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Denny Emerson


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Buy the Horse You Need, Not the Horse You Want

In this excerpt from his book Know Better to Do Better, horseman Denny Emerson gets frank about horse shopping with your head on straight.

Photo courtesy of Denny Emerson.

There are thousands of horses and ponies out there, all over the world, and many of them are for sale. There are thousands of potential buyers. There are numerous methods of putting these horse buyers in contact with the horse sellers, the internet being the big game in town. There’s also word of mouth, and there’s print advertising, but whatever the method, at some point, some of the shoppers actually find themselves in the physical presence of some of the animals that are for sale.

There are two very broad, often overlapping methods of thinking that describe the horse-shopping experience, which I will call “Rational Thinking” and “Fairy Tale Thinking”: RT and FTT. Most of us use both. Even the most hard-bitten, cynical, “been there, done that,” curmudgeonly old pessimist will find something to hope for in the occasional horse. Even the most Black Beauty-ized, dream-struck, “I love his cute little ears” fantasizer doesn’t fall in immediate love with every horse. But if you use a 1–to–10 scale on people, with 1 being the straight realist and the 10 the total dreamer, it might be a useful exercise to try to figure out where you might fit on this hypothetical scale.

Why? Because buying the right horse brings great satisfaction and joy, and buying the wrong one brings just as much dissatisfaction and distress, and even though choosing wisely can still lead to mistakes, choosing foolishly is more likely to turn out badly. If you know, deep in your heart, that you are an 8, 9, or 10, prone to gasp in delight at a glorious forelock, hiding two bright brown eyes, and overlooking the crooked left pastern, you might want to get a “3” friend to go with you. Even more important, sit down with that “3” friend, someone who knows you pretty well, and do the single best thing you can: write a list. That list can contain “wishful” items and practical ones.

One of the most important questions to struggle with before you get started on your list will also be the hardest question to face honestly: “How competent a rider and trainer am I?”

Another hard question to answer honestly is: “What are my goals with this horse?”

If you fake the answers to these two questions, God help you, because nobody else can.

Example: You are at this point in your riding (which you refuse to face) an inexperienced rider who lacks stability, hasn’t done much jumping, hasn’t spent long hours hanging around barns and warm-up rings, so doesn’t know much about horsemanship, and isn’t very physically fit. Every one of these facts about you can be remedied, but they have not been addressed yet.

But you fantasize that you want a horse that can jump 3 feet 8 inches, and allow you to compete at the Preliminary Level of eventing. He must be a splendid mover, have a great gallop, and be beautiful and “electric” in dressage. Your goals are not in sync with your riding capabilities. Not yet. And if you buy a horse that’s too far above your capabilities who won’t let you fumble around and make all kinds of mistakes while you gradually become a better rider, you may get scared or discouraged or injured, or all of the above, so that you may never become the rider that the right horse for you, at this time, might have allowed.

So make a list of the things in this new horse that you actually need, instead of the things that you want. Obviously, if you are multiple gold-medalist Michael Jung making the list, or some other great rider, the qualities you want are also those that you need, but that’s not the case for most horse shoppers. So try to list those things that you need—in reality, for this particular stage of your riding—knowing that in a few years, or less, you may need something very different.

Or not.

This excerpt from Know Better to Do Better by Denny Emerson is printed with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

The Fine Art of the ‘Gentle Pester’

In this excerpt from the new book Know Better to Do Better, eventer Denny Emerson admits he misused pressure in horse training in the past and explains how his methods have improved with the horse in mind.

Photo by May Emerson.

One mistake that I used to make was to increase the pressure too soon if the horse didn’t respond quickly enough. Let’s say I applied my right leg to his flank to ask him to move his haunches to the left. And let’s say I used fairly light pressure to get this to happen. Well, if I didn’t get a quick response, I would use my leg again, but this time I would probably give him a little kick. If he still didn’t move, I would give him a harder kick. Then a harder kick. Sooner or later, he would move away from the discomfort of my kicking leg.

The problem with this tactic of “escalating” the force of the request is that while I did get my horse to move away from my leg, there was too much fear and discomfort involved. By banging on his side with my heel or spur, I was getting him to give to the pressure, but at the same time I was making him anxious and nervous. Sure, I was winning the battle, but I was losing the war.

What I mean by “losing the war” is that a tense horse has other issues that are worse than the piece I was trying to fix. A tense horse gets too strong, say. So now I have to use more hand to restrain him. So now my horse gets even more nervous because I am hanging on his mouth. The harder I try, the more tight he gets, so the harder I try, and now the whole thing is like that old saying, “Going to hell in a handbasket.” And I was the one who started the downhill slide by using an aid that was too strong.

So, how should I have obtained the response? He didn’t listen to my light leg pressure. Why shouldn’t I use more if he fails to respond? Well, because of what I just said. Harder and harder pressure makes him more nervous. The way to get him to move is not to bang on his sides, but to “pester” him until he moves.

I have never read any book about riding that talks about “pestering” a horse. They always use the terms like “apply the aids,” as if the horse will magically understand what the heck that means. But think. Why does a horse switch his tail at a fly? Because the horse knows that the fly will bite him if he doesn’t get rid of the damn thing. The horse is not terrified by the fly. The fly isn’t an attacking mountain lion. It isn’t even a stinging wasp. It’s a fly. Even an annoying fly will get a horse to respond, but it is not a panicked response. In a way, we riders need to be mildly annoying flies. We need to gently pester the horse. We need to mildly annoy the horse. Sure, the horse books don’t say “pester” or “annoy,” but what else are we doing? Does the horse want to move his haunches away from our legs? Does he want to pick up a right lead canter? No. He wants to be left alone in his pasture to eat grass with his friends.

