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Book Review: How Good Riders Get Good By Denny Emerson

5 stars, a ‘should read’ for all equestrians!

I’ve finally read this cover to cover rather than dipping in and out, and boy I wish I hadn’t waited so long, although it was worth the wait! I feel I’ve got to know Denny’s ‘voice’ from his blogging on Tamarack Hill Farm, and I love his unflinching ability to say it as he sees it, which is generally pretty accurate! I would go so far as to say this is a ‘should read’ for any equestrian trying to get to any level.

For starters, this is not a book for someone who wants to constantly be reassured that they’re doing the best that they can, and it’s everyone or everything else’s fault. Denny acknowledges every step of the way that the world isn’t straight-forward and that some people’s journeys are harder than others. But put in basic terms, moaning about our lot in life isn’t going to turn any of us into better riders.

His first chapter, ‘Wannabes vs. Gonnabes’, highlights what he will spend the rest of the book looking at. It sets the tone for the rest of the book, letting you know gently that the choices you make will have a massive effect on whether you ‘make it’ as a rider. He explains that within these bigger choices there are a myriad of other smaller choices that take us down a certain path.

Chapter two explains one of those choices – which riding sport is right for you. Emerson touches upon some of the disciplines available and the particular attributes necessary for these. He suggests that if one isn’t brave, for example, then eventing, racing or rodeo might not be for them, whilst if someone lacks patience, dressage isn’t necessarily the right choice.

The third chapter, ‘Dealing with the cards you hold’, is in my opinion one of the most hard hitting and important. During this chapter, Denny deals with that all-important issue – the one which affects nearly all equestrians at some stage – money and circumstance. He discusses the fact that, although one person may have everything going their way – the right horses, rich parents, living in the right area – the drive to succeed may not be there, or they may make choices which jeopardise their chances. He says that someone who works hard at the barn will nearly always have an advantage over someone who doesn’t know one end of the fork from another, simply because of the number of hours spent on or around horses. He mentions women’s choices to have a family, and when and how this could have a massive impact on their career with horses. What I like best about it is that he never makes out that a life with horses is easy or desirable, just that if you want to do it, you’re going to have to be tough and make it a priority.

In chapter four, Denny points out the importance of a good support network, including finding a coach who works well for you. He emphasises that coaches will all have a different style, and urges the reader to find coaches who aren’t necessarily going to be our best friend. Having said that, he recognises having a friend or mentor we can chat to about the sport can be beneficial. He reminds us to foster positive relationships with all the people we meet in the sport, be they barn staff or vets, so that we will have a circle of people who can turn to us when it gets tough, and we in turn can turn to them. Emerson also touches upon how to go about getting sponsorship, and mentions that being friendly to others is ‘good business’, apart from anything else.

The fifth chapter, ‘Nine character traits of a successful rider’, is another one of the most crucial chapters, in my opinion. Denny picks out nine of the most important things that he thinks makes a good rider and gives a few pointers on how the reader can develop them. That is his most important point during this chapter – that we can develop our character and improve upon traits which are lacking.

Chapter six is about our bodies and whether we’re in good shape for the sport we do now. He mentions that there are certain disciplines that are less demanding, as well as some that our body shape might not be suitable for anyway (e.g. being a jockey who is tall). He discusses people’s attitudes and whether they want to put work in or not, and the idea that they can, in some cases, be connected to wealth. He uses the concept ‘centaur’ repeatedly as an aspiration and suggests that to become a centaur, hours in the saddle are the most crucial thing. Emerson points out that the ‘tedium of practice’ is too much for some people, so rather than plugging away at something, they will convince themselves they’re not talented enough. He stresses again and again that ‘doing’ is the most important way of learning.

Another really important chapter is the next, about horse knowledge. I really believe that taking the time and effort to understand every element of horse care and knowledge pays dividends. So many people come into horse ownership without having gone through the pony club (or other horsemanship-based system) and a lot of ‘knowledge’ is ascertained from social media these days. Which brings us to our last full chapter, about the type of horse you choose. Denny starts by stating that the most important traits in a horse are soundness, sanity and athleticism – he says without these things, a horse won’t get far. Temperament is generally on a sliding scale and the horse you will best get along with will depend on your riding ability and the kind of horse you enjoy riding. Emerson looks at the idea that horse buyers are liars or, more realistically, they don’t know what they want. He says that once you decide what you really want in a horse (or rather, what you really need) then you just have to work out how to afford it. That could mean compromising on age, height or any number of other things.

There are many ‘good rider profiles’ scattered throughout the book; it would definitely be worth reading for these alone. The lessons that can be learned from those who have already ‘made it’ are endless, and when asked how they think they ‘got good’, the answers were very often similar. Putting a lot of hard work in, and spending many hours in the saddle were among the most common answers, but there were countless other repetitions, such as surrounding yourself with good people, and daring to dream. It was obvious these riders had been chosen from different disciplines and had different backgrounds (including well-off or not, horsey parents or not). The quote that really leapt out at me was ‘As soon as looking good becomes more important than being good, we are doomed to stop progressing’ by Courtney King-Dye. It resonated with me because of this social media world we live in, and how much scrutiny we are all under. It reminded me that what’s really important is how that session actually went, for me and the horse, and that it’s not about the photos.

Denny Emerson finishes his book with the chapter ‘A quiver full of arrows’, which summarises everything in the book by using the analogy of having a quiver and filling it with the arrows of things learnt. The more you learn, and the more knowledge and hard work you assimilate, the more chance you have of a quiver of arrows, and success in the horse world. He restates that his book can be used as a road map, to help signpost the important ‘arrows’ or attributes to have.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book so much! When reading top riders’ stories, it is so easy for there to be a gulf between us and them, and it seems impossible to even get closer to them. This book breaks us down to the choices we make, and how hard we work to get there. No, it isn’t easy, and there are always going to be things that we can’t change, and choices we don’t want to make for a number of reasons, like sacrificing time with family or friends. But ultimately, there is a space in the horse world for us all, and we can all ‘get good’.

Hesteyri Horses
Horsemart Brand Ambassador
Published on 17-12-2020
Hesteyri Horses are comprised of Meg and Lauren, based in Gloucestershire. They are a family owned horse training yard dedicated to helping all horse’s and ponies. “We are horse trainers with a difference. As well as our usual backing, training and competing, we also work with a lot of rescue and ‘problem’ horses. This started because almost all of our own horses were rescues or rejects of some form and we became known for being the girls who would work with any horse and make sure they all have as many chances as they need.”