At 80 years old, Denny Emerson is an undeniably an old dog in the horse industry, challenging us through his example to learn new tricks.
I spoke to Denny today after my twenty-year hiatus from sport. Twenty years ago, I retired at the 18th fence on the cross-country course at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event on a little mare named Speed Axcel. Denny had given her to me when he retired from competition at 60 and began re-thinking his approach to horses.
Speed Axcel was definitely a catalyst to his new way of approaching horses, and so was his retirement. I remember Jack LeGoff and Jimmy Wofford saying the same thing; the day they retired from competition was the day something shifted, allowing them to become the best version of themselves with horses. Shifting the lens from an agenda-oriented approach requiring horses to meet goals and timelines for competition, to something relationship-based took the pressure off, and the result was magic! With the accompanying sigh of relief and a slower approach to daily training, these accomplished old horsemen ended up further ahead in the end. Denny calls this phenomenon, ‘to make haste slowly’.
At the time I inherited Axcel, I was a competitive rider on a comeback trail, after my life had been blown off the tracks by the careless blow of a young horse’s hoof. My fiancé Mike St. Denis had suffered a catastrophic brain injury. A few years later, when I met Denny at the Fair Hill International in Maryland, I was a single mother trying to put the pieces of my life back together and talk myself into a more sensible life as a teacher. I wasn’t buying it.
I watched the horses gallop past me wistfully, obviously still full of a burning desire to be among my peers ... but I was someone’s mother now … and I didn’t have a horse. It seemed impossible. Turns out, Denny Emerson doesn’t know the meaning of that word.
At a time when I couldn’t see my way back to the international stage, Denny had the resourcefulness and the long view to see past my obstacles and look at the long game. The first thing he did was connect me with an aging breeder, Noel Aderer, who had a couple of nice young horses and no one to ride them.
Sexy Date was a bit of a rescue – a little mare she found online with an amazing pedigree. Vixen was her young homebred that had scared a couple of the local young riders with her explosiveness. I drove down to her Peep Willow farm in Connecticut with my Mom, Keitha at the wheel, and we came home with these two lovely, if ‘hot’ mares.
As the daughter of a veterinarian frequently pressed into service to calm traumatized animals, I seemed to have a knack for establishing the trust that leads to a sense of safety and connection. Horses that were worried and hot for others, would settle under my touch. It is a common phenomenon in the horse world, that some horses who would ignite under one rider, like they had been electrocuted by the rider’s seat through the saddle, would go all doe-eyed and calmly for another. This was not necessarily related to bad treatment or bad riding, but to something intangible that some riders had … and some didn’t. This indefinable something-or-other was something I never put much thought into, until working with someone I couldn’t transmit this magic to in lessons … or much later when I lost this magic myself.
Noel’s young horses were steppingstones back into the industry and a nice start, but they weren’t ever supposed to ‘get me there’. Sexy Date was a game little mare with a great name. Who wouldn’t love to hear their name at a horse show followed by the words ‘riding her Sexy Date’! 😉 But she was little and lacked the scope for the big time. She sold to young rider Lindsay Traisnel to teach her the ropes. Vixen had some serious kinks and would need a longer game and a bigger budget. More was needed and that’s where Axcel came in.
One day at Denny’s, he put me on the schedule to hack out with him on Speed Axcel. He said he just wanted to see me on this little horse of his, to see what I thought of her. He didn’t say much about her, only that she would come out of the barn feeling ‘a bit like a foundered pony', but would loosen up, and was an amazing jumper.
At the time, Axcel had spent four months quietly simmering on the back burner without jumping; just hacking out and doing long, low, slow work in the arena. Denny had spent a couple of years at the Intermediate and Advanced level with her with good results in the jumping phases, but she was increasingly frantic in the dressage. He went back to the drawing board. As we hacked, he told me about following John Lyons, a Natural Horsemanship trainer, and how he was changing his approach with this horse in an attempt to break through the tension and anxiety that afflicted their relationship, marring their results on the scoreboard and their morale on a daily basis.
After a nice hack to loosen up we returned to Denny’s jumping ring, and he had a student set jumps. Up, and up, and up they went, until I finally pulled up and said, “Sold!”. I wasn’t sure what he had in mind, but this little mare was a crackerjack over fences and whatever Denny was dreaming up, I was in!
Once when I was at my first big university swimming pool with a proper springboard, I ran down the length of what I assumed was a run-of-the-mill backyard diving board and gave it a good one. The surprising feeling of being catapulted into space, was like jumping Speed Axcel.
At thirteen years old and with a racetrack history that included flipping upside down in the gates, Axcel came with hefty emotional and physical baggage. Denny proposed that a sensitive horse like Axcel would benefit from the kind of 'kissy relationship’ that comes more naturally for women, and committed to doing whatever he could to help make her happy and us successful.
