How She Does It: Stacia Klein Madden on Preparing Students for Equitation Finals

As a seasoned professional rider, trainer, judge, and clinician, Stacia Klein Madden is one of the most sought after names in the sport. Stacia is known for developing young riders to become both respected horsemen and competitors, with many continuing on to represent the United States at the highest levels. After a successful junior career, including winning the coveted ASPCA Maclay Finals championship in 1987, Madden turned professional in 1988 and began training out of Beacon Hill Show Stables, where she still resides today. Alongside the team at Beacon Hill, Stacia has since coached countless junior riders to win equitation finals over the years, including the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals, the Dover Saddlery USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final, the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final, and the ASPCA Maclay Final. As each of the highly anticipated equitation finals approach, Madden shared insight into how she prepares her students for success. For Stacia, success is not defined by winning, but by setting realistic goals and working hard to achieve them.

Do you strategize equitation finals preparation differently for students that are first time finals riders versus students that have spent a few years in the equitation arena? 
The strategy is absolutely different. I put this strategy more in the setting goals category.  Each rider has a set of goals for the year and that’s what I refer to as their short-term goals.  Someone who is doing the equitation finals for the first time, their goal might be to compete in the two 3’3’’ finals.  If that rider also has their points to ride in the ASPCA Maclay Regionals, I would have them compete in their regional as well. Once a rider is qualified for the Hamel 3’3” Medal and shows in the ASPCA Maclay Regionals we then have to decide which finals to do. A rider starting in the equitation would have short term goals of competing in the THIS Medal Finals, the USHJA Jumping Seats Finals and maybe the Hamel 3’3” Medal Finals. The way I typically make the transition to the 3’6’’ is, the first year, if they are stepping onto a horse or new to the 3’6” equitation the goals will be about getting qualified for USEF Medal Finals and the ASPCA Maclay Regionals. When that happens then a goal has been met and the expectations for the first year at finals are to be on time, to remember the course, to try to do the correct striding, and to have a positive experience where you can learn to feel the pressures of riding in a finals and what competing against the best really feels like. The following year I would add trying to get qualified tor USEF Show Jumping Talent Search and the Washington International Equitation Championship to the list.

Stacia Madden with Alexandra Worthington

I always equate going to the Finals for the first time to taking the ACT or the SAT. I remember an SAT instructor telling all the students to check out the building. Know where the water fountain is, where the restrooms are and make sure you’ve got your sharp pencils and calculator. I feel like the first year at finals is about trying to get a feel for what everything is about. They need to experience the long length of the day and what it’s like to get up early in the morning and have an early morning course walk. After they’ve had a year with that kind of experience under their belt, depending on what level they ride at and what their goals are, the goals change to maybe trying to get into the second rounds or to try and ribbon. If they’re a rider that has earned a finals ribbon, we use the equitation as a real platform to accelerate their riding to help obtain goals that maybe are in the jumper ring.  For instance a goal may be to qualify for North American Young Rider Championships or USEF Prix de States. If the rider is interested in pursuing an intercollegiate scholarship we keep that in mind and we would be looking to up the ante and add in an additional goal of earning a top four ribbon. I really try to have realistic expectations and goals for everybody so that each rider can reach their specific goal.

Because equitation finals can be such a high-stress environment, is there anything that you do to help mentally prepare your students? 
When we’re getting ready for the finals, I switch the teaching style a little bit. During the summer I teach mainly flatwork with ground poles incorporated and try to get a lot done with simple exercises. Training for finals I switch the philosophy to trying to deliver a complete course the first time to mimic the show ring. During the summer I allow riders the opportunity to repeat parts of the exercise to work on perfecting the necessary skills to deliver a winning round. The indoor ring at Beacon Hill in preparation for finals is set up as a complete finals course with decorations, jumps on the rail, and use of 10 foot rails to try to make the ring as big as possible. Usually I will have the rider’s warm-up outside like we are schooling for a class to be held in an indoor ring. I usually jump 6-10 warm up fences and then I’ll have the riders come in to the indoor ring. I give them a designated course and let the riders watch me walk “the course”.  Each rider then has a chance to execute the course start to finish just like if they were competing in finals. Usually I will pick the problem part to have them repeat, we won’t repeat the entire course. Often times the courses that I set are able to be done in reverse, so we will try to do the second course in reverse in hopes that they deliver a good enough course that they don’t have to have any repeats. We’re getting ready for regionals right now and after their practice course I’ll call it either a pass or a fail. We’ll talk about what they did wrong and some of the possible corrections. We also talk about the strategy of regionals being very different than the finals because you’re just trying to make the top 40% of the class. A rider is not trying to hit it out of the park; you aren’t necessarily trying to win the class. Conversation is had about not getting sidelined by a mistake like one step of a cross canter, a rail down, or a little bit a distance error.

