After taking the leap across the Atlantic, British showjumper Emily Ward is making strides in Florida. Nancy Jaffer chats to the aspirational 21-year-old with Olympic ambitions
A CONVERSATION overheard in an exotic locale landed showjumper Emily Ward a dream job, a key to her goal of representing Great Britain internationally in championships.
In October 2019, Emily was making her Nations Cup debut on the team at the Rabat CSIO4* in Morocco when her friend Jessica Mendoza, a veteran of the 2016 British Olympic squad, encouraged her to come to America for the next stage of her career. Then fate stepped in to make it happen.
Canadian Olympian Tiffany Foster, who caught the exchange as she went by, mentioned that she was looking for an assistant trainer. Emily didn’t need to be asked twice.
“I was super-keen to do it,” says Emily, 21.
Tiffany noted that Emily’s spot on the senior Nations Cup team was an indicator of her ability, and she took it from there.
“The business has really grown, so I recognised the fact in 2019 that I needed an assistant trainer,” Tiffany says, explaining why she recruited Emily.
“She had quite a lot of experience, even though she was pretty young; great character, great personality, lovely to have around, so she has really fitted in with the team here and has made herself pretty indispensable.”
Emily, who is 52nd on the FEI under-25 list, is working on moving up in the rankings. She scored the only fault-free British round in the March Nations Cup at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, with her reliable Irish-bred gelding, Millioninmind (pictured top).
GROWING up in Cheshire, she trained with her father, Nick Ward, at Haddon Farms. Although he has remained involved with her career, when Emily turned 16 and finished school, she moved to Michael Whitaker’s stables. She was very familiar with Michael’s programme, because she had been part of it for a few weeks every year, since he is good friends with her father.
“It was almost a home away from home, moving from family A to family B,” she observes, adding that was where she got to know British jumping team manager Di Lampard.
The offer from Tiffany hit the mark for Emily because although she longed for a spot in America, she didn’t want to fly across the Atlantic on a whim. So she was eager to have “an organised situation” that could, as she put it, help “refine my riding”.
“To be taken under the wing of Tiffany, who’s so experienced, has been amazing.”
While Emily believed she could “get on any horse and complete the course,” she wanted “more detail” in the way she rides those courses. Rather than focusing on the horse, “it was more about me” to eliminate some habits she had picked up along the way. Emily is getting all that, and some extras.
“Watching videos from when I was at Michael’s compared to when I am here, I now look a little more like an American-type rider, rather than old-fashioned and English,” muses Emily, who is both earnest and engaging.
As she notes, “I’m happy in the position I have here. I have a lot to learn in the business side of things.”
That will be important when the day comes for her to fulfil an ambition to run her own place in England, where she would like to have a “beautiful American-type barn”. She has inspiration from top American rider Kent Farrington, who designs barns and farms, and Tiffany, who does interior décor.
During Emily’s apprenticeship with Michael, she “learnt a lot about horsemanship” and rode different types of horses. That came in useful when she started riding clients’ horses for Tiffany, whose Little Creek Equestrian operation is based in Canada’s British Columbia in the summer and Wellington during the winter.
“I always wanted to come here, but it costs quite a lot of money,” she says of Wellington, which bills itself as “the winter equestrian capital of the world”.
Tiffany’s horses are at Andrew Zeigler’s Artisan Farms in the lavishly appointed Palm Beach Point section of Wellington, where magnificent houses – and the stables that are their equal – line luxuriously landscaped quiet streets bright with multicoloured flowers.
Those who live in Palm Beach Point include Kent, who has had Emily show some of his sales horses. He also helped her with the sale of Tilla Flamenco, a seven-year-old she brought over from England who went back to Britain with the buyer.
She has no plans to sell Millioninmind, however. Known as Dougie, he’s 14 and has been her mount for eight years.
“I wouldn’t say he has got the scope for the top questions – he’s not an everyday 1.60m horse – but he’s a real trier,” she says.
A case in point was the Olympic qualifier at the Nations Cup in Morocco.
