In New Book, Strafford’s Denny Emerson Examines What a Rider Owes His Horses

  • Denny Emerson of Strafford, Vt., helps his student Julia Hulett,15, of Pawlet, Vt., during a lesson at his indoor ring in Strafford on Thursday, Nov.15,2018. She competes in three-day eventing, jumping and dressage.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Rick Russell

  • Denny Emerson of Strafford, Vt., pats his horse Tense during a lesson with student Julia Hulett,15, of Pawlet, Vt., on Thursday, Nov.15, 2018. Hulett's dog Izzy looks on.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Rick Russell

  • Denny Emerson of Strafford, Vt., helps his student Julia Hulett,15, of Pawlet,Vt. with her saddle during a lesson at his riding arena in Strafford on Thursday, Nov.15,2018. He has recently authored a book about riding. Hulett competes in three-day eventing, jumping and dressage.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Rick Russell

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    " 'A kid-broke hoss' was how Louis Goodyear described Paint to my parents on the day in 1952 that they bought him for me," Denny Emerson wrote in his book, "Know Better to Do Better." "He was the perfect first pony: steady, quiet and tolerant of my beginner mistakes. I could not have been luckier." (Courtesy of Denny Emerson)

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    "When I got Lippitt Sandy just after my 15th birthday, and got to know Robert Lippitt Knight, Sandy's breeder, it triggered my interest in pedigrees that has continued through the 60 years since," Denny Emerson wrote. "Here, Sandy is completing the first day of the 1957 GMHA 100-Mile Competitive Trail Ride in Woodstock." (Courtesy of Denny Emerson)

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    "When I got Speed Axcel in my late 50s," Denny Emerson wrote, "I finally had to learn how to ride, because I-could-not-ride-her in dressage." (Cory Cushny photograph) Cory Cushny photograph (above right)Courtesy of Denny Emerson (below)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2018 12:04:51 AM
Modified: 11/17/2018 12:05:06 AM

Denny Emerson got his first pony when he was 11, in 1952. Suffice it to say that things were different then.

Stoneleigh-Prospect Hill School, where his father was headmaster, occupied open space in Greenfield, Mass., that would later be cut into by the intersection of Route 2 and Interstate 91. But in the 1950s, Emerson could get on his pony and ride on dirt roads into Vermont, or down to nearby Whately to visit his friend Jack Baker, another horse-crazy kid.

Back then, the wider attitude toward horses was mainly utilitarian. Many people had been born before World War I, when horses still held their ancient role as transportation and as working animals that plowed fields, hauled logs and wagons and drew a cart to church on Sundays.

“It was more rough and ready,” Emerson said in an interview at Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, which he runs with his wife, May Emerson. “The type of thing was ‘Don’t let him get away with that,’ and ‘show him who’s boss.’ … The horse was more something to be mastered than something to be cooperated with.”

Emerson absorbed that attitude, and went on to become an accomplished horseman, winner of a team gold medal in three-day eventing at the 1974 World Championships. It wasn’t until late in his career when he realized that despite his success, his approach to horses was deeply flawed.

That realization led, in a roundabout way, to Emerson’s new book, released this week by Trafalgar Square Publishing, based in North Pomfret. In Know Better to Do Better, Emerson writes about some of the many horses that shaped his life’s work, starting with Paint, that first pony, and including his current string of horses. The book, he hopes, will get across to riders in a range of disciplines the change in thinking that Emerson underwent in his late 50s, when he reached the limits of his abilities, and came across a horse he couldn’t master.

For much of his career, Emerson did just fine as far as results were concerned. And while most riders quickly specialize in a discipline, his early years ran the gamut.

He rode his pinto pony bareback or in a Western saddle. A dairy farmer from Heath, Mass., Francis Kinsman, bought a one-horse trailer to haul Paint to gymkhanas, events in which riders competed in barrel racing, pole bending and other contests that tested the agility, speed and versatility of their horses and ponies.

“I was the gymkhana champion of Western Massachusetts,” Emerson said, partly in jest at his young, hyper-competitive self.

