Vicky Madsen and By Crikey (aka William) competing at Blenheim Horse Trials. photo by Katie Mortimore

Vicky Madsen is a 4* British event rider who, uniquely, is based in Belgium, with her only event horse, the homebred By Crikey (William). There are a few other expats who event, but not internationally. When I interviewed her about her alternative route to Badminton (she’s entered, and is currently 42nd on the Wait List), she was just back from a gruelling run, working hard on her fitness. She’s entered for her first 7 km run in 10 days’ time, which just happens to be the day before their first event of the season, so it could make for an interesting time!

Vicky is 28, and says that her mother, Griselda, who died when Vicky was 21, so sadly never got to see her only daughter’s rise to 4* level, was the biggest influence on her career. Her father, Humphrey, lives in Georgia, formerly part of the U.S.S.R, and he evented too in the past. Griselda bred William, who is a 4th generation homebred. She had an Exmoor x tb pony mare, who was bred to ‘the thoroughbred down the road’ and produced the diminutive Kendal Caprice, who first show-jumped and then turned her hoof to eventing with Griselda, getting to Burghley in the late ’80s.

The mare’s second foal was a mare with a big attitude, and she was put to a Belgian anglo-arab, Tracy X. The result was William, who is technically 1/16th Exmoor pony and 1/16th Clydesdale. He was so difficult and stroppy as a youngster that they were never tempted to breed another from that mare, but in fact he’s exactly what they hoped for from the cross: 16.1, short-coupled with decent conformation, and, obviously, plenty of ability. If he has a fault it’s that he’s not built very uphill, making the dressage in particular more challenging.

While Vicky was at Exeter University in England, reading History and French, she worked for dressage rider Janet Titley in Dorset. Janet had a yard of talented but quite challenging dressage homebreds, and really micro-managed Vicky’s riding, and taught her to feel what a truly connected horse feels like. Vicky rode the youngsters mostly, but that included the odd proper flying change, and one horse’s first ridden piaffe. Vicky almost got to Badminton in 2003 on her Junior horse, Fabuleux du Fief, but he broke down irreparably before they got there. So, getting the run would be the attainment of a long-term dream.

Vicky Madsen and William - photo by Vic Day

She’s had more than her fair share of heartache and disappointment recently: her very promising homebred Decadence (Missy), out of her Advanced event mare Deconometrie by Advanced event stallion Mill Law, managed to give herself a probably career-ending freak injury when kicking out at the arena fence a couple of months ago while being schooled, and has been an utter nightmare on enforced box rest. She’s off on breeding loan for a year or two in the hopes that the damaged bone in her leg might heal with enough ‘Dr Green’, as we call it over here (the sometimes miraculous healing effect of long term rest.)

Vicky works part time as a lecturer/teacher in a school, teaching mostly 15-20 year olds who are in apprenticeships, training to become Yard Managers. She admits wryly that William’s winnings last year came to the princely sum of 150 Euros, and has seriously considered selling her top horse for financial reasons. She quietly put the word out that he was for sale after their great clear and eventual 20th place at their first ever 4* last year, Luhmühlen, but the right person didn’t come along so they are preparing for their next tilt at 4*.

She and her previously unhorsey – now very supportive! – husband Stefan haven’t had a holiday for 4 years, and finances are always tight. She has a great website, at www.madsen-equestrian.com, and does a weekly video blog, usually with would-be-supermodel William in the background, spotlighting a different sponsor every week.

Update 12 – March 21, 2012

She feels that with just 1 horse on the road, she can’t justify asking one sponsor for a lot of support, and this idea, for a different (usually local) sponsor to give a set amount (either 100 Euros or £100, or the equivalent value in kind) and in exchange, be featured heavily in the weekly video, gives lots of smaller sponsors the chance to support her without incurring huge costs.

Vicky is always on the lookout for further sponsorship, and has proved that she has the dedication and talent to get to the very top level, so would be a great bet for anyone looking to invest in an up-and-coming rider. A few companies have assisted – Tolga saddles helped her with the purchase of one of their XC saddles, which she loves, Kan Body Protectors has been supportive and Supastuds and Pure Feeds have both made promises to help this spring.

