Nov. 26, 1999
After being suspended by the AHSA in 1998 for his involvement in the horse insurance killings, Barney Ward pleaded to the American Horse Shows Association to be allowed on show grounds to watch his son, McLain, compete. In the Oct. 29 issue of the Chronicle, John Strassburger wrote an editorial stating that he stood by the AHSA’s decision and suggested the Wards accept their punishment (McLain was served an eight-month suspension by the Fédération Equestre Internationale because of an incident involving plastic chips in his horse’s boots at the Aachen horse show in Germany). Ward responded to the editorial in a Horseman’s Forum.
I would like to respond to John Strassburger’s Commentary (Oct. 29, p. 4).
First, regarding Mr. Strassburger’s comments about my son, McLain: McLain has been through a lot in the past few years. It’s not easy for a 20-year-old to see his father go to prison and be left responsible for a business and the livelihood of eight people. Yet, he has succeeded in growing the business at Castle Hill Farm and achieving high marks as a competitor. To be sure, he has from time to time “acted his age,” but his overall record has made me extremely proud.
When the incident at Aachen (Germany) occurred, we talked for a long time about what he should do. He knew the charges were serious and, if upheld, could risk both his ability to make a living and his chances for the 2000 Olympic Games.
Since he has steadfastly maintained his innocence and had considerable supporting evidence, including a lie detector test and eyewitnesses, he chose to exercise the same rights available to anyone in his position to show his innocence. This was in complete accord of the FEI “person responsible” provision since his evidence cast doubt on whether the plastic objects were ever in the boots at all.
For Mr. Strassburger to hold the view that an innocent man should not fight for his integrity within a system designed to give him that chance is foreign to me. How can it be more “adult” not to stand up for your principles? To think that you can (or should even want to) gain a “modicum of respect” from “some” people by compromising your beliefs has it backwards.
I’m sure some people wish that it would just all go away, and perhaps McLain has ruffled some feathers, but I believe most people in our business admire having the courage of one’s convictions, regardless of the outcome. Also, in light of the evidence, which is in McLain’s favor, I don’t understand why people like Mr. Strassburger and others in influential positions have not supported a top American athlete who maintains his innocence and takes a principled stand.
I submit that Mr. Strassburger does not speak for the majority of “us” who own, ride and love horses in this matter. Perhaps he could explain who the “us” that McLain is costing money and goodwill, merely by playing by the rules to show his innocence.
Regarding my situation, it is hard to know where to begin to address the distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies in what Mr. Strassburger calls “unsolicited advice.” Mr. Strassburger never had the journalistic integrity to call me and at least hear my reaction to his position. If he had, he would have learned a few things.
First, I respect the AHSA’s decision against me, and I have not “defied” the ruling. I know that you “break the law, you go to jail.” I did break the law and paid for it with two years of my life.
Mr. Strassburger seems to equate the decisions of a private association with the rule of the law in our society. However important a private association’s rules of membership are, they do not rise to that level. To imply that they do shows how out of touch with the real world Mr. Strassburger is.
I would love to work with the AHSA to find a way to demonstrate my rehabilitation and, over time, have a chance at reinstatement. I have never questioned the AHSA’s authority to ban me from training and competing. But AHSA rules are not the laws of our society and should not conflict with the legal and constitutional rights of a citizen, which include spectating at a public event.
I have a perfectly legal right to pursue a change through the methods available to everyone, namely the legal system in our country. Even Pete Rose, who is banned from baseball, is allowed to attend baseball games. He did it last year when he watched his son play his first major league game.
What Mr. Strassburger describes as “defiance”—as though this were some child’s tantrum—is nothing more than exercising my rights as a citizen to differ with the AHSA. Mr. Strassburger refers to a loss to “us” of money and goodwill, but I can assure him that the cost of pursuing this course is substantial to me.
But what other course do I have in the face of what my lawyer and I view as an overreach by the AHSA, denying me access as a spectator to public AHSA events? My lawyer and I believe that the law is on our side here, and I would submit that the majority of “us” would agree with me on that.
Give Me A Chance
I have attempted through intermediaries to reach a compromise with the AHSA on these issues. The rules for reinstatement require a showing of rehabilitation, among other things, but they give no guidance as to what the AHSA considers appropriate.
I realize that prospects for my reinstatement are remote, but I have wanted the opportunity, at least, to work with the AHSA to demonstrate my remorse for my actions and find a path to rehabilitation acceptable to the AHSA, recognizing that there are no guarantees.
I feel that such a compromise should include a resolution of the spectator ban issue. This would address the “cost and goodwill” that Mr. Strassburger refers to. It was in this context that the idea of my performing charitable works by helping underprivileged children and supporting less affluent but promising young riders with horses and lessons was raised in good faith.
I believe this could be a win-win situation for everyone, in which less fortunate children could learn about horses, the AHSA could take the credit for rehabilitating members of the community in a positive way, and I could see my son, and others, at horse shows, all without the litigation and negative publicity that has ensued.
The AHSA has not responded, leaving me no other alternative but the court system. That I would still like to work with horses and young riders is unthinkable, given the nature of my offenses. But I think that a journalist would have checked more carefully before writing what he knew would be an inflammatory article. I do not have a justification for my offenses. I broke the law and I paid for it. However, my offenses centered around insurance fraud and threatening words said in the heat of the moment.
Our proposals to the AHSA have always considered the fact that I have never abused horses in my care. Anyone who knows me and how my barn cares for horses knows this. Horses have been my life. I have never treated those in my care with anything but respect and love. That continues to this day.
Through the years, I have helped several young or less-affluent riders pursue their careers by providing them horses, lessons, equipment and housing at my barn without compensation or expectation of repayment. I started with nothing and worked my way up, so I felt this was something I owed to the sport.
When considering my rehabilitation, I would suggest that the AHSA weigh in good faith my lifetime of care and respect for horses against an indirect involvement in insurance fraud, for which I have paid my debt to society.
Again, none of this was ever about questioning the AHSA’s authority to ban me from competing and training or to have sole discretion over possible reinstatement. It was, and continues to be, only about spectating, being with my son and friends at horse shows like any other citizen, and designing a mutually beneficial road map to rehabilitation with the AHSA.
Finally, I would like to address Mr. Strassburger’s “Timothy McVeigh” reference. If anyone is “delusional,” it is whoever compares me, and the facts of what I did, with the premeditated murder of 167 human beings. I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the past few years, but this is from some other universe.
Other irresponsible, flippant remarks by Mr. Strassburger, such as his VCR reference, do nothing but further poison the atmosphere and make a reasonable settlement of my differences with the AHSA more difficult.
This article was first published on Nov. 26, 1999, in The Chronicle of the Horse. It's part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.