Maddy Cracknell has been riding since she was three, but for the last several years it has become more than a casual pursuit.
The 17-year-old equestrian, a senior at Octorara High School, rides a pair of thoroughbred geldings, Commanding Curve and Galway Empire. She trains both horses almost daily and enters Eventing competitions on the East Coast.
“This sport takes a ton of patience and hard work as thoroughbreds have a mind of their own,” Cracknell said. “When you think you have made significant progress, they can test you and take a step back. But all horses and riders have ups and downs and you have to be in this sport for the long haul building a relationship with your horses to succeed.”
Cracknell’s mom, Wendy Ott, found a riding program for her daughter in Delaware that put children who literally had learned to walk a year or so before on horses.
“Maddy took to it quickly or she didn’t know any better,” Ott said.
Mother and daughter agree it wasn’t long before Cracknell felt really comfortable on the back of show horses a lot bigger than she was.
For the past four years, Cracknell has been training with Lillian Heard at Windurra Farm and Training Center in Cochranville, Pennsylvania owned by equestrians Boyd and Sylvia Martin. The farm is a short trot from the Cracknell home where Maddy cares for her horses.
Heard is a Maryland native and has made more than 100 Eventing starts in her career and has a 309 FEI ranking. Heard trains, coaches and sells horses, while also giving lessons through Lillian J. Heard Eventing. She competes regularly at major Eventing competitions.
“Lillian keeps me focused,” Cracknell said, “with encouragement and honest criticism when I need it. When your training hits a speed bump as it can do frequently, Lillian works you and the horse through it with specific instruction and positive feedback. My horses and I both work hard for her.”
Heard sets up training and instruction schedules each week for the horses and rider that may be modified if Cracknell feels either horse needs more work in one of the three Eventing disciplines.
The young rider may accompany Heard to some competitions or they may both ride in different classes at the same event. It’s important to get same-day feedback.
“It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes on horse and rider in competition,” Cracknell said. “Sometimes her feedback validates what I was feeling from the ride and she can see if my ride was different than what I thought it was, for better or worse.”
About the time and discipline needed to care for your own horses, Cracknell said, “I was the only kid at school that didn’t have to ask for a pony for Christmas. I woke up one day with a thoroughbred I had to care for in the barn.”
She now has three horses in that barn, including a pasture puff pony. That means feeding, grooming and caring for them before and after she rides.
As Cracknell became serious about Eventing (dressage, stadium jumping and cross country), her mother wanted to be sure she had an equestrian partner up to the task. The mother-daughter duo acquired Commanding Curve in 2017 from Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland, just three years after the thoroughbred surprised the racing world with a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby behind California Chrome. Curve, as Maddy now calls her horse, earned more than $600,000 in a racing career of 16 starts.
Curve, now retrained, won a USEA Novice competition with Heard aboard in South Carolina in early 2019 and Curve had moved up to compete at the Training Level for a short time this year. But, said Cracknell, “he hit one of those speed bumps and just wasn’t ready for that level of competition yet and we moved back to Novice and finished second at Loch Moy Farm in Adamstown, Maryland in September.
“There are horses and then there are thoroughbreds,” Cracknell said, “and it has been an experience for both Curve, Empire and me. We are learning together with Lillian’s help.”
Cracknell hopes to move Curve back into the Training level next year, after she has competed in at least four events finishing with respectable scores. “Both horses have shown improvement,” she said, “but it takes time, trust, practice and patience to build a strong horse-rider relationship and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
As she approaches graduation, the high school senior feels there are lots of opportunities for a career in the equestrian field and she is thinking about going to college close to home so she can continue her training with Heard while competing.
Cracknell feels her retired thoroughbreds continue to get comfortable with Eventing as both have relaxed, good-tempered personalities.
“Curve is a big horse and when I was 13 he was a big jump for me when I started training him,” Cracknell said. “We have grown close in the last four years. Curve is just amazing and although he likes to play at times, he is learning to get down to serious business when we enter the ring in competition.”
Cracknell’s mom is her biggest fan.
“It’s been fun to watch Maddy compete and learn responsibilities in caring for horses every day,” Ott said. “She’s only 17 but we all hope, with Lillian’s guidance, Maddy’s riding skills will continue to improve and she will continue to surprise us all.”
Cracknell doesn’t want her improvements to be a surprise to anyone. She isn’t finished riding by a long shot.
“I’m still really into it,” she said, “and I’m training hard and I know I haven’t reached my potential yet.”