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”
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.
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.