When her horse Authentic retired, Beezie Madden needed another show jumping partner that was the real deal.
Will Cortes “C” rise to the occasion in Rio? When the U.S. Olympic Show Jumping Team was announced Wednesday, Madden was named to her fourth Olympic squad with Cortes “C” her third Olympic horse.
“I think we are good together because he is an exceptionally good horse and we have been together for over five years now,” Madden said after competing last week in Rotterdam in the final test for U.S. riders. “We know each other very well.”
Aboard Authentic, Madden won Olympic team show jumping gold medals in 2004 and 2008, as well an individual bronze in 2008, making the horse the most decorated in Olympic history.
“When he retired, I didn’t have any intention of retiring myself,” said Madden, who at age 52 is the oldest female athlete on Team USA so far. “I was hoping to find another horse (so I) could do the Olympic Games again.”
Prior to London four years ago, Madden narrowed the search for Authentic’s replacement down to three horses – Coral Reef Via Volo, Cortes “C” and Simon. Team selectors chose Coral Reef Via Volo as Madden’s Olympic mount. Unfortunately, the horse refused to complete a combination jump and Madden dropped in the individual standings. In team competition, the U.S. placed sixth.
This year, Madden auditioned Cortes “C,” Simon and Breitling LS – like Authentic, all are owned by philanthropist Abigail Wexner – though she also rode other horses in events.
Jumping is “a little like the feeling of flight,” Madden said. “And I’d say some of the best horses that I’ve sat on, they jump with such ease that it’s almost like they’re just floating through the air.”
Simon sustained an injury earlier this year that kept him from being ready for Rio. While Breitling LS was also on the nominated entry list, “Cortes seems like the one on the best form,” Madden said.
The horse has a cross-legged jumping style that is distinctive, and Madden added, “He is the friendliest horse.” Around the barn, the massive Belgian Warmblood gelding is known as “Tiny.”
To have a successful relationship, horse and rider must develop communication and trust. Each course is different, and riders get only one chance to inspect it before competition – without their horses. Riders pace off the distance to decide how many strides they’ll do. They must guide the horse over 14 fences – going over rails more than five feet high as well as water jumps – while trying to finish in the time allowed.
“They have to trust what we’re telling them and that we’re going to do everything in our best interest to make their job as easy as possible,” Madden said. “It’s a little like a basketball team that gets together. You need to know what everybody’s going to do and just learning to react without thinking about it can take a couple of years or more.”
In May 2014, Madden was aboard Breitling LS when they fell during a competition. Both got back on their feet, and while the horse was not injured, Madden had a broken collarbone.
“There was a little confusion,” Madden said. “It was a water obstacle with a young horse. He thought I meant to go and it was one stride too early and he didn’t make it across. It happens.”
After surgery and a six-week hiatus, Madden went into the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, with Cortes “C.” Madden won individual and team bronze medals while Cortes “C” earned the Best Horse title and was also 2014 USEF International Horse of the Year.
“A good horse obviously has a lot of jumping talent, but that’s only one thing,” Madden said. “They need to be careful – not want to hit the fences. They need to be healthy. They need to have a great temperament where you can actually train the horse and they want to work with you.”
And she said, they must “have a quality of wanting to win and be a winner. That’s the hardest thing to tell. We can tell the jumping talent. We can have the vet look at the horse – he doesn’t have a crystal ball either about the health, but he has some idea. You have some idea about the way the horse looks, whether it’s going to be quality or not, but really the hardest thing is whether they have the temperament and the will to win. You don’t know that really till you get going.”
The rider’s temperament is also a factor. “For sure, I think the rider needs a pretty even temperament,” Madden said. “It’s bad to have temper ever involved when you’re training with the horses, so you need a lot of patience with that."
The even-keeled Madden has been around horses her whole life. Her parents had horses and rode, so she grew up going to the stable with them every day.
“I loved it right from the start,” said Madden, who was nicknamed after her grandmother although the FEI, the international equestrian federation, calls her “Elizabeth” on its website. “Even before I was old enough to sit on a horse, I sat on the saddles that were on the saddle rack and pretended I was riding a horse, so I was really into it.”
Madden’s first horse was named Flicka.
She started competing when she was 6 or 7 years old and realized she loved that aspect of the sport as well. Madden was the first woman and American to break into top three in show jumping world rankings and also was the first female rider to surpass $1 million in earnings.
“So I’m able to do two passions in one thing,” Madden said. “I’m really lucky what I do as a hobby I can do for my profession and do it at Olympic level.”
Madden and her husband John, who is also her coach and 1st vice president of the FEI, own a business, John Madden Sales, in Cazenovia, New York.
“We have students that we teach and we’re also trying to develop young horses and bring them along to be at that top level, too,” she said “because you have to kind of keep replacing.”
Cortes “C” is 14, the same age Authentic was when he retired, but Madden has other prospects in the pipeline.
While she rode Cortes “C” in the FEI Nations Cup and Grand Prix in Rotterdam last week, placing fifth in the team event and 13th individually, Madden won the O’Seven Prirjs CHIO5* aboard Coach, an 8-year-old, she got last summer that is also owned by Wexner.
She still sees Authentic all the time. The horse, nicknamed “Bud,” is at the Madden farm. “He loves to be out in the field,” Madden said. “He has a shed he can come into, and we bring him into a stall every now and then and maybe the blacksmith comes. But all he wants to do is go back out again, so I think he’s enjoying his retirement.”
But Madden isn’t ready to take it easy just yet. “I always knew it was a sport you do for a long time, which is part of the appealing part about it,” she said. “I try to keep myself fit and I love what I do. so it’s not hard to get up in the morning and go do what you need to do.”
And now that means pursuing another Olympic medal. “At the Olympic Games,” Madden said, “just knowing what to expect when you get there and having the experience of doing it before is huge.”