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Beezie Madden: On memories, medals, mapping it out for Rio – and maintaining the privilege factor

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Beezie Madden and her double bronze medalist from the 2014 World Championships Cortes 'C'. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Beezie Madden and her double bronze medalist from the 2014 World Championships Cortes 'C'. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

Meeting Beezie Madden, made us feel slightly star struck: Two Olympic team gold medals, one Olympic individual bronze, double silver and bronze medals from the World Championships, three Pan Am Games medals and one World Cup Trophy – that’s just some of the highlights that help sum up the American rider’s career.

As cold as ice in the ring, we were wondering if she would be the same in person – but luckily Madden is one for a good laugh too. When asked about her ability to stay both cold and cool when performing, Beezie says: “I would be lying if I say I don’t get nervous, but I am quite in control of my nerves. On the other hand, I am not a person who gets overly-excited either: I think I am quite level-headed that way. Maybe that comes across as a little boring sometimes, but I think I communicate this calmness to the horses too. For me, it is what makes me concentrate the best – and I believe our sport is a real game of concentration for both rider and horse.”

Madden comes across as more than level-headed outside the ring too. Despite decades of success, the 52-year-old has both feet firmly on the ground and credits much of her success to her long-time owner Abigail Wexner as well as her loyal team that has looked pretty much the same for the last twenty years. “Mrs. Wexner has played a huge part of my success,” Beezie says. “We have been so lucky to have her support me with such good horses, and the relationship has lasted for almost fifteen years. These days you can not do it without somebody like her, at least without somebody like her it would be really, really difficult.”

Speaking about Mrs. Wexner’s involvement, Madden reflects: “She rides a little bit herself and loves the horses. She also loves the challenge. You know; even if you have enough money to spend, it is still so difficult to make it in the top of the sport and it is not only about finding a great horse. You have to find it at the right time of its career as well, and manage it the right way. I think Mrs. Wexner loves the competition of the actual competition, but also of trying to be the one to have the next really good horse.”

Equally important, is her team says Madden: “Clark and Sue have been with us for the last 23 years, and Emily for at least 10. At home we have Amy, that has been with us for 24 years.” And how does she keep her staff so loyal? “I hope we treat them well, and I hope they enjoy the success while at the same time they see that we treat the horses good. I also hope that they feel responsible for the success too,” she smiles. “My husband John is of course also extremely important; he heads the team and helps to manage everything going on next to the riding. Our long-time relation with Johan Heins is also invaluable for both John and me; Johan gives us a home away from home when we are here in Holland and helps us both train and find horses.”

Madden did not start out with big sponsors and a huge team though, but as a working student for Katie Prudent. “While I went to junior college in Virginia, I started to ride with Katie Prudent because she was in Virginia at that time. I got a job as a working student with her in the summer, and when I graduated Katie offered me a job. I took that instead of going to University – which was my plan – because I did not know what I was going to pick as a major,” she laughs. “I knew I liked the horses though, and my parents were very supportive so I went for that option.”

2013 World Cup Champion Simon stretching in the huge grass ring at Johan Heins' yard in the north of Netherlands, Beezie's base during many months of the year.
2013 World Cup Champion Simon stretching in the huge grass ring at Johan Heins' yard in the north of Netherlands, Beezie's base during many months of the year.

Beezie stayed for five years with Katie before she moved on to work with the man who was to become her husband; John Madden. “I started working with John in 1987. I had already met him while working at Katie’s, as he was employed there too – then he branched out starting his own business. He moved to a farm in Wisconsin, a beautiful stable. Meeting my mother at a horse show, John said he wished he could get somebody like me to come and work for him. She simply replied; ‘Well, why don’t you ask’”, Beezie laughs. “And I said yes.”

Katie Prudent played an important role in Beezie’s career, and is described by Madden as an awesome teacher. “But, when people send horses to Katie it was for her to ride. So, if I wanted to make the step to become the number one rider somewhere I had to move on.,” she reflects on her decision to start working with John. “The most important thing I learned during my time with Katie, was perhaps to be a bit more aggressive. I was making the transition from hunters to jumpers, and I remember so well the first time she described how I should ride the jump-off course and I was like ‘Wow’!” Beezie laughs. “I think I really had to learn that, as well as getting the horses more responsive and sharper.”

