How John Madden's Practices Changed The Way I Run My Barn and Manage My Life
By Michelle Bloch
April 30, 2020
Most of us can recall a trainer who had an impact on our future – the person who changed our life’s trajectory or influenced how horses are a part of our life. Throughout the years there have been a handful of people who have made a sizable impact on how I run my barn, teach my students, work on the computer, and even raise my daughter. When it comes to horsemanship, however, no one’s words have resonated with me more than those of John Madden’s.
For nearly two years while working on a project, I was injected into the systems at John Madden Sales (JMS). I soaked up the specifics of training horses and riders, setting jumps and distances, barn management, and organization. Techniques and systems from the experience infiltrated my barn business. But in addition to these specifics, I carry with me to this day what I can only describe as ‘umbrella ideas’ that became integrated into my day-to-day life, and while it has been eight years since that immersion into the world of JMS, I find myself hearing his words over and over again.
Everything In Life Is Like Everything Else
If you’re curious, you can explore and discover similarities in the way all things work – the mechanics of things. Principles of physics don’t change.
The first time I heard John claim that “everything in life is like everything else” I was like, “what?” Turns out, if you’re curious, you can explore and discover similarities in the way all things work – the mechanics of things. Principles of physics don’t change. Concepts like weight shift and balance experienced at the gym, on the tennis court or the ski slope can often apply to riding. I took this concept to heart and began to explore the similarities of function. I might be the only person who ever sat on a zero-turn mower and equated the “aids” I was using to perform a zero-turn with those I would use on a horse performing a turn on the haunches. When skiing, I explored how my shift of weight, however subtle, would affect my trajectory and how my skis reacted. I contemplated opening and closing my angles and how that too would change the way my skis reacted on the snow. I then tested theories in the saddle. Because of this exploration, the way I taught my students changed. The challenge of connecting all things enabled me to relate a concept in the saddle to a sport or activity my student understood.
For example, for those students who were passionate about music I would share how similar it was to use your aids in a way that worked together, like musicians in a band playing beautiful music – not just noise. How each instrument (hands and legs) acted independently, but they had to work together to create music.
Once you open your mind to the possibility of unrelated things being similar in the way they function, it creates curiosity and opens the possibility of learning from a multitude of places.
Break Things Down Into Manageable Chunks
At first glance, a posted jumper course of 12-15 obstacles can be daunting. When I studied and walked courses with John, we broke them into segments – a series of related jumps. For example, a long four stride line to a short three followed by a rollback to a single oxer. This was because memorizing groups are easier than memorizing singles (memorizing 24-75-57 is far easier than memorizing 247557), and by grouping jumps into relatable segments you can also practice these segments at home. Perfect the segments at home, and then bring them together at the show.
And while this was helpful in my teaching, the concept also became a way of life. (Because everything in life is like everything else!) Break long days into segments because it is easier to face each segment with renewed energy. It even became a way for my daughter to handle a heavy workload at school. She broke homework down into sections, the same way she did on the jumper course. Facing 15 jumps can be overwhelming, but four segments seems manageable.
Be Prepared for the Unexpected
Working ahead and being prepared also gave everyone the “space” or time to deal with something unexpected.
JMS changed the way I looked at preparedness. The end of the day was not only about closing out that day but also about preparing for the next. That preparation was a way to set yourself up for success and to be ready for the unexpected. I watched as John and Beezie took the time after long show days in West Palm or at Spruce Meadows to schedule the following day. They wrote out small pocket schedules so John and Beezie knew what ring they needed to be at, at any given time. When they left the barn for the night, everyone knew what horses were to be ridden or shown, at what time, and where. This act of preparation enabled the wheels and cogs of JMS to turn without assistance and could continue even if there was an emergency. Working ahead and being prepared also gave everyone the “space” or time to deal with something unexpected.
The real-world application to my life became apparent in the barn and out. In the barn, I changed how I fed my horses. I now prepare their grain and supplements at the prior feeding so in case of emergency anyone could come in and feed. Feed buckets are labeled and ready to go. Out of the barn, I was always one who religiously let her gas tank hit the red line before getting gas. I adopted John’s proactive philosophy and began to fill my gas tank when it hit the halfway mark. Because of this change, I found myself always ready for my daughter’s emergency pickup call or the unexpected trip to the emergency room. I even took note on one morning when I slid into the driver’s seat, running behind for a dentist appointment, relieved I wasn’t staring at a near-empty tank. I was ready for the “emergency."
Systems For Efficiency
Everyone has 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. Time is the great equalizer. Lean management, or a system of running a business that supports the concept of continual improvement, is a piece of the JMS system that resonated with me. I was captured by John’s love of systems and efficiency. Who wouldn’t want to be more efficient, and as a byproduct, be left with more time than my less-efficient self? By eliminated wasted steps I cut downtime spent cleaning (without sacrificing quality) and was left with more time for actually being with the horses. Wasn’t that what I was there to do?
This lean management practice challenged me to explore every aspect of how I ran my barn, down to where I kept my hoof pick or the order in which I completed tasks (honestly, even my kitchen storage became the subject of intense scrutiny). With each task, I asked myself, “Is this the most efficient way to do it? Am I doubling back, wasting time?”
One of the first simple changes I made was to purchase two extra brooms because I found myself wasting time each day searching for the single broom. My barn is set up like an “H” and somehow the broom was never where I needed it. I hung one at each entrance to the indoor where we picked feet upon exiting and kept a third near the grooming stalls.
In watching the Maddens, I witnessed the goal of efficiency extend into the ring. Communication between horse and rider was so efficient that there appeared to be not an ounce of wasted effort. Correct positions produced the best, most efficient outcome when communicating with hands, legs, and seat.
When you are learning from your trainer or from others at a show, don’t limit your learning to listening; watch how they perform tasks, manage their time or their horse. A horseman does not succeed using only their skills in the saddle. Watch the systems successful people use every day. By watching John and Beezie, my horsemanship was not the only thing impacted. They changed my approach to everything in life.