January 14, 2024—Though McLain Ward and John French earned their USEF Equestrian of the Year titles as individuals, their acceptance speeches saluted the people and horses who made these honors possible.
The USEF named Ward its 2023 International Equestrian of the Year at the USEF Pegasus Awards dinner Sunday night at the USEF Annual Meeting. The meeting was in Louisville, Kentucky, January 12-14, 2024.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist credited head groom and longtime friend, Lee McKeever, for his success. “When I was informed of this honor … Equestrian and Horseman of the Year, my first thought was that I’m not truly the horseman behind our success,” Ward said in a video accepting the honor.
“I may have been the one with the big dream” Ward continued. “Yes, I am certainly the rider and the one who gets more of the credit than I deserve. … But the true horseman is the gentleman to my left, Lee McKeever. While there may be many and there are many great horsemen and horsemen on my side, this is a genius.”
Ward shared some of their personal journey that started when McKeever was 18 years old and first come to the U.S. from his native Ireland. “I was a 13-year-old boy from a bit of a dysfunctional family who was in need of a brother-like figure,” Ward said. “What started out as me sleeping on the floor of the groom’s house on weekend’s that I got to spend riding and training at my father’s farm, grew into a partnership that 35 years later is still going strong.”
Part of what makes McKeever special is his ability to care for the horses, Ward said. “I believe that true geniuses don’t often realize that they’re a genius, and that’s true of Lee. Lee wakes up every morning thinking about the horses. He spends his days figuring out what the horses need to be the best, both in the sport and much more importantly, in their lives. He just knows.”
The end of the video shows outtakes of Ward laughing, saying to a surprised McKeever, who looked uncomfortable whenever the camera moved to him, “Where’s your speech?” To which McKeever replies, “I thought it was about Azur. You said it was about Azur. That’s what you said. You tricked me.” Azur won the USEF International Horse of the Year honor the previous night.
Ward, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of the 2017 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final, earned 25 international victories in 2023. These included the Rolex Grand Prix of Geneva and the Rolex Grand Prix of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In addition to other honors, Ward and Contagious were part of the gold-medal winning team, securing the U.S. qualification to the 2024 Olympics.
French Brags About “His Kids”
French took home the USEF National Equestrian of the Year title at the awards dinner. This came after Paradigm won the USEF National Horse of the Year title the previous night. French and Paradigm won 2023 Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship
In addition to Paradigm, French had two other successes on different horses whose careers he started. These included taking home top honors in the $100,000 WCHR Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular on Kent Farrington, LLC’s Milagro. Plus, he also won the $25,000 WCHR Professional Challenge on Marnell Sport Horses’ Babylon—French’s third consecutive WCHR Pro Challenge win.
In his acceptance speech, French spoke about the horses whom he was “lucky enough to have.” Of Paradigm, he described, “He’s pretty cool. He doesn’t want you telling him anything.” Although Paradigm’s nickname is “Mikey,” French said that should have been Milagro’s because, “he’ll try anything. He’s just like the Life cereal. He’ll jump a jump from any angle, any size.
French’s Third Partner Babylon
French moved on to describe Babylon. “He was a little like me as a kid, always getting in trouble. He’s always like standing on the fence outside on the second board and looking over to the other side,” French said. “He won’t keep his blankets on. Not only does he take stuff off of him, if he’s next to another horse, he takes everything off the other horse.
“But when those horses come around, and they turn out and give you their all. I can imagine what it’s like having kids and turning out that way,” French said.
In addition, French thanked Olympian Kent Farrington for whom he’s worked for the last four years. Initially, Farrington approached French shortly after French moved from California to Seattle, Washington. At the time, French thought he couldn’t show at the big level anymore. Therefore, French told Farrington “no,” but Farrington persisted until French agreed and moved to Wellington, Florida.
Finally, French thanked both Farrington and their staff. “I don’t think I would have ever had the success I’ve had without the team that I’ve had. I couldn’t do this on my own. … These last few years, having a team and having someone like Kent. Hopefully now, maybe I could go on for several more years. I really hope so.”
For a complete report of all the winners, go to usef.org.