Vicky Madsen photo by Alicia Witkowski

William himself is rising 11, and is one of those horses who saves himself and does everything quite begrudgingly. For instance he can be a bad loader – he’s usually okay if another horse is on board, but he is a worrier, not just taking the mickey. After Luhmühlen last year, he took half an hour to load in the pouring rain, by which time Victoria says she would cheerfully have given him away! He is quite grumpy, and lets you know when he’s not happy – he bites, kicks, and loves shoving people very hard with his nose. Victoria says “you can pull the top 2/3 of his mane, but there’s a definitely line, and if you try to pull the bottom 1/3 he will throw himself on you.”

On his rise up the levels, she says: “He’s always been how he is, he can make 90 cm feel like hard work sometimes! However nothing has ever seemed to upset him particularly, he qualified and competed at the BE young horse championships as both a 4 year old and a 6 year old, he’s come out every season since he was 4 and got on with the job in hand, and usually moved up a level every year until he got to 3*. At one point I was running a horse alongside him, D Day, who was getting much better results, and it was William who got to keep a stable because D Day was worth so much more! He has an amazing understanding of modern cross-country, he will literally hunt and kill skinnies for me! He is also efficient, sure-footed and has wonderful natural balance, hence his usually fast xc times.

He’s had some issues this spring, which put their entry for Badminton in serious jeopardy. His coat was dull and he seemed to lose some form, but the main symptom was his major girthing issues – he’d bite, kick, buckle at the knees and try to throw himself on the floor if the girth touched him anywhere before it was done up. Vicky tried a vast array of different girths before concluding that none made any difference, so further investigations found a very acidic gut, and he has been on homeopathic remedies and a foul-smelling (according to Victoria) but apparently tasty (well, he ate it!) supplement from a holistic vet to sort out this temporarily debilitating problem. William’s blood tests show a miraculous improvement in a short time-period, and he has now got his mojo back and is jumping with his customary verve… or at least his version of it!

Vicky Madsen and By Crikey (William) at Blenheim CCI3* - photo by Lulu Kyriacou

Last year’s competition schedule was quite hectic: they did a couple of Belgian events followed by Saumur CCI***, then 4 weeks later Luhmuhlen CCI****, a break, then the Belgian national champs, Haras du Pin CIC***, and Breda CIC***.  They don’t have the vast choice of top level events in Europe that we do throughout the season in the U.K., so this campaign was, necessarily, slotted into a fairly short timescale. He did get a long rest afterwards, and of course now that CCIs are short-format the recovery time is much quicker.

The Brits sent quite a big team to both Saumur and Luhmühlen, with Yogi Breisner, Kenneth Clawson, as well as the team physio and vet in support, so Victoria was able to benefit from their input – it is difficult though as obviously they do not know her or the horse, and there is no ongoing support. What she saw really impressed her though: “they are streets ahead of the rest of Europe on the pedagogical side.”

On the subject of which Trainers she uses, she says cheerfully that she “hasn’t had a lesson since before Breda” due to financial constraints. Obviously this is not ideal, because when you’re competing against the best in the world at 3* and 4* events, “it’s demoralising at this level, everyone else is so good.”

However there are very good people around when she can afford the training: for dressage she goes to Nick van Laer, who she trained with years ago, and who is now a young horse producer. He evented and therefore understands event horses, and “really really works you hard”, something she thinks she needs because it is difficult to push yourself that hard when you are on your own.

For SJ she occasionally goes to Nicolas Wautier, who is a hackable distance away at the Royal Country Riding Club, which has lovely arena.”He is very disciplined in his approach, really pushes you on the flat first, the horse must be right.” They are very thorough, and have devoted whole sessions to finding the best way to warm the horse up at a competition, for example, so she now has a set way that works for William. Previously she trained with Jos Kumps, who also trained Nicolas, and Jos realised that William is the sort of horse who does less and less the more the rider does, so he had her trotting quietly down to a 1.20 upright on the buckle end – “quite frightening actually!”

