Beezie Madden, 48, has been riding horses since she was a child. Now she's heading to her third Olympics to compete in show jumping, one of three equestrian events (the others are eventing and dressage). In show jumping, riders have to get their horses to jump over gates up to 5 feet, 4 inches high, without knocking them over. Madden helped the U.S. team take home gold medals in Athens and Beijing. She and her horse Coral Reef Via Volo are aiming to do it again in London.
What's the gender breakdown of young riders today?
In North America, the majority of young riders are female. Historically in Europe it's been the total opposite — they're mostly male. But they're getting more and more women riding there, and we're getting a few more men riding here too. I think once you get to the more advanced ranks in both places it's more 50-50.
Why do more girls in the U.S. ride horses than boys?
Here we have a lot of riding schools and a very good system for bringing riders along. So little girls like horses and they start to ride and have a lot of success at it, because we can teach them how to be good without needing a lot of strength. I think in Europe it's been kind of a rough-and-ready sport, so the guys survive it and the girls maybe don't. But I think they're getting more girls because they're starting to teach more.
If girls dominate at younger ages, how come they don't dominate at higher levels too?
I think girls do it for a while and do it in a very concentrated way through their junior career, and then they go to college or get boyfriends or have a family. Sometimes they'll get back to it when they're older, but I think sometimes they get a little burnt out. I think the boys that do it probably do it becase they really like it and have a real passion for it, otherwise they'd be doing something that more boys do. And they tend to stick with it.
How is show jumping in the Olympics different from being a jockey for racehorses?
The jockeys don't train their horses — they just ride them for the races. So they really have to kind of rely on what the trainers and exercise jockeys say and react to what the horse is doing. We train our horses for years and the horses are much older. They're not allowed to compete in the Olympics until they're nine years old. We have much more of a relationship with the horses. While we have to react to what's happening in the ring, we also have a lot of homework to do before, right down to picking the right horse.
How do you do that? What do you look for?
Definitely athletic abilities, but that's probably the easiest to see in a horse. The hard part is knowing if the horse is going have the right temperament for it, knowing if it can compete til it's 14 or 15 years old when it's really at its peak for the Olympics.
Are you ever scared when you take a jump?
Generally not. I'm lucky — I have horses that are good. But for sure we jump very big fences and when you fall, you fall pretty hard. For the best riders, though, that doesn't enter their minds, or they wouldn't be as good at it.
What's it like being in one of the only sports where women compete against men?
It's definitely one of the things that sets it apart from the other sports. We kind of take it for granted, but I think it's really unusual about our sport. It really doesn't matter if you're male or female.
Have you faced any obstacles as a woman rider?
No, not really. It's so natural in our sport that we compete against men that we don't really think about it.
On the flip side, do you think being a woman gives you any advantages?
I don't know that this is really a huge advantage, but sometimes a certain horse will suit a woman better than a guy. That can happen if the horse is real sensitive or needs a lighter tough than a guy can give.
Athletes in your sport peak at older ages than in others. Why is that?
It takes a long time to be successful in this sport. We have a girl that's going to be 18 in the Olympics, and that's really unusual, because it usually takes a lot of years to develop a relationship with owners and to pick and train horses to get to the Olympics, and to have the experience to be considered competitive at that level. Riding is not all brute strength, there's more technique to it. And as people get older, they develop more technique all the time.
How do you train your horse?
Our training goes on for years. I've had this horse [Coral Reef Via Volo] for a little over two years. We train the horse a little through dressage, so that they react to what we tell them to do. Fitness is a big part too, so they get ridden every day, sometimes twice a day. Then it's managing their competition schedule so they compete enough that they can improve but not so much that they get sour. There's a lot of management skills involved.
What about you? Do you work out for competitions?
Well, I ride a lot of horses in a day. We compete in Florida for part of the year and I have a fitness trainer there that I go to there three times a week. Other times I try to do what I can on my own.
Horses are really expensive to take care of and transport — how do you pay for all that?
We mostly have private sponsors who love the sport and love horses, but who are too busy or not good enough to compete at the level we do. They enjoy owning the horses and kind of living vicariously through us. If they own the horse that goes to the Games, they can go to London. A horse can take them a lot of places. And as the owners of the horse they pay the expenses for them.
At this point, you're an experienced Olympian. How will this Olympics be different from the last two for you?
I think London will be a more familiar venue for us. My other Olympics were in Athens and Beijing, but our horse events in Beijing were in Hong Kong. The travel and quarantine and everything were a difficult process for the horses. But in London it's something we're used to. London is used to accommodating horses, and I've competed in England before.