Greg Ward: Farewell to the Master

As a horseman, competitor, and straight-up human being, Greg Ward was the real deal.

When the call came, I wept. Greg Ward, four-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit futurity winner, leading breeder of futurity winners, perennial supporter of the reined cow horse industry, had died December 6, 1998, of cancer. He was 63.

Just two months earlier, he’d claimed his fourth NRCHA Futurity world championship with the most inspirational performance I’d witnessed in 20 years of equine journalism. Visibly battling the illness that would kill him, he piloted his homebred stallion Reminics Pep, a fourth-generation futurity champion, to an astonishing 12-point victory.

The event he won has been called the triathlon of performance horses. It consists of herd work (similar to cutting), a reining pattern, and work with a single cow “down the fence.” It’s a grueling challenge for the hale and hearty. For Ward, whose medical treatments had included 17 hours of cancer surgery, then kidney stone removal, it was an ordeal. But he gutted it out, beating the likes of Bob Avila, Ted Robinson, Bobby Ingersoll, and Doug Williamson.

I thought of his hat, a battered straw Resistol, size 7-1/4, that I’d bought at an NRCHA fundraising auction in the ’80s. It was then and is still sweat-stained and dirty, with smudged strips of double-stick tape inside the crown. The brim dips down in the front and back, as all of Ward’s hats did, and so it reminds me of him.

I paid $40 for it, and would’ve gladly paid much, much more. Here’s why.

A Dynasty Begins
Greg Ward was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, the son of a real-estate broker father and schoolteacher mother. His first real contact with horses came in high school, when he packed during the summertime for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. A gifted athlete, he also played varsity football, baseball, and basketball, but his hopes for an athletic scholarship were ruined when a tractor accident his senior year damaged his peripheral vision. He went on to study animal husbandry at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, where he competed on the rodeo team and began a lifelong love affair with roping.

In 1957, at the age of 21, he married his high-school sweetheart, Laura “Shorty” Odle. He then left college to earn a living as a ranch hand for Floyd Lamb in Alamo, Nevada, where he learned, to his chagrin, that “cowboying” had more to do with putting up hay than with riding horses. Later he returned to Bakersfield to work in the feedlots before landing a job as an apprentice with horse trainer Harry Rose. They became partners, and Ward was later fond of saying that he and the curmudgeonly horseman “split everything down the middl–Harry took the profits, and I took the losses.”

In 1960, Ward went out on his own, establishing the Greg Ward Training Stable in Porterville, California. He and Laura also started their family. (Son John went on to attend college on a baseball scholarship, later joining his father in horse training. Daughters Wende and Amy, also talented athletes who rode horses, are now both married with children.)

In 1962, at age 26, Ward made a purchase that was to alter the course of his life. With $3,000 borrowed from his mother, he bought a 4-year-old Quarter Horse he had in training. A smallish mare, she had arrived in California with a carload of horses from a Clovis, New Mexico, sale yard. By a sire Ward said “nobody’d ever heard of” and out of a half-Thoroughbred mare, Fillinic was hot-tempered, sensitive, and quick as a cat. It was that catty athleticism and a deerlike lightness that convinced Ward he had to have her.

After a sensational show career, including wins at the premier stock-horse events of the day–the Salinas Rodeo and the Grand National Horse Show at the cow palace in San Francisco–Fillinic became a broodmare. Her 10 foals and their offspring changed the face of the Western-performance horse world and established a dynasty for the Ward ranch that includes the likes of cow-horse supersire Reminic, National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion Boomernic, and scores of cow horse snaffle bit futurity winners. See Ward’s complete dossier.

It was the get and grand-get and great-grand-get of Fillinic–the fruits of a breeding program cannily orchestrated by Ward–that the horseman rode to such renown over four decades, the 1960s through the ’90s.

His Own Ways
The horses were talented but they were also high-spirited, and Ward spent years refining his methods to learn how best to bring out his mounts’ potential.

