The Smallest One Was Madeline Part II: A Little Mare Rises to the Top

Baby Ocala 2* 2008 (8 yrs old Intermediate 2*). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon


2018 Equestrian Voices Distinguished Entry

Madeline, the tiny red mare who was never meant to be anything more than a sales project and predicted to go no higher than Training, was about to go Intermediate. In a sport dominated by large geldings at the upper levels, Madeline was an anomaly. Would she be over-faced?

In the winter of 2007, Madeline came out at Intermediate and placed 6th at Pine Top; in April she won MCTA at Shawan Downs; that summer she came in 4th at the Stuart International CIC** event and 5th at the Ocala International CCI** in the fall. Her speed, balance and agility during cross-country were getting attention—especially in light of her diminutive size. If she could just settle in the dressage ring, she could be unbeatable. After Madeline’s success at the 2-star level, Holly and Jill started thinking the unthinkable—could Madeline move up to Advanced?

Eventing at Advanced is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Dressage incorporates half-passes, flying changes, canter serpentines, and turns on the haunches—comparable to USDF 3rd level dressage. Stadium includes up to 15 efforts at 4”1’— comparable to 1.25 meter jumper classes. And there’s cross-country—galloping over 3.5 miles of mixed terrain to face 45 possible solid jumps at a pace that exceeds 21 miles per hour (to make the time). Obstacles across the course (humbly referred to as “questions”) range in size from 3.11 feet for fixed obstacles and 4.7 feet for brush (each with exceptional spreads). Ditches may spread 11.10 feet across and drops can plunge 6.7 feet down into water. The sheer fitness required to compete in all three Advanced phases is exceptional—in short, this ain’t no place for the weary kind.

Baby Fairhill International 3* 2008 (8 yrs old) (Top Placing Mare). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

After a lot of hard work and problem solving, Holly and Madeline rode as “one.” On cross country, Madeline was light on her feet, covering the ground with large galloping strides for a little horse. When Holly looked left, she’d turn left; Holly looked right, she’d turn right. Sometimes obstacles were narrow—skinnies, chevrons, and corners—making the precise approach to the jump critical with no room for error. When approaching drops 6.5 feet down into muddy waters, Holly sat back and let the reins go almost to the buckle while she looked out toward the next obstacle. She trusted Madeline would do her job, and Madeline trusted Holly would give her the means to do so.

The last thing Holly wanted to do was betray Madeline’s trust. By this time, she felt Intermediate was easy for Madeline, but worried if Madeline could physically make the distances between the advanced combinations on course—the strides between the jumps. Holly knew that Madeline wouldn’t stop, she was a brave heart after all. But could she clear the advanced spreads if she took off too long, or too short? With the preservation of her horse first and foremost on her mind, Holly rode with a plan in place. During cross-country, she would take one jump at a time and pull up immediately if anything felt off—or if the effort felt too great. The following spring in March of 2008, Holly competed Madeline Advanced at Southern Pines Horse Trials and placed 4th. Once again, dressage was the only sticky point.

Fairhill 2008 3* jog. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

That season, Madeline defied the odds and landed in the top-10 and top-5 placings at almost all of her Advanced competitions. Sporting their signature purple and white eventing colors, Holly and Madeline got a lot of attention in the fall at the Fair Hill International CCI*** with their picture-perfect cross-country ride—only 1.2 time penalties—that moved them almost 20 places up after dressage. Madeline was named Top Mare at the event. After their success, it was strongly suggested that the pair travel to England to compete at the Blenheim Palace International CCI*** Horse Trials—an international experience overseas could give them the exposure they needed to be considered for the Team USA developing rider list.

In August of 2009, Holly and Madeline flew to England just 3 weeks prior to the prestigious event. There they would train with international eventing couple Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks at their equestrian facility. After not being able to move much on the long flight and subsequent trailer ride to her new accommodations, Madeline was turned out in a thick emerald green field. Once in that field, she decided to stay put. “We couldn’t catch her in the morning,” Holly smiled. “In fact, we couldn’t really catch her for 24 hours.”

Blenheim Palace 2009 3* (9 yrs old) England. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

In front of a Palace covered with vines there stood 98 horses, the smallest one was Madeline.

