Top hunter/jumper/equitation trainer Frank Madden fell in love with the sport after his first pony ride at the age of 3. He competed successfully in hunters and jumpers as a junior, and soon after found his niche in the sport in teaching. Recognized as one of the most successful trainers of young talent, Frank’s students dominate the junior ranks and finals and he has been a fixture in the winner’s circle at all the major equitation finals for over four decades. In addition to teaching, Frank is a respected clinician, top “R” judge and the head trainer and owner of Capital Hill Show Stables in Middlefield, Connecticut.
I caught up with Frank at the Washington International Horse Show in October where Frank explained why he was drawn to teaching, his love of drag racing and how that influenced his teaching style, how he’s stayed passionate about the sport of the years and that one time he was more famous than Bruce Springsteen.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you listen to podcasts, but in the meantime, here is a snippet of our conversation.
How did you get started in riding?
It’s a little interesting because I was the first member of our family with any sort of passion for horses and it simply started with a dream of having a horse in my backyard which really just consisted of a pine grove—so it was really just a romantic thought. When I was about 3 years old, I ended up getting a Palomino rocking horse called “Pal,” so I practiced on him. At that point my parents knew nothing about horses or the sport. It turned into my first pony ride at a carnival. Sitting on that pony’s back in the saddle and seeing that long neck and ears and the mane was so neat. And then it turned into a Sunday drive (my dad loved to drive through Massachusetts looking at properties) and we came upon the Andover Riding Academy. It was the early 1960s and he ended up signing me up for my first riding lesson and it grew from there.
What is it about teaching that you love?
I love to see improvement. I love to see somebody as passionate about the sport as I am. I love that the sport and the passion can bring discipline and dedication and when I see all of that come together, it’s so exciting and it can be at any level. I love working with any level rider as long as there’s some passion and excitement and I’m able to see some growth.
I’ve done this as a professional for 4 ½ decades and there’s not a lot of totally new things coming down the pike for me, but I have to say I still love getting up and working with horses and with riders who love the sport and trying to create some sort of success there whether it’s at a local level or just a good safe level where people are trying to enjoy their horses or the level you see Jessica Springsteen or Brianne Goutal get to. Those are some past students who did well as Juniors and have gone on to be top riders internationally and they have a lot of passion for the sport.
Are there any people outside the sport that have influenced you?
I’ve always liked mechanical things and tractor trailers and racecars. There was a 10-year period of my life that I got involved with a sport that I was passionate for and the passion came from my father. The sport was drag racing. I got involved with it at a very low level and only raced at that low level a couple of times and soon realized I wanted to jump to a higher level, which was probably equivalent to riding in the High Amateur Jumpers.
I met this fellow who ended up being World Champion in this particular class—I believe 14 times. His name was Frank Manzo and he lived down the street and it was by chance that we met. I bought one of turnkey racecars. It would be like buying a turnkey amateur jumper and he really had a huge influence on me as a teacher because he was so basic. I think I was in my early 30s and I was put into this sport and my mind was cluttered with anxiety and a lack of experience and knowledge. He was smart enough to feed me one thing at time, one or two things every time I got in the racecar. It was just an innate thing on his part. He wasn’t a schooled teacher. I don’t think he had a lot of students, but he understood how the human mind worked and how people tend to rush and I think I adopted a lot of that [teaching] philosophy from Frank Manzo.
Some of our listeners might remember that you were one of the stars of the Animal Planet’s “Horse Power” show. Can you talk about what it was like to be filmed and if that changed anything in your career?
I thought it was a great thing for our industry. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out for me, but it turned out to be a great thing. That was the year [my student] Brianne Goutal ended up winning all four finals and making history and it turned out for a great storyline for me, being involved with it. I wanted people to enjoy what they saw. I wanted the sport to be looked upon as something that is fun and exciting. I had some fun with it.. I saw each episode once and that was enough for me, but I did get a lot of notoriety out of it.
Just a funny story—the Horse Power show had just aired and I was at the American Invitational at the Tampa stadium, walking the course. John and Beezie were there and I think she was riding Authentic and she won that year, so we were on a big roll. Anyway, walking the course I had lots of kids saying, “Can I get my picture with you?” and “Can I get your autograph?” So anyway, they cleared the course and I go up and the stands. I’m sitting in the stands with Patti and Bruce Springsteen, watching the class. Bruce is pretty good at hiding under a baseball hat. During the class, several kids came down and asked for my autograph and all that. After a while, Bruce was like, “They’re asking you for an autograph, and no one’s asking me for an autograph?” So he started ribbing me, saying, “Jeez, Frank! Real famous here!”
Beezie ended up winning that night and the Springsteens ended up going home. We went to a party at the stadium and John, Beezie, I think my brother Matt and I were all walking to where the party was going to be. I kind of noticed to my left this guy walking a little behind me with his wife. Finally the guy says to me, “Excuse me, sir. Can I ask you a question? My wife wants to know who you are because she wants to know who is more famous than Bruce Springsteen?” I thought that was hysterical. That was a good time in my life. That’s what the sport has brought me—some of those great experiences.
Listen to the full interview here.
For more from Frank, check out his training article, “Improve Your Horse’s Rideability.”
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk and Jocelyn Pierce. Upcoming episodes are with riding star Brian Moggre, Olympian and Prac columnist Beezie Madden and international show jumper Andrew Welles. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.