Stacia Madden is one of the United States’ top trainers in the hunter and jumper divisions, but she may arguably be the best at coaching equitation—and continues to play an integral role in advancing the nation’s young show jumping talent.

With her experience as a champion junior rider herself, Stacia uses her knowledge and experience through the industry to develop riders such as Brianne Goutal, Jessica Springsteen, Katherine Strauss, Madison Goetzmann, Lucy Deslauriers, as well as the recent Pessoa/US Hunter Seat Medal Final winner TJ O’Mara.

As part of his Ten Truths shared with NF Style on his win in Harrisburg on October 16th, TJ remembered key guidance from Stacia before coming back to test for the top four:

“I kept thinking back to what my trainer Stacia Madden has always told me before testing, and that is to do the test. So before I walked in, I told myself to keep it simple and not to try and outdo myself.”

The mental aspect of the sport can at times be more important than the technical side. Talent on the horse is one thing, but how do you combine the talent and work ethic with a mental toughness to withstand two or three rounds, plus a work off?

It’s advice like this from Stacia that demonstrates the importance of emphasizing mental preparation—which can ultimately make the difference between competing in a medal final and actually winning the coveted title.

In her own words, Stacia Madden explains how she prepares her students for the mental game of equitation medal finals:

Each of my riders definitely has a platform of short term goals and a platform of long term goals. It doesn’t ever consist of talking about winning a final; that’s never a topic. It’s focused on getting into the second round, trying to deliver a good performance, and trying to test well.

I think the mental aspect of riding goes hand in hand with confidence and having confidence comes with being prepared. Medal Finals can be significantly harder than medal classes during the year so preparation is extremely important.

We focus on answering the questions of the course and not getting distracted by small mistakes.

In preparation for the George Morris Excellence in Equitation class in Florida, I’ll ask the students who have qualified for that class to practice tests on their own to see how they think. Then we’ll talk about what was right and wrong about that test.

Throughout the year, we’ll go to shows that don’t have a major championship and we’ll use those shows to practice difficult tests as moments to gain experience on how to perform a difficult test under pressure.

When students are without a trainer, they have to come up with a testing plan on their own like T.J. did; it’s that kind of preparation that helps tremendously so when those students get to Finals, they can feel like they already have that testing experience.

Experience tells me, year after year, that nerves, adrenaline, and pressure can really alter the testing results. Class results can vary for riders that don’t execute the actual test. We focus the majority of our skills on executing those specific components of the test whether that’s on the halt-back, simple changes, etc., so they’re done with as little error as possible—and not so much on delivering a beautiful round.

When you can effectively deliver the test being asked, then the rest of the course kind of takes care of itself. We’re not going to be thinking about things like heels down and shoulders back at that point; we’re going to be honing in on the actual questions of the test.

Feeling confident is the biggest component that helps students with their nerves in testing. There’s not a very big difference between nerves and adrenaline. When I get a chance to work with students I try to turn their nerves into competitive adrenaline.

I often say, “That’s adrenaline you’re feeling and that’s the reason why you do this. You ultimately like that feeling.” I think once they realize they’re not alone in that, and that adrenaline is not necessarily a bad feeling, you can use it to your advantage.

If a rider is having difficulty with confidence, the best thing to do is to identify the reason why that is. Try to isolate that component and try to work on it.

Is it that you don’t feel prepared because you’re on the wrong the horse? Do you not feel confident because you arrived late to the show because that’s definitely something you have control over. Is it that you don’t feel prepared because you’ve been bogged down with school and procrastinated on one of your exams? So maybe the next Finals you can make sure you don’t feel that anxiety by making sure you don’t procrastinate on your schoolwork.

There are certain things we have control over and others we don’t. I talk a lot with my students on taking 100 percent control over the things you have control over: being on time, being dressed properly, having the right equipment.

There are some things that there are no excuses for. For example, your stirrup is about to break or it did break off because you haven’t checked your tack. That is something that was preventable and didn’t need to start your day off on the wrong foot.

Once you eliminate all of those elements that you have control over, then you already feel at a different level of preparedness than perhaps someone else.

—As told to NF Style

Photos courtesy of Beacon Hill Show Stables