Alexandra Worthington rides to the 2018 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal reserve championship

And do you find that mimicking the finals environment at home helps students prepare mentally? 
I do. I feel like everything always ends up being a little bit trickier in my ring because it’s smaller than a show ring. Often times you will hear the kids say, ‘Oh my gosh, Stacia must have known parts of the course because we practiced this at home.’ Well I never know the course, but sometimes I know the flavor of a judge or a particular course designer, and you can only practice a bending line so many ways, long to short or short too long. Once you’ve practiced those skills in your lessons and we are walking your course, I can say ‘Remember that course that I had set at home?’ and they can really identify with what that particular question being asked rode like and hopefully draw from a mistake that they made during a lesson. My hope is that proper preparation helps prevent the rider from making the same mistake in an actual competition.

I’m sure practicing those kinds of exercises at home makes it seem easier for your students during competition.
Yes, I always practice courses that might be a touch hard at home so that your horses and riders feel prepared for a variety of questions that the course designer may ask. I want each rider as they arrive at the show to feel like, ‘I’ve got this’. I love when I leave a competition and I hear the riders say they felt prepared.

Stacia Madden with Elli Yeager at the 2018 Devon Horse Show

Do you have a strategy when it comes to deciding on which horse a student is going to ride for each final? 
The majority of the riders at Beacon Hill either lease or own their own horses. There aren’t many horses that myself or Beacon Hill own that are being ridden by several different riders during a competition year. I really want each horse/ rider combination spending the year leading up to finals creating a special bond with their horse. The only way that we would strategize on which horse is being used is if a student has the luxury of having one or more horses in their equitation string.  I try to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a particular horse/rider combination for each particular event. In most cases it comes down to the size of the ring, the venue, and which horse the rider is feeling most confident on during the preparation schools. For example when choosing a horse for the Washington International Horse Show, I would love to take an experienced horse that’s been to the Washington venue or a naturally quiet horse because the restricted ride times make horse selection particularly important. Each show has a set of circumstances that comes with it that makes you evaluate which horse will be best for each event.

How important do you view clinics as a learning tool? 
I love the opportunity for riders to get instruction from other people whenever it can happen. I am the head coach at Beacon Hill Show Stables, but the riders receive instructions from assistants Krista Freundlich, Heather Williams, Katie Haley, Abby Jorgenson, and Lydia Ulrich as well. I feel like our show schedule has become so packed and the riders are going in many different directions now. They have so many different opportunities to show in Europe and Canada for instance. At least in my scheduling, clinics have become more difficult to intertwine into the schedule. I enjoy teaching clinics because I feel like I get to work with different people and maybe see a variety of horses along the way and I love the opportunity to share some of my experiences.  I have no problem with my riders receiving coaching from other people. Max Amaya and I work very closely together, so my riders receive coaching from him during the year as well. Since it was an off year on the schedule for Max and I to attend Spruce Meadows this year, I sent Elli Yeager with John and Beezie Madden. I’d say that instead of clinics, my riders receive showing experiences with different instructors.

Sophie Gochman at the 2019 Devon Horse Show

When you’re teaching a clinic, do you have a strategy that you generally stick to? 
So much depends on if the clinic is a one, two, or three-day clinic .I do have a basic blueprint in my mind of how I can start any clinic regardless of the riding level.  Then I am usually able to size the riders up on the flat and during their warm-up exercises to decide how I’m going to use the exercises, lines or courses that I have set. I usually try to set something that can be used in a variety of ways so that I have the versatility to dial it back if it’s a greener group, or it’s pretty easy to make it advanced by changing the fence heights or incorporating a bit of a different pattern without having the change the course.

For an up and coming rider, what would you say is a key to success in the sport? 
For sure hard work, you can’t beat it. Second is that you have to have the passion for the sport, passion for the horse, and compassion for animals. If you have those ingredients a rider is well on their way. Dedication allows a rider the time necessary to fine-tune the skills. Once a rider gets to an advanced level they may have learned 75% of the bulk of what it takes to have a good round and a good relationship with their horse. I start talking to the riders about how to make their low average higher. What I mean by that, is in an open numerical scoring class, instead of getting a score 90 followed by a score of 60, let’s see if you they can always ride at a 75 score being the new low average. Then a rider can mix in the 90 or 95.  You’re continually trying to bring your low average up. With that strategy, you’re fine-tuning the top end of your riding and working on maybe the last 15% or 25% of what it takes to be able to consistently go in and deliver a round where you are really one with your horse.

Elli Yeager at the 2019 Devon Horse Show

Is there a piece of advice that you’ve received that has stuck with you throughout the years? 
Riding is a sport with so many factors, many of which a rider does not have control over. Take the factors seriously that are controllable- being on time, organized, and prepared. Don’t let yourself become frustrated. I love the quote “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” For me perfect practice is being open minded and learning from mistakes. I love positive reinforcement, and I love positive visualization for the riders. I think the number one thing in my teaching style is to learn from your mistakes and not be afraid to make them. If you can make a solid mistake and learn from it, it is so worth it.

In November, Madden will host a two-day equitation clinic at Rutledge Farm in Middleburg, Virginia from Saturday, November 12, to Sunday November 13. To register as a rider or an auditor, visit

For more information about Stacia Klein Madden or Beacon Hill Show Stables, visit

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