I wouldn’t consider myself to be an “eq” trainer. I’ve never taken a kid to Maclay Finals. I don’t repossess stirrups for the month of November. Spoiler alert, I never did the big eq myself. After my non-existent junior career, I was fortunate to land at Hollins University (Virginia) where I spent four years riding with arguably one of the best equitation trainers the sport has ever known, Sandy Gerald. The emphasis of my time at Hollins wasn’t on perfect position or what most people would associate with “good” equitation, but rather, the program focused on good horsemanship, effective aids, discipline, consistency and above all, putting the horse’s needs first.
One of the most important things I continue to learn as a professional is just how much I don’t know. When two of my students voiced interest in competing in the big eq, I decided that the best way I could help them reach their goals was to learn from the pillars of the industry. I did my homework. I looked into whose riders were winning. But even more importantly, I asked around to find out whose programs valued the welfare of the horses. A friend of mine had leased her horse to one of Stacia Madden’s clients and had been very happy with his care and training. I made a mental note. So, when I saw that Stacia was coming to Rutledge Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, for a clinic, I encouraged my students to sign up.
In the weeks leading up to the clinic I focused on flatwork. I wanted to make sure my girls and horses were well prepared for whatever might be asked of them. As a trainer, I feel like each horse and rider I send into the ring, whether it be at a show or clinic, is a reflection of my program. Of course, they are teenage girls riding animals that have their own thoughts and feelings, but that doesn’t stop me from doing my best to prepare them for success.
The horses I sent to the clinic were opposite ends of the spectrum. Zero Gravity, aka “Leggy” is a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare that I’ve owned for nearly 10 years. She was my first jumper that took me through the 1.20-meter level and has since become the ideal children’s jumper/schoolmaster/saint. She occasionally dabbles in the odd hunter derby or equitation class. By no means is she a traditional equitation horse—she’s got a bit too much blood, and she’s small (I’ve always liked a bit of irony in a name). But she is one of those invaluable mares that knows her job and does it well. So, when Kelsey Sullivan was deciding which horse to ride in the clinic, Leggy was the obvious choice. Pinot del Sole (Canturano x Cassini I), aka “Pinot” is a 7-year-old Italian Warmblood gelding who was imported in August 2019. He is a new partner for my student Emma Woodworth and green to the hunter/equitation job. Pinot had competed through 1.15 meters in Europe, but his overall show experience is more limited than Leggy’s or many of the other horses participating in the clinic. But the wonderful thing about Pinot is that in spite of his lack of mileage, he has an incredible temperament and is extraordinarily rideable.
On the first day of the clinic I think I was more nervous than the kids. Had I chosen the right horses? Were they well prepared for what would be asked of them? Why on God’s green earth did we body clip them, and now it’s frickin’ freezing?! Shivering on the bench inside the Rutledge indoor, I silently prayed to the equine gods that my kids would pick up the correct diagonals, choose distances that exist in nature, and that my horses would not be chased by their own frozen butts or spooked by the static of their quarter sheets.
Stacia asked each rider a few questions about their horses, and then the flatwork began. Within a few minutes it became apparent that we were all on the same page. Stacia designed flatwork exercises that reinforced straightness, rhythm and control through circles and transitions. She emphasized responsiveness and correct use of the aids through repetition but also acknowledged that some of the more complex exercises (like shoulder-in) needed to be broken up with moments of relaxation for the horses.
Often, I find that “equitation” riders end up with a stiffness and underlying tension in their positions as they strive for perfection, and that can translate to their horses and ultimately result in a rigid, less adjustable and sour mount. Stacia was cognizant of the importance of integrating relaxation into the work and encouraging horses to be both obedient and relaxed in their bodies.
I’m not sure what I expected coming into the clinic. I wanted to learn from one of the best in the industry and not embarrass myself with our non-traditional equitation horses. But I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of what I already knew. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship. Regardless of the ring you’re competing in, if the basics are there, and you’re doing the work in all aspects of your riding and management, success will follow. I was happy to hear Stacia reinforce many of the points I focus on in lessons and encourage the type of disciplined but also sympathetic work that is the hallmark of my program.
And when I think about it, it makes sense. I may not have be-bopped around the big eq myself as a 17-year-old, but the time I spent at Hollins provided me with a far better education than a handful of ribbons and junior rounds would have. I’ve carried the lessons I learned in and out of the saddle at Hollins into my own program. Sandy had a special talent for designing exercises that challenged the riders without pounding on the horses. They were seemingly simple, technically demanding and always fair to the animal. What I saw with Stacia was no different: Through simple exercises, she created a way for the riders to learn and for the horses to understand the question.
There will never be enough ways for me to show my gratitude to Elise Roschen, Nancy Peterson, Liz Courter and Sandy Gerald for what they gave me as a rider and horsewoman during my time at Hollins. The more time that passes, the more I realize what an incredible gift those four years were. Every day I walk into my barn, I am reminded of the early mornings I spent in Roanoke, the sun surfacing behind Tinker Mountain as I walk to the ring, my first horse of the day breathing little puffs of steam into fall air.
Paige Cade established her boutique hunter/jumper training and sales business, Country Fox Farm, Inc. in Middleburg, Virginia, in 2015. She specializes in creating personalized training programs for each horse and rider and is devoted to helping her students reach their competitive goals on the local and rated circuits. Paige regularly travels to Europe to import seasoned show horses and prospects for her clients. Paige would like to thank Antares Sellier, Purina, Dr. Sallie Hyman and Total Equine Associates for their continued support.
You can follow her on Instagram at @paigecade.