By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Maddy Falkowitz
It’s been said, “Home is the starting place of love, hope and dreams.” When Madison Aguilar first stepped foot on the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) campus to attend the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) Zone Championships in 2014, she felt a sense of belonging that only comes from being home.
Prior to that visit, Madison didn’t realize there was an opportunity to combine her love for riding with getting a college degree. “I wasn’t planning on going to a four-year college. I was just going to get my associate degree at the local community college, then get a job in the horse industry and hit the ground running,” Madison said.
That first trip to SCAD left a lasting impression on Madison and her mother, Tori, as they immediately fell in love with the campus. When fall 2018 arrived, Madison and Tori were equally excited about the equestrian education and experience Madison was about to embark on. Unfortunately, that excitement quickly faded as Tori battled liver cancer and passed away in April 2019.
It was that mutual love of SCAD that helped Madison rejoin her SCAD community for the fall 2019 semester. Once she returned to campus, she was met with such a tremendous amount of support from her SCAD teammates, coaches and staff that she was able to not only return to school to focus on her academics and team duties, but to thrive at both.
With a mom who grew up riding and a dad who picked up riding as a hobby in his late 20s, Madison and her siblings were surrounded by horses from the start. “We had a barn in the backyard, so a lot of our time as a family was spent outside taking care of the horses,” she said.
Although Madison was always around horses, it wasn’t until she was 4 years old that she got the bug to ride. “I always wanted to do whatever my sister, Taylor, did. I tried all the sports she played, but they never stuck. I clearly remember the moment I was ready to take the reins,” Madison said. “We were at one of Taylor’s riding lessons and I turned to my mom and told her I want to ride horses, too. Mom said OK and I started taking lessons there at Wellington Show Stables.”
Madison and Taylor grew up riding together, with their mom always a constant presence at the barn. “Our mom bought us a $500 pony named Candy from the local petting zoo. Candy wasn’t broke, so Taylor and Mom worked together to break her,” Madison said. “Candy wasn’t the fanciest thing, but as Taylor and I put miles on her, she taught us a lot.”
The lessons Madison learned weren’t just confined to the saddle. “I didn’t really appreciate my parents’ strictness at the time, but looking back I so appreciate the values they instilled in us via horses. Through horses, we learned time management, responsibility and so much more. The horses always came first—if we didn’t put their needs first, we weren’t allowed to ride that day or go visit friends,” she said. “My favorite thing about my childhood barn time was learning from the horses and spending time with my parents.”
At 5 years old, Madison made her first appearance in the show ring in a leadline class. From that point on, she kept progressing. “I was very competitive on the schooling-show circuit in my area. In addition to my own pony, Ali Sweetnam gave me a pony to retrain that I also had success with,” Madison said. “It wasn’t until I was 17, when my parents were able to get me an equitation horse, that I was able to show on the ‘A’ circuit.”
While Madison wasn’t able to travel the rated circuit growing up, she had the opportunity to travel to competitions as a member of Wall Street Farm’s IEA team. “In sixth grade, I started doing IEA, which I continued through high school. It was such a great experience and allowed us to have that ‘A’ circuit travel experience in an affordable way,” she said.
Madison didn’t know it at the time, but IEA was preparing her for future collegiate meets. “The ‘get on and go’ format, where you don’t really get to know the horses, really set me up well for riding in college. I learned so much riding all the different horses at various meets,” Madison said.
The 2014 IEA Zone Finals, held at SCAD, forever altered Madison’s equestrian path. “The moment Mom and I drove in and saw how beautiful the campus was, I wanted to go there. The horses I was able to ride at the meet were amazing and I was able to meet the head coach, Ashley Henry, and equestrian program director, Eddie Federwisch,” Madison said.
Madison did more than just gaze at the sites while at IEA Zone Finals. She had an incredible meet, winning two of her classes and placing second in another one. “I think my placings and riding really helped get Ashley and Eddie’s attention. I remember they were talking to my mom and trainer there, and they were a little sad at the fact that I was in middle school and it would be a few more years until I could join their team,” Madison said.
Although the campus impressed Madison, she was a bit concerned about the lack of an equestrian major at the time. “Equestrian studies was only a minor, so I wasn’t fully sold on going to an art school, when I can’t draw to save my life,” she said. “It wasn’t until I found out equestrian studies had become a major that I was all in on SCAD.”
After that initial meeting, Madison kept in touch with Eddie and would see him each year at the College Preparatory Invitationals (CPI) held in Wellington, Florida. “Years before I could participate in the CPI, I would be there helping in whatever way I could as our good friend ran it. Each year, I would see Eddie and he’d always make it a point to say hello and catch up,” Madison said. “During my junior year of high school, I showed in the CPI and Eddie was the coach.”
Again, Madison wowed Eddie with her performance. “It was great that he still showed a lot of interest in me. I ended up choosing SCAD because Eddie and Ashley were so adamant about me attending and made it work financially so I could come,” she said. “I ended up committing to SCAD after the 2018 CPI.”
When Madison traveled to Savannah to begin school in the fall of 2018, she arrived with a secret. Her mother had been diagnosed with liver cancer in March. “I had a very close-knit group of friends at SCAD, but nobody knew what I was dealing with at home. Eventually I let Ashley know what was going on and she was always there to provide support and guidance,” Madison said.
As 2019 began, Madison’s father reached out to Eddie to let him know the situation at home. “Eddie told my friends and teammates what was going on. Without letting on that they’d had a conversation with Eddie, they were there for me, whenever I needed to come over, hang out, and just do whatever I needed,” Madison said.
