Some horses begin their careers with a whisper. Cortes ‘C’ began his with a bang.
Way back in 2011, then-two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden tried the Belgian warmblood gelding, who had come up through the ranks under Belgian rider Gregory Wathelet. According to Beezie’s husband and business partner, John Madden, their chemistry was apparent from the start.
“We were so high on him,” John Madden told Horse Network in 2020. “We tried him and Beezie said, ‘Do we really have to try him a second time again? I just want to have him.’”
She was right. Known for his trademark, cross-legged jumping style, Cortes—then a 9-year-old—and Madden quickly hit their stride after he was purchased by owner Abigail Wexner. So quickly, in fact, that they earned nine, top-five finishes in only their first year.
That was just the start. In their five seasons together, the pair would capture major titles, from World Cup qualifiers to major grands prix in venues such as Wellington, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; and Chantilly and Caen, France. There were also part of multiple U.S. Nations Cup teams, including two winning squads in Hickstead, U.K. In 2016, they helped the USA to a team silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in Brazil, where Cortes unfortunately suffered a tendon injury, and had to be withdrawn just before the final.
The pair also broke barriers. With Cortes under her saddle, Madden won the Longines King George V Gold Cup at Hickstead in 2014. Women had been excluded until 2008, and Madden became the first female rider to win the class in its 108-year history. They repeated the feat the following year.
Ironically known as “Tiny” in the barn, despite his towering stature, Cortes’s equally big personality made him an instant hit with his groom, Clark Shipley, and the rest of the John Madden Sales (JMS) team. At home at ‘Madden Mountain’ in Cazenovia, New York, and on the road, Tiny loved his turnout time, fellow JMS super-star Simon, and Livesavers peppermints. The Belgian gelding, Shipley said, was usually easy-going, but good for the occasional cow-kick if something really stuck in his craw.
What made Cortes so special was his ability to give that little something extra in the ring.
Maybe it was the showman in him, maybe it was a hidden pair of wings. But nowhere was Cortes’ world-class talent more evident than in the fall of 2014, during the $250,000 World Cup Qualifier at the National Horse Show. There, he and Madden did the impossible: squeaking past McLain Ward and Rothchild in the jump-off round when they did one—or three—strides less in a dramatic shot to the final oxer.
That night, and despite their trophy room full of cups and medals, Madden and Cortes went down into the history books, creating one of the most iconic moments in show jumping in recent memory. The YouTube video of their round has been viewed more than 134K times.
According to Madden, it was Cortes ‘C’ that also gave her one of the most memorable moments in her career, at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy. That same year, the American rider was recovering from an ill-timed collarbone injury, and had little time to prepare her top horses—Cortes and Simon—for the championship. After some back and forth, and a standout week at one of the final team observation events at Hickstead (where they also won the Nations Cup), the Maddens decided to bring Tiny to the WEG.
Once again, Beezie’s intuition proved correct.
“He was the best horse there,” Madden said of the gelding’s multiple clear rounds in France. “He jumped around those courses like they were a 1.30m that week, it felt like.
“I had one little unlucky rail in the second round of the individual final, and then he jumped clear for all the riders in the final four.”
The pair ultimately came away with two bronze medals in the team and individual events, with Cortes being named “Best Horse” for his standout performances.
“It wasn’t as a result our best week,” Madden said, “but it was probably one of the best weeks we’ve ever had.”
After being immortalized as a Breyer Horse in 2016, Cortes was officially retired from the sport in April of 2017, at age 15, after what proved to be a career-ending injury at the Rio Olympics. For the last seven years, he lived out his days in the fields of the Madden’s retirement facility, “Madden Mountain,” where his whiskers grew long and, one can only imagine, he enjoyed the lush green grass, and the sound of the wind rising in his ears.
Cortes ‘C’ died peacefully on July 12, 2023. He was predeceased by his longtime groom, Clark Shipley, who passed away after a battle with cancer three years earlier.
“We have no doubt Clark was waiting for Tiny yesterday with bags of carrots on the other side,” the Maddens wrote in a statement following the gelding’s passing.
“He stayed the friendliest horse on the farm until the end, loving to greet tours and take pictures with the fans who visited him in Cazenovia, New York. There was no one who had the pleasure of meeting or working with Tiny whose life he didn’t impact.”