She doesn’t have XC training, but in the past has gone to Marc Rigouts – the former team trainer for the Belgian Team. He revolutionised Deconometrie XC, she was “always very naughty about water”. They were practising at a venue with small water jump, and Vicky was having to be aggressive to get her in every time. Marc made her go in and out and in and out in relaxation on a long rein until the mare would do it with no hesitation at all.  This was a 2* horse, but he took her right back to the basics, and after half an hour of giving her the time to learn to trust, Victoria was eventually allowed to trot to the step out of the water. The mare never looked back, her confidence grew exponentially. So, “he’d be the go-to guy if I had any xc issues.”

Her facilities are very basic: she has 4 stables, a shed for hay and straw, and a hectare of field. No arena, and they are on clay soil so the field has good going for about 2 days of the year. She can squeeze a 60×20 arena in there, and does that about twice a year. “It is very good practice, to get them to do dressage on grass in a place they don’t expect to be asked to do a test.” However, she does have the forest on her doorstep, she can literally shut her gates and ride straight onto the woodland tracks, which are great for fitness and for keeping the horses happy and interested in their work.

On the advantages and disadvantages of having just one horse competing at such a high level, she says “Pro riders can’t necessarily give horses that individual attention. If I need to do a longer hack, or lots of hacking, I can do that, I have the time.”

But there are drawbacks: “I can’t remember the last time jumped over 1m high on any horse other than William”. She does ride the odd horse for other people, but it is usually just flatwork, deputising for an injured rider, or getting a youngster going over a course for the first time. Even though she might need the practice, she can’t work William harder or more often than is ideal for him, so for instance she has to hack out with very short stirrups, to work her galloping muscles but not the horse’s!

Vicky Madsen and William - photo by Alicia Witkowski

I’ve been in this position, having just one top horse, and you get utterly paranoid (even more than normal, which is saying something!) and also you magnify every little thing… for example, if you go to an event with a few horses, one might have a couple of poles down, but if the others all showjump well it’s not such a big deal. But if you only take one horse, and there are weeks until your next decent-level competition with that one horse, even one pole becomes a huge deal that you micro-analyse for days.

At the very competitive CIC*** World Cup qualifier at Le Pin du Haras last summer, they had 7 fences down. She explains this thus: “William never gives more than he has to, which is why he’s got as far as he has. He will usually give 5cm over a fence, but after a XC on hard ground (which this had been) that goes down to 2cm. This gives no margin for error.” Plus he’s not the sort to try harder because he hit one, he gets demoralised and then seems to tense up and try less. They had 5 consecutive fences down – devastating. It was a tough course, there was only one clear round in a very high quality field, but even so, 7 down was a big disappointment.

With her typical problem-solving attitude, Vicky immediately spoke to Neuro-Linguistic Practitioner Jo Cooper, who is well known in horsey circles, and Jo got her to really think about how she sees a show-jump in her mind. The result – only 2 down at Breda CIC*** 2 weeks later, a phenomenal improvement.

William definitely has a bit of a mind of his own XC, again all geared towards making things easy for himself, it seems. In one round he can change from cleverly ponyish to having Murphy Himself moments – for example at Breda “there was a horrible combination round a corner in the softest part of the course and it had rained the night before, and he got 3 strides in an 11 yard distance” but then later in the course he got “3 strides in what should have been 4 or 5”. She rides him with huge tact and gives him just enough freedom to keep him happy in his job.

There is a fan club of devoted HHO (Horse and Hound Online) forum users such as myself who ‘met’ Vicky on there, (she is one of a few former and current 4* riders who post on there), and have followed William’s progress up the levels through her reports on there. We would all LOVE to see them in action at Badminton.

What’s next? She’s taking William and a couple of youngsters to ex-pat U.K. showjumper Louise Morley, who is also based in Belgium, for a few days of training over bigger fences than she’d push herself to jump at home.

Kerry