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November 21, 2007

Have You Got What It Takes?

Will you brave a buffalo hunt, a stampede or a decade of sitting trot?

In riding, as in life, what we think and say we want to do is often at odds with what we actually do.
   
There’s been much discussion about the direction of current American riding and riders, much of it negative. We’re not as brave as we used to be, we’re not as skilled as in years past, we’re lazy, we want big results but, except in dollars, we’re unwilling to pay the price. The list goes on.

Deep down, I think each of us intuitively knows whether we’re talented, brave and hard working, and whether we’re committed about our riding and horsemanship skills, but most of us aren’t about to articulate our hopes and our fears if these run counter to our self image.

I think it’s probably always been so.

Let’s say it’s 1850, and you are a Crow warrior heading out to hunt buffalo. Are you going to ask, “Say, Chief Flying Hawk, do you mind if I don’t hunt today? I know our families are starving and need the meat, but galloping full tilt into a herd of charging buffalo, bareback, with just a rawhide thong in my pony’s mouth, guiding him with just my legs while I shoot arrows; frankly I’m scared!”

Is Flying Hawk going to answer, “No problem, Crawling Mouse, you stay here by the nice warm campfire, and we’ll see you back in camp.”?

Or, you are driving cattle on a trail drive in Texas in 1870, and just at dusk a huge thunderstorm is boiling up. Are you going to ask, “Excuse me, Trail Boss, but I’d just as soon sit out the stampede tonight. It’ll be pitch dark, and I’ll be flying at top speed in the middle of 500 crazed longhorns, in pouring rain, on slippery footing. I dread the prospect of falling and being trampled.”

Will your boss reply, “A perfectly logical concern, Slim. Getting trampled is especially unpleasant, so why don’t you mosey over behind that nice safe rock outcropping until the storm passes?”

It’s 2007, and you’ve been reading some riding books from the 1960s and ’70s. You look at old photographs of Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris, Kathy Kusner, Mary Mairs, Billy Robertson, Carol Hoffman and Neal Shapiro, all former U.S. Equestrian Team riders under the tutelage of Bertalan de Nemethy.

The jumping style of all these riders is remarkably similar. All look up. Their backs are flat, their legs are underneath them, heels down. The upward thrust of the horse has closed their hip and knee angles, so that they’re poised over the center of balance so totally that you sense that they could hold their arms straight out to the side, and they would neither fall forwards or backwards.

Then you browse through various horse magazines from the late 90s to the early 2000s. The typical jumper rider looks like a praying mantis in the air over the fence, head down, arms thrown up by the ears, knees pinched, lower leg slipping back toward the horse’s hip.

Are you going to ask your coach, “Hey, Coach, I look more like the current riders than those former de Nemethy pupils. Which style is better?”

And is your coach about to answer, “No problem, Charlie. Those riders are a bunch of old has-beens, and that jumping style is completely out of date, and good riddance! Why the sheer amount of practice and drill that Bert expected in those days to hone those skills, no modern American kid should be expected to tolerate.”

Maybe your interest is dressage, and you’ve just returned from watching a World Cup competition in Europe. Will you ask, “Hey, Mr. Dressage Coach, Anky and Isabell almost look as if they grow out of the back of the living, breathing horse, so deep and flexible and elastic are their hips, thighs and backs. Their rein aids are practically invisible, and they have that tall, open posture with the straight line from ear to shoulder to hip to heel of inside foot. I look at videos of myself, and I bounce, I look down, my hands jerk around, and my legs swing. Which is better?”

Is Mr. Dressage Coach going to reply, “No worries, Carol. It’s your God-given privilege as a red-blooded American to want it right this minute, and it’s only fitting that your wish should be your command! The problem is probably with your horse. I’ll speak to your parents, and we’ll fly over to Europe to buy a more expensive one. That should take care of those little problems.”

We don’t have these conversations because we already know the answers. There’s one conversation with your coach that you actually could have, though, and it runs something like this.

“Hey, Mrs. Famous Coach! I’m a Teenage Great Rider Wannabe, and I need you to tell me if I’ve got what it takes!”

This is about the only valid reply your coach can give you: “Here’s what you do. For the next 10 or 15 or 20 years I want you to plunge into your quest with every fiber of your being, all your heart and soul, all your courage, all your drive, commitment and struggle and then, years from now, come see me again.”

“Wow, Mrs. Famous Coach, if I do all that, will my dreams come true?”

“As for that, I have no idea. But by then we’ll all have a much better idea if you’ve got what it takes.”

Denny Emerson

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association’s president twice and won the USEA’s Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing in a non-riding capacity. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing columns in 1989.