Prior to Tori passing away in April 2019, Madison was able to spend a week at home with the family. “During that final visit, when Mom first saw me, she said, ‘You need to go back to school. When are you going back?’ All she ever wanted me to do was to keep riding and pursuing my dreams,” Madison said.
Although Madison had a moment where she contemplated not returning to school, that thought quickly faded as returning to SCAD meant fulfilling her mother’s dreams for her. “I knew if I dropped out of school and stayed home, she would have been upset with me and that wouldn’t have sat right with me. I had worked really hard to get there, was doing well academically and on the team,” Madison said. “SCAD was our thing, so I had to stick with it and keep going.”
When Madison returned to campus, Ashley was ecstatic to have her back with the team. “Our first preseason meet, Ashley and my teammates were just so supportive,” Madison said. “They all were available from that moment on to help me when I needed guidance or was just having a day. Having the community rally around me was just what I needed.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Madison’s college experience, cancelling IHSA competitions and forcing her to a virtual learning environment, Madison and her fellow SCAD Savannah Bees made up for lost time during their 2021–2022 season. The team returned “ready to run” in hopes of capturing a zone championship. “It was a little nerve wracking to go back to competing after COVID, as we had lost some of our heavy hitters to graduation during the pandemic. It was such an adrenaline rush when we finished IHSA Zones and I had helped contribute to the points to qualify for Nationals,” Madison said.
Madison’s senior year, 2022-2023, was another standout year for her and her teammates. In 2023, SCAD won the ANRC National Champion Team title as well as the Tournament of Champions and the Reserve IHSA National Championship. Madison was one of three riders on the ANRC national championship team and placed third overall. In addition to the team triumphs, Madison was also Reserve National Champion in the Individual Intermediate Equitation Over Fences at IHSA nationals.
Not only was Madison successful in the ring, she also excelled in the classroom. During her equestrian competition design course in April 2022, Madison’s professor, Ahna Phelps, invited renowned course designer Bobby Murphy to come talk to the class about his process for designing courses and jumps at shows across the United States.
“Bobby came and gave us the most amazing presentation where he showed us all the different types of courses he’s created, from Maclay Finals to International Derby Finals. He told us that he measures every inch of every ring he designs courses in, to make sure each jump is exactly where he wants it. He also talked to us about different designs that have inspired jumps he’s created for various competitions,” Madison said.
At the end of the presentation, Bobby gave the class an assignment: Using the inspiration from the sights of Savannah and other designs he found inspiring, he wanted them to mock up jump designs for potential use in the 2022 Maclay Finals at the National Horse Show. “I was like, Heck yeah, I’m not artistic at all, but I’m game for giving this a shot. I ended up sending in eight designs that I had hand drawn, with a narrative to explain how I created them,” Madison said.
A signature of Bobby’s Maclay courses each year is a jump that says ASPCA, so Madison immediately honed in on that. “My inspiration for the Maclay jump was the Hermès sign at the Orlando Mall that Bobby had talked about. I thought that sign looked like it could be a jump; what if I changed the wording to Maclay?” she said.
After submitting their designs in June, the class anxiously awaited to hear which jump designs Bobby selected. A few weeks before Maclay Finals, in November 2022, Bobby reached out to Ahna to let her know he’d picked out a few of the SCAD designs to use at the Maclay Finals.
“Bobby usually does these sneak peek course teaser posts on Instagram, so I was watching his social media very closely. A few days before Maclay finals, he tagged me in a post and I saw my vision for the jump come to life,” Madison said. “I was working on a project at school when I saw the Instagram tag and freaked out with excitement right away.”
On the day of the Maclay Finals, SCAD was hosting their own home show. Madison and her teammates tuned in to the live stream via their phones to watch finalists tackle the course in Kentucky. “Watching Bobby’s Instagram, where he made such a big deal about SCAD and the work our class did to create jumps, was really amazing. I’m so appreciative of Bobby and the Maclay commentators for giving our SCAD Equestrian Studies Program national attention,” Madison said.
Madison was in for an added surprise as she watched the live stream. “I was so excited that Bobby had chosen my Maclay jump to put in the finals, but then to hear he had chosen mine as the overall favorite and it was the last jump of the course was so cool,” she said. “As a Junior, I was never able to qualify for the Maclay Finals, so being able to be a part of the class that I’d always wanted to compete in with my jump was incredible.”
Intro to Industry
As graduation approached in May 2023, Madison was trying to figure out her next steps to secure a job in the horse industry after graduation. Like Professor Ahna Phelps had connections with Bobby Murphy, Assistant Coach Sammy Perlman had connections in the horse-show world, as she had worked for North Run prior to joining SCAD.
“The team at Shadow Ridge—Samantha Schaefer, Kate Conover and Haleigh Landrigan—had reached out to Sammy to see if she had any seniors who were still looking for a job after graduation. Sammy reached out to me, gave me the details and I said I was game for it,” Madison said, adding that a week after graduating, she moved to Westminster, Maryland, to manage Shadow Ridge’s home barn.
Madison knows her mom would be over the moon for her that she immediately began working for a successful show barn right after graduation. From the beginning of Madison’s equestrian journey, her mom always shared the same big dreams Madison had for herself in the industry.
“My mom was my biggest cheerleader, she was always right there with me and ecstatic for every cool opportunity, big or small, that I got. She knew that I wanted to work for big players in this industry and working at Shadow Ridge is a great start for where I want to be in the future,” Madison said. “I know the minute I found out about the opportunity, if she had been able to, Mom would have called them herself and accepted the job on my behalf.”
Follow Madison on Instagram @madisonaguilar.lrf
Photos by Maddy Falkowitz, maddyfalkowitz.com and on Instagram @msf.photographyy, unless noted otherwise
Photo courtesy of the National Horse Show