Your Slave, Or Your Partner?

I miss Greg Ward. The late horseman is one of my personal heroes. A legend in the cow horse world, the native Californian was known simply as “The Master.”

The late Greg Ward, master horseman, with one of his great performers and sires, Master Remedy.

He and I go back a ways. I began writing for horse magazines in 1979, covering the Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, Nevada, for California Horse Review. As a perennial finalist and four-time winner of that event, Greg was often the subject of my reports. I was privileged to be in the stands to see his winning finals runs in that “triathlon” of events (involving reined work, herd work, and cow work down the fence) in 1981, 1986, and 1998.

His first win came in 1972, at the dawn of the futurity. That means he won the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s premier event four times over three decades. As I recall it, the Snaffle Bit Futurity was never over until Greg had ridden.

When he claimed the championship the final time, two months before his death from cancer, I wrote in H&R that it was the most inspirational performance I’d witnessed in 20 years of equine journalism. I can now update that to the most inspirational victory of any kind I’ve seen in my 33 years as a writer. That he was able to win one of the world’s toughest equestrian contests while in the end stages of cancer says everything about the kind of horseman he was, and about the special relationship he developed with his horses.

So why have I brought him up now, here? Because the goal of this blog is to bring you insights and inspiration to improve your riding and strengthen the partnership you share with your horse. That said, there’s no better place to start than with Greg Ward. You can find my full profile of him here. But first, I want to highlight five characteristics of Greg’s that we might learn from to make ourselves into better horsemen. Specifically:

He loved his horses. We all love our horses, of course. But for Greg, this meant something more. Trainer Crawford Hall, who knew Greg well, explains that Greg loved the spiritedness of his horses: “He preferred to leave the life in them, rather than take it out and then have to put it back in when he needed it.” Greg asked a lot of his horses in performance, but he also let them be horses to the extent possible. Moreover, he used methods that he learned from natural-horsemanship guru Tom Dorrance to provide his colts with a kinder, gentler start under saddle. “You really can train horses from the heart,” Greg once told me. “They’re not slaves.”

He never stopped learning. Largely self-taught, Greg sought wisdom wherever he found it, all his life, to improve his horsemanship skills. Early on, he watched good riders and emulated them, striving to feel it exactly as he sensed those riders were feeling it. He read books on mental conditioning and visualization, and pored over the original British Pony Club manual for insights into classical training techniques. He expected top performance from his horses, and felt he owed it to them in turn to become the very best rider and “communicator” he could be.

He rode with a light hand.

Greg wasn’t into jerking. He used his legs far more than his hands. His style “was different from a lot of traditional ways of training,” explains Jon Roeser, a Ward protege and major NRCHA money-earner. “He gave a horse a lot of freedom, a lot of loose rein.” Greg’s ultimate goal was helping his horses find balance, lightness, and true collection. “I want all parts of my horse supple…his poll floating, meaning it’s the highest point,” Greg told me. “I want the impulsion coming from behind–I ride my horses from back to front, not from front to back.” It was a style that preserved the heart and the try in his horses.

Just two months before succumbing to cancer, Ward won his fourth Snaffle Bit Futurity championship aboard his homebred stallion Reminics Pep. | Photo courtesy of the Ward Ranch

He put in the time. Greg won his last futurity on Reminics Pep (“Magic”), his homebred, fourth-generation SBF champion. Magic was his only entry that year, and he took advantage of the chance that gave him to spend two or three hours at a time with the horse, sometimes just walking around. It strengthened their bond. “They say a dog is a man’s best friend,” he told me after that futurity, “but if you lived with a horse the way you live with a dog, he’d be your best friend.” Indeed–the kind of friend who’s there for you when, weakened by illness, you ask him for runs good enough to beat world-class trainers like Bob Avila, Ted Robinson, and Bobby Ingersoll.

He stayed positive

. Greg focused on a horse’s abilities rather than his faults, believing all faults were man-made anyway. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t blame the horse!'” recalls Roeser. Greg tended to see the beauty in everything, “whether it was a horse, a person, or even the green grass coming up,” Roeser adds. “He truly felt blessed for all that life had given him.” That perspective helped him avoid frustration and maintain his patience, enabling him to make the most of every training session, every interaction he had with his horses, right down to the end.

He never stopped trying, never ceased giving the best he had. He respected his horses, treating them like partners, not slaves.

That’s why I miss Greg Ward, and why, whenever I ponder how I can become a better rider, I think of him.

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