Frank Madden Finds Opportunity in the Delayed Season

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BY ELYSE SCHENK

Thriving in the Spring sunshine of Wellington, Florida, top equitation trainer Frank Madden is hopeful for the 2020 show season. Currently, horse shows aren’t set to begin until early May (tentatively), but he’s using the extra time to perfect the basics and adapt new goals for his students.

“I think [our students] are at an advantage. Being in Florida, we’re able to ride outside and continue training as normal.” Madden recognizes that other programs are less fortunate being in parts of the country with stricter policies and higher COVID rates. “Riders in the northeast are facing issues like inclement weather and more restrictions,” preventing ideal preparation for the horse shows to eventually come. He’s grateful for his easier circumstances. Wellington has been a blessing for the Capital Hill team.

As for the horses’ programs, Madden explains that fitness has become slightly less important now than during a normal horse show season. “[The horses] are already at a high aerobic capacity, which they normally have after the WEF season.” Although they were already very fit from the winter circuit, “the horses’ fitness levels have decreased maybe 20% since then,” Madden estimates, less concerned about maximizing fitness without immediate upcoming shows.

That’s not to say that training is on hold—the horses are far from vacationing. The Capital Hill team is instead prioritizing technical work over intense physical fitness. They’re focusing on technique and fine tuning the details of training, such as sharpness to the aids and lead change exercises. The extra time without traveling to competitions allows them to advance their horses’ rideability.

Since the premature end of the winter circuit in Wellington, his students have been able to address their riding weaknesses as well. “We’ve been using the extra time [without competition] to really be thorough in our training. We’re really focusing on the details,” Madden explains. When asked if he views the delayed show season as an opportunity, as opposed to a set back, he says “absolutely.” This is bonus time for fundamental growth. 

Going beyond standard riding lessons, “it’s been nice to have extra time to review things like course design,” and teaching other topics that time doesn’t typically permit within a hectic show schedule. The Capital Hill students are making lemonade from lemons by transforming time off from competition into a productive period to become well-rounded.

When asked how his students are coping emotionally with the shortened show season, he cites positive attitudes overall. The forgiving Florida conditions and focus on fundamental riding improvements have diluted the disappointment of the uncertain season. 

However, for riders in their last junior year, such as his step-daughter Taylor, the shortened season is particularly disappointing. The premature end of the WEF circuit consequently cancelled the highly anticipated Excellence In Equitation championship that normally takes place for riders who qualify at the end of the season. With it being Taylor’s final season, “she’s disappointed to miss [that class],” along with other coveted shows, such as Devon, Madden somberly explains. 

“She’s a real contender this year,” after topping many equitation classes this winter and placing high at indoor equitation finals last year. They “hope for things to get back to normal soon, safely,” for Taylor and all of the students at Capital Hill. Madden’s hopes are high for them. His hope manifests as optimism. 

Frank Madden believes in the strength of the horse community for life to return to normal. “The talk out there is horse shows will start up again soon by following state guidelines for safety,” Madden believes. Particularly, “there’s a lot of pressure on Dave Burton to set the standard for organizing the first [competition] back with safety in mind,” Madden comments on the prospective ESP show for May 6th. The first show back will have to prove the competence and seriousness of high level hunter/jumper show managers. This is the way forward into a continued, normal show season that everyone’s routing for. “I think [Burton] will do a great job,” emphasizes Madden’s optimism.

In terms of long-term industry effects, Madden says, “I never underestimate human nature… to return to tradition and what’s comfortable. After 911, I expected everything to change, but life eventually got back to normal.” Especially with the traditional tendencies of the hunter/jumper world, Madden expects a route back to normalcy. 

The resilience and flexibility of equestrians is what ultimately fuels Madden’s optimism. Madden states that “riders are some of the most resilient people. They’re very flexible when it comes to sudden change,” preparing them emotionally for the unprecedented effects of COVID-19. Equestrians understand that there are no guarantees when working with horses. Uncertainty always lingers. Riders are used to suddenly adapting to new goals—it’s all part of the sport. This resilience is pulling the community through the pandemic.


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