As a teenager, he decided to ride in the Green Mountain Horse Association’s annual 100-mile competitive trail ride, after reading about it in the library. He rode in it every year from 1956 to 1961, “and then a few more after that,” he said. His parents had bought a vacation home in South Reading, not far from GMHA, in South Woodstock.

Also as a teenager, he’d grown acquainted with the Morgan horse, and while he was majoring in English at Dartmouth College, from 1959 to 1963, he rode Morgans at the Green Mountain Stock Farm, in Randolph, which was owned by the influential Morgan breeder Robert Lippitt Knight.

He saw his first three-day event in 1961, and it captivated him, “ as though a giant light bulb went off in my head,” he wrote. Originally designed as a test for training cavalry horses, the three-day event became a civilian competition in the mid-20th century. (The U.S. Equestrian Team was founded in 1950. Prior to that, American Olympians in equestrian sports were military officers. All the U.S. medalists in the 1948 Olympics had “Lt.” or “Col.” or “Lt. Col.” in front of their names.)

Eventing is a grueling sport; no one unprepared for hard work need apply, especially at the highest levels. The first day tests the horse and rider in dressage — a measure of suppleness, tractability and grace. Day two is a test of endurance and athleticism. At the higher levels, it includes a steeplechase and a long cross-country course of solid fences, ditches and water hazards similar to what a cavalry officer might have experienced galloping through hostile country. The third day is a jumping test in an arena, meant to gauge the horse’s ability to recover, as well as its agility.

While still at Dartmouth, Emerson started riding at Hitching Post Farm in Royalton, at the time one of the few barns in the country specializing in eventing. After graduating, he took a job teaching English at Far Hills Country Day School in New Jersey, partly for the paycheck, but mainly because it was 5 miles from the headquarters for the U.S. Equestrian Team.

He and May bought what would become Tamarack Hill Farm in 1969, and he kept riding at events. In the spring of 1973, he was working as a real estate agent and training his horses when he received a letter from a Canadian rider who had a horse to sell. The Emersons paid $5,000, according to a 2016 story in The Chronicle of the Horse, for a horse named Victor Dakin. It was Victor Dakin who would carry Emerson to his 1974 team gold medal at the World Eventing Championships.

“From that day forward, I could make my living in the horse business, so totally can a gold medal horse change your life,” he wrote in Know Better to Do Better.

That victory had a subsidiary influence, which Emerson describes in the book under the heading “Don’t Believe Your Own Press.”

“I look back at photos from the 1960s and ’70s, never mind from the ’50s, when I thought I had a clue, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that much of what I thought was not only wrong, it was based on bad horsemanship,” Emerson wrote.

Naturally, it was a horse who taught him this lesson. In Know Better to Do Better, Emerson wrote about the last of his 14 Advanced level event horses, those at the sport’s top rung. Speed Axcel, a Thoroughbred mare, was a marvelous jumper, but working in the dressage ring she was nervous, and Emerson realized he didn’t know how to help her learn what he needed to teach her.

“Of all the horses I have ever ridden, Speed Axcel was the one horse that most effectively taught me that all those precepts that I’d learned as a young kid back in western Massachusetts in the 1950s simply did not apply,” he wrote. “And so, after decades of my resorting to creating pressure to deal with pressure, Axcel was the horse that was most responsible for creating a paradigm shift in my approach to training horses.”

Simply put, Speed Axcel was afraid, and Emerson knew only how to raise the level of insistence with which he asked her to comply.

Pushing or pressuring a horse was the dominant mode in eventing and other disciplines when Emerson was enjoying his greatest renown. American equestrians enjoyed a long run of success at the highest levels of the sport from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“We were winning, so we thought we were doing it right,” he said.

But after his work with Speed Axcel, he took a step back to look more clearly at what he was doing. Like many ambitious riders, he succeeded through main force, winning a momentary battle, but losing the overall well-being of the horse. Not that the horses would be injured, but they would be just as frightened and resistant the next time he asked them to perform.

It was this experience that led Emerson to look back at his horses to understand what he could have done better.

“There’s a lot of horses where you wish you could have a do-over button,” he said.

