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Lee McKeever – Thirty years behind and beside McLain Ward

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Lee McKeever has worked with McLain Ward for thirty years: “McLain is very dedicated, very hard working, very loyal and very respectful. He’s a great horseman,” Lee says. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

The lucky spot

Did you ever notice that when McLain Ward is in the competition ring, there is always a man somewhere on the side line anxiously pacing around and jumping each fence with the American rider? That man is Lee McKeever – Ward’s groom for the last thirty years – and he’s very superstitious. “If I stop moving, it never goes well,” he laughs. “I always find a spot to watch from, and it is either lucky or unlucky. I keep on moving until I find the lucky spot. I am very superstitious,” he continues. “I have these little quirky things; I wear same clothes, same socks, even the same underwear sometimes. I just want it to go well, for the horse, for the team, for everybody.” 

Though Lee might spend his weekends at different venues searching for that one lucky spot, it is clear that in life he has found it already. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, the now 50-year-old has worked with Ward since 1988. We sat down with Lee during the 58th edition of CHI Geneva, to learn more about one of the longest and most successful partnerships in the industry. 

“Actually, I was planning on going to Switzerland, and then a friend of mine asked ‘Why don’t you go to America?’,” Lee recalls. “I planned on going for a year,” he smiles, thirty years down the road.

During those years and at Ward’s Castle Hill Farm in New York, Lee also met his wife Erica that he has been married to for 17 years. “I started to work there a month before her,” Lee smiles. “We live there, we married there, we had kids there – the whole thing. Now my daughter also rides, so it has all gone a full circle.” 

Almost like a marriage

Despite having done the job for decades, Lee is not looking to slow down any time soon. “There are maybe two to three shows a year that I don’t go to. It depends on how many horses we take,” he explains. “I used to go alone a lot when I was younger. Now, we have different people looking after different horses and I think it is nice that they go with them to the show if they also look after them at home. They’ve all got four to five horses to look after, in total we have about 35. I kind of look after them all and manage them all,” Lee continues. “I do the show side of it, and my wife does the home side.”

“McLain is very dedicated, very hard working, very loyal and very respectful. He’s a great horseman,” Lee tells as he describes his rider. Asked how McLain would describe Lee, he laughs and replies: “It depends on the day! Hopefully the same!”

“McLain has this joke, he says we’ve been married for thirty years,” Lee smiles. “For sure we have had disagreements, that’s life. That’s also what makes it such a good partnership; the ups and downs. I think you have got to disagree sometimes, then you get forward two different opinions. But, at the end of the day we are all working for the same goal.” 

And the secret to keeping it all together despite disagreements? “You have got to stop and listen,” Lee says. “You might not listen right there and then, you might walk away and then think ’well maybe they were right’,” he explains. “Then you go back and say: ‘Ok I see your point of view’. I think there is no right or wrong, you need to take a little from each other and meet somewhere in the middle.” 

“It is more of a partnership now,” Lee continues to talk about his relationship with McLain. “Some days are less good, but that’s life I think. We work from Monday to Sunday, we start early in the morning and go all day, some days are longer than others.” 

Lee started riding when he was a child, around 12-years-old, left school and started grooming. Arriving in the States as an 18-year-old, it was Ward’s father Barney that would end up having a huge impact on the system Lee has created together with McLain over the years. “I think Barney had a very good work ethic and discipline, and we’ve stayed mostly in line with that. McLain’s father instilled that in us, and it has always worked. Little things have changed with time, but mostly it is still the same.” 

Horses are like people

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson. “The WEG in Tryon this year was huge,” Lee says. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

“Everyone always thinks that their system is the right one, but at the end of the day, they are all horses and every single one of them is different,” Lee says. “I think you can’t set in stone, that ’this is how it’s done’. Because each horse is different; they’ve got their own personality, and I think you have to adjust to your horses. I think you can’t really have a set way, they are all individuals and have their own way of going – they are like people.” 

