Elizabeth Madlener: Remembering A Mentor

Feb 2, 2023 - 7:59 AM

Dressage rider and trainer Elizabeth Madlener died Jan. 9 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. She was 81. Madlener was an accomplished Grand Prix rider, long-listed for the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1977-1980, and known for her work as a trainer, clinician and “S” judge, as well as her years at the helm of the Potomac (then Maryland) Horse Center and Maryland Horse Council. Her obituary will be printed in the Chronicle. Here, her longtime student Amanda Chambers Harder reflects on the impact Madlener had on her life in the saddle.

Over many years of lessons and coaching, the sight of Elizabeth Madlener’s beat-up car driving down the lane toward the barn was a constant in my life. She would pull up with peppermints in her pocket, a rescue dog in the backseat and a piaffe whip in hand, ready to inspire and challenge me and many other aspiring dressage and event riders.

Elizabeth had a long list of accomplishments, but I knew her best as a mentor. Uncompromising in her ideals, sharp in her criticism, sparing with her praise and precise in what she asked from her students, Elizabeth lived a life dedicated to the horse and to dressage as the basic training of any horse. She believed dressage training based on classical principles allowed the horse to carry a rider with ease. At a minimum, she required the rider and horse to work without conflict or stress; her ideal was to develop a rider who encouraged the horse as an active participant.

I met Elizabeth at a clinic in 1995. I was 14 and had just purchased “Joe,” an ornery 5-year-old grade Appendix Quarter Horse. He came from a local lesson barn that taught a style of English riding where the main objective was to stay on.

Elizabeth Madlener, left, with Amanda Chambers Harder and “Joe” (Gotta Love Me) in 1999. Photo Courtesy Of Amanda Chambers Harder

I was under the impression you had to wear white pants to take a dressage lesson, and I prepared for the clinic by watching Reiner Klimke videos on VHS. It didn’t go well.

Elizabeth closed that first lesson with a pronouncement like, “You’re doing things with the reins to make your horse look like a dressage horse. You think you can ride, but you don’t have any basics. You’ll have homework and you’ll have to do it, or else you’ll just be a silly girl with this stubborn little horse pretending forever.”

Scorched by Elizabeth’s signature flamethrower of truth, I went back to the barn and cried a little. Carol Kennedy, an amateur eventer who had arranged the clinic, was getting ready for her own lesson.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “dressage makes me cry sometimes, too.”

Carol was a doctor in her 50s then and seemed very wise, so I decided to stick with it. I did the homework.

Elizabeth waved away my idea of showing Joe at training level, saying, “It’s about the gaits, and your horse doesn’t have any.” Instead, we went out at first level at Commonwealth Park in 1997. The gait coefficient was double back then, but we still got scores in the mid-60s and placed in large open divisions.

Two years later, we qualified for fourth level at Dressage at Devon [Pennsylvania], placing fourth out of 35 horses as the only non-warmblood in the class. In 2000, we were first in the FEI Young Rider individual test at the U. S. Equestrian Team Festival of Champions at Gladstone, New Jersey.

My once-stubborn Joe, who I competed under the name Gotta Love Me, was entirely transformed by the training, and he was dedicated to Elizabeth. Although she only sat on him a few times, he loved her and always performed a little better when she was present.

Elizabeth arrived at shows up and down Region 1 with a veritable tack store in her trunk. She always wore a nice shade of lipstick with her white visor and sensible shoes. She made me tie my own stock tie (“You never know when you might need a tourniquet”) and wear a jacket, even when they were waived (“It’s hot at the Olympics, too, you know”).

The first time I showed at Dressage at Devon, she gave me her shadbelly and stock pin, a simple gold bar with the initials “EM” engraved on the back. She discouraged bling, preaching that the horse should be the shiny jewel that dazzles the judges.

Grande Finale 1
A decade after first meeting Madlener at a clinic arranged by Carol Kennedy, Harder competed off-track Thoroughbred GrandeFinale, owned by Kennedy and trained by Madlener, at second, third and fourth levels, earning scores in the mid-70s. Photo Courtesy Of Amanda Chambers Harder

At shows, if another competitor was in a sticky spot, she would hustle to her car and come back with a spur strap or stirrup leather or bobby pin, plus a snack. (“You need protein!”) In the unlikely event she didn’t have the right equipment on hand, she would commandeer the nearest grooming box and manufacture a solution with twine, Sharpie or duct tape. She would read a test for a stranger, stuff a peppermint in the horse’s mouth on the way into the ring and remind the rider to use the corners. After the test, she would find something to compliment, even if the ride hadn’t gone well, and usually added a piece of bonus advice: “I’m a judge. Please polish your boots next time—they’re dull.”

In the competition warm-up, Elizabeth brooked no negativity. Ride the horse you have, she advised, and forget the rest. If nothing is working, canter in two-point, followed by working walk on a long rein until it’s time to go in. Then sit up and be proud of your horse. He doesn’t know why he’s here or why it matters to you, he only knows how you feel about him.

Elizabeth often stressed that dressage training is a very deliberate kind of activity. All the pieces must be in place to make the whole go right.

To develop the rider’s feel, she set up exercises that would produce the result in the horse that the rider had to experience in order to understand. So much of good dressage is found in the nuance, in the balance between too little and too much. Elizabeth asked her students to ride to the edge of that balance moment to moment, developing strength, risking errors over control and allowing for brilliance over mediocrity. She strove to impart the understanding that dressage training is not about control, drills or repetition, but a combination of conditioning and relationship-building.

In Elizabeth’s view, students needed to learn the system before they could push back against it. Questions and chit-chat were not allowed until the end of a lesson. Not all riders appreciated this method, but those who embraced it could experience a profound change in their horse and their understanding of balance, self-carriage or a particular movement within a single ride. Elizabeth was truly in her element creating this magic, this power to transform.

Some refer to Elizabeth as a dressage guru. I agree with the sentiment, but think of her more as a tireless advocate for the sport and a stalwart of American dressage. I am forever grateful for her dedication and the impact it had on my life.

I recently started riding again after a decade hiatus, and I emailed her just two weeks before she passed for advice on a new Thoroughbred. I reflexively braced for any heat that might come my way for having put down, for a time, the torch she so endlessly carried, but I also felt excited to reconnect. Instead, I am grieving her loss, for myself and for the dressage community.

She always turned off the radio in the arena, encouraging students to use all their senses when training. Your ears, she said, must listen to the footfalls of the horse and his breathing and also maintain awareness of other riders’ locations. (“Turning your head all the time disturbs the balance!”) For me now, extraneous noise interferes with her voice in my head. I’d rather listen to her classic refrain, “Relax your back. Do you want your horse to look like a moose in a bog?!”

Sorry, Elizabeth.

“Don’t tell me sorry,” she’d say, “Just fix it.”

Amanda Chambers Harder is a USDF bronze and silver medalist who studied under Elizabeth Madlener for 17 years. Embracing Elizabeth’s fondness for Thoroughbreds, Harder has competed three off-track Thoroughbreds in dressage successfully. She lives in Wayzata, Minnesota, with her husband, son and one of those OTTB dressage horses, GrandeFinale, who is enjoying retirement at age 31.


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