Jessica Hart: What I Learned at ‘Denny’ Camp

Jessica Hart, brought the world her “Mean Girl Pants” last summer. She’s an amateur eventer currently competing at Training Level and working hard to move up to Prelim…soon? She owns two magnificent horses, a 9-year-old grey mare, Zophie, and an 8-year-old bay OTTB gelding, Kip. She still wears her mean girl pants when needed!

Photo courtesy of Tamarack Hill Farm, used with permission.

Photo courtesy of Tamarack Hill Farm, used with permission.

From Jessica:

It’s difficult to articulate a special experience. Usually, it’s the kind of experience you have to “be there” to understand. Attending Denny Emerson’s Adult Event Camp in Vermont was on my bucket-list.

I imagine its on many people’s bucket list, but let’s face it, finding the time and the money to go all the way to Vermont is daunting. I sent in my application way early and waited.  When I was “accepted” into the camp with both of my horses, Kip and Zophie, I knew I was in for an adventure! There was the initial, “yes, we made it”! Which was quickly followed by the “wait a minute, how grumpy is Denny”? “Am I good enough to go to the camp”? “Am I going to make a fool of myself”?  I hate, hate road trips, but for this, I was ready to make an exception.

The camp turned out to be a wonderful experience. It had all of the elements of a remarkable time: scenic views, great weather (give or take some rain), a gracious host (the Emerson’s), excellent teachers (the “Man Himself”, Daryl Kinney & Sue Berrill), fantastic food, and lovely, like-minded fellow campers who were just happy to be there and learn! I’d like to tell you all about it, but (wait for it…) you really had to “be there” to fully understand. Instead, I can only give you a few of the lessons I learned from camp. I hope they are helpful!

The first day of instruction left me puzzled and worried. You know the drill, the first day of any clinic the instructor usually says to the line-up of riders, “ok, tell me a little bit about your horse, what level you are competing and any problems you are having.”

Denny doesn’t waste anyone’s time with this exercise. Instead, he went right into his philosophy on jumping fundamentals: a quality canter that has both balance and impulsion (the “under and up”), seat in the saddle when approaching a fence, shoulders back, chin up, heels down, leg on. I listened patiently and intently, but he never gave his riders a chance to complain about their horse or their problems; he just gave us a chance to learn jumping fundamentals.

It was sometime during the second day that I understood why; if you ride with the proper jumping fundamentals, 95% of all of your problems GO-AWAY! No whining or complaining needed. Sure, it’s easier said than done, and it will take years of practice, but if you are having problems with your riding, take a look at your fundamentals. Chances are, you are missing something.

The second lesson that I learned from camp (and I’m willing to share) is that If i mess up the distance to a fence, I “drop” my horse before the jump. There. I said it. I didn’t realize it until Denny’s camp. I didn’t realize it because it isn’t the heinous-throw the reins up their neck-look at the ground-stop riding-look we have all seen really bad riders do. Surely, I don’t do that!

However, according to Denny, a drop can be slight, like the one I do, I soften my reins, take off my leg and wait for the horse to get us out of trouble. Denny says that when we mess up, that’s when our horses need us the most. So next time you get your horse to a bad spot, sit back, close your leg and “RIDE god damn it!!” That’s an actual quote.

The third lesson I heard  (and I’m going to try and learn) was that “training has to overcome instinct”. As Denny’s friend the General said, “if I can train my soldiers to not run when the bullets start flying, you can train your riders to not jump-up their horses’  neck!” Do you jump ahead of your horse? Do you lean going into a bank? Do you lean forward when going over a ditch? If you do, you are guilty of going with your instinct: it seems like common sense to lean to help your horse jump, but DON’T!

You have to train yourself to overcome your instinct. It’s something I will have to think about, daily, to try and overcome. Instinct is powerful. Your training has to be more so in order to beat it.

I can’t speak more highly of my camp experience. I’m so grateful we still have someone teaching us the “classical” way of riding. Denny has been relevant in the equestrian world for more than a half a century. I’m thankful I was able to learn from someone who has this depth of knowledge. Don’t let the miles deter you.

Until next time, Denny.

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