“It was the biggest thing he had ever jumped in his life, and there was a little bit of pressure for my first Nations Cup,” she says. “It felt a little different and he rose to the occasion. I had an early fence, because of a little bit of nerves; maybe a bit of tentative riding. But after that, I kicked into gear and was like ‘come on, this has to be the only fence we have down’.”
And it was.
LIFE in Florida isn’t quite what it had been before the pandemic, but it is one of the more relaxed US states, without lockdowns and most businesses operating much as they would in normal times. Although she enjoys lying by the pool on her day off, Emily’s not a beach person and sticks close to home, rather than driving 40 minutes to the ocean in Palm Beach. The Little Creek group is mindful of Covid protocols, which are also enforced strictly at the shows.
“We don’t go out for meals, and we wear masks everywhere we go and social distance,” says Emily, noting everyone who works at the barn gets Covid tests. But it’s a very comfortable existence in any case.
If she takes a break during the day, she can look out over the spacious outdoor arena from the lounge. Lunch is delivered to the farm at noon, though team members often wait to eat until they return from the showgrounds.
On a typical day in Florida, Emily gets up at 6.30am and is at the nearby Palm Beach International Equestrian Center showgrounds an hour later to walk courses, either for herself or a client with whom she’s working at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
The show starts at 8am and if she has time, she goes back to the barn between classes to ride. That’s an advantage of being only a quick drive away from the show, where she usually has three to six horses in her charge competing each day. At the end of the afternoon, she’s back at the farm, where she helps put away the jumps and plans for what will happen tomorrow.
She lives in an apartment at Tiffany’s house next door to the stables, which is also owned by Artisan Farms. She and Tiffany are in close proximity a great deal, so as Emily notes, “it’s a good job we like each other”.
Emily easily made the transition to her ideal situation in America, but the biggest difference with how things would have been in early 2020 compared to one year later is that she can’t travel back to England due to Covid.
“I’d love to be able to go home and see my family. Hopefully in a few months,” she says.
EMILY was a success even before she got into her teens, representing Britain at the children’s European Championship when she was only 12. The next big moment involved qualifying for Olympia in the under-23 competition on the quick mare, Witch. The course was pretty big for a 13-year-old rider, especially since she was on a “not-so-scopey speed horse” who, luckily, “runs on her heart”.
When Emily was in the ring before a full house in the heart of London, things went her way. She was clean and quick in the first round, enabling her to be the final rider in the jump-off, where she put in the fastest trip.
“I was coming to the last fence and I saw my stride and remember thinking, ‘I’ve done it!’ I knew she wouldn’t touch it. I had so much faith in the horse,” Emily says, her face brightening with the memory of the moment and her “unbelievable” mare.
The victory raised her profile. She was talent-spotted at Olympia and added to the World Class Programme for up-and-coming riders at the age of 13.
The big moments keep on coming. Emily topped a field of 55 in the $25,000 (£18,000) Hermès under-25 grand prix in Florida last year after taking the big prize in her first international grand prix in 2019 at Chepstow. She has done five European Championships in the children’s, ponies and juniors, and Nations Cups across the age ranges as well.
“That was what I would base my year on. I want to do championships,” she says.
She has two up-and-coming mares, Hickstead novice champion Billy Vitani and Billy Bakewell, both seven, who were being competed in Spain by HK Horses until the EHV-1 shutdown in Europe. Lexie III, a 12-year-old she has had for six years, recently arrived in Florida.
Understanding that it takes a string of jumpers to gain the experience needed to get to the Olympics, Emily has that goal in her sights.
“If I found an owner or sponsor who would help me build a team of horses, it would definitely be in my future. With the right horsepower, I think I would be up there. Di is a good friend of Michael’s so she’s known me and seen me.”
Emily is, understandably, a fan of the Netflix series Emily in Paris, but the show’s name has a double meaning for her as she looks toward the 2024 Olympics in that city.
“Emily in Paris,” she says with a smile. “That’s what I’m going for.”
This exclusive feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (1 April, 2021)
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