The Smallest One Was Madeline Part I: The Team That Tamed the Firecracker

Baby Poplar place 2004 (training) (4 years old). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon


2018 Equestrian Voices Distinguished Entry

A chestnut filly with an uncertain future stood just under 15 hands at an out-of-business equestrian center in Washington State. The only brassy chestnut in the field, the filly stood out from her two sisters with her inquisitive eyes, flashing auburn tail, and an intelligent quickness to her every movement.

The equestrian center was going to auction, and the horses would end up at auction too, unless promptly sold. Untried and unproven, it wasn’t an easy sell, but the plight of the equestrian center had come to the attention of Marilyn Payne—a well-known Olympic judge who was officiating at a recognized show in the area. Marilyn took the car ride out to the once bustling jumper barn. Knowing that all three fillies were out of the well-known jumper stallion, Mysterious Count, was promising.

Marilyn had a keen eye for horse potential, and she studied the little chestnut—the only registered thoroughbred among them. In equestrian lore, there are suspicions around the temperament of chestnut mares—unstable fiery redheads. Marilyn quickly concluded she had good conformation (just tiny) and likely some talent as Mysterious Count was a top jumper after all. The price was right to take a chance, so all three fillies were purchased and shipped to Applewood Farm.

One month after their arrival, the fillies were ready for homes but the chestnut,  bounced around. In need of a more permanent situation, Marilyn called her friend and student Jill Gordon, “This one is special.” Jill—an entomologist with a passion for horses and dogs—had a farm that housed her daughter’s childhood ponies along with 3 competition horses. Jill’s daughter Alex was eventing at the Intermediate level on an 18.1 hand mount named Jumbeau. A resale project, however, could help pay for her college education which was fast approaching. “Alex could learn a lot from training and selling a young horse like this,” Marilyn encouraged.

Baby VA horse trials 2005 (5 yrs old – training). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

On a cool fall day in September, Jill and Alex went to pick up the young chestnut mare. Now 15.1, they were immediately taken by the fact that she looked just like a teeny, tiny horse—Breyer cute. Before loading into the trailer, the local vet completed his exam with a heavy sigh, “All she’ll let me do is count her legs (pause) and she’s got 4 if you want to buy this thing.”

Unfazed by her uncooperative performance with the vet, Jill paid a nominal sales price and brought her home. They immediately named her Madeline after the spunky childhood character in the French book series by Ludwig Bemelmans. Madeline—the only redhead—was the smallest and bravest girl, the heroine who solved each story’s problem with quick-witted enthusiasm.

From the outset of training, it was clear that Madeline was smart—a quick learner and quick on her feet. She was an “always on-the-go” forward mover with a spook, but inherently brave. In fact, Madeline jumped most everything Alex put in front of her. “She would spook at a wheelbarrow she had seen 100 times, but light that same wheelbarrow on fire and ask her to jump it, and she would likely clear it.” The least experienced of the horses she was stabled with, it was Madeline who gave leads to the seasoned mounts across wooden bridges and scary ditches. Alex set out to train her as an eventing prospect

Baby VA horse trials 2005 (5 yrs old – training). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

Alex brought Madeline to her first event in February. Although she had beautiful movement at home, nerves stiffened her strides in the dressage ring; she was a solid jumper in stadium, but her accumulating speed dropped rails; she had an unquenchable thirst for cross-country, and this is where she shone brightest—uphill and light on her feet she was a springy redhead. She made it through the lower levels quickly. Her petite size and small-boned frame caused some to doubt her athletic ability. Alex was pulled aside at one show by a distinguished trainer and flatly told she would never handle cross-country above Training. But Madeline defied that prediction. Within 1 year of her first competition, she completed her first Preliminary event with no cross-country jumping penalties.

Alex left for the University of Virginia in August, and Madeline still hadn’t been put up for sale. She had grown into “a little ball of fire” having developed the unladylike habits of rearing and bolting. Jill took over the ride, trained with Marilyn, and started competing at Training with the goal of selling her that spring. “You would kind of hate her after dressage, but fall in love with her again after cross country.” Madeline’s shows were similar: anxiety in dressage, a gathering speed in show jumping, but a blast across cross country. Out of her first 16 shows, she placed in the top-10 only 6 times.

By spring, she was too hot to sell. Unmanageable for Jill alone, she reached out to Marilyn’s daughter, Holly Payne. Like her mother before her, Holly worked for every horse she ever owned, even selling her Advanced mount to finance her college education. Over the years, she earned her Pony Club “A” rating and level 3 ICP USEA training certification. Having just graduated from the University of North Florida—with no horse and no full-time job—Holly was in no position to be picky. “When you need money, you ride whatever.” With the goal of starting her own equestrian business, Holly took on Madeline in the spring of 2005.

It was not love at first sight. “I was not excited to take over the ride. She looked like a feral little redheaded mare with some behavioral problems.” Holly vaguely recalled seeing her jump out of a dressage ring at the Virginia Horse Trials in the middle of a test. The partnership started out rough. Madeline bolted every time Holly got on her back. Holly had to clear the indoor arena before she got on (so riders could avoid her unpredictable bucking and leaping). Madeline accelerated around jumps at “a million miles an hour.” She reared and spun to avoid work she wasn’t interested in doing. “It was not an enjoyable time. I dare say I hated riding her.”

But Holly had a job to do. Regardless of how she felt, she needed to settle Madeline down, finesse her training, give her confidence, and produce a clean show record so she could be sold. Over time, Madeline gave up bolting when she realized it just extended her training session. She reduced her speed over jumps as Holly jumped her over small courses with plenty of turns to calm and balance her between jumps. “She wasn’t easy, but she became more rideable.” The rearing and spinning did not subside as quickly. Holly needed to resolve it. No one would buy a lower level event horse with a rearing problem.

“I distinctly remember when I told myself that this was the day I had to beat it.” This particular morning, after Madeline reared and spun, Holly immediately galloped her in whatever direction she’d move forward in. After the gallop, Holly would quietly attempt to walk her back towards the ring. But Madeline would rear and spin again. As a consequence, she was galloped again. After an hour of rearing, spinning and galloping, Madeline finally walked quietly back to the ring, on a loose rein, for her training. The rearing stopped. On the rare occasion Madeline tried it again, she would quickly acquiesce after one short gallop.

Baby Morven 1* 2006 (6 yrs old – prelim 1*). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

After months of working with the redheaded rebel, Holly competed Madeline at Training that summer. They won Millbrook and Bucks County. By spring of 2006, she moved Madeline up to Preliminary and finished in the top 10 at every show—accumulating 6 top-5 placings—winning Plantation and placing 2nd at Groton House and Virginia. Madeline had a beautiful show record and was well-known as the feisty favorite at events. People were interested in buying her and now was the time to sell—but suddenly she was not for sale. Jill was smitten. Holly had embraced their partnership. And Madeline was feeling competitive. How far could she go?

Click here for part II

Ashley Donayre is an avid equestrian and freelance writer based in Tewksbury, New Jersey.

The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit