By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shelby Phillips
The Beacon Hill Show Stables team is a pillar in the equestrian community with a reputation for developing top young riders. In addition to countless ribbons and top placings earned by Beacon Hill students, many have gone on to become professionals in the horse world, shaping the next generation of horsemen and women. It’s no surprise that Beacon Hill students become not just outstanding riders but upstanding individuals, because for owner and head trainer Stacia Madden, it’s about much more than championships.
“There have been so many times when a father will complain to me about how much riding costs, but then they’ll have this moment where one of their kids’ friends got into trouble at school, being involved with drugs and alcohol or promiscuous behavior,” Stacia explained, “and those dads come back and they’ll say, ‘I will spend double what I spent on riding because my kid has passion, and my kid has focus, and a reason to get up every day.’ They didn’t get in trouble. I think that’s been a little bit of my driving force through the years: trying to help keep the kids on a clear path. Things get difficult in the adolescent years. It takes a village, and I think a coach can be an important part of that. I take that part seriously.”
Stacia grew up in an open area of Indianapolis where the nearest neighbor was about a half mile down the street. “They had goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, horses and ponies,” she remembered. “We would always mess around with the ponies and go on sleigh rides in the winter and bareback rides in the summer. One day my mom said if I was going to be hanging around horses, maybe I should learn to ride.”
Stacia’s parents took her to Grandview Stables, a livery stable owned by the Renihan family. Though she took to riding quickly, it wasn’t without some obstacles. “Some days I would ride Knee-High and other days I would ride Buttons or Little Dipper,” she said. “When it got time for me to canter, I would always get scared and ride to the middle of the ring and never canter. Mrs. Renihan told my mom if I could ride the same horse consistently, I would probably get over that fear.”
That conversation eventually led to Stacia’s first pony: a medium buckskin pony with three white socks. The first day Stacia rode it, she not only cantered but cantered so much they had to tell her to stop.
It wasn’t long before Stacia’s knack for teaching showed up, though it wasn’t until many years later she recognized it as what it was. “My friends also rode, and we would have the same lesson time. The Renihans’ house was on the property and I didn’t know there was an intercom system. I was such a barn rat that I would always be waiting after my lesson to be picked up, so my friends and I would pull out the school ponies and I would start instructing them and giving them lessons. The Renihans never shared that they would be listening to me over dinner; Val Renihan, who ended up being my first real trainer, is the one who finally told me years after the fact that they used to listen to me giving my lessons.”
Training with Val, Stacia began showing first at a local level at Grandview and then evolving into state shows, regional shows and then becoming Zone champion. From there, it became clear Stacia was in it for good. She trained with Val until her final junior year in 1987, when Stacia’s parents decided she should train on the East Coast. That year, in what she describes as a pivotal moment in her career, Stacia won the Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden.
“That was an unbelievably weird day,” Stacia said. “Early in the morning, my mom and I were just sitting on the front row watching the first couple horses go and this little 6- or 7-year-old girl walked by holding her dad’s hand. She walked past me, then turned around and came back to me and said, ‘Are you the winner?’ I said ‘Well I sure hope so!’ This was 5:00 in the morning; the warm-up class hadn’t even started yet.”
During the Finals, Stacia and Molly Ashe were sharing a room at the Southgate, a hotel across from Madison Square Garden. Both were Patrick Swayze fans, and it just so happened “Dirty Dancing” was the movie playing on the hotel’s TVs right before the Maclay Finals, “so that was my preparation to get mentally in the game,” Stacia said. But the good fortune didn’t end there.
“The night before the Finals, one of the jumper classes was going on; I had gone back to the hotel to go to bed, but Molly called the hotel room and she said, ‘You’re not going to believe it — Patrick Swayze is here at the horse show, you’ve got to come back,’” Stacia said. “I go bolting back to the horse show and I get in the elevator that takes you up to the fifth floor at Madison Square Garden where the show was, and I literally run smack into him — I was getting off the elevator, he was getting on. I still remember he had on an eggplant colored shirt, black jeans and cowboy boots. That whole weekend just had ridiculous karma to it.”
Of course, the epitome of the good karma was winning the Maclay Finals, and then it continued when Stacia got to present the award at the Maclay Finals in 1988 — the final year it was held at Madison Square Garden. It also played a role in the rest of her career.
Prior to the Maclay Finals, Stacia had been looking into colleges. “I basically knew that I wanted to keep riding, but at that point I didn’t know if it was going to be as a professional rider or working for an established barn,” she said. “I remember looking at colleges in Virginia because it was near Rodney Jenkins, who was somebody I really looked up to and admired; I looked at schools in New York because it was near where John Madden was; I looked at schools in New Jersey because it was near Fairfield Hunt Club and Beacon Hill — basically my criterion in looking for schools was somewhere I could continue to ride. After I won the Maclay Finals, the trainers at Beacon Hill at the time, Bill Cooney and Frank Madden, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working for them.”
With her parents’ support of the opportunity, Stacia began working for Beacon Hill as a professional rider in 1988. Teaching came out of necessity, because Bill and Frank had to be in Wellington in the winter months, so Stacia started coaching the Beacon Hill students. Though she left Beacon Hill in 1991, it was short-lived and she returned just six months later. Her unspent college money went to help purchase the Colts Neck, New Jersey, property in 1996 where Beacon Hill remains, and her 50 percent ownership increased to 100 percent in 2012.
“My current program is very diverse,” Stacia said. “It basically ends up being a program for the people who have the passion for the horse and the passion for riding. There are people who started riding at the pony level and just want to get off on the right foot; there are junior riders who have realized that they want to take riding very seriously and want to train at a high national level. I’ve got amateur riders who have either gone to college and have come back to riding or they’ve stayed riding through. I’ve got some amateur riders who have been with me 20-plus years. I think I have a reputation for training riders that are serious about the equitation; I end up attracting those riders, I think, because I’m very focused on riders getting a good start for their careers and trying to make good horsemen.”
The list of riders who have trained with Stacia include well-known names like Jessica Springsteen, Brianne Goutal, Sloane Coles, Karen Polle, Sydney Shulman, Lucy Deslaurier and many more. “I just love watching them take the building blocks of their younger years and apply them to showing on an international level and representing show jumping teams,” Stacia said. But her students whose names never appear on grand prix marquees are just as important to her.
“I think there are so many elements of a young rider having a relationship with the horse that are relevant to the real world and the decisions that you have to make,” she said. “So when riders spend as much time with coaches as they do when they’re serious about riding, you have to be really careful that you’re trying to be a positive role model and that you teach those principles and values. I just like to be an instrumental part of the growing process that goes hand-in-hand with being a good young rider.”
Even when she’s not training, Stacia looks for things that might help her be a better trainer — whether it’s observing the methods of ski instructors on family ski trips or her nephews’ coaches. “I’m constantly keeping my eyes open and trying to learn. I will say that I get great satisfaction when riders stay with the sport in some capacity.”
While she hopes she’s helping to ready the next generation of trainers, when it comes to her goals there’s not much Stacia would change. “My goals personally are just continuing to try to be relevant in young riders’ careers and also helping them develop as young people,” she said. “I talk to the kids all the time when they ride with me about not trying to make the rider-coach relationship so important that it adds an extra element of stress, trying to please the coach. I really strive to develop independent riders. I’ll say to them, ‘You don’t need to be putting ribbons up in my tack room. That’s not what it’s all about; it’s about developing a bond and a relationship with your horse, and understanding that failure can be an important part of the learning process.’”
Though her own riding accomplishments are noteworthy, Stacia gets the most satisfaction out of teaching — and has come a long way since giving her friends impromptu lessons. “It wasn’t until Val told me that she remembered hearing me train the kids when we were little,” she said, “that I even put it together that maybe I was designed to train before I knew it.”
Stacia’s motivation is summed up in this letter she recently received from a student: “I just got back from a trip to Holland with one of our clients and did some thinking: I wouldn’t be where I am in this sport today without you and the Beacon Hill team, and possibly wouldn’t be riding at all. You were the first one to give me every opportunity there was and made me believe I could do it. You gave me a shot, and here I am jumping young horses all over the world. I’m not sure I ever told you how thankful I am for what you did for me — the time, the countless lessons, extra horses to ride, a house to live in and a family — so I wanted to say it now. Thank you times a million for breaking your back to make me into the rider I am today. I have a long way to go, but I wouldn’t be here at all without you.”
For more information, visit www.beaconhillstables.com
Photos by Shelby Phillips, www.shelbyphillipsphotography.com