If there were an official Horse Person Renaissance Man title or award, Denny Emerson, author of Know Better to Do Better: Mistakes I Made with Horses (So You Don’t Have To) would deserve the honor. The Morgan-loving horseman from Vermont who rode at the most advanced levels in eventing for almost 30 years, has ridden horses in everything from gymkhana to dressage, jumping and endurance riding. He’s ridden in the grueling 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride from Lake Tahoe to Auburn, California. And the 100 miles is completed in a single day. In. One. Day. The man clearly knows about horses and riding!
A must-read for
For equestrians who want to be horse-centric.
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Like any good teacher, Denny is a storyteller. Every time I picked up Know Better to Do Better, I felt like he was talking to me–sharing his joys, challenges and insights from a lifetime with horses. By reading his book, we have access to a legendary mentor.
His style is funny and at times self-deprecating. You might have picked up on his humility and honesty from the subtitle “Mistakes I Made with Horses (So You Don’t Have To.)” This book is not a treatise on equitation or a how-to manual for training horses–it’s way more practical than that. You really need to read it for yourself (click HERE to pick up your own copy), but here are nine of my takeaways from having read it.
1. Fandom Rules the Horse World, But There’s a Better Way
Denny begins the book addressing the segmentation of the horse world. Horse people tend to pick a breed or discipline and become so immersed in that one particular realm, that they become shut off from opportunities beyond their particular riding genre. He makes the case they lose out.
For example, he claims it would be highly unlikely to convince a dressage-obsessed rider to try out barrel racing. He asserts if a rider (let’s say an eventer) seeks out opportunities such as working in Germany with a dressage trainer, then gallops steeplechasers, then tries endurance riding, then works for a grand prix jumper trainer she would be a much more proficient event rider. (I actually thought about Tik Maynard and the book In the Middle Are the Horsemen, because he followed a similar path by being a working student for various trainers in diverse disciplines.)
I related to this point. By joining the fox hunt and going out several times this season, I feel like I’ve grown in my confidence as a rider. Before fox hunting I was a nervous Nellie if arena footing was not pristine say due to a horse rolling and making a funny turnout “snow angel” or if one area was significantly damper than another thanks to the sprinkler system. By cross training I’m becoming a better all-around equestrian.
His “better way” is trying new activities with horses. I’m down with that.
2. Saddle Fit Is King
“Horses backs come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ saddle, no matter how many saddle pads you use to concoct a fit.”
When I read this part on saddles I was in my brain saying, “YESSS!!!” Especially when he got to the part telling about him sitting in 10-15 saddles during clinics and in some of them he felt like a “rank beginner.”
I have had that experience with one of my saddles! In fact, I had to break up with it a couple of years ago (read “Dear Saddle, It’s You, Not Me”). He goes on to say that there are thousands of saddles out there and if you are a determined shopper, you can find one that fits your budget AND makes you smile (and fits your horse well).
3. Tips On Horse Selection and Advice for When He or She is Not a Good Match
Chapter 1 is actually all about selecting a horse. He gives high praise to Thoroughbreds and that resonated with me since, you probably know by now, my horse Knight is a Thoroughbred. He has this passionate, eloquent section about people complaining that only wealthy riders with imported horses have a chance at being successful competitors and then says people can learn to sit the trot and canter without stirrups, see a distance, learn how to create an adjustable canter, have great posture, etc. on an OTTB. He makes the case that an affordable OTTB can be an incredible partner and journey with you on the road to becoming an elite rider (if that’s your goal).
My first ride with Knight at his new home (January 13, 2019). 40 minutes of brisk walking.
He’s also a fan of older horses and urges people to not overlook horses who’ve been there and done that (horses in their teens).
In this chapter Denny also details several different breeds and types of horses and gives personal examples of horses he’s known in the various categories. By the way, there are many pictures throughout the book, lots of them in color.
The frank conversation on what to do if your horse is not a good fit for you due to health, safety or incompatibility reasons is one that I’ve never read in any book (that I can recall). There’s not one right answer and the way he lays out all the information, the facts we probably should all consider, even if things are great with our current mount today, is helpful.
4. “Pestering” Your Horse With the Aids is Key
Chapter 3 is all about horse training and one of the mistakes Denny says he used to make was increasing pressure on a horse that didn’t respond quickly enough to an aid. For example, if a horse didn’t move his haunches a direction just from his leg being applied, he would escalate to a little kick, then a harder kick, and an even harder kick. He now views this approach as problematic because it’s uncomfortable to the horse and arouses fear. His horse would follow his lead, by giving in to commands, but it would be anxious. A horse that is anxious gets strong and then you have to use more hand aids. It’s like a vicious cycle.
Now he is a big believer in the “gentle pester.” He talks about how horses switch their tail at a fly, not because they’re afraid, but because the fly is annoying. He calls for riders to become mildly annoying flies who pester our horse.