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Frank Madden Clinic



Article & photos by Nancy Brannon

Riders at Spring Mill Farm, Eads, TN, had the opportunity of a lifetime to ride with renowned equitation/jumper trainer Frank Madden, who was their guest clinician December 5-6, 2015. The clinic offered a two-hour lesson both days to three groups of eight riders each.

Madden is one of the most successful trainers of equitation and jumper riders in the U.S. His student Brianne Goutal made history in 2005 as the first junior rider to win all the major equitation finals: the USEF Medal Finals, ASPCA Maclay Finals, USEF Talent Search Finals, Capital Challenge Equitation Final, and the Washington International Equitation Final. Many of Madden’s students have won the coveted “Style of Riding” Award presented to the junior jumper rider who best exemplifies the American style of Equitation, as modeled by Olympic medalists Joe Fargis, Conrad Homfeld, and George Morris. In 2011, Madden joined Old Salem Farm in North Salem, NY, which remains his home training base.

It is obvious that Madden likes to teach, and his expert eye can discern an “issue” right away, followed by a tempered, critical assessment of the problem and advice to the rider on how to solve it. His smooth, steady way of offering positive criticism in a very palatable manner made overcoming mistakes a rewarding experience for the riders – and emphasized the steadiness he likes to see in horse/rider teams. Madden said these clinics are a workshop: conditions with real time to address things horses are not good at. Throughout the clinic, Madden had plenty of praise for correct riding and correct responses in the horses. “I thought your horse got dramatically better…” “Beautiful!” was the oft repeated word of praise.

Addressing the problem of horses who misbehave, Madden said: “People can become such victims of their horses! You have to say NO. You cannot reward bad behavior. It’s OK to do things wrong, it’s also OK to do less and do it right.


To stick with something, you have to love it. This sport is so full of ups and downs, that if you don’t love it, you won’t survive it.” – Frank Madden


The riding began with flat work, first working on longitudinal flexibility, then on lateral flexibility. Each time he interjected a term, he asked riders if they understood the term, and then offered a brief definition.

“What’s the difference between extended, collected, and working walk?” What is a working trot? “You want the horse’s hind feet stepping inside, or a little in front of, the footprints of the front feet. Add leg and get the horse to push a little stronger. You’re connecting the back of the horse to the front of the horse. Do you feel your horse pulling the bit a little and he doesn’t mind? You want the horse to take the bit. You want the horse to accept pressure – tolerating it – from the hands, leg, or weight. Then move from the pressure, not revolt.”

For lateral work, he had students ride a straight, two-track line on the rail, then do shoulder-in, shoulder-out. “Bend the horse slightly on the inside rein to get impulsion, to start working forward and outward on the rail; move off the rail; place and maintain the horse on the outside rein. The bend is slight and the purpose is to get the horse connected on the outside leg and the outside rein. These are simple exercises, but there things that horses can do to spoil the simplicity of the exercise. Bend the horse in – front feet slightly off the rail, but keep the hind legs on the rail. Bend the horse slightly off the rail, but don’t let the front feet leave the rail. Separate the things the back end is doing from things the front end is doing. Now bring the shoulder off the rail. You want to be able to do shoulder right and shoulder left – making the horse supple.”

For longitudinal work, he had the riders lengthen the trot, then collect the trot. “The outside rein is collecting, and the inside rein is bending,” he explained.

Madden emphasized the important connections with the horse: (1) the horse is going up to the bit, not questioning pressure on the mouth, and working back to front. (2) Once you get the horse working nicely from behind, the horse should accept pressure of the leg and pressure of the rider’s weight. Once the horse accepts seat, legs, and hands, then the horse moves away from additional pressure, and the rider responds by releasing pressure to reward the correct response.

Madden explained more about rider position and connection to the rein aids: “At a posting trot, the rider’s seat is slightly forward with the motion of the trot. More exaggerated work is done in the full riding seat. In this seat, practice downward transitions to walk, so the hind leg is still connected. If you can’t do this, you will never produce a horse with a good mouth. You can’t create a light mouth out of fear! Balance the horse on the outside rein; the horse lowers the head and goes on the bit. But you can’t let them get too low; keep your hands in front and about the withers. You don’t want the horse low and heavy.”