“He was largely self-taught,” says Jon Roeser, a Ward protege and the 1990 NRCHA Futurity winner. “He didn’t have a Don Dodge or a Matlock Rose to tell him how to do it. He spent some time with Harry Rose, but he didn’t favor Harry’s methods. Greg’s style was different from a lot of traditional ways of training. He gave a horse a lot of freedom, a lot of loose rein.”

More than anything, he encouraged a horse to think for itself–the hallmark of a true cow horse. “His horses were high-speed cutting horses going down the fence,” explains Crawford Hall, who also worked with Ward and was for years the manager at Monty Roberts’ Flag Is Up Farms, Solvang, California. “They took their cues more from the cattle than they did from the rein.”

At the 1998 NRCHA Futurity, the tough cattle made it nearly impossible for riders to hold the critters on the fence during turnbacks in the cow work. It was Ward’s phenomenal success doing exactly that–despite the added pressure of drawing up first to go in the finals–that clinched the championship for him. It left more than one spectator wondering how the heck he was able to do that.

“I had my hand on the horn during those turns,” Ward explained after the event. “My horse turned on his own. If you’re hauling on a horse’s mouth to get him to turn, you pull his head around and get his butt out of position, and he can’t stop properly. That’s when he gets left behind, and the cow comes off the fence.”

Hall affirms the logic of Ward’s technique. “Greg’s horses always got into the ground straight before they started to ‘cup’ the cow and hold it on the fence,” he says. “Most people are pulling hard on the reins, which curves their horses in the stop and causes them to brace. Greg’s horses weren’t braced, so their momentum carried them into the ground quicker, which gave them a split second of extra time to get off the fence and trap the cow before it got off the fence.”

Ward’s unique style carried into the cutting pen, too, especially in the pre-competition warm-up. While other trainers would be backing up their horses forcefully to get their attention and shift their weight onto their hindquarters, Ward would be achieving the same results a different way. He’d be massaging his reins, encouraging his horse to relax and stretch his head down.

Hall explains: “Greg would lower his horse’s head and bend him in a slight arc, and as his horse stepped up from behind, he’d feel in his hand for the lightness he was after. If he felt, say, 2-1/2 ounces when he wanted 1-1/2, he’d keep on softening his horse with his legs into his hands until he’d feel the motion coming from behind and the horse really using his hindquarters. At that point he’d lighten his hand even more. It was a teeter-totter effect.”

It was never surprising, then, to see Ward’s horses go into the herd and work on a loose rein, their heads low and expressive, their weight carried on their hindquarters. Photographer Midge Ames, who over the years has watched all the best cutting and cow horse trainers through the lens of her camera, says Ward’s horses really were different from the rest.

“If cattle were tough, Greg had the confidence to drive on forward, out in the front of the herd, because he knew his horses were cow horses, and they wouldn’t lose a cow,” she says. “It used to make me mad when I’d have to refocus my lens because he was closer to me than the other cutters had been.”

By the Book
In an interview shortly before he died, Ward elaborated on the details of his training methods.

“I get a horse on the bit, with his face perpendicular to the ground at the walk, trot, and canter,” he said. “I try to be aware of his frame and the quality of his pace without using my eyes–that’s feel. I want all parts of my horse supple, his head low, and his poll floating, meaning it’s the highest point. I want the impulsion coming from behind–I ride my horses from back to front, not from front to back.” (Roeser confirms this distinction. “If the standard trainer is 70 percent hands and 30 percent legs, Greg was the reverse: 30 percent hands and 70 percent legs.”)

If it all sounds suspiciously dressage-y, it’s because it is. Ward’s “bible” for more than 30 years, the handbook he read and reread, then applied by trial and error, was The Manual of Horsemanship of the British Horse Society and Pony Club, first published by the BHS in 1950. It sets forth the classical training methods of the military.

“Those guys take 15 years to train a horse, and we have to get it done in 18 months,” Ward said. “But the approach and the principles are all the same.”

With a savvy that belied his simple cowboy image, Ward also attended to his own mental conditioning, that make-or-break component of his competitiveness. He was forever reading such books as The Inner Game of Tennis and Mental Toughness for Athletes.

In the ’70s and ’80s, he was already espousing the kind of mental imaging techniques that are now common among elite athletes in all sports.

“Paint good pictures in your mind and then do it just like you see it,” he told Anna Robertson for a 1981 article in California Horse Review. “As in any sport, prepare yourself mentally and physically before you go out to compete. But once you’re competing, let your subconscious take over.”

Part Horse
Ward also spoke often of the spiritual side of training. “I really love my horses,” he said during a 1993 interview. “You really can train them from the heart. They’re not slaves. If you treat them kindly, they’ll come through for you when you need it. That’s the spiritual part of it.”

Wende Ward Lourenco confirms her late father’s affinity for horses: “My mom always said he was part horse. He worked with a horse, rather than just making it do this or that.”

Indeed, he “never met a horse he didn’t like,” says John Ward, who notes that his father made pets of his horses and was loath to sell any of them.

Of Reminics Pep, who was noticeably fond of his master, Greg Ward said: “I got to live with him. I only had the one horse for the [1998] futurity, so rather than 15 minutes, I could spend two to three hours at a time with him, sometimes just walking around. They say a dog is a man’s best friend, but if you lived with a horse the way you live with a dog, he’d be your best friend.”

Perhaps Ward enjoyed his horses so much because he let them “be horses” as much as possible. “To mount one of Greg’s colts, you had to be a Pony Express rider,” jokes trainer Ronnie Richards, whose association with Ward goes back to the beginning of both their careers. “Once you started for that stirrup, you’d better be ready to go. Greg disciplined his horses when they needed it under saddle, but as for nickering, pawing the ground, or not standing still–that kind of thing didn’t bother him.”

Hall once asked Ward why he didn’t teach his horses to stand still. “He said when you’ve just taken a horse out of ‘jail’–meaning the stall–why should you make him stand still right away?” recalls Hall. “‘I’ll get the saddle on him eventually,’ he told me.” Roeser recalls a Fillinic daughter Ward used to have to put in the trailer to get her skid boots on.

Ward’s permissiveness, says Hall, was due partly to the desire to protect the explosiveness of his mounts. “He loved the spiritedness of his horses, and 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,” he explains. “He was always concerned with the long-term welfare of his horses.”

This is probably why, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ward consulted with Tom Dorrance, the late horseman who, along with proteges Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, provided the actual inspiration for the best-selling book The Horse Whisperer, later made into a film starring Robert Redford. Ward was tapping into Dorrance’s amazing mind well before Dorrance’s methods went mainstream.

“The way you start a colt is critical,” Ward said of his experience with Dorrance. “I had the same horses before we worked with Tom, and they weren’t as good. Once we learned to be softer, kinder, gentler, they worked better. It actually makes a difference when a horse likes you.”

Ward made it easy for his horses to like him by accepting full responsibility for whatever happened during training. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t blame the horse!'” recalls Roeser. “He didn’t believe in ‘bad horses.’ He felt all faults were man-made. And he didn’t see the faults as much as he saw each horse’s abilities. That’s why he could take a below-average horse and make him good, as well or better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Ward was a glass-half-full sort of person in other ways too. “He saw the beauty in everything, whether it was a horse, a person, or even the green grass coming up,” says Roeser. “He truly felt blessed for all that life had given him.”

Indeed, Ward’s personal motto, borrowed from a close friend who died of cancer, was: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift–that’s why it’s called the present.”

Competitive to a Fault
Though he loved riding and competing, Ward’s fiercely competitive nature made him uncomfortable under a judge’s eye.

“He hated being judged, because no one ever saw quite what Greg Ward felt,” observes Hall. “And you had to be careful about how you offered constructive criticism. If you were blunt, he didn’t want to hear it.”

“Greg really preferred praise,” Richards affirms. And if he had a good run, he wanted to hear that it was great.

“I remember one time he was working his horse in the herd at [cutter] Tim Stewart’s place. Tim kept saying, ‘That was nice, Greg. That was nice.’ Greg finally blew. ‘Nice! Your kids are nice and your wife is nice. That was great!’ Ever after that, I’d tease him by saying, ‘That was nice, Greg!'”