To manage their horses in the best possible way, Lee and McLain make individual plans for each of them. “At the beginning of the year, we sit down and make a plan – we choose which horse is going where and when they should peak. You have got to stay in a program and plan a horse out, I think you can’t just keep going to one show after another. We plan about six months to a year ahead, and look to what the goals are: If it is a Championship year, a World Cup year, Pan Am year,” Lee explains. “You need to plan at which venue they should peak, and then hope it works!”  

”There are four or five horses that stand out over the years”, Lee tells us when we ask about the many equine stars he has taken care of during his career. ”Like Omnibus back in the day, Rotschild, Sapphire – we’ve been very lucky that we’ve had so many great horses. I really liked Antares. He was very quirky, a little difficult to ride, always a great jumper, but not easy.”

For the love of the horses

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson. McLain Ward with Rothchild, one of the horses with a special place in Lee's heart. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

In his over thirty years in the industry, Lee has witnessed the changes in the sport first hand. It is not only the sport and the horses that are different now, also the attitudes of people involved have shifted. ”The sport is more money orientated now,” Lee reflects. “There are still good shows, like Aachen, Spruce Meadows and Geneva for example. But it is different than what it used to be, it is a lot more intense now. I think for more and more people this is just a job now, whereas before people did this simply for the love of the horses and because they enjoyed it. That is the hard part for me, watching that change,” he says. ”But, there are still people who do it for their love of horses.”

And it is just that love that has kept Lee going all these years. “Seeing horses progress, and coming a long way,” he answers when we ask what he enjoys most in his job. ”Like Clinta, who we only had a year. She’s gone so far already. It gives you a good sense of pride to see how well she is going. My motivation? I don’t know – just the love of the horses. And the whole lifestyle. Because it is a lifestyle and not a job. The day I don’t enjoy it anymore, I will stop – but that hasn’t happened yet,” he smiles.

“For sure it is hard though,” he admits. “It has intensified over the last five-six years: I think there has never been so many shows,” Lee says when we ask him if he ever gets tired of the intense show schedule. ”There used to be breaks, now there is none. But I still enjoy it. You definitely get tired, but I think you need to pace yourself a little bit and that’s why it is important that you bring someone with you to the shows. It is the driving that is the hard part. Most grooms drive now, and it is harder than the work at shows. You end up driving through the night. I think that is where you need to get help,” he explains and then adds with a smile: ”When you’re younger it seems to be easier…” 

An amazing year, and some good advice

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson. "It is not a nine to five job, and you won’t get weekends off – it is a full-time thing," Lee says about the job.

2018 has been an incredible year for Lee. Although he has been part of many big wins over the years, there is no doubt a team gold on home soil was something special. “The WEG in Tryon this year was huge,” Lee says when we ask for the most memorable moments. “Also winning the World Cup Final was great, as we were so close so many times. And Rotschild winning the Pan Am – I liked that for the horse. Being third in the Rolex IJRC Top 10 final here in Geneva, I still get a big rush from that, too,” he continues. 

At this year’s FEI Awards, Lee was also voted the Groom of the Year. ”It was a great honour,” he says about receiving that award. “Because it was a vote. It means people selected me, it made me feel good.” 

After all his years in the sport, what advice would Lee give to anyone wanting to pursue a career with horses? ”You have to know that it is hard work,”, he starts. ”It is very enjoyable, but you got to have that mindset that you like it. It is not a nine to five job, and you won’t get weekends off – it is a full-time thing. But if you enjoy it, you can get a lot out of it.”

The grooms are often referred to as the unsung heroes of the sport, and the ones that keep the wheels turning behind the scenes. Over the years the attitude towards grooms have changed – but Lee feels there is still room for more improvement. ”The grooms are doing an amazing job, and that needs recognition. It is hard work, and while some are very appreciative of it – others take it all for granted. The sad thing about it is, that it is getting harder and harder to find good people because less and less people want to groom. I think one reason could be that some don’t appreciate their grooms. I think everybody in the sport really need to look towards what an amazing job grooms do. They give up a lot, this is a lifestyle.” 

“And, at the end of the day, if there are no grooms the sport is never going to happen,” Lee closes off.



Text (by Nanna Nieminen) and photos (by Jenny Abrahamsson) © World of Showjumping

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