Moving on to work for John, Beezie’s wish of being the number one rider came true. It would be Northern Magic that really put her on the map. “John got him from Linda Southern when he was five, and she had all kind of soundness problems with him so she kind of said ‘Take him, and if he gets too lame put him in the field’. But, he got better and went on to do a lot of really good things. He was the horse that came with me for my first Nations Cups in Europe back in 1989. I remember we were double clear in Rome, and I also jumped in Aachen with him. It was a lot different back then, but we were lucky as we knew Johan Heins and he hooked us up with some of the Dutch guys so we got shipped to some of the places we were going to compete. And, we did not have much money so we really had to win something – but we somehow made it,” she laughs.

Of all her horses, it would be Judgement – her 2002 World Championship ride – that gave Beezie her biggest challenge. “He was such a big and heavy horse – at least for a girl like me. Judgement had tremendous scope; like something I had never felt before,” she smiles. “When he came to us from Michael Matz he was quite spooky about the water though because he had had an accident once falling in it, and I was just a smallish girl and remember thinking ‘Well, Michael could not get him over the water, what am I going to do?’” she laughs. “Judgement had so much talent and so much ability, but he was a bit of a stallion – he liked some places and did not like other places so in a way it was hard to depend on him. Yet if the Olympics were at Spruce Meadows, I would have ridden Judgement,” Beezie jokes. “He was just amazing at certain venues, like at Spruce where he won the $1,000,000 CN International.”

“He was the little horse that could not really do it, but went away and did it anyway!” That is how Beezie describes her double Olympic gold medalist Authentic; a horse very close to Beezie’s heart. “We got Authentic already when he was six, and before that I rode him off and on when I was at Johan Heins’ stables. Actually, we tried to sell him a few times – but he always screwed up,” Beezie laughs. “And luckily so, because finally Elizabeth Busch Burke bought him for me – and he was the one who took me to my first Olympics.”

Beezie Madden's road to Rio is well underway, and requires she spends the summer months in Europe with her horses and team.
Beezie Madden's road to Rio is well underway, and requires she spends the summer months in Europe with her horses and team.

And at only nine years of age, Authentic won his first gold medal for the American team in Athens. But, it was circumstances that brought him there when Beezie’s other top horse Desilvio was injured. “Desilvio and Authentic were kind of neck to neck in the run towards the Olympics. But, then Desilvio got hurt before the last day of the Olympic Trials and that is how Authentic went to the 2004 Games –  because he ended up jumping double clear the last day,” she says looking back. And, just like on numerous other occasion it would be Abigail Wexner – who actually owned Desilvio at this time – that secured Authentic for Beezie. After the 2004 Olympics, Mrs. Wexner made sure a possible sale was avoided when she bought Authentic herself – keeping one of the greatest partnerships of all times together for more medals and memories.

“Authentic was one of the smartest horses I ever had; he just knew what he was supposed to do,” Beezie tells of the horse that helped her to no less than five medals at the Olympics and World Championships. “And he liked it; at the big venues he would drag me into the ring. Like at the American Invitational – which he won twice – he would pull me into the ring, and when I left the reins to go out of the ring he would turn and go back. I never had a horse like that!” Then she laughs and says: “He was a good hearted horse, but if you wanted to trick him into something that was not going to happen! You definitely had to respect his intelligence.”

Authentic would also be the horse to bring Beezie double silver at the 2006 World Championships. “It sounds funny, especially because of the two team Olympic gold medals I have won – but probably one of the favourite weeks of my career was the one of the World Championships in Aachen. We won team silver, and I won the individual silver – we had a jump-off and I had the last fence down – but that whole week was so amazing. I remember we were doing the prize giving after the team competition, and instead of galloping the lap of honour everybody walked while the crowd was going crazy. I was walking next to McLain, and he said ‘I don’t think we will ever experience something quite like this in our life time again’. And it was so true,” Beezie smiles.

Filling the shoes of Authentic would not be easy, but Cortes ‘C’ and Simon – two of Madden’s top horses over the last years – have managed pretty well. Cortes ‘C’ won double bronze at the 2014 World Championships and was crowned best horse overall following the top four final and Simon won the 2013 World Cup Final. What do all her best horses have in common we ask Beezie? “All of the best ones rise to the occasion when you go in the ring,” she says. “Horses for the top sport of course need the jumping ability, but the temperament is also a huge part of it: Whether the horse is trainable and if it seems like it is intelligent enough. All of these things are difficult to pick out an early stage though, or when trying a horse.”