Never one to mince words, Ward was known for his direct manner. “He stood up for what he believed in,” says former NRCHA executive director Scott Clark, who eulogized Ward at his memorial service. “If he thought something wasn’t right, he told you. And he always went to bat for the traditions of NRCHA, and for that he was one of my closest allies.” Ward put his resources where his mouth was, too; over the years, he donated a dozen well-started 2-year-olds for the NRCHA fund-raising raffles.

He helped individuals, too, and was generous with words of encouragement. “If I could just be half the person he made me feel I was…” muses Hall, who adds that it was the horses that taught Ward how to live his life. “He felt that if people could be as honest and straightforward as horses were, it would be a better world.

“Greg truly felt that all horses go to heaven, so he was trying to figure out how he could wind up there himself.”

A Little Magic
That Ward even made it to the 1998 NRCHA futurity is an amazing thing and a tribute to his fighting spirit. In March of 1997, he was diagnosed with esophageal and stomach cancer. An oncologist at Stanford Medical Center told him there was nothing to be done, and to get his affairs in order. Stunned by the doctor’s negative attitude and lack of bedside manner, Ward told him off.

“‘What I’ve got is more curable than what you’ve got,’ he snapped,” recalls John Ward. “Then, with help from my Uncle Kirk, we went out and found another doctor.” This one agreed to perform extensive surgery two months later to excise the tumors and reconstruct Ward’s stomach.

As soon as his stomach tube was removed in August of ’97, Ward began riding again, but concentrated his efforts on helping his daughter Wende prepare for her first major equestrian competition in 12 years.

“I wanted to spend time with my dad, and I knew that in order to do that I was going to have to ride,” she says simply. “So I entered the Snaffle Bit Futurity.”

Missing his first NRCHA Futurity since the event’s inception in 1970, Ward helped his daughter claim third place in the non-pro division. He also began prepping a horse for the following year’s futurity, a colt so special that Wende, who was helping her dad in turn, nicknamed him “Magic.”

In May of ’98 came yet another setback. Ward began to experience excruciating pain in his lower back. A month later, he was diagnosed with kidney stones, and underwent surgery to have them removed.

By the time he and Magic made it to Fresno, California, in September, they were the sentimental favorites. Anyone who wasn’t there might be tempted to believe his win was a “gimme,” a final tribute to the man known as “The Master.”

Those who were there know otherwise. Ward and Magic won the contest outright with near-perfect performances in each phase of the event. In the finals, Ward was leading after the herd work. In the reined work, the only rider to best him was then two-time NRHA Futurity winner Todd Bergen. In the cow work, Ward stood alone. His mark of 225 was a full three points ahead of Bob Avila’s next-high score.

In the end, Ward won the futurity going away. Not yet was it time for the next generation to claim the event for themselves. Ward scored one more for the old-timers, at the same time securing forever his place in the annals of cow horse history.

Ronnie Richards later dropped by the Ward ranch in Tulare. Ward’s cancer had spread to his liver, and his condition was deteriorating. “You gotta see this,” Ward murmured, taking Richards out to behold Magic’s full brother–the horse Ward hoped to ride in the next NRCHA Futurity. Under the gray winter sky, The Master gingerly worked his colt. Though Ward was gaunt and tired, his eyes still burned with the old familiar flame. “Isn’t he something?” he said of Reminic Starnic, loping soft, pretty circles, then turning the colt a few times on the fence. “I’d show him on cattle for you, but…I’m just too weak.”

“No one had a greater desire than Greg Ward,” Richards said later, awed. “That was the last time I saw him. At his memorial service, Wende said to me, ‘Dad loved you–he wanted to beat you–but he loved you.’ And that’s always how it was with Greg.”

A Call to Courage
In my last telephone conversation with Ward, I have difficulty getting him to talk about himself. He keeps praising the horses, and crediting everyone who’s helped him, and telling me of other worthy horsemen I should profile.

Later, after the final photo shoot at his ranch, on a day he can barely stand, but does stand–and smile–I drive home in a daze. There’s a kind of courage that’s overwhelming, that calls one to examine one’s own life.

Greg Ward had that kind of courage. I’m glad I have his hat.

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