So back to teaching the horse to move left from my right leg. I apply a little pressure on his right side, behind the girth. Nothing happens. He just stands there like a stone statue. So I gently poke him again. Still no response. Everything in my being is saying, “Kick the damn horse. Make him obey!” But I know where that will lead, right? He’ll move away, but I will have created tension. So I poke him again. And again. His ears maybe go back. I am annoying him—not scaring him, but annoying him—to the point that he notices me. I repeat my little aid. He steps away from my leg. I stop.

In a few seconds, here comes my leg again, pester, pester. When he moves away, the pestering ceases. In a week of doing this, right leg to move left, left leg to move right, my horse is starting to get the picture. Two plus two is starting to become four for him. I am building in a conditioned response.

A man who was giving elephant rides at the King Brothers’ Circus had trained not only elephants but also big cats, bears, dogs, seals—you name it. Someone asked, “Do you train them all the same way?” And he said, “All but the dogs and seals. When the dog does the right thing I flip him a biscuit, and when the seal does the right thing, I flip him a fish. All the others, when they do what I want, I take off the pressure.”

I’ve heard this described as “programming a computer.” An untrained horse is an “unprogrammed computer.” We are “installing buttons.” The key is that we are installing those buttons calmly and consistently rather than roughly and forcefully.

There was a Greek king and general, in ancient times, whose name was Pyrrhus. In some battle against the Romans, the king’s troops won, but half the army was lost. In the next battle, they were conquered by the Romans. So there came to be a term, “Pyrrhic victory,” to describe what happens when someone wins a battle, but loses the war. That’s what I used to have, lots of Pyrrhic victories. By using aids that were too forceful, I would get my horse to move away from my leg, or give to my hand, but from fear, pain, duress, rather than from conditioned response. The nervous anxiety that my horse would have because of my rough aids made him almost impossible to train unless I just kept adding force to force to force.

Once you go the tough route, it starts that terrible downward spiral. Rider force creates horse fear. Horse fear creates horse resistance. Horse resistance creates rider anger. Rider anger creates more force. You can see too well where this is going. The next thing will be stronger, harsher bits, or draw reins, or other leverage devices, and it all started with my not understanding how to create conditioned responses through “gentle pester” rather than sharp demand.

In order for us, as riders who are also trainers, to be able to teach all these conditioned responses, to install these various buttons, to program these living computers, we have to be able to use the same sets of stimulus and release each time.

This excerpt from Know Better to Do Better by Denny Emerson is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

When It Comes to an Event Horse, When Should You Compromise?

In this excerpt from How Good Riders Get Good, Denny Emerson talks frankly about the kinds of qualities you must have in an event horse, and when it is okay to compromise.

Photo courtesy of Denny Emerson.

New Zealand’s famous (and very tall) eventer Mark Todd, FEI “Horseman of the Century,” drove quite a long way in 1983 to look at Charisma when he was offered the ride on the gelding while his top horse was laid up. He was surprised to discover that the prospect he’d traveled so far to see was a pudgy and unprepossessing 15.3 hands. Two Olympic gold medals later, Mark had got over the shock, and he and Charisma were a legendary partnership.

Ben O’Meara didn’t get Untouchable off the racetrack until the horse was eleven years old, an age at which most riders would have written him off. But Untouchable became one of the great Olympic Grand Prix jumpers.

Despite being an already “Wow!” jumper, Theodore O’Connor, an Arab/Shetland/Thoroughbred-mix just shy of 14.2 hands, was anything but my impression of a four-star horse when Christan Trainor brought him to my farm as a four-year-old. But Karen O’Connor saw something special in him a year later, and after finishing third at Rolex Kentucky in 2007, they won both team and individual gold at the Pan Am Games.

Victor Dakin wasn’t the prototype of my ideal eventer when I went to look at him in 1973. He was barely sixteen hands, his feet were narrow, his pasterns upright. He was hot as a firecracker to ride in dressage, and the Canadian Team coach had dismissed him, stating, “This bloody horse can’t canter!” He was one-half Thoroughbred, one-quarter Irish Draught, one-eighth Arabian, and one-eighth Morgan—hardly the usual mix for a top eventing prospect.

But he could run and jump forever.

By choosing to “compromise” on Victor, I was able to ride on a gold-medal-winning USET team, win the US National Championship, and ride clear rounds on cross-country over most of the world’s toughest courses for five consecutive seasons. Victor is a good example of a compromise that was a good choice, but I have also made my share of mistakes. I think many of the times I’ve made horse-buying mistakes it’s because I wanted to get something for nothing—or, to put it in plain English, because I’m cheap! I wanted to buy champagne, but I had a beer pocketbook, so I’d often get a horse that had some problem, rather than pay several times as much for a better horse.

By “problem,” I mean I would frequently buy horses that were hard to ride, either too hot or too strong, or very green. Always, of course, I’d do so assuming that I could fix that horse’s particular problems, and that often proved to be a wrong assumption. Hot horses tend to stay hot, and tough, aggressive horses sometimes calm down, but more often they don’t. Green is fixable; it just takes time. But my worst buying mistakes happened when I would compromise quality, a word that means different things to different horsemen, even when they are in the same discipline—and especially when they are in different disciplines.

In eventing, horses with “quality” are fancy movers. They trot with an elastic “flow,” and their canter is buoyant and uphill. Their gallop is silky and reaching, their jump is sharp and full of scope and power. If you start with a horse full of quality, you have realistic hopes. But if you compromise basic quality, you’ll never get there—no matter how much you struggle, and no matter how much riding skill you bring to the equation.

This excerpt from How Good Riders Get Good by Denny Emerson is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (