Inside An Olympic Sport That Is Way Harder Than It Looks

Photo: Lizz Gregg/FEI.
If you don't follow the sport of horse riding, you may not know the name Beezie Madden. But you should.

The 52-year-old rider is a three-time Olympic medalist. She will be taking part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, making it her fourth consecutive games. Her list of accomplishments doesn't stop there, though: She is the first woman and the first American to reach the Show Jumping World Ranking List's top three, the first female equestrian in jump riding to earn over a million dollars, and the oldest athlete on Team U.S.A. so far. Her tenure in the sport spans almost half a century — she started riding at age 4 in her home state of Wisconsin.

But despite all of this, Madden remains humble. She knows her path has been determined by a winning combination of hard work, passion, and a little luck.

She talked with Refinery29 about being an equestrian, what it's like to compete in the Olympics, and why being passionate is the key to success.
How did you get started as an equestrian?
"My parents always had horses, since I was born. So I kind of grew up in a stable. For us, having horses was like having dogs or something. And I started going to riding school when I was 4."

When did you start riding competitively?

"When I was 6 or 7, I started competing, obviously at [a] very low level, with ponies and stuff. I showed my first jumper when I was 17 years old, and I think my first international competition was when I was in my early 20s."

What are some of the challenges you have faced, and the lessons you have learned throughout career?

"Some of the challenges are the lessons, too. We work with an animal, so it’s not only training yourself and honing your own skills, but training and communicating with a very large animal. And while it’s challenging, it’s also very rewarding and very unique to our sport."
Photo: Richard Juilliart.
If you could tell people who don’t know anything about this sport what you do as a female equestrian, what would you say?
"I compete in equestrian show jumping. And that involves jumping obstacles that are 5, 6 feet in height. Some have fences, which can be up to 6 or 7 feet wide, and the fences come down very easily. It’s very technical. Each course is unique and different; we never know what’s going to be presented to us. So, it’s difficult to prepare for everything, and you and your horse have to have enough experience to be prepared for anything.

"I think when people see it, especially live, they appreciate the harmony of the horse and the rider and how they work together. It’s hard to see [the] difficulty, especially when you only see people do it well. It looks easier, maybe like the horse is doing most of it. In the Olympic Games, it’s hard because you see the best of the best, but in other competitions, you may be able to see the difficulty of it when you see a rider that’s not at the same level."

You’ve participated multiple times in the Olympics, and you’ve been an Olympic medalist three times. How do you prepare for this event?

"It’s always an honor to represent the U.S., especially at the Olympic Games. It’s challenging and exciting to be part of something like this. We have kind of been planning — and hoping — to make the team since the last Olympic Games. So, we’ve tried to develop more than one horse, and I had the possibility of three horses at the beginning of the year, and now, as the year has gone on, one horse has stood out.

"Two years ago, we had the World Equestrian Games, our world championship, happening every four years, and he was the best horse in the world at the time, at those games. So, last year, we gave him quite a light schedule, just a few big competitions. And [tried] to keep him as happy and healthy as he can [be]. This year, I was lucky enough to be named to the shortlist in December. So I could really schedule my horse to start peaking now or close to the games."

Find something that you really have a passion in, and that’s what you’ll probably have the most success at.

Beezie Madden
This is the only sport where men and women compete against each other in the same categories. Could you tell me a bit about the challenges that this presents?
"For me, growing up in the United States, I don’t think there were a lot of challenges with it. I think I noticed it more when I came to Europe in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and over here, it wasn’t as prevalent to have women riding. There were even some competitions, like the Hickstead, [in which] there was a King’s Cup and Queen’s Cup. The King’s Cup was for men, and they offered 100-, 150-, 200,000 pounds, and the Queen’s Cup was like 24,000 pounds. I don’t know when they switched it, but they did, and now the Grand Prix is open to men and women. I think I was the first woman to win it after that, actually."

In that same line, a lot of female athletes face a lot of sexism throughout their career. Have you had that experience?
"I can’t say that because it’s so common in our sport to compete against women. But I believe that women can compete equally because a lot of it is about technique and not so much strength."
Photo: Arnd Brinkhorst.
Did you ever imagine when you were younger that you would make it this far, competing in so many events and the Olympics? Winning Olympic medals?
"By the time I was in my teens, it was something I really wanted to do, but I never had the confidence to think I would compete in the Olympics and be an Olympic medalist when I was a teenager."

Did you ever have female equestrians that you looked up to when you were starting out in your career — any role models?
"Yeah, sure! One of my instructors, her name is Katie Monahan Prudent — I really looked up to her and I was really lucky to start with her as student. A couple of years later, she offered me a job as a working student. I was with her for like five years, and she got me my first opportunities to ride at a Grand Prix level and international levels. I looked up to her as one of the best competitors and women riders in the world. And she was a great instructor, as well."

What words of advice do you have for young women?
"Find something that you really have a passion in, and that’s what you’ll probably have the most success at. I’m so lucky that I have a passion for riding horses, I have a passion for competition, and I’m able to do — probably what I would want to do as a hobby — as a profession. I think that’s the key: When you have a passion for something, that’s what you’re going to be successful at. So, if that’s what you want to do, go for it."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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