The success rate for finding horses with all these factors seems quite high for Beezie and John Madden. “You have probably never seen the ones we made mistakes with,” Beezie laughs. “No, honestly I think we have had very few big mistakes – knock on wood. We maybe had some horses that we had higher hopes for, and where they did not turn out as good as expected – but, we were pretty careful buyers. We are also lucky that way with Mrs. Wexner as she does not pressure us with wanting ten horses, and ‘We got to get them know’ – she is very patient and waits for the right one to come along. So, it is for us to find them,” Beezie reflects.

And now she has found some good ones, that are coming through behind Cortes and Simon. The 10-year-old Breitling LS and the 8-year-old Coach are two of Beezie’s big hopes for the future. “Breitling kind of does everything so well that it can be almost boring to ride him,” she laughs. “He is beautiful to ride on the flat and a beautiful jumper – very rideable, also in the ring. For him it is a matter of getting experience to be able to focus on the job in any kind of situation.” 

Beezie with the promising Breitling LS: "He is right about to be my top horse too".
Beezie with the promising Breitling LS: "He is right about to be my top horse too".

As to her philosophy of working her horses, Madden says; “I try to encourage the horse to work with me, but at the same time it is important that you have respect from them. They can be friendly and be your pet, but you also need respect because they are big animals. This is especially important when you have situations where you need them to focus, and not be distracted by other things. So, I work a lot on their responsiveness to my leg and my hand to keep them sharp enough to react when I need to,” she says. “I see a little habit of many riders working a bit too slow all the time, with almost too much collection and too much ease – and that is great, but when you get into the arena it is not all like that. Then they need to be able to do the galloping and still listen to you, so I try to incorporate this when I work them. Always try to get the flat work better, that is my best advice.”

Beezie’s perspective on the sport is that the horse has to come first. “I think that with the big prize money we see nowadays in the top sport there is a tendency that the horses sometimes can become tools to win that money. I think you see horses showing more than they used to. I believe we really have to try to maintain the fact that it is a privilege to get to work with these animals,” she says.

Madden’s respect for the horses shines through during our entire conversation. When asked about the key to her success, she replies: “I think the horses I had through the years taught me a lot.” Then she adds; “With the years you also get more confidence, and believe more in the fact that you can do it because you’ve done it before. That helps a lot.”

That is also why American Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland probably will rely on Beezie as one of his key players for this year’s Olympics in Rio. “I hope I have a spot on the team,” says Madden modestly. “I think we have a lot of depth with strong riders, and I really want to be a part of it. I think we have a real front-runner in McLain, especially with Azur – but I would take him on Rothchild too!” she laughs. As to herself, she tilts towards Cortes as her first choice for Rio: “I would lean more towards Cortes right now as Simon is 17. I also think Breitling could do it. It is possibly a little too soon for him, but I want to stay opened minded because maybe it will be his time. He is right about to be my top horse too, although he does not have as much experience as other 10-year-olds,” she says.

It seems like there is little time in Beezie’s life for anything but the horses. With four students, and a schedule that usually is divided between Wellington, Spruce Meadows and Europe – where her base is at Johan Heins’s beautiful stables in the North of Netherlands – there is no surprise that Madden’s days never get boring. “I am not home much,” she says. “I think this year I have been home six days out of the year.”

“That is what is nice about what I do though: There are no normal days – all of them are different. We have a beautiful house at home though and a lovely farm, so with time I would like to spend more of my days there. Working with my husband, people sometimes ask if it is not difficult to work together like we do, but I probably would never see him if I did not,” she laughs.

Does she ever get time to do anything else at all, we ask her? “Sometimes, we take a vacation – we have gone skiing and stuff like that,” but when asked about her last holiday she quickly admits with a smile that it was several years ago already. The Maddens have no ordinary life.

For this summer, Madden will stay in Europe though to focus on the observation events selected for the American team. “This year is the first in a long time that we are not going to Spruce Meadows, because I have to do the observation trials here in Europe. I do not want to go back and forwards to feel I don’t do either to the maximum. Because, this I need to do 100 %!”


Text © Jannicke Naustdal // Pictures © Jenny Abrahamsson



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