But the book isn’t self-lacerating or remorseful, nor is Emerson in person. Rather, it’s a practical and clear-eyed look back at his years in the saddle. The subtitle explains it all: Mistakes I Made with Horses (So You Don’t Have To).

To be clear-eyed about horses takes considerable effort. “The horse world is full of dreamers,” Emerson said, and most literature aimed at young riders fosters “unreality.” The mental image of seeming to glide along on a galloping horse, effortlessly clearing huge fences is so at odds with the prosaic reality of learning how to do such things that it’s hard to even hold the ideal up next to the work required to attain it, which is part of the point of Emerson’s book. Much of Know Better involves encouraging starry-eyed readers to work hard, to look at themselves and their abilities and their interests without sentimentality, and to listen to what the horse might be communicating by its behavior, much as he had to do late in his career.

Know Better is full of suggestions for riders about how to train a horse without triggering the fear that’s built into a prey animal’s instincts. Take an unfit horse for walks, he writes, and see how slowly and steadily building muscle will make a horse more confident. Concentrate on your own fitness and you’ll be better able to work with your horse. It sounds simple, but it runs counter to the results-driven mindset of competitive horsemanship. Dreaming about horses leads to dreaming about magical, often coercive solutions to training a horse, none of which is a substitute for the steady, daily work.

Emerson developed the book with the help of Anne Adams, also a Strafford resident and also a longtime rider, though her path and Emerson’s seldom crossed before Trafalgar editors suggested Emerson work with her.

“That is her book right there,” he said, pointing to a copy on his living room coffee table.

They spent a lot of time conceptualizing the material for the book, Adams said in a phone interview. (Full disclosure: Before she took a job at Dartmouth College in 2012, where she is now managing editor for editorial services, Adams was the features editor at the Valley News, and my supervisor.)

“That was great, because I got to sit there and listen to Denny Emerson talk about horses he’d ridden,” Adams said.

His change of approach offers readers a chance to make a change of their own. “It’s not just an intelligent and useful book,” Adams said. “It can be transformational.”

“He has been willing to change, and sees how things can be done better,” said Ted Niboli, one of Emerson’s oldest friends, who reported being about three-quarters of the way through the book when contacted by phone at his home in Newport, N.H.

The two started riding together in their teens, when Niboli was growing up in Windsor and Emerson spent summers in South Reading. They recently went to the Grand National Morgan Horse Show, in Oklahoma City, together.

Emerson dedicated his book to Niboli and other friends and longtime horsewomen and -men, Judy Barwood, of Hartford, Nancy Ela Caisse, Jeannine Krause Myers and Allan Leslie.

Emerson referred to the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers to describe the good fortune that guided his career. Gladwell’s theory about what made some people wildly successful was that they were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of opportunities available to them.

For example, in the 1950s, the Emerson summer home in South Reading opened a new world to a driven teenage horseman. In addition to its proximity to GMHA and to fabled Morgan horse farms in Windsor and South Woodstock, it wasn’t far from the Cavendish, Vt., home of H.L.M. van Schaik, who had won a silver medal in show jumping at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, riding for his native Holland. Emerson turned to van Schaik for coaching at the start of his eventing career.

“If my parents had bought a house in coastal Maine,” none of those things would have happened, he said.

Strafford offered a similar cluster of equestrian talent, including Olympic gold medalist Tad Coffin.

Emerson’s myriad interests have made him one of the country’s great all-around horsemen. He’s the only person ever to have won both a World Championship medal and a Tevis Cup buckle in endurance riding.

The reality of learning to ride a horse is that there’s no end to it. At 77, Emerson still rides several horses a day. He rides Morgans, which he prepares for competitive trail rides and endurance races, and Thoroughbreds purchased off the racetrack. He continues to advocate for both breeds, and he continues to teach young riders.

The attitude that plagued him, that caused him to impose his will on horses, has been dispelled.

“It’s very easy to start to think of a horse as an impediment to your goal,” he said. “I don’t go there anymore.”

“And I think, … if I could’ve done that when I was younger … .”

Denny Emerson will talk about his career and sign copies of Know Better to Do Better from 3 to 5 next Saturday afternoon at Strafford Saddlery in Quechee.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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