Some of her unravelling was definitely due to pain, and with regular treatment from the equine world’s best body worker, Greg Wilder, she came out of the barn less and less like a foundered pony. Greg showed me the scar tissue that extended from between her front legs where the girth lies, up her chest and over her right shoulder, and other places she carried tension. Every day, I laid my hands on her body, humming a little tune that always came to mind when I was with her.
Gradually, as she became more comfortable in her body and with me, she settled in the dressage and became easier to catch in the field. I continued to hum our little tune. After five months at Denny’s farm in North Carolina, I brought Speed Axcel home with me to Canada. As I integrated her into my busy seasonal teaching program, I discovered I couldn’t teach from her back, like I could with my other horses. And I couldn’t leave her until last or be thinking about other things when I rode her. If I was not 100% present focused and calm, I just went for a hack.
Axcel required ESP like focus which was easiest for me to attain in the morning, and she occupied first slot on the schedule every day. If I stuck to the plan, treated her like I had all the time in the world and hummed my little tune, she would settle into a trancelike state. When we were ‘in the zone’, riding her was like telepathy; our brains and hearts as one. If I got busy in my head, or in a hurry, all bets were off and as Denny described,
'she could feel like riding a Jack Russel terrier who was chasing after a chipmunk on a linoleum floor’.
Much was made about my comeback and my relationship with this little mare. She carried my hopes and dreams on her back for as long as she could … and longer than I should have asked her to.
In the end, she didn’t want to do it anymore. And neither did I. I sold Axcel to a peer in the industry as a broodmare with a non-riding clause, and shortly after, I became a broodmare too. Eventually, my life as a world class rider was something I thought less and less about, as I faced challenges I never imagined.
Seventeen years later Speed Axcel suddenly came to mind again in a vivid memory, along with our little tune, as I found myself struggling with an exercise at an equine facilitated therapy workshop for trauma therapists. I am not a trauma therapist but had followed my curiosity there, and had that awful feeling of a swimmer operating out of my depth, as I learned the ins and outs of the nervous system and what we could do to influence another being’s sense of safety and connection.
On the day the memory of Speed Axcel resurfaced, we were given HeartMath monitors to play with to reinforce how our nervous system state can impact others, both positively and negatively, through our energy fields. The emWave® from HeartMath, is a heart-rate monitoring system that helps us learn techniques to create an optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions are operating in-sync and balanced. Horses and humans, we were taught, are attracted to someone mindfully present and in a state of coherence, and repelled by anyone in a dysregulated state, sensing danger and causing mistrust. Being in a state of coherence is reflected by a green light on the emWave and is the same as being ‘in the zone’. As an athlete who had practiced that so often in my past, I was heartened.
“I can do this! This will be a piece of cake!”
I was confident I could get this sucker ‘into the green’ and as the only participant in the workshop with high level experience in equestrian sport, Dr. Rebecca Bailey couldn’t wait to see me work with the horses at liberty, sure I would be a ‘rock star’.
I wasn’t the same person I was back then.
With seventeen years of stress accumulated from bankruptcy and a bad marriage, and a lump growing insistently in my left breast … the emWave stayed stubbornly in the red … and the little horse Dr. Bailey was so excited to see me work with paced back and forth by the gate, wanting nothing to do with me.
It was devastating. My whole identity was tied up in my ability to connect with horses. I was now a fraud; on the outside, looking in, while others had these amazing experiences with the horses in the workshop.
The next day, while practicing a breathing technique with the emWave and wandering around the farm to witness how horses in freedom reacted to us in our different nervous sytem states, I was suddenly transported by an old tune and a memory. My emWave turned resolutely green.
The tune is the one that was always in my head whenever I was around Axcel; a tune you could hear in the warmup ring at all our shows; Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two). I of course changed the lyrics to use her name.
“Axcel, Axcel, give me your answer do. I’m half-crazy all for the love of you! It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage, but you’d look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two”.
On this day at a workshop in Montana, I was transported back in time with Axcel, breathing in the same regular pattern as she falls into a trancelike state - a deep in-breath and long slow outbreath while humming our silly tune.
And in an instant, it occurred to me what was happening unconsciously - I was regulating my nervous system into a state of coherence and co-regulating wee Axcel’s into a state of safety and connection. It was what they were teaching at the workshop, in action! And I realized it was also what I had done with all of those traumatized animals I held for my dad, as I used a prosodic sing-song voice full of meaning and comfort and they settled in my presence, feeling like everything was going to be okay.
