When the call came, I wept. Greg Ward, four-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit futurity winner, leading breeder of futurity winners, perennial supporter of the reined cow horse industry, had died December 6, 1998, of cancer. He was 63.
Just two months earlier, he'd claimed his fourth NRCHA Futurity world championship with the most inspirational performance I'd witnessed in 20 years of equine journalism. Visibly battling the illness that would kill him, he piloted his homebred stallion Reminics Pep, a fourth-generation futurity champion, to an astonishing 12-point victory.
The event he won has been called the triathlon of performance horses. It consists of herd work (similar to cutting), a reining pattern, and work with a single cow "down the fence." It's a grueling challenge for the hale and hearty. For Ward, whose medical treatments had included 17 hours of cancer surgery, then kidney stone removal, it was an ordeal. But he gutted it out, beating the likes of Bob Avila, Ted Robinson, Bobby Ingersoll, and Doug Williamson.
I thought of his hat, a battered straw Resistol, size 7 1⁄4, that I'd bought at an NRCHA fundraising auction in the '80s. It was then and is still sweat-stained and dirty, with smudged strips of double-stick tape inside the crown. The brim dips down in the front and back, as all of Ward's hats did, and so it reminds me of him.
I paid $40 for it, and would've gladly paid much, much more. Here's why.
A Dynasty Begins
Greg Ward was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, the son of a real-estate broker father and schoolteacher mother. His first real contact with horses came in high school, when he packed during the summertime for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. A gifted athlete, he also played varsity football, baseball, and basketball, but his hopes for an athletic scholarship were ruined when a tractor accident his senior year damaged his peripheral vision. He went on to study animal husbandry at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, where he competed on the rodeo team and began a lifelong love affair with roping.
In 1957, at the age of 21, he married his high-school sweetheart, Laura "Shorty" Odle. He then left college to earn a living as a ranch hand for Floyd Lamb in Alamo, Nevada, where he learned, to his chagrin, that "cowboying" had more to do with putting up hay than with riding horses. Later he returned to Bakersfield to work in the feedlots before landing a job as an apprentice with horse trainer Harry Rose. They became partners, and Ward was later fond of saying that he and the curmudgeonly horseman "split everything down the middle—Harry took the profits, and I took the losses."
In 1960, Ward went out on his own, establishing the Greg Ward training Stable in Porterville, California. He and Laura also started their family. (Son John went on to attend college on a baseball scholarship, later joining his father in horse training. Daughters Wende and Amy, also talented athletes who rode horses, are now both married with children.)
In 1962, at age 26, Ward made a purchase that was to alter the course of his life. With $3,000 borrowed from his mother, he bought a 4-year-old Quarter Horse he had in training. A smallish mare, she'd arrived in California with a carload of horses from a Clovis, New Mexico, sale yard. By a sire Ward said "nobody'd ever heard of" and out of a half-Thoroughbred mare, Fillinic was hot-tempered, sensitive, and quick as a cat. It was that catty athleticism and a deerlike lightness that convinced Ward he had to have her.
After a sensational show career, including wins at the premier stock-horse events of the day—the Salinas Rodeo and the Grand National Horse Show at the cow palace in San Francisco—Fillinic became a broodmare. Her 10 foals and their offspring changed the face of the Western-performance horse world and established a dynasty for the Ward ranch that includes the likes of cow-horse supersire Reminic, National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion Boomernic, and scores of cow horse snaffle bit futurity winners. See Ward's complete dossier.
It was the get and grand-get and great-grand-get of Fillinic—the fruits of a breeding program cannily orchestrated by Ward—that the horseman rode to such renown over four decades, the 1960s through the '90s.