Wise lessons from McLain Ward

By Annette Paterakis

Ever wondered what the greats think about before they go into the arena? Or what their view is on talent? I mean, they are all obviously uber-talented, right? And what about their mental game and confidence? Have they ever doubted themselves? In my quest to find out what the most successful riders in showjumping have in common, and what they do and don’t do, I spoke to McLain Ward and asked him about both his strengths and weaknesses.

1. Talent is overrated

Looking at McLain when riding, and at his incredible track record, you would assume he is talented and has always been talented. However, McLain describes himself during his first eight years as a rider as a “terrible rider”. “I rode ponies awful and it didn’t look like I had much talent so it was a rough start.” McLain’s view on talent is as follows: “For sure you need opportunities in some way and I think talent is one of the parts of the recipe but I see a lot of talented riders that don’t put it together.” According to McLain, having talent of course helps but discipline, work ethic and a clear plan are far more important to becoming successful.

2. Turn your weaknesses into strengths

This will ensure you work hard to improve yourself constantly.  Whether you need to improve your riding skills, physical or mental skills, it doesn’t matter. In 2008, McLain was already doing well and considered successful. However, he was mentally not in a good place. “I was in Florida and I was looking at going to the Olympics in Beijing with Sapphire. I had one of the best horses in the world but internally I was just in turmoil. I was distracted and all over the place. It was showing in my results.” McLain decided it was time to work on his mental game. He found a sport psychologist and increased his winnings by 30% annually! 


“Focus on the execution rather than the result.” – McLain Ward


3. Stay present

From working with a sport psychologist McLain learned the following: “I stay focused on controlling the things I can control, such as how I am going to prepare myself and how am I going to prepare my horse. I can control my plan for the week, I can control my warm up, I can control my routine and I can control my reactions. Another very important tool I use is staying in the present moment.” McLain elaborates with a very important example. He explains how he will still have fences down but because he stays in the present moment, he will keep fighting instead of giving up or being so disappointed and distracted, he will have a few more down.

4. Be confident about your plan

“When I make a decision about the course, I have to make it with confidence. Even if it’s the wrong decision, it’s better I’m confident about it. Last night I ended up doing four strides to the last jump – it wasn’t actually the right plan but it worked fine because I was committed to it. It was too far away but the commitment to the plan was key. If I had landed and said, ‘I am going to see where I’m at’, it wouldn’t have worked out very well.” Want to know how to increase your confidence even more? Have a read of this previous blog: How to take action and increase your self-confidence.

5. Find out what works best for you

I asked McLain about his preparation. How does he prepare for a big class for example? “I like everything organized. My tack, my equipment, my preparation for the horse, my schooling, the timing. I am not a guy that can be running ten different directions at once on big game days. Kent is a very good friend of mine and for him, getting here with only 10 minutes left to walk the course is actually less stressful and works better for him. So people have to find out what their routines are and what works best for them. For me, that’s being on time and organized, knowing that everything was thought about, checked and double-checked.”