No, singing wasn’t everything – there were other elements to our daily training that established trust; I never put pressure on her when she struggled with things like her canter changes and I made sure she was as comfortable in her body and routine as I could make her. But now there was science behind this thing I had done naturally and I understood something else – if I hadn’t also shown up mindfully present and ‘in the zone’, all of the training in the world would have been for naught!
This moment gave me hope; hope that I could re-establish the same easy bond with horses that had once defined me, and hope that I could also help others – riders who in spite of lessons and effort, were still missing that elusive ‘feel’ and were operating with a mechanicalness to their riding, or dealing with fear and doubt. Maybe this was what was missing? Did it mean that feel and relationship were learnable? I was on a quest to find out.
My quest was interrupted by cancer and covid 19, but I am out the other side and on a mission to reconnect. To reconnect with horses and to my past.
In the intervening years, Denny Emerson had been continuing his evolution towards a kinder and gentler approach with horses. He wrote two books, owning his mistakes and prompting others to evolve along with him, away from the ‘I am the boss’ mentality that he and I both grew up with.
In Know Better To Do Better: Mistakes I Made With Horses So You Don’t Have To, little Speed Axcel has her own chapter.
With Denny’s background and his following of over 100,000 on Facebook, his words carry weight. It is a powerful thing, to witness a powerful person admit their shortcomings and address what they would do differently, if there was such thing as a do-over button and they could go back in time. If you don’t know Denny, a quick Google search will land you with a list of accolades a mile long, including being inducted into the United States Eventing Association Hall of Fame. Although known for his accomplishments in the discipline in Three Day Eventing, it is his humble background and willingness to embrace the worthiness of other disciplines that carries weight with me.
Sure, you can win medals, but can you speak to the needs of the average person and own your mistakes? Denny can.
In the equestrian world, each discipline can get so caught up in tooting their own horn and claiming their way is the only way. Often riders from one of the equestrian disciplines recognized by the Olympics, can look down on amateur horse lovers, like saddle seat riders, Morgan lovers and backyard horse enthusiasts with their Appies and Arabs and mixed-breed Flickas, but not Denny. Thankfully, Denny remembers and values his roots, where he started out on a little paint, imaginatively named ‘Paint’, and on Morgans in saddle seat equitation classes at local shows. His first successful horse in Eventing was a half Morgan named Victor Dakin, and now Denny devotes much of his time promoting the versatility of the breed.
Denny isn’t the only one who wishes he had a time machine, to go back and change something in his life. Since having this revelation and reading his chapter on Speed Axcel in his book, Know Better to DO Better, I have wished to start a conversation with him. I remembered Denny’s busy program, so often teaching from the back of a horse, so many things on his mind, so many people to teach and horses to ride. Yes, going back and putting less pressure on little Speed Axcel would certainly help, but I wondered if it would be enough for her and other horses as sensitive as she was. To really work the magic, I hypothesized that creating that feeling of safety and connection through a truly coherent nervous system with the help of the emWave and some practical exercises to achieve that state would make the difference from ‘better’ to ‘magic’. Of course, we’ll never know.
When Denny came out with his latest book Begin and Begin Again: The Bright Optimism of Reinventing Life with Horses, I reached out. Here he was continuing to evolve and to challenge us to do the same for the sake of the horse.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending” C.S. Lewis
His passion for making a difference doesn’t always win him friends in the horse world, but for those ready for his honesty, he makes a difference. There are an infinite number of ways to enjoy the benefits of life with horses and Denny lists most of them in his book. He encourages anything done with joy and without pressure.
Denny agreed to talk with me on my podcast. We talked about change, about returning to the saddle after a broken neck, about the anxiety threshold and staying under it and about making haste slowly.
Yes, at 80 years old Denny is certainly an old dog, but his enthusiasm for life shines through in his willingness to learn new tricks with horses and evolve out loud, so we can too. I encourage you to listen, and in whatever endeavors you have with horses, to seek joy and check your ego at the door of the barn. Peace and harmony await.
And little Speed Axcel? This prompted me to reach out to the people who ended up with her at the end of her competitive career. Initially unable to carry foals, she went to live on Prince Edward Island with Anne Walace, who managed to get her to carry one foal by turning her out with a little Arab stallion Axcel found acceptable. She had a filly, who is now in her mid teens, and a grandson, who is five. They are the spitting image of Axcel. Her daughter is pictured here with a young girl aboard and the grandson free jumping in textbook form.
I can’t go back in time and do better by Speed Axcel, but her memory informs everything I do, and the sick feeling of putting my ambitions ahead of her happiness and soundness is one of the first things I would change. Does owning our past out loud help? You tell me. I can only hope.
Have a listen to our conversation on my podcast, A Leg Up: the Magic of Horsecraft and life and share your thoughts about this and future interviews you would like to hear.
Take a chance,