Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping


Live Contender Interview - McLain Ward

(Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Ashley Neuhof) (Photo: Rolex Grand Slam / Ashley Neuhof)

Congratulations! You are still the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping live contender, how are you feeling ahead of CHIO Aachen? 


I feel good, but I am always cautiously optimistic. We've tried to make sure that the horses are in the best form possible. We compete HH Azur very sparingly because of her age and just aim her towards big events. You have to have belief in your programme and trust that you have got everything right, especially when you're not competing regularly, but she feels good. We are very focused on CHIO Aachen in general –  we look at Aachen as a championship. For us, it is the biggest and most prestigious event in the world. I am trying to keep grounded and not let other possibilities seep into my head – I think you get easily distracted by these things.


How did it feel to win at The Dutch Masters?


It felt incredible. It was a class that I didn't think was setting up very well for us when there were so many clear rounds. The Dutch Masters is held in a small indoor arena and with her big stride, I thought it would be difficult to be fast enough. I had a plan to try to do everything we could to win, but I did not expect to win and so when it all came together it was extremely exciting and fulfilling. I then became the only person, apart from Scott Brash, to win two Majors in a row, which is a huge accomplishment and something that I am very proud of. 


How have you been preparing, and which horse are you hoping to compete with in the Rolex Grand Prix?


I am lucky to have a great string of horses and I also have some really exciting horses coming up through the ranks. I will be bringing Callas, Contagious, and HH Azur to Aachen, they have been competing very well throughout the spring and early summer. HH Azur has only done one small national show, just to make sure she was fit and give her a jump in a competitive setting. We have kept her preparation the same as we have done for all the Majors – keeping her fresh and targeting the event.


CHIO Aachen is one of the biggest stages in equestrian sport, how does it feel to compete there? 


For me, it's the biggest stage. In my opinion, it is the mecca of our sport, and it is the place that means the most for riders to win. So far, the Rolex Grand Prix has eluded me, but I've been very close on a number of occasions. It is the one Grand Prix in the world that I desperately covet, and the fact that it is part of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping only heightens the energy. There is no place like Aachen; the atmosphere, the crowd, the venue, the history, the level of the sport is all unmatched. I think that everybody rises to the occasion there – it is a very special place.


The last two Majors have been held indoors – will any of your tactics change competing in the Main Stadium at CHIO Aachen?


You have to think more about fitness in a bigger outdoor arena as the course is longer with more galloping involved. On paper, a big arena would suit HH Azur as she has a very big stride, but she has performed exceptionally well in indoor arenas. It truly is a testament to how great she is that she is able to be so successful in multiple venues.


She has also performed brilliantly at Aachen – I think she has been in the Rolex Grand Prix jump-off two or three times, as well as double clear in the FEI Nations Cup™ at least two or three times. I need to ensure that I stay focused and keep my head right so that we can deliver the result that we are capable of.


What do you think are the attributes that a horse and rider must have to be able to win a Major?


You need a horse that has the talent and physical abilities that it takes to jump those courses, but they also need to have the brain to understand what they are being asked to do. It takes years of training and honing those skills for everything to come together at the right time. There are only four Majors a year, and therefore usually three or four winners – so there are not that many combinations who have been able to achieve this feat. 


What would it mean to you and your team to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping at CHIO Aachen?


Honestly, I think that it is unexplainable. I have a long history with Aachen, with some good and bad moments. Since I was a small child, it is the competition that I have always dreamed of winning – I have always said it has been the girl I could never get a date with. This will be the last time that HH Azur competes at Aachen, so to win the Rolex Grand Prix there with her and for that to mean that we had won the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping – that truly is something that I do not think I can describe. 


The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is celebrating its 10th anniversary – how big an impact has it had on the sport? 


I think the greatest impact that it has had is that it has raised the level of competition above any other competition in the world. It is so important, and we needed that in the sport. We need the Rolex Grand Slam Majors to be separated from the other 5* events, as they encourage riders to continue to raise their game and perform in a different gear. I think that the riders have recognised that these are the best events in the world and aim for them – very much like The US Open or The Masters in Augusta or The French Open, these are the most coveted competitions in our sport.


The equestrian calendar is very full! How do you decide which shows to enter and which horses to compete with? 


It is a busy schedule. Like most sports, there is an event every week that you could go to if you chose. I am very lucky to have a great team behind me, as well as a great group of supporters and owners. I, therefore, have a strong string of horses of all different ages and levels. My team means that everything moves well, and they ensure that the horses are kept healthy and fresh. To be honest, I do not over-compete – if you look at the FEI World Rankings, I have normally competed in fewer events than most of my colleagues. I like to come home occasionally and aim toward an event. 


We look at the schedule anywhere from six months or a year ahead when, for example, we are aiming towards an Olympic Games or a major Grand Prix. We therefore we work backward from that date. The longer-term plan is a little looser and the shorter-term plan is a little tighter. I like to compete in Europe to test my skills against the best in the sport. The level in the United States has also come up considerably in the last few years and we have a lot of great events here now. We lay out the schedule for the year, depending on the horses we have and what the main goals are, and then we break it down into a more detailed schedule on a shorter timeframe.


In tennis, Novak Djokovic has dominated and has now won 23 Grand Slams, do you think there will ever be such dominance in show jumping?


I think to some degree; you see a group of riders that are always very close to the top of the FEI World Rankings over a long period. You could pick a handful of riders, who over the last decade, have been near the top of the rankings. The major factor that is different in our sport is the horse. So, while a human athlete can be at their best for a certain amount of time, your horse may get injured or not feel good, thus you have this variable that it is you and the horse, which differentiates our sport.


I don't think you'll ever see a rider at the top of the FEI World Rankings for a decade. But, for example, Henrik [von Eckermann] right now has been World No.1 for nearly 12 months, in a time when he arguably has the best horse [King Edward], and he is a brilliant rider. It is likely that when the horse is retired, Henrik will stay near the top, but it is probable that he won't dominate in the way he does in this current moment.


If you look through the history of the sport, whether it has been Baloubet du Rouet, Milton, Shutterfly, Hello Sanctos, all of these horses and their riders were a little better than the rest and dominated the sport. I think it is hard to imagine one rider staying at the top of the ranking for more than a couple of years – two or three years at best. I do think that if you look over the last decade or even 15 years, you will see the same names who have stayed consistently at the top.

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