Considered by many to be the best CCI*** event in the world, Blenheim Palace International is held on the 2,000 acre grounds of Blenheim Palace—a baroque estate in Oxfordshire, England. Home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, the Palace is surrounded by manicured gardens and stately fountains. Among the competitors, most are well-seasoned and many are former Olympic team members from different countries. The field of horses—mostly geldings—typically stand 16-18+ hands and have plenty of mileage on their side. At Blenheim, Madeline and Holly stood out.

Blenheim Palace 2009 3* (9 yrs old) England. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

At the age of 9, Madeline was not only young, and a mare, she was by far the smallest of the horses to compete. Holly was also one of the youngest riders to compete. Without the age and experience of her fellow competitors, no doubt she was anxious walking the bold and complex cross-country course. Just to be able to complete Blenheim—to finish all 3 phases without elimination, withdrawal, or retirement—is a feat in and of itself. Out of the 98 entries, 28 pairs failed to finish. Holly and Madeline rose to the occasion and stayed in sync to finish in the top third of the field. Holly and Madeline’s performance at Blenheim caught the attention of US Olympic Coach, Captain Mark Phillips and earned them a spot on the US Olympic training team.

Blenheim Palace 2009 3* (9 yrs old) England. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

Unexpected Success. Unexpected Setbacks:

Team Madeline was on a high returning from England—who would have thought the tiny, naughty chestnut mare would become a nimble cross-country machine—a brave hearted competitor who had lived up to her French namesake? The trip to England gave Madeline the validation she deserved and a door to the Olympic dream. It also gave her a resistant strain of strongyles that went undetected while she rested on vacation. When the season resumed in the winter of 2010, Madeline appeared skinnier than usual but excelled at her first 2 advanced competitions with top placings. However, in April at the Fork CIC*** she fell at the water drop during cross country. “She collapsed under me…she just felt uncharacteristically weak.” Holly immediately retired her on course and, together with Jill, agreed to give her more time off. Sadly this meant she wouldn’t compete at Rolex and would be dropped from the Olympic Training Team. In her current state of health, she wasn’t a contender.

Four months later Madeline was back at Advanced with a solid finish at nationals. By the end of the fall season, the pair had placed 2nd at Morven Park with an impressive dressage score. The next two seasons however, would first see Madeline, then Holly, take a hiatus from eventing to heal—Madeline for a leg injury and Holly for a crushed foot after a young prospect slipped and fell underneath her, shattering her navicular and four other bones. Although none of these setbacks truly stopped them from competing, they did close the door to the Olympic Team.

Blenheim Palace 2009 3* (9 yrs old) England Brittish Eventing Magazine. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

For the next 4 years, Madeline and Holly would stay at the top of the leaderboard at Advanced—a spectator favorite, the pair was regularly featured on event posters and show guides. To those who knew her journey—from unlikely odds and fiery temperament to an eager-to-please cross-country powerhouse—Madeline may not have been an Olympic hopeful, but she was an inspirational symbol of what was possible.

Baby Stuart 2* – first place 2010. Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

One of the hardest parts about owning top level horses in any equestrian sport is knowing when to retire them—especially one who is consistently game, still athletic, and always placing. Madeline showed no true signs of stopping. She was innately competitive and enjoyed solving the cross-country “questions” put in front of her. She had become the devoted mare who would go the distance for her rider, even at a price. At the age of 14, Holly and Jill decided that it was in Madeline’s best interest to retire from the upper levels of eventing while she was still sound and happy. “She is a very special little horse,” wrote Holly “with a huge heart and deserves the best.” Today Madeline lives at Far Away Farm where she allows her owner Jill to ride her in dressage.

Baby Rolex 4* 2012 (12 years old). Photo courtesy of Jill Gordon

Small Madeline’s Big Accomplishments:

Top Mare at Fair Hill International CCI*** three years in a row

Team USA Training List 2009

Best Conditioned Horse at Fair Hill International CCI*** 2011

1st place at the 2012 Movern Park Championships

1st at Stuart CIC** 2012

Amanda Warrington Trophy

Top Placing Mare Perpetual Trophy

Top 10 Mare / USA Eventing

Click here for part I

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

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