He had the students do several transitions from posting trot to sitting trot and vice versa. Then he asked students to drop their stirrups while still maintaining the horse’s frame. “Don’t let the horse get behind or below the bit.” [he called this “hiding”] He asked riders: “Is it better to under-bit or over-bit the horse?” He advises under-bitting because you don’t want the horse afraid of the bit or afraid of contact.

A major part of Madden’s philosophy is keeping the horse “in front of your leg,” and putting an effective, balanced position on the rider. “If you can create this, then you can expand off that. You won’t get it perfect with one exercise, but keep trying to instill this first fundamental [of riding]. I try to put students in an environment where they can realize how crucial it is. Some changes in position that a rider must make to get the desired response in the horse may feel awkward – at first.”

After the flat work session, Madden called the group in for conference to ask, “What did you get out of that?” He commented to one rider, “I saw a beautiful frame that’s far less false than what I saw in the beginning.” Madden doesn’t like “false things” in the horse, like over flexing. Riders should ascertain: “Is the horse in front of my leg? Is the horse waiting or ‘hiding’? What is the difference? Is the horse going forward and waiting? (a seeming contradiction) A hiding horse is not going forward. The idea of collection is two opposing things: you want the horse to go forward, but also wait, and be in balance.”


This is a sport of inches!” –Frank Madden


On riding a course of fences: “What questions are being asked by the course designer? Develop a strategy, and then execute the strategy. But the horse must allow you to execute the strategy – must listen and respond. These are the fundamental skills to make the horse a better partner. We want the horse to listen to our cues, i.e., pressures, and to do things on cue.”

For the warm-up to jumping, the group worked at canter, utilizing the half-halt when necessary to maintain rhythm and balance. He used the exercise of canter-walk-halt-back-canter to teach the horses to listen to the half-halt better in canter. “In the downward transitions, you don’t want to get pulled forward. You want your upper body independent of the bit and connection to the horse’s mouth. If the seated canter is getting easier to ride, this is a sign of self-carriage on the part of the horse.”

He began the jumping portion with cantering two caveletti placed on a curve with three strides between. The goal of the exercise was to keep the horse relaxed and not let the horse speed up. The cavaletti exercise connects the flat work with jumping. “The most important quality of the canter is rhythm. This was Bert de Némethy’s favorite word: rhythm, a byproduct of impulsion, balance, and straightness. ‘Feel the rhythm,’ said de Némethy. Relax, hold a nice rhythm and stay in balance,” he advised the riders. “The canter should become more pleasurable. The horse has to be at the right speed, on the right line, in front of your leg.


To have a steady horse, have a steady rider, but also learn to accept change and adapt to it.” –Frank Madden


The next phase of the jumping exercise was a simple, straightforward four-stride line. Riders worked to perfect it as they had the cavaletti. Then, “what happens when I throw in something unexpected?” Madden asked. “Riders get rattled!” As they finished the four-stride straight line, he suddenly asked riders to make a left turn to the coop, then a right turn after the coop, but before one jump in the four-stride line. “This is a thinking sport. You have to have enough clarity to be IN the moment. You can’t be BEHIND the moment. It’s best to have so much clarity that you’re a little ahead of the moment. Once you learn these skills – it’s a mind game – you can be extremely fair to your equine partner. That’s why variety is such a great thing! It keeps the cobwebs out of our minds!” Jumping and turning, changing direction is an important exercise to sharpen both horse and rider.

Summarizing the day’s work, Madden said: “We’re working on throughness today. What does that mean?” he asked the riders. “Are these fundamental ideas of throughness helping your horse? We have to talk about these things – intellectualize about them – and then do the practical part. Know how to make these connections so you can be more consistent with the horse. Do a good job of maintaining connections. If they get lost, then get reconnected with the horse.”

If you want to learn from Madden, there is a DVD of his “Equestrian Clinics training tips” that covers many of the topics covered in this clinic. There are YouTube videos with excerpts of Madden’s “Fundamentals of Equitation” and “Trainers Tips.” Find condensed information about his top ten favorite equitation exercises on the Ariat website:

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