A Look Into Paradise – An Interview With Lellie Ward
Written by Jazmin Badai on March 7, 2018
International event rider and trainer Lellie Ward has owned Paradise Farm for over 20 years, and over that time span through Lellie’s dedication and talents, Paradise Farm has become an Aiken staple and a major draw for the eventing community. Paradise Farm is known for Lellie’s exceptional training and teaching ability, gorgeous facility, perfect hills, successful horse trials and other competitions, and so much more. Recently Lellie has come to the difficult decision to sell her beloved farm. I was lucky enough to interview Lellie to discuss her decision, life changing horses, her thoughts and favorite memories, and take a look into Paradise.
Lellie explained that her decision to sell the farm did not come lightly by any means. “I love the farm more than anything.” expressed Lellie. But through a series of unfortunate events including three major debilitating injuries and some financial issues, Lellie has fallen into hard times forcing her hand to sell. Although the decision is not easy, it has become a sad necessity. With a heavy heart Lellie explained, “I’ve always told students that a good horse sells itself – it makes the buyers’ heart sing. And this farm, it makes my heart sing.” Although it would be her wish to keep the farm, she is waiting for her sign of what to do next and where to land.
In my interview with Lellie Ward, she would pause to give thoughtful responses to most questions. However, when asked which horse she was the most thankful for, the response was instant. “Definitely Riverdance!” Lellie admirably explained that he was a “naughty boy”, and that although he would always take care of her around the cross country course, he would take off in leaps and rears down the centerline for dressage – even scaring some judges out of the booth! “Only one time in my long career with him, did he ever truly give me a good dressage test… my ride at Rolex. And that was the best six and a half minutes of my life. It was the only time he ever let me have it, and it was great.” Riverdance still happily lives in Paradise with Lellie, and as she says, “We’ll go in the ground together.”
Lellie has complied a long list of favorite Paradise Farm memories from over the years. The first that came to mind was the companionship of her beloved sheep, Cloudy. “It sounds silly but, just walking around with Cloudy. Teaching with him by my side.” Another dear memory was watching Peter Pan (another of her advanced level horses) arriving home for the first time and coming off the trailer. She took great pride and joy in watching young students blossom into good riders, and designing her arenas and cross country courses. And one of Lellie’s favorite moments on the farm was watching things come to fruition, “Putting on successful horse trials, and seeing people enjoy the courses… there’s so much blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it. It’s amazing when things go right.”
Of course among some of her favorite memories was seeing the farm for the first time. As her friend took her out to the back forty to show off the property, Lellie had a feeling in her heart that this was where she was supposed to land for a while. She was able to buy the farm after Bruce Davidson purchased her Advanced level horse Traveling Man. She named her farm after her friend Nicola Mobbes’ Paradise Farm in England where Lellie sent her horses to stay during holidays, and over the years Lellie truly built her own Paradise. Her hope for Paradise Farms is that it remains an equine mecca, and keeps up with the tradition of competition and training.
There are many things that Lellie will miss about her Paradise. Some of which including the impeccable footing and rolling hills, mowing into the night, and riding all throughout the day. “It was like a candy store – you have everything here.” As a horticulture enthusiast, Lellie planted many flowers around Paradise Farm over time and loved watched them bloom around the farm each year. She will miss ‘connecting the dots’ for riders and horses, and how perfect it was when things went according to plan. Perhaps most of all, she will miss “coming home from a big event with proud horses, and watching them come off the trailer strut back to the barn all shiny and happy.”
With over 35 years of teaching experience, 20 plus years of owning Paradise Farm, and a lifetime of riding, Lellie has accumulated a wealth of knowledge of the sport, business, and life. When asked what advice she would give to people starting their own farm, she quickly said “Run!” with a laugh. Some top advice was make sure you have health insurance, and be more conservative than you think you should be. “If you are going to be operating machinery, or you are going to go mow the back forty tell someone – she says who mows all night long by herself!” Ensure that you have a support team (including a good tractor and truck mechanic) because you can’t do it alone, and give back to the people who give to you. “Don’t forget the people on the way up because you’re going to them on the way down.” Always try to find the balance in it all, never be afraid to ask for help, and never stop learning.
Never stop learning has always been one of Lellie’s mottos, and she placed that same mindset into her own riding. Lately as Lellie has been focusing on her teaching, she created her ‘Ride Better’ clinics to continue developing that same attitude in others. “We all need to ride better – everybody.” She developed her individualized style clinics to be geared toward horsemanship and rider responsibility. “At the end of the day, all we should do for our horses is ride them better. It’s a riders’ responsibility to mechanically ride better through better position, better application of the aids, and understanding how to alter things.” Lellie’s five elements of riding better include safety, balance, control, confidence, and fun. Part of Lellie’s ‘Ride Better’ mindset comes from making mistakes and learning from them; she believes you should be able to think about what you can do to be better instead of being sad or negative about your riding.
To Lellie, it’s not about having the perfect or the easy ride, it’s about how you can get yourself out of the jam as a rider. A part of developing that skill is learning from your mistakes. “When I was growing up there was a time where I thought I wasn’t allowed to make any mistakes, and that I would be a lesser person if I made a mistake instead of viewing it as a learning experience. And I don’t want to make people feel that way.” When asked what advice Lellie would give to those following her ‘ride better’ legacy, she said to be sure that whoever you ride with makes you feel confident and competent in the saddle. “Confidence is 90% of performance, and self doubt is the killer.”
Although she is still waiting for her sign of what to do next, Lellie has high hopes and ideas for the future. First on her to-do list is her physical rehabilitation and getting back on her feet (literally) and getting fit to ride again. And another priority is becoming financially solvent, even if it means selling Paradise. Teaching is one of Lellie’s favorite things and she would love to focus on that, and possibly look into getting her judges license. And besides loving horses, she also loves gardening and would like to learn more about horticulture. Lellie has also given thought into becoming a 911 operator, “I like helping people, and I like action. I could do that job… the only thing that would be difficult is being stationary – I’ve never had an office job. But I would just like to help people.” Lellie wants to give back, and “make people feel good the way they’ve made me feel good.” Because after all, you need people on the way up and on the way down.
It was an incredible pleasure talking with Lellie. Throughout our interview it was clear as day how much she loves her farm, horses, teaching, and life. But other things became clear to me as well; Lellie Ward is not just a exemplary and well rounded horsewoman, but a wonderful human being. She radiated positivity, perseverance, and hope. I can only imagine how thankful her students, horses, and colleagues are of Lellie. And I am thankful as well for her perspective, what she’s done for the sport, and for sharing her thoughts and memories with me and GoHorse. Although we may be seeing the end of Paradise Farms, I firmly believe that Lellie will continue creating her own paradise. We will all be sure to stay tuned for where she lands, and never stop learning.