and made the right choices. You can never be certain of those aspects until the competition occurs, but it is important to try to have confidence in our methods and training.
You will be making the long journey across from America to The Dutch Masters, how do you ensure that your horses travel well so they can continue to perform at their peak?
My team and I have become very experienced at this, as over the years as we have attended numerous shows abroad. This has allowed us to develop an understanding of how to manage the logistics of travelling. I feel incredibly grateful to have an excellent team of people who support my horses and me. My grooms and stable workers are brilliant with the horses; it is clear that they are passionate about them and the industry.
As we are based in the United States, we have become used to travelling abroad to attend shows, as the best of the sport is based in mainland Europe. I have always wanted to compete against the very best show jumpers, so it is important that I attend Majors, such as CHIO Aachen, CHI Geneva, and The Dutch Masters. The horses that we select to compete have become accustomed to the travelling, and they now handle the changes very well. Travelling with horses always takes a substantial amount of planning and preparation ahead of the events, but my team are now experts at this.
What are your goals, dreams and ambitions for 2023?
My main goal for this season is to help the United States qualify for the Paris Olympic Games 2024. As soon as we achieve the qualification, we will then shift our focus to becoming the best national team who are ready for the world stage in Paris. This is the ultimate goal, as it is always such an honour to represent your country.
My personal goal is to remain in contention for the Majors in the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping. Every year, I place a great deal of importance on these events, as they are great Grands Prix – they are iconic in their own right. As a result, a considerable proportion of the year is focused on preparing for these events with the aim to execute a great performance. On the day itself, you need a certain amount of luck for your performance to go your way and to win. It is extremely challenging to win multiple Majors, and therefore to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, explaining why only one person, Scott Brash, has achieved this.
You have had so much success with HH Azur – tell us about her and what it is about her that makes her so successful?
HH Azur has an incredible physical ability but what makes her truly stand out is her character. She is a warrior at heart. I use the term ‘Queen’ when referring to her, as she encapsulates every aspect of that term. Two years ago, I thought that it was the end of her career, as she had several injuries but she overcame them. At the beginning of the 2022 season, she was feeling better than ever, and we made the decision to keep competing her and then assess her later on in the season. She ended up having the best year of her career so far. You can directly notice that she is truly passionate and in love with the sport. As long as she is still in love with the sport and happy, we will continue competing. She handles both indoor and outdoor arenas really well; she does not get fazed by much. She is a very smart horse and understands a huge amount of what we do with her. I love spending time with her, whether that is hacking, training or competing – she is such a brilliant horse.
What keeps you motivated and hungry for success?
I am currently extremely motivated and I feel that I am in a good place in my life. I have a really wonderful support network, whether that is from my family or group of owners. I really enjoy my professional and personal interactions with my owners, as we are like minded, we have similar purposes and clearly share the same passion. I continue to enjoy figuring out new strategies to improve myself and the horses, as well as ‘playing the game’ well. I still feel like I am in great physical condition – competing against the younger generation keeps me on my toes and inspires me to constantly aim to be at my best.
The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary later in the year – how big an impact has it had on the sport?
Rolex’s involvement and the introduction of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping has elevated our sport, in particular the four Major competitions, to a superior level. Once you have represented your country on an international stage, such as at the Olympic Games, the next prestigious goal is to win these iconic Majors. They are the equivalent to The Masters and The Championships, Wimbledon, which gather the best sportsmen and sportswomen in the world.
However, there is an increased challenge in completing the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, as you are required to win three Majors in a row. In contrast to other sports, we have the variable of the horse; it is one thing to prepare yourself mentally and physically, but ensuring that the horse is in peak condition is a different challenge in itself. Winning the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is definitely doable, as it has been won before. Hopefully, this incredible feat will be achieved again. In terms of my horse, HH Azur, she was clear in the last three Grand Slam Majors, but unfortunately we were only successful in one jump-off.
The challenge of winning the Rolex Grand Slam brings out the best in our sport, as everyone is training and performing with the aim of being victorious. Last season, at CHI Geneva, we witnessed the greatest jump-off in the history of our sport, and it raised the bar on what is achievable.
Away from show jumping, how do you relax? What do you love to do?
I am lucky that, other than trying to find some headspace, I do not have this urge to get away from the sport. I love every single aspect of it. I am very lucky that I live on two beautiful farms, one in Florida and other in New York. My family enjoy, and are involved in, the sport, as well, so it has become a way of life for me. Of course, it is important to find balance and spend some time away from the horses to keep your head clear but I need to remind myself to do this.
If you weren’t a show jumper, what would you have been?
I imagine that I would have ended up building high-end houses and developments. I have actually built a number of properties and I truly enjoy it. I appreciate the challenge when building and renovating places; it allows me to be creative when I work with landscapes and designs. There are a lot of crossovers with show jumping, as in both you have to think creatively and forwardly.
Do you follow any other sports aside from show jumping?
I follow most sports in general; my eldest daughter is a sports fanatic so we enjoy following multiple sports together. We both enjoy the competitiveness that comes from watching different disciplines. I think it is important to watch other sports so you can observe and learn from the economics and politics and bring their learnings to our sport.
If you were stranded on a desert island, which three items would you take with you?
I would bring my three girls: my wife Lauren, and daughters Lily and Maddox.
Source: Press Release from Rolex Grand Slam
Photo: © Rolex Grand Slam / Ashley Neuhof