Olympics-Equestrian-US showjumping's 'old married couple' going for gold again

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FILE PHOTO: Equestrian - Jumping Team Qualification
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By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - After more than three decades working together and representing the United States, McLain Ward and Lee McKeever joke that they are equestrian sport's "old married couple".

Ward, an Olympic and world showjumping champion, is the man in the saddle and groom McKeever is caddy and pit crew -- equal parts horse whisperer and sport psychologist.

For 32 years McKeever has quietly basked in the glow of Ward's success and will hope to do so again at what will be their fifth Olympics together.

The 51-year-old Irishman, who arrived at the Ward's family farm just outside New York as a wide-eyed teenager seeking work and adventure, has watched Ward ride the horses he prepared, helping the United States win the team jumping gold medals at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Their partnership produced two more gold medals from the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am Games and another at the 2018 world championships.

"I was 13 turning 14 when Lee came to work for my dad and we kind of hit it off," Ward, 45, told Reuters. "He took my ponies to the ring originally and I say to people, 'You want to see what marriage looks like after 30 years look at us'.

"We've bent a fist a few times like brothers have and we have certainly had some tough moments but in the end it is a really beautiful story."

It is a tale that began three decades ago when McKeever left his home in Portmarnock, Ireland, crossed the Atlantic and landed a job at the Ward farm where he struck up what would be lifelong friendship with the young McLain, who was just beginning to establish his show jumping credentials.

Over the next 30 years McKeever would go from looking after Ward's ponies to caring for and preparing some of the sport's greatest show jumpers such as Omnibus, Clinta, HH Azur, Rothchild and Sapphire.

'MARRIED COUPLE'

McKeever and Ward have travelled the world competing together but beyond that have not strayed far, both men and their families living on the same farm.

"It is 24/7, it is like a married couple," smiled McKeever. "Our families are all together, it is a full-time relationship.

"It is like any relationship, there are going to be ups and downs, and what has made it stronger has been able to work through those and come out of it bigger and stronger."

Ward is the polished frontman of this team, as comfortable in the media spotlight as he is in the ring.

McKeever is no less friendly and genuine, extending a rough, calloused hand and welcoming smile, but he is far more at ease around the stalls and horses he prepares.

In 2018, however, it was McKeever's turn to command the spotlight, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) presenting him with Groom of the Year honours.

"I wouldn’t be where I am without him, it is a very special relationship,” said Ward.

"We're dealing with other living animals, and Lee in particular is the one who interacts with them on a daily basis so he is very emotionally invested in the horses.

"They really are his children."

Ward also said working so closely together meant they knew how to get the best out of each other.

"We work very intimately in a very stressful job and he needs to know when to push me a little bit, step away a little bit, and we also know at this point each others little quirks." he added.

"But we have a like-minded goals and stay focused on that."

(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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