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A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN MADDEN: Ride “for the right reason – because you love the horse -- and then just have one goal, which is to try to get better” 

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Monday morning, and John Madden

is driving a horse van from back from

competition in Michigan to the

Cazenovia farm that is home base for

him and his wife, Olympic and World

Cup show jumping champion Beezie

Madden. New York Horse caught up

with Madden on the 12-hour drive

and the trainer, coach and

horseman – whose biography includes

terms as First Vice President of the

FEI and Chair of the FEI Jumping

Committee – shared his thoughts

on topics from riding better to the future

of equestrian sport.  


​ ​​New York Horse magazine 

  STORIES. ADVICE. HORSEPLAY.

You’ve said that the key to success in show jumping comes down to three words: The right horse. Talent is probably the easiest factor to glean initially. Give us some insight into your process on the intangibles, on choosing a horse that has what it takes to compete.

One of the things that’s important, even before that, if you agree with those three words, is you must define what the right horse is for the right job. A grand prix horse, like Beezie’s Garant for example, wouldn’t be good for pulling a beer wagon. For that you need a different body type, a different temperament. I think you really have to understand what the right horse is for the right purpose.

Once you know what you want the

orse to excel at, then it becomes much

more common – common as in common

factors – and what I’m always looking

for is a good expression, a willingness

to do what you want it to do. If you

want a pleasure horse, is that horse

always looking around or is it relaxed

and willing? With one of our grand prix

horses, we’re not as concerned if

they’re fractious about new surroundings.

Depending on the job, you assess the

attitude, the mentality, the willingness

to do the job you want. 

I was just looking at a ‘Day in the Life’

video on your Facebook page, in which

Beezie credits you with doing “a lot of the teaching.”  What is your best advice to help anyone, at any level, to ride better?

My simple short feeling about this is: Do it for the right reason – because you love the horse -- and then just have one goal, which is to try to get better. It’s not a comparison. It’s not what Beezie is doing. It’s what you’re doing; how you love your horse.

You can’t love something if you don’t know how to, so educate yourself. That’s really big for me, because horses have all different levels of talent. it’s not what we want them to do, it’s what they’re capable of achieving. We can’t put fake goals on our horses of wanting them to do something they cannot do.

Our goal should be just to improve.

 You’re on the Board of Directors of Haygain and were among the first Americans to embrace the idea of feeding steamed hay. You’ve credited it with returning one of your top jumpers, Cortes C, to peak performance.  Many of our readers will be unfamiliar with the story and with steamed hay. How and why did you became sold on its benefits for all your horses?

 A lot of the tradition we follow in the equestrian world is based on the experiences of people before us who had success. I’m a real traditionalist and it’s not easy for me to change. What is easy for me is to follow science.

I am very easily convinced by science – just as long as it’s good science – and there’s a lot of good science behind good hay.  Steaming the hay, and having the steam kill many of the bad things in the hay, it makes sense for it to be beneficial to the horse

Cortes was having problems

with stomach ulcers and he was

not performing well. He started

out really successful, and then he

went off a cliff. We (switched him

to steamed hay) and he turned

around immediately. He went on to

be named the best horse at the

2014 FEI World Equestrian Games

and win the King George Gold Cup.

I really believe in treating horses

as naturally as possible. Letting

them be turned out is very important … We have to recognize that we expose horses to a lot of stress. In the old days, when

we didn’t travel as much, all the

microorganisms in the hay were local and weren’t as big of a deal because it was in the horse’s environment. That’s not true anymore, and steaming helps us tremendously.

 “Change or be changed.” You said that in 2016, when you were FEI 1st vice president, about the show jumping format at the Olympics. In 2020, with an equestrian landscape altered by Covid-19 and a national conversation about race and diversity, those words seem more relevant than ever.

I think we have to evolve. In evolution sometimes there’s pain. People don’t love to change, but we must.

We don’t need to change for the sake of change, but we need to change for the sake of good things. We need to be more transparent; we need to be more diverse and inclusive. We need to find a way to create a new reality that’s even better than the old one.

That comes from people. The more diverse and inclusive – and more loving and kind and polite we can be – that will bring us a future none of can even dream of, and that will be a better future.

 Along similar lines, what fixes should be done at the lower levels of showing that would have a positive trickle up effect? Likewise, what efforts need to be done at the upper levels that could have a positive effect on the grass roots of the industry?

At the lower levels I think education, absolutely, is the most important thing. How does that trickle up? Very simple. Many generations before me played with horses. It was completely natural for them, just like 6- or 8-year-olds play with a computer today.

I really believe that understanding the tools, understanding the business and understanding the horses, is what stirs our creative genius. Otherwise it’s just a hack. So we need an incredibly broad net to get the very best, the very few, that will take their genius to lead us into the future.

 ...I think Beezie and I try to keep what we do in perspective. It’s got nothing to do with what we do, but everything to do with how we do it. Beezie is an excellent role model. And I think that’s what the top end can do: be a role model. Put your horse first and love your horse.

 Let’s take that same conversation to a more personal level. There was to be a change in focus for you after the Tokyo Olympics. The summer games are on hold now for 2021. Whither Team Madden?

 I look at this as what we’re going to rather

than what we’re going away from. It’s

probably difficult for some people to

understand, but we’re 110 percent committed

to representing our country. At the same

time, we’re so excited about what the future

brings: developing horses and riders so

other people can go to championships, putting

a tremendous amount of effort into helping

the United States continue to be successful.

It’s not possible to emphasize enough the

commitment we have, but the priority will be for other people to buy our horses and train with us and become the next representative for the U.S. It seems like a very natural, very exciting progression.

 Final thoughts are yours, on any topic you want …

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I just hope everybody can take time to realize we’re all in this together. We’re hurtling through space on this tiny little rock, and I just hope everybody can try to be loving and kind and polite to each other.

Just try. It’